Wayfinding

~ A. P. Howell

Becca didn’t realize she always avoided part of the plaza until a sunny Wednesday when she noticed a weed growing in a cracked paving stone. She was very familiar with the paving stone and made a habit of looking down at it, stepping carefully on the familiar unevenness, taking special care during winter when pooled water iced over.

She stopped walking, feeling the afternoon traffic move around her. The plaza was big enough, uncrowded enough, that one non-moving body didn’t cause any inconvenience. People simply stepped around her.

But not just anywhere. Becca wracked her brain to think of the different paths she’d used to get to class or the library or a food truck. Human memory wasn’t perfect—the brain played all kinds of tricks, dumped useless data, and freely interpolated—but even allowing for that, Becca knew she had favored paths and there were certain areas she couldn’t remember traversing at all.

She watched the other pedestrians for a while, uncomfortably aware that they also seemed to be avoiding some of those same spots. In the spirit of more scientific inquiry, she sat in a metal chair at an unoccupied table and watched for another hour.

A physicist friend had enjoyed making fun of the “unnatural sciences,” and certainly anything involving human behavior was messier than optical equations. But her observations were still data, and in all the time she watched, Becca never saw anyone set foot in a five-foot-square area she herself unconsciously avoided.

 

Becca had a knock-off GoPro and zero desire to ask for permission to record or conduct any remotely official sort of study. She wasn’t planning to keep the footage or publish anything. She was just curious, and an hour’s worth of data was insufficient.

So she used a bit of duct tape to set the camera up in one of the potted trees bushes that dotted the plaza. She didn’t have an angle on the entire plaza, but she had the Spot, as she had come to think of it over the past few hours. And even if focusing on the Spot made this an even less scientific endeavor . . . well, she wasn’t aiming for publication.

Just one person, Becca told herself when she retrieved the camera the next day. Just one person stepping in the Spot would prove that there wasn’t anything interesting going on, that she’d just observed traffic patterns and found, well, patterns. The human brain did that, but it didn’t mean that any given pattern was important, or that it existed anywhere outside of that brain.

Except the pattern did exist, at least for the length of the video. Everyone avoided the Spot. Becca wondered if she had, somehow, missed something obvious. A broken bottle, a smear of dog shit, something mundane that her subconscious—that everyone’s subconscious—had logged as a hazard to be avoided, but not so major as to attract attention. The video, however, showed nothing.

She looked the next day, too, and sat outside with a book open and unread in favor of people watching. No one stepped in the Spot.

She very nearly strode over and crossed that area herself. There was no reason not to, no danger or inconvenience. All her senses agreed there was absolutely nothing special about that Spot.

Nothing except the fact that she, and everyone else, avoided it.

And now that she knew, she couldn’t quite bring herself to venture into that space.

 

She was supposed to think about the present and the future, how to mitigate the challenges of the one to make a bridge to an improved version of the other. History mattered insofar as it was part of the initial conditions, encoded in memory, culture, and built environment, but it wasn’t what she did.

Becca spent time doing history. She found maps, helpfully digitized records of insurers, overlays she could apply to the now. The middle class neighborhood, digested decades earlier, formed a ghostly outline above familiar university buildings and the plaza, a bird’s eye view of the past imposed upon the present.

She had known about the old neighborhood, of course, and other ways the city she inhabited had shifted and twisted and writhed over the years. But it was one thing to know about an old neighborhood (an old neighborhood, an ousted nation: all places were graveyards of the past) and quite another to have an address and floorplan.

The Spot fell in the middle of one of the ghostly row homes. Becca had easy access to a host of newspapers and census records through 1940. She should have been working on a GIS visualization, but instead she decoded fin de siècle handwriting and OCR mishaps. Lack of clarity between sixes and eights meant it took longer than it should have to find what she was looking for, but once she saw it she knew it was the answer.

In 1905, Louise Bromley, sixteen or seventeen at the time, had died in the house that had once stood where the plaza—and the Spot—were now located.

 

Becca had gone mad once. That was how she thought of it now, a small but significant number of years removed from an experience that had nothing to do with a mental health diagnosis.

She had been an undergraduate, a riot of hormones powered by caffeine cocktails. And at some point—she could not even remember the inciting incident—it had occurred to her that she ought to be more open-minded. Why were the truths of the present more certain than those of the past? Science, after all, was a construct, just like her own conception of time.

The lines between alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy; the competing logics of religions; death and divination—these all fascinated her and, for a time, it seemed utterly uncouth to play favorites in the matter of belief. If some things might be true, why not all?

She could not quite remember how long the madness had lasted—six months? Nine?—but in a sense it did not matter. There was before-Becca and after-Becca, who was in almost all ways identical to her progenitor. But the detour into madness had happened, as profound (or not) as if she had cut her hair, shaved it off, dyed it, or wrought some similar change: time-bounded but still extant in memory and, perhaps, photographs or other documentation.

Which was to say, Becca had spent some time persuaded of the existence of ghosts. Not in the paranormal studies sense—such evidence had been debunked to her satisfaction, even when mad—but in a more philosophical sense. The human mind was a marvel. So, for that matter, was any complex life form, existing courtesy of eons of evolution and chance beginnings as single-cell organisms. The idea that something might persist was, in its way, less ridiculous than the belief that all that complexity simply vanished at the arbitrary point of death.

The Spot sat at a tantalizing intersection of Becca’s past and present, her madness and her sanity. She neglected more coursework, datasets that had previously called out to her like sirens lounging upon silicon substrates, and instead mulled over questions of architecture and pedestrian traffic patterns and death.

 

Louise Bromley was nearly as much a ghost in the historical record as (perhaps) in the plaza. Teenage girls existed as lines on the census, written in another’s hand. By virtue of her father’s relative prominence—he had been a well-regarded doctor—there were a few references in newspapers, but aside from the tragedy’s impact on her family, Becca learned little about the girl herself. This was frustrating but not at all surprising.

She supplemented the specific with the general, reading secondary sources about the life a teenager like Louise would have known. But social history, American history, women’s history . . . these were not her fields, and they were too vast to master overnight and on a whim.

For half a day, Becca convinced herself that her bizarre detour was over. She worked on the visualizations she was supposed to be working on. And then she began to think about death again, and not just Louise’s. All the suicides, all the murders, all the accidents, all the cancer and heart disease and aneurysms and pneumonia.

Why Louise? What was special about one dead girl? (Beyond the fact that every human life was precious, etc., etc.) Why could Becca feel her presence (absence, whatever) over a century after her death? And not just Becca: everyone else who avoided the Spot.

It wasn’t until she slept and woke again that she realized this was a close-minded framing. Becca knew about the Spot, but that was no reason to assume it was unique.

 

Becca walked the city streets. She had always found it a useful exercise, a way of providing human-scale context for aerial maps and architectural plans and anonymized datasets.

Brick pavers uneven, raised by a tree’s roots. A pit bull mix raised a leg to urinate on the curb; by the time Becca reached the small puddle, a boxer had paused at the same spot, adding its own scent.

She imagined the view from above, a complex dance of living creatures. Living creatures and dead: after crossing the street, she realized she had not walked in a straight line. Had a pedestrian died there, and did the resonance of that event prompt her to alter her path? So much life, death, and unlife: to even consider just this moment in time was more than her brain could encompass.

She thought then of brains, of neurological connections. Of the boundless potential of babies, and the way their brains grew by the pruning of those connections, the infinite rendered finite. Potential sacrificed in favor of pragmatism and response to the environment as the babies grew into themselves. Damage prompting work-arounds and new methods of neurological wayfinding. Functionality defined by absence.

When she had been mad before, Becca had felt uncertain and compelled to study and rationalize her thoughts, ultimately classifying them as mad. That was not the case now. She knew Louise, insofar as she could know a stranger, long dead and poorly documented. She did not know the pedestrian, or the identity of the person who had planted the tree, or the reason dogs chose that particular place to mark territory and challenge another’s marking. But her knowledge was irrelevant and Becca took a deep, almost religious comfort from that certainty.

She found a convenient stoop and sat across from a honey locust, listened to the wind in the leaves, the babble of voices, the sounds of traffic and a displeased cat, and felt the city grow into itself.

 

A. P. Howell lives with her spouse, kids, and dog, sometimes near a lake and always near trees. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science FictionLittle Blue Marble, and XVIII: Stories of Mischief & Mayhem.

She tweets @APHowell and her website is aphowell.com.

 [ issue 4 :  fall 2021 ]