The Fourth

Mike began learning to keep his special talent to himself at the age of three.

He could see things that no one else could see, but when he spoke about these things, nothing good ever happened. His parents told him to quit making up stories. His friends at preschool did not understand what he was talking about. His teachers assumed that he was playing a game and told him to stop.

Worse, he could touch and affect objects in ways that others couldn’t. After doing so and experiencing the concern that it provoked in his parents, he learned not to do it.

It took Mike quite a while to understand the ways in which he was the same as everyone else, and ways in which he wasn’t. The things that everyone could see, he saw too, but with differences. The things that only he could see were simply out of sight for others – behind a wall, for example. He was left to puzzle all this out for himself. In the meantime, he became diffident in the extreme. Seeing his increasing lack of confidence and reluctance to act, his parents assumed that he had special needs of some sort, but their concern never reached the point of having him evaluated.

If, for example, he was walking with a friend past a backyard with a high fence around it, the friend could not see into the backyard, but Mike could, not through the fence or over or around it, but in a way that he couldn’t exactly describe. He kept his mouth shut.

One reason, perhaps the principal reason, that Mike did not talk about these things was that there weren’t any words handy to do so clearly. There were words like “width,” “length,” “depth,” and “height” at his service, for the aspects of objects that everyone could see. There were no words for the added aspects of those objects that only he could see.

In the same way, there were elements of touch, smell, and taste that nobody ever mentioned, but that he could experience. There might be a hot pie, say, way over there, but if Mike positioned himself in just the right way, it might seem to him that his nose was just about sticking right into it.

Years later, Mike learned to put a name to the area of perception involved in his special ability: dimension. Two-dimensional persons would not be able to see through a line drawn in front of them, but a three-dimensional person could see over that line. Just so, three-dimensional persons could not see into a closed box, but a four-dimensional person could. Mike alone was aware of the fact that the world and everything in it was four-dimensional. Or more.

This knowledge and his perceptive ability relating to it never proved useful to Mike. In high school, for a change, he tried sharing his secret again, with a friend named Damon.

“Whoa,” said Damon. “You could rule the world.”

“The thing is useless,” Mike said. “I never need it and I never use it. It’s been a troublemaker from the word go.”

He had given in to temptation one day, however, when walking past the high-school gym. He was a sophomore at the time and a class of sophomore girls was in the women’s locker room, the girls showering and changing. Mike took a quick peek and immediately felt shame at the sight of his female classmates partially dressed, or less, innocent in their trust and assumption of privacy. He never did that again.

“You explained to me the advantages available to a man who can see three dimensions in a two-dimensional world,” his friend Damon said to him. “How come that’s not a tremendous advantage in the same way to the man who can see 4-D in a 3-D world?”

“First of all, because you’re a freak,” Mike said. “You can’t have a normal life. Second of all, suppose I can see over a wall or into a locked room. So what?”

“Couldn’t you rob a bank? Reach into the vault in the fourth dimension and pull out the money?”

“That question is so stupid in so many ways, let’s quit talking about this.”

Once, parked on a date with a girl he liked, after drinking too much, he held up his hands.

“See how far apart they are?” he said.

The girl nodded. He moved his hands farther apart.

“Now they’re farther apart, right?” he said.

The girl looked at him. He moved his hands even farther apart, but now up and down, not side to side.

“Now they’re farther apart up and down, but almost touching another way you can’t see,” he said. “That’s the weird part about how it works.”

“Yeah, and where do you plan to put those weird hands next?” the girl said.

Every object in the world, it seemed, possessed qualities in that extra dimension that no one except Mike experienced, qualities that particularized the thing in unique ways. Mike might meet a girl, for example, who had an ineffable beauty that no one but he could appreciate – not even the girl herself.

In college, in his dorm, Mike could know in advance if a room were empty or occupied, but he wouldn’t allow himself to look. He’d knock and wait to find out. He respected everyone’s privacy.

