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THE INFINITE MATTER OF KAT WATBURN T.E. Bean Twenty-Two Minutes Before ထ Eight days ago, space and time were things to be relied upon. Universally speaking. Now I sat perched in a far-flung cave halfway up a near-vertical ravine, huddled with my boyfriend, Som, in a fading pocket of light as the sun moved behind a mountain, drawing angles of golden polygons among the sacred ruins before us. Fingers entwined, our backs propped against a monolithic altar, we clocked the morning half-light climbing the empty sky: a fuse igniting life in the crystals embedded within a stone temple. The entire planet plugged into one dazzling circuit. By putting myself at risk, I was putting us all at risk. And despite that being mere minutes away, I couldn’t help but laugh while assessing the chip on my left big toe. Cornflower blue. The woman attending the counter at Walgreens had said the color—royal blue with a purple undertone—would highlight the flick of violet in my hazel eyes, make my toes look fun. Other women had fun toes. I’d never had fun toes. I wanted fun toes. And considering how much not fun my feet had been through this past week, the nail polish had held up reasonably well. I’d have to let the cosmetician know…if I ever made it back to California. In the wake of June 10, Som and I had lived in continental drift for eight days—not quite having fled home but certainly having left in a hurry. And as our beatnik trail followed the sun below a line of distant horizon, we’d watched the thin veil of reality flutter, as if caught by a breeze, right before infinity, bit by bit, came crashing through. Like a tiny tear in the universe slowly pulling everything toward us. My name is Kat Watburn, and eight days ago my brother, Jay, dragged me to a sound bath meditation. But it’s only now that I can admit: on some level, I always knew it would come to this. Chapter One June 10 Eight Days Before ထ I shook the bottle of to-be-applied nail polish. It was early June, and flip-flop season was in full effect. “Does everyone wear bathing suits?” I asked. “There’s no actual bath involved,” Jay groan-laughed. “There’s no water. A sound bath is a figurative bath. We’re bathed in vibrations of sound, which have a healing effect on the link between our astral being and our physical body. I like to think of it as nutrition for the umbilical cord connecting me to my soul.” I threw Som a withering look, then leveled a stare at my brother and smiled a slow smile, blinked a slow blink. “So if I severed your soul’s umbilical cord, would that constitute metaphysical abortion?” I had no intention of going that night. In our late teens Jay had dabbled in the world of transcendental meditation; then, at some point during my university years, he’d joined a group called The League of Consciousness Explorers. These days, when he wasn’t on tour with his band, Billion Watt Burn, he met them at various locations around Joshua Tree for the purpose of doing something that looked, to me, an awful lot like doing nothing. There seemed, to be generous, no actual point. That’s not to say I was opposed to meditation. I wasn’t. It was more, I think, that I’d just gotten used to saying no to it. When we were children, our family moved often—three different countries by my eleventh year. Jay had been my peer-group continuity and I his. Though he was nearly a year older than me (and diametrically contrary in most ways), we’d always been close. Best friends. Forever bound, we turned and twisted in unison, each tied in opposition to the other like a double helix. I was accustomed to setting boundaries with the free-form way he’d leap headfirst into whatever wavy-gravy flower-child trope crossed his path. Over time, saying no to my brother had become an involuntary twitch. A reaction to stimuli, not unlike how tweezing my left eyebrow always made me sneeze. You see, I’d spent a lifetime respecting Jay’s limits—butterscotch, sleeping with his head facing north, board games with Pop-o-Matic domes. But my limits—hitchhiking, polyamorous self-help gurus with non-ironic ZZ Top beards, all people who said The Man and/or did fist-bump hand explosions—Jay felt very much at ease trampling all over. Always had. Because of that, and as much as I loved and embraced the alternately mystical and overripe affectations of his manifest-destiny-hippie-rock-star swagger, I’d long ago learned that if I didn’t occasionally show him some resistance, I risked finding myself sleeping in a barley field outside Fresno, hoping (and failing) to bear witness to the formation of a crop circle. Just a little something I knew from personal experience. From my scholarly perspective (and with that wood tick night terror in mind), meditation looked to be less enjoyable than passing a kidney stone—but with considerably fewer benefits to my physiological well-being. A celebrated therapeutic tool founded on a lack of self-criticism, meditation’s achievements (undiagnosable in any substantive way) had—by finding its way onto smartphone apps—ballooned into a billion-dollar pile of overhyped group psychosis. Like any obedient cult member, Jay had casually tried to indoctrinate me for years. And it had been easy to refute him. My one-off shot at hot yoga had, after all, ended in barf. But everything changed when Som and I moved to Joshua Tree for the summer. It was then Jay decided mine was a balloon in need of popping. “I say this with love, Kat. Left unchecked, your life-force trends toward anemic.” “I can only imagine what that would look like said without love.” Yeah, my life-force was not anemic. That was just Jay being Jay—dramatic with a splash of narcissism, espousing his state-of-flow, hive-mind drivel. The truth was, I was the happiest, most centered I’d been in years. “What’s so wrong about me that I need meditation?” I asked. Jay pulled a long face and spoke out one side of his mouth. “It’d be more expedient to ask what’s so right about you that you don’t need meditation.” “Bit harsh.” Som stole the words from me. “I don—” he started, but Jay waved him off with a rakish grin. “Seriously, Kat, it’ll be fun. And good for you to elevate your vibrational frequency. To seek a higher plane where all is great.” “Jaaay…” I rolled my eyes at his bohemian rhetoric. “Everything can’t be great. If everything were great, nothing would be great, because everything great would seem mediocre without everything normal, bland, and shitty contrasting it.” “You’re only solidifying my case,” he said. “Why does my perceived state of being—my frequency—even interest you?” I sang the word and made air quotes, abandoning the bottle of nail polish when an alert on my phone caught my eye—that one thing that can make any girl squeal and blush with elation: a new paper by Toshimi Tanaka on twin-prime conjecture that promised to establish a pattern exceeding the known threshold of 388,342 digits, extending into perpetuity. As a mathematician, I was intrigued, eager to dive straight in. After plucking my phone from my hand and swatting me away, Jay read the alert, sighed like he was blowing out a candle, then stepped between Som and me, wrapping an arm around each of us. “I only wish for everyone I love to vibrate at my level? C’mon, Kat, the three of us, we’ll go together.” Som scratched his stubble. “I’d love to try a sound bath.” To Som: “Then the two of you should go, flourish in harmony with the clouds.” To Jay: “I’ll stay here alone, enchanted by my earthbound involvements.” “There are synergizing benefits to attending as a trio,” Jay said. He tightened his grip and squeezed my shoulder, his bluster picking up steam. “The Triad. Trinomials. A triptych. You know, the harmony of balanced coefficients, base three power—and all that.” I drew back enough to lock eyes with Jay. Among his stratagem, a system of tools to be brandished like bottle-rockets, employing half-baked algebra to compel me was a lever he only pulled occasionally. Which spoke to how determined he was. “And if I were to agree to your sound bath, what’s next?” I flung his arm away and broke free. “Walking on hot coals? Creative movement classes? How about ear candling? Oh, hey—let’s chain ourselves to a tree!” I was getting worked up. “I know how this ends with you, Jay: it never ends! It’s best to break the chain right now.” “The chain keeps us together, little sister.” “I’m not your little—” “She’s a quarter inch taller than you; he’s ten and a half months older than you—we’ll call it a draw,” Som said with a smile. The three of us had been in close quarters for nearly a week: Som and I outside the rhythm of UCLA, Jay between band commitments. Back in LA, the two of them had bonded, become fast friends; now, living with us in the Yucca Valley ranch house where Jay and I had grown up, Som had slid into our sibling power-dynamic, grabbing the conversational wheel and pulling us away from the ditch, as required. “This is Jay’s last night,” Som said. “Oh, come on. They’re playing, like, three shows—” “Four shows,” Jay said. “I’ll be gone ten days.” “A ten-day tour celebrating your greatness is hardly cause for a guilt-laden farewell.” When Jay interlaced his fingers in appraisal of my armor, I curled my lip and glared at him. “Maybe I already have plans tonight?” I gestured toward my phone and the assertion of twin prime’s ice-wall breakthrough. “Math is insensate,” Jay said. “Live life lighter.” “Is that your counterargument, or are you quoting Pottery Barn throw pillows at me?” Jay’s mouth pressed closed; Som considered his sneakers; I pushed a fistful of golden-brown waves out of my face. No one spoke for several seconds. “I won fair and square, Kat,” Jay finally said, changing tack. “It was so long ago I barely remember what the bet was about.” “Your failing memory does not negate the terms of our contract.” I rocked back on my heels. “And you’re willing to submit me to forced meditation?” “Yes.” My brother was in peak aesthetic: bell bottom jeans and a tie-dyed shirt with the words THINK BELIEVE ATTRACT RECEIVE in descending order down the front. The wash of colors picked up a glimmer from the prismatic bracelet a fan threw to him on stage at Red Rocks when his band opened for some big legacy act waging a short-lived reunion. Within a certain subset of the population, Jay was a celebrity. But to me, he was my overconfident sibling whose neo-psychedelia fetish had spiraled out of control. “To scale this summit of wonder,” I said, stepping with caution, “would I have to dress in a flowing robe with love beads? Wear a daisy in my hair?” “Wear a latex catsuit with Bedazzled tube socks and a cowboy hat if you like. Whatever you feel comfortable in. It really doesn’t matter.” Som gave me a look, his mouth hitching up on one side. “Do you own a latex catsuit?” Ignoring the question—though making a note to revisit the topic when we were alone, but not because I was curious (I absolutely was curious)—I let the silence stretch while I held my nose to the wind, scenting for a falter in my brother’s tenacity. When we were kids, Jay wiggled with neophilic energy; a performer in search of his spotlight, an experiential rush, transcendence—preferably all three at once. Try as I had to keep up with his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants outlook, my deeply pragmatic personality had never contained enough sharp lurches, freefall plummets, and hairpin turns for his liking. Once I’d moved to LA, being geographically elsewhere from my dad and brother for the first time—big personalities that blocked out most of the sun—I’d slipped wholeheartedly into the structure of university. Rules. Ones I could identify and learn. Rules founded on undeniable logic. Rules, where they existed, I’d always been good with. That’s why I’d sought a life of purposeful mathematics in the first place: the order and clarity of formulas, no room for interpretation or error in an equation, terms in black and white, zeros and ones, functions and forms. Of course, a lot had happened in the intervening years—the jagged edges of adolescence sanded down and the latent energy from the past shaken off. Since meeting Som and falling in love, I’d undergone a bit of a pattern reset. I’d made real strides toward not overthinking every tiny decision—reigning in my internal monologue before it formed a caucus, a council of voices and opinions trying to undermine my authority. After considering that, I tamped down my reluctance. Jay was right, meditation might be fun. Relaxing even. Toshimi Tanaka’s paper could wait a few hours. “Fine,” I said slowly, as if I were trying the word on, still working out if external coercion to seek internal mindfulness even made sense. “We’ll go tonight. All three of us. Let’s meditate.” * * *