The Second Law Of Thermodