Short Story: “On Balance”

Something you have may be more valuable than you know.

“On Balance”
by P. Orin Zack

“It’s just a silver rock?” the pudgy, white-haired man muttered as he pressed himself upright with the doorknob cane in his left hand. A moment earlier, he’d been hunched over, carefully tracing the intricate curves of the object on the right side of the balance scale, but now he just glared at it and balled his fist. “That’s ridiculous,” he added, with a disgusted shake of his head. Turning away, he scanned the other exhibits on display in the small gallery, and hobbled off.

Victor Scollimenti, the artist whose initials were carved into the bottom of the odd-looking sculpture the man was berating, had been mentally cataloging the reactions of the few people who drifted past his latest work. This one screamed of disdain. Utter disbelief seemed to be winning, though.

He watched the old guy totter across the room. Curiously, when he stopped to let a knot of yammering yuppies pass by, he surreptitiously glanced back at the scale before continuing towards a colorful yet surreal still life by one of the painters that Victor shared the weekend showing with.

Traffic at the downtown community gallery space had been sparse since it opened Friday night. He’d actually gotten more questions about his dyed Mohawk and the fractal tattoos on his palms than about any of the pieces of found-art sculptures that he’d put up for bid, but what most interested him were the reactions to this latest work, which wasn’t for sale… at least not yet.

The tinkle of the handmade door-chimes drew his attention to the woman who had just entered. She wore a light woolen jacket, which Victor guessed to be vintage Pendleton from the distinctive red pattern. He pegged her to be in her forties. She stopped a few feet inside and raised one hand, palm forward, as if to stop some nonexistent traffic. Then she closed her eyes and swept her open palm in an arc, from left to right, and then back again. If she’d been holding a flashlight, the beam would now be pointing directly at Victor’s scale. Opening her eyes again, she walked directly to it, and stopped, her face growing paler by the second.

Victor warily approached. “Is… is something wrong, ma’am?” he asked lightly. “You seem to be disturbed by my work.”

She blinked a few times and looked up at him, her expression a tangle of anxiety and fear. “You made this.” Her right hand hovered a few inches over the signed sculpture on the tray.

He shrugged. “Sure. Why?”

She withdrew her hand. “It’s just that… do you know what this is?”

“It was supposed to be art. I –.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head vigorously, “I mean, do you know what the shape represents?”

“Not really. I just tried to embody what I sensed when I held the other stone near… hold on a minute.” He dug in his pocket and drew out a smooth, black, kidney-shaped stone with tracery of grey lines. “When I held it near this one, which I suspect might be slightly magnetic.”

“May I see that, please?”

“Sure, but…”

She reached into her pouch and pulled out a stone somewhat like Victor’s. Hers was round and flattened, something like a biscuit. He placed his stone into her empty right hand, which she’d extended, and crossed his arms to watch. She held each one gingerly, between thumb and two fingers, about a foot apart, and then slowly drew them together. At about six inches spacing, she wobbled her right hand to and fro, as if there were a spring between the stones, and nodded, a sparkle of satisfaction in her eyes.

“What?” he asked, perplexed, as she returned his stone.

“You’re right. It’s slightly magnetic. But, like mine, it’s not strong enough, or organized well enough, I guess, to do anything useful like attracting a paper clip. That’s why what you’ve done is so interesting.”

“Interesting? When you first came in, there was a bit more on your face than merely ‘interesting’. You looked like it had you spooked. So tell me… what’s so frightening about this lump of silver clay that made you go pale like that?”

Her posture softened, and she glanced away self-consciously. “I’m sorry. Maybe I should introduce myself. I’m Marjorie Nicolette, Mr. Scollimenti. And I would have been here sooner, but I had to drive quite a distance to get here after I felt you setting up this display.”

Victor peered at her curiously. “Felt?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Felt. You did set this scale up for the first time this morning, didn’t you? At about… I think it was a bit after nine, wasn’t it?”

“I guess. I’d set everything else up on Friday. This was the only new piece I brought with me this morning. But how could you possibly have felt me setting it up?”

“You misunderstand. I didn’t feel you. I felt it, or rather… them. But tell me, why did you decide to use a scale?”

He chuckled. “I’m not sure, really. I had it around, and needed a way to suggest a relationship between them, so I just grabbed it out of the den and winged it when I got here. Is there something I should know?”

“I think so, but maybe we should take this somewhere else. Would you mind joining me for dinner after the show closes?”

“Why wait? It’s not like I’ve got a line of people clamoring for autographs. Besides, I have a key to the place, so we can come back later to pack up after closing, if it gets that late.”