He had several extended conversations with mathematicians. He learned that there was nothing special about a world of four spatial dimensions, or more. The ins and outs of the thing had been worked out long ago in a general way. Mike could see in as many dimensions as he wanted and it wouldn’t change anything. This knowledge reinforced his long-standing determination to keep his secret ability to himself and avoid the myriad inconveniences that discovery or disclosure might cause. He did not want his five minutes of fame.

Mike met Jane while working for an engineering consulting firm in Seattle. Jane had been married once before and had a six-year-old daughter. The couple began dating and in time found themselves speculating about the future. Mike’s extra dimension never found its way into the conversation.

Mike and Jane and Clarice, her daughter, were hiking near McClarens one Sunday, a week after a heavy storm had blown through. The day was clear and dry but the trail they were following remained muddy, puddled with residual rainwater.

Clarice, impatient with the way that Mike and Jane kept stopping to examine wild flowers, walked ahead, out of sight. Jane called her back several times but Clarice would return, fidget, and then take off again. Halfway around Bray’s Loop, the couple heard a shriek. They ran ahead and found an empty trail. A chunk of loopback had broken loose and Clarice, who had edged up to the break to look down into the canyon, had been dropped down the slope when another piece of the trail gave way beneath her.

Mike and Jane stayed clear of the fresh break, looking down the slope while clinging to trees on the edge. Jane was crying and screaming and calling out her daughter’s name. Mike could see Clarice sprawled motionless against a boulder, halfway down to Broken Creek. He opened his cell phone. No coverage.

“I’m going down there,” Mike said. “You run back and call nine one one as soon as you get a signal.”

“You can’t climb down. It’s too steep.”

“I’ll slide tree to tree. It’ll be rough, but I can get to her.”

“I should go down,” Jane said, but they both knew that Mike was twice the athlete she was.

“Run back, but pace yourself,” Mike said. “If you feel panicky, slow down and walk until you calm down. Keep your eyes on your feet. If you sprain an ankle, you won’t be able to help your daughter.”

Jane took off and Mike went over the side and began his controlled slide from obstacle to obstacle. By the time he reached Clarice, he was scratched and bleeding.

He reached out to turn the girl onto her back and straighten her out, but then stopped himself. She was breathing and still. If something was broken, he didn’t want to make it worse; but perhaps moving her would help, maybe save her.

“I’ve never looked inside anyone but myself,” he said out loud, to her and to himself. “I apologize, Clarice, but I’ve got to do it.”

That closed package, the human body, in four-space was as exposed to him as a flower in bloom, if only he chose to open the fourth door of his perception. Mirrored on a microscopic scale, every nucleated cell folded out.

He knelt close to Clarice. After a couple of false starts, he let himself see inside her. He surveyed the young girl in front of him and immediately spotted fractures in her cervical vertebrae. The spinal cord, while exposed, showed no obvious damage. However, edges of bone were poised like knife blades over it.

Mike covered the girl with his jacket. He unbuttoned his shirt and formed it into a pillow, which he slid under her while holding her head motionless. Clarice regained consciousness for a moment, and he kept her perfectly still, speaking to her in a quiet voice. She answered him. She still had feeling in her limbs. Her eyes closed again. Then Mike sat holding her hand until a park vehicle arrived on the trail above. Two park rangers rapelled down the slope.

“She’s got fractures in C3 and C4,” Mike said. “We’ll need to stabilize her head and neck completely before doing anything else.”

“How do you know they’re fractured?” the older of the two rangers asked.

“I could feel something before the swelling started,” Mike lied.

The rangers exchanged glances but didn’t pursue it.

“We’ve got a Reeves sleeve in the van,” one of them said.

He climbed up and lowered the flexible sleeve and its immobilization stretcher down to them. With Mike watching the damaged area in Clarice’s neck from the inside, the men transferred her into the sleeve. They climbed back to their truck and winched the stretcher up to it.

Mike and Jane rode back with the rangers. At the first moose meadow they came to, they found a Medevac copter waiting for them.

Later, at the hospital, after they learned that Clarice would recover without damage to her spinal cord, thanks to the care that had been taken with her after the accident, the couple settled down to wait for her to regain consciousness.

“I need to share something with you,” Mike said to Jane. “I think I can have a career in medicine and I want to explain to you why.”