An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

Chapter 16


So we fell.

I assumed we were going to take a Lyft, but Robin seemed to think that would have been a personal insult to him, and also, it wasn’t precisely secure to make a video about secret space aliens in a stranger’s car, so with Robin driving, we got to film on the way.

I sat in the front seat with the camera. The video starts with me recording myself.

“Hello, and welcome to Robin’s car. This is Robin.” I turn the camera to Robin, who waves, teeth gleaming. “We have news. Several days ago, Andy and I”—I turn the camera to Andy, who waves—“discovered what we have come to call the Freddie Mercury Sequence. This is a cascade of changes that occur if you attempt to correct typos on the Wikipedia page for Queen’s hit song ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’

“The meaning of these changes remains something of a mystery. However, thanks to the help of a materials scientist from UC Berkeley, we now believe that we have decoded the sequence. We are headed to Hollywood Boulevard now to meet that scientist and to test a little theory.”

Here in the final video, we cut to a screenshot of the Wikipedia page and some voice-over of me talking about the sequence, how we discovered it, and Miranda’s later discovery that the citation numbers also changed, and that those numbers corresponded to chemical elements.

Miranda was sitting on the curb of the CVS on Hollywood Boulevard when Robin dropped us off. The moment she saw us, she popped to her feet and ran over to give me a hug.

“This is so cool!”

“It is not not cool!”

She was a little taller than I expected her to be because of how she was not exactly average height. I’m short—I barely came up to her collarbone when she hugged me. It wasn’t one of those A-frame hugs either. She smushed our bodies together like I’d known her from kindergarten. Her bright eyes were glinting with excitement. Miranda is a bit older than me, but she looks a little younger. Seeing her was another flood of reality. This was happening. We were going to visit Carl, to give him materials to see what would happen. We were really doing it.

“I’m sorry, was that too much hug?” She looked worried.

“No, that was a perfect amount of hug.” She smiled at me, looking like she didn’t quite believe it and would later be chastising herself for her enthusiasm.

“I got some smoke detectors this morning. They don’t make it easy to get the americium out, so I’m glad I did it back at the lab.” She pulled a box out of her purse and opened it to show a small vial with a couple of silvery metal strips inside.

Andy came from around the other side of the car as Robin drove away to find parking. “Glad you got it out,” he told her, “but let’s go buy another one so we can show where we got it from.”

“Oh!” Miranda’s excitement mingled a tiny bit with embarrassment. “I wasn’t thinking about the video! Oh, this is so cool! Am I going to be in it?”

“If that’s OK with you,” Andy said.

He took some establishing shots of the outside of the CVS and then we recorded a quick intro with Miranda.

“We have arrived at the CVS just a block away from Hollywood Carl with Miranda Beckwith, the materials scientist who solved the Freddie Mercury Sequence. What are we doing here, Miranda?”

“We’re buying smoke detectors.”

“That seems like a really weird thing to be doing.”

“This is not a normal day!” Her excitement was fantastic on film.

“And why are we buying smoke detectors?”

“To me, the sequence is pretty clear,” Miranda began. “Carl is asking for supplies. And one of those supplies is americium, which is a fairly rare element, but it is used in some commercial products as a source of alpha particles.” She had deftly avoided using the word “radioactive.”

“Do I need to know what that means?”

“Not really, no. It’s interesting, though. Maybe we’ll put an explanation in the description. All that’s important is that, inside of this smoke detector”—she held up the box—“is about one five-thousandth of a gram of americium.”

“Is that going to be enough?”

“Oh, I have no idea! It depends on what Carl wants it for. If he needs it for a catalytic reaction, any amount will probably do. If he needs it to actually construct something, no, this will probably not be enough.”

“Do I need to know what that means?”

Miranda looked into the lens. “More information in the video’s description. Also don’t forget to subscribe!”

* * *

The placement of the Carls was, of course, a topic of considerable discussion. They were impossible to move, and they invariably showed up in urban areas where they wouldn’t go unnoticed. But in every city, their locations seemed nonrandom but also not consistent. For example, they all showed up on a sidewalk, but the part of town they were in was random. Oakland Carl was the only Carl in the San Francisco Bay Area, and San Franciscans were, frankly, offended. Manhattan is a city of somewhat uniform interestingness. New York Carl showed up on a well-trafficked street, but most streets in Manhattan have heavy pedestrian traffic. It’s not like he showed up on Fifth Avenue, Times Square, or Madison Avenue. There was nothing particularly special about New York Carl’s spot in front of a Chipotle.

Hollywood Carl, on the other hand, showed up in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the city’s major tourist spots and probably the most heavily trafficked pedestrian spot in LA. Not only that, but it’s a place frequented by street performers and phony costumed superheroes charging twenty dollars per photo.

Knowing all this about Hollywood Boulevard and America’s obsession with fame, I should not have been so surprised when we walked down to the theater and found a line stretching from Carl off so deep into the distance that it might as well have been infinite.

This was, after all, a real-life Carl! People come to the Walk of Fame to get their picture taken with a celebrity’s star or their handprints in the cement. These people are the most likely folks in the world to want something for the scrapbook. The theater had even set up some lights so the Carl was more visible for nighttime photographs. They shone harshly on his shiny bits. I don’t know why we hadn’t assumed that there would be a line, but there it was.

“Oh lord,” Andy said.

“Are we going to wait in that?” I replied.

The three of us began to wander down the line, trying to see the end. Eventually, I caved and just walked up to a young woman who was twenty or so people back in the line and asked, “How long have you been waiting?”

Her eyes widened and her mouth became a perfect circle. “OH. MY. GOD,” she said, with equal and emphatic weight on every syllable. And then she turned to a friend. “OHMIGAHD ALISON ALISON, IT’S APRIL MAY! APRIL! OHMIGAHD!”

Miranda and Andy just stared.

Every culture has its ways of turning strangers into acquaintances. We don’t really think about these procedures; they just exist. And this process almost always begins either by telling someone your name or by having some third party introduce you. Which is why I replied to someone who had just yelled my own name at me by telling them what my name was.

“Hey, uhh, yeah, hi. It’s nice to meet you, I’m April,” I said.

“OF COURSE YOU’RE APRIL!” the woman replied.

It may be worth saying that usually the second party in the stranger-to-stranger introduction responds to your telling them your name by telling you theirs. And yet this had not happened, which made the conversation even more difficult to have.

I would eventually get used to all this, but at the moment, as the cultural systems for stranger-to-stranger conversation had completely broken down, I had no idea what to say.

Robin appeared out of nowhere, apparently having found a parking spot.

“Do you want to get a picture with April?” He sounded calm and kind and like he really cared.

And then there was much fumbling for cameras and, oh, actually that was a video, and can you take one with me and with Alison and then one with us both? And, oh, Alison’s phone is out of space, and don’t worry we’ll just take it on my phone and I’ll text it to you later, and then it was done.

Suddenly there was a hubbub and everyone around us was aware that someone famous had showed up. I got the feeling that, even if they hadn’t known who I was, every person in that line would have wanted a picture. And Alison and her friends were not like the high school group at LAX; they were freaking out.

The good news was that:

           Everyone else nearby in the line also wanted a picture. And . . .

       We had now effectively cut in line and were only twenty people back, but nobody was complaining.

We were saved by the existing line. No one wanted to get out of the Carl line they’d been waiting in. Otherwise, I would have been completely encircled and someone may have needed to call the cops.

Luckily, we were able to selfie our way to the front of the line and it only took about five minutes. Once we were up there, Andy (who had been filming much of my fan interaction) made an announcement to everyone within earshot.

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