When Marjorie turned to go, Victor snatched the rock from the left side of the scale, and replaced it with the one he’d shown her. During the short walk to a local Italian restaurant that he suggested, she asked him about the city, and about the other pieces he’d brought to the showing. He tried to get her to tell him some more about herself, but she kept deflecting the conversation and he eventually gave up. So, it was a bit of a shock when, after being seated and having their order taken, she launched right into it spontaneously.

“I’m a teacher in my spare time,” she said as the waitress turned to go.

“In your spare time? How do you do that?”

“Online. It’s kind of a correspondence school with a rather unusual curriculum.”

“Unusual? Why, what do you teach, cuneiform calculus?”

When she stopped laughing, she took a sip of water and glanced around to see if anyone was paying too much attention to her. “Good guess, but nothing that arcane. One of the classes is related to your sculpture, though. It’s about the power of shapes.”

“Seriously? Shapes? Tell me about it.”

Their salads had arrived, and between bites she wove an explanation of the web course she’d created. It started off with a breathtaking video that a friend of hers had put together about the endless repetition of certain kinds of patterns in nature. She was describing the video collage of fractals in the shapes of plants and so forth, when he interrupted to show her the tattoos on his palms. The remainder of the video concerned the shapes of the things mankind creates.

“The material is admittedly scattershot,” she said before the last bite, “but it’s the first in what I hope could be a series.”

“Okay, I get that there’s some serious mojo in shapes, but what does all that have to do with this thing?” He pulled out the rock from his display and set it down between the salt and pepper in the center of the table.

She studied it for a moment, and then looked up at him. “What you sculpted,” she said, almost too quietly for him to hear over the chatter in the restaurant, “was the shape of the energy field embedded in this rock. The two resonate when they are in the right position.”

“They resonate?”

She nodded, but waited until the waitress swapped their empty salad bowls for plates loaded with pasta before continuing. “Yeah. But so far, they haven’t been in precisely the right position, so all that’s happened so far is a warm-up to the main event.”

Victor took a bite of his lasagna while mulling that over. “Okay,” he said, waving his empty fork in the air, “if you felt me putting the two together this morning from that far away, and they weren’t really in the right position yet, what’ll happen when they are? I mean… is it going to be dangerous? Should I destroy this one right now? Should I toss the other one in the kiln and melt it down? What?”

It took her several minutes, and most of her dinner, to respond. When she finally did, she set her knife and fork down first, and picked up the rock. She held it over her plate, cupped in both hands. “Is it dangerous? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does. This is new.”

“Okay,” he said, “answer me this, then. Assuming that something does happen if we set the two up correctly, couldn’t it also be good thing? I mean, whatever the effect is, couldn’t it have creative uses, not just destructive ones?”

Marjorie nodded, and handed it back to him. “Sure, if it’s in the right hands. But…”

He sagged. “Yeah, maybe so. But I’d still like to find out. Couldn’t we just do the experiment, align them once, and then, if we get freaked by what happens, smash this thing?”

They argued the pros and cons until well after desert, but they still kept returning to the same gambit: try it, align the rock and the sculpture, but be ready with a hammer. Having worried the argument threadbare, they returned to the gallery, which was closed and dark. Victor unlocked the door and turned on the lights. But when he looked at his table, alone in the empty room, his jaw dropped. “Shit. It’s gone,” he said, breaking into a trot. “Someone’s stolen it! Now we’ll never find out.”

“Well,” she said, joining him near the table, “you could just make another one.”

“That’s not the point. As long as that sculpture is still out there somewhere, there’s still the chance that whoever has it could get their hands on this rock. And if having the both of them does turn out to be dangerous, I’ll be ultimately responsible for whatever happens.”

Marjorie drew her fingertip across the empty scale. “Maybe there is a way to find it. Can I have the rock for a minute?”

He handed it to her. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well, if just putting them on the scale together was enough to give me a jolt, then maybe we can use this rock to find its mate.” She closed her fingers around it and shut her eyes briefly. Then she raised her other hand, as she had when she’d entered the gallery, and pointed her invisible flashlight around the room.

Victor stood quietly and watched her for nearly two minutes. “Well? Do you feel anything?”

“No. Nothing.” She handed it back in frustration. “I don’t know. Maybe you ought to try feeling for it. It was the resonance between the two that led me to the gallery. But that only happened because you’d set them up close to the right alignment. Now, all we’ve got to go on is the fact that your sculpture has a kind of kinship to this rock. Maybe you’ll be able to feel the linkage. After all, you’re a lot more familiar with what your rock normally feels like than I am.”

He stared at the rock in his hand. “Okay. What am I looking for?”

“Well, I’ve got a rock back home that feels like it’s trying to dig through my fingers whenever I hold it. It’s the damnedest sensation. Anyway, I had it with me when I was visiting some friends in Chicago some time back. I’d just taken it out to show someone, when I discovered that the sensation was stronger when I was facing one direction. So we got in my car and just started driving. This is going to sound crazy, but that rock led us directly to the main accelerator ring at Fermilab.”

“Any idea why?”

“Not really. Our best guess was that it was reacting to one of the superconducting magnets down in the tunnel. I’m hoping this’ll work the same way. Tell me if it seems to be stronger in one direction, and we’ll see where we end up.”

He shook his head doubtfully, and shrugged. “Okay. Here goes.”

While Marjorie watched, Victor closed his eyes and slowly turned around in the nearly empty room. He stopped when he was facing the right side wall, and pointed at it. “That way, I guess.”

A few minutes later, they got into Marjorie’s car. She drove while Victor gave a running commentary on which direction he thought the rock was pointing. The highway through town went in that general direction, so they got on and drove until Victor called out that they were coming even with it, at which point Marjorie stopped in the breakdown lane to give him a chance to determine whether their quarry was moving or not. Happily, it wasn’t, so she pulled off at the next exit, and they started prowling the streets, with Victor calling out direction changes.

The neighborhood they were cruising through was one of those pockets of in-city quaintness, the kind of place where storefronts had been zealously protected from the suction of big box stores in the ever-growing chain of shopping malls that ringed the city. A lot of the shops offered services of one sort or another, as that helped to ensure that the price of goods that might also be found at the mall stores wasn’t the only reason for all the people lining the sidewalks to shop locally.

Marjorie slowed to a crawl and started reading the signs aloud. A few seconds later, the driver in the van behind them leaned on his horn. When Victor turned around, the guy gave him the finger and shouted something undoubtedly obscene. He looked at Marjorie as they stopped dead. She was staring at the storefront on the left, with an anxious look on her face.

“Is something wrong?” Victor said worriedly. “Maybe we should pull over and let this guy pass.”

Marjorie nodded, and they rolled into an empty space a few cars ahead. As the van passed, the driver spat in their direction, and squealed his tires in a jackrabbit start, only to screech to a halt at the corner, where the light had just turned red.

She pointed at the storefront across the street. “You see that occult supply store over there? ‘The Philoscarpher’s Stone’?”

“What about it?”

“I know the guy who owns it. Reprobate named Oscar. Professionally, he’s an astrologer. He caters to the big money types; casts horoscopes for land developers, things like that. But he’s also known as a class ‘A’ jerk when it comes to selling overpriced trinkets to suckers. I’m surprised the city lets him stay in business, what with all the horror stories I’ve heard about him.”

Victor studied the window display for a moment. “You think he might have something to do with this?”

She nodded. “Yeah. If he didn’t steal the thing himself, he probably knows who did, or even hired out to have it done. Give me a reading. Which direction is your rock pointing at now?”

He brought his hand up and looked at it for a few seconds. “Up ahead. And I think it’s moving.”

“Can you tell how far?”

His hand drifted rightwards. “It’s got to be pretty close to change direction that quickly. Whoever has it is probably in the neighborhood, and most likely on foot. Should we check in the store, or follow the rock?”

“The rock. No question.”

After feeding the meter, they set off down the street. A few blocks up, Victor stopped in front of a bar and looked up at the sign. “I think it’s in here.”

“Well, then,” Marjorie said, grinning. “I think I could use a beer. What about you?”

The place was decorated in faux-Celtic kitsch, and felt about as authentic as a movie set. The lights were low so patrons could see the canned soccer match on the cable feed, and there was a long bar to the left, with a few people hovering over their drinks. The rest of the room was cluttered with tables, half of which were occupied.

Marjorie nudged Victor. “Well? Who is it?”

He raised the stone for a few seconds, and motioned towards the bar. He stopped cold after a few more steps and craned to see something that lay across the counter, a cane with a head made from an old cut-glass doorknob. “It’s him,” he said quietly. “I saw this guy at the gallery just before you got there.”

Just then, the pudgy man rotated on his bar stool, his eyes fixed on the silvery sculpture in his hand.

They stepped closer, and Victor crossed his arms. “I believe that’s mine.”

He looked at them blankly, and then peered at the rock in Victor’s hand.

“Hello, Oscar,” Marjorie said. “When did you decide to add art thief to your resume?”

He opened his fingers and held it out towards them. “What is this thing? And why did it just start buzzing?”

“You stole it, and you don’t even know what it is?” Victor said incredulously.

“All the signs told me to go to your art show. The stars… the cards… even my runes. They all kept saying that there was something important for me, that I should take the initiative.”

Marjorie shook her head in disbelief. “Do you expect us to buy that lame excuse? Look, I know you don’t have the highest morals in the business, Oscar, but I thought even you drew the line at actually stealing something. Don’t your clients pay you well enough any more for giving them a calendar of when’s the best time to cheat their own customers and employees?”

“Please!” he implored Victor. “Tell me what this thing is. I could feel it had some sort of power when I examined it on that scale of yours. But for the love of God, man, give me some kind of explanation for what it just did.”

“Oh, please,” Marjorie scoffed. “Twenty five years selling magic crystals to rubes, and you don’t have a clue when something real lands in your lap? Is everything you claim to be as fraudulent as the certificates of authenticity you peddle?”

He slumped against the counter behind him. “Not at first. Back then I really could feel the magic in the crystals I sold. Readings poured out of me like I was plugged into the Akashic Records. Hell, I didn’t have to go through all the trouble of casting horoscopes to know what they would say. But that was so long ago. So much has changed.” He put the sculpture down on the bar and lifted his beer mug. “These days? These days I have to drown myself in this just to feel anything at all.”

Victor and Marjorie exchanged glances while he drained his beer.

“Okay,” he said as he set the mug down, “what do you want me to do? Turn myself in to the cops? I’ve never done anything like this before, never actually stole anything. They’ll probably pull my license, shut me down, and I probably deserve it.”

“Do you believe this guy?” Marjorie asked Victor. “Pleading for mercy?” She stepped to the bar and slid the sculpture towards her. “A con artist to the end. I’ll tell you what we ought to do to you. Just for starters, we ought to get your mailing list and let them all know what a fraud you are. There’s probably–.”

“Wait,” Victor interrupted.

“What?” she said. “Are you just going to let him get away with this?”

Oscar rubbed his chubby face.

“No,” he told her. “I have a much better idea.” He held out the rock to Oscar. “Here’s what I want you to do. Take this. Now pick up the sculpture in your other hand and hold them about this far apart.”

Marjorie clapped her hand down over the sculpture on the bar. “What are you doing?”

“Let it go,” he told her.

After she uncovered the silvery sculpture, Oscar picked it up and followed Victor’s instructions. Over the next few minutes, he slowly adjusted the positions of the two objects, and the distance between them, while Victor held his own hands over Oscar’s. “Okay, stop. That’s it. I think they’re lined up now.”

Marjorie shuddered. “You’ve got that right. I wonder how many people are feeling this electricity?”

Victor ignored her, intent on keeping Oscar focused. “Okay. You wanted to know what the thing in your right hand is. And I’ll tell you. The rock in your left hand is slightly magnetic. The sculpture in your right is what I felt to be the shape of that field. Apparently, there’s some kind of resonance between them, based on the fact that they have the same shape, in a manner of speaking.”

Oscar nodded erratically, his breath ragged. “I’ve read about it. I think it’s called a morphic resonance.”

Several people had come over to see what was going on. One of them asked if Oscar was okay, and Marjorie assured them. The bartender had drifted over as well.

“So… now what?” Oscar asked hopefully.

“I was hoping you’d tell us,” Victor said lightly.

Just then, there was a loud crack, and Oscar dropped the sculpture. “Ouch! I think it burned me.” He thrust his other hand at Victor, and opened his fist. “Here. Take it.”

Victor gingerly lifted it from Oscar’s open palm and examined it. The stone was cracked. “Huh,” he said, showing the crevasse to Marjorie. “What do you suppose caused that?”

One of the patrons knelt beside the sculpture. “That’s nothing,” he said, “get a load of what happened to this.” He rose and handed Victor what looked like a flattened puddle of silvery water, with the crown shape of a water drop captured by a strobe. “I don’t know what you just did, but there’s probably some folks that would want to know about it.”

Oscar cleared his throat. “You mean what I did, don’t you?”

Marjorie wheeled on him. “You can’t be serious!” She turned to Victor. “Don’t let him do this.”

“Why not?”

She was incredulous. “Why not? Well, for one thing, he’s a fraud.”

He shrugged. “Maybe, but we both saw what he just did.”

“What he did? Are you nuts?”

“Not at all. Look, whatever it was I managed to make with that silver clay was a fluke. I’m not planning on trying at again, and Oscar here sure as hell won’t be able to. So the best way to bury it once and for all is to let him tell the world it was all his doing. After all, he certainly can’t demonstrate that new power of his, can he? And as you’ve already said, he’s a fraud.”

“You’re sure about this?” Oscar asked him. “You’ll let me claim to have done this all on my own?”

“Absolutely. As a once-in-a-lifetime event, you can make as much of it as you’d like. I think the secret will be safe.”

He nodded acquiescence. “Great. Then you won’t mind if I tell people what I saw when that bolt of energy flashed through me.”


Oscar just grinned.

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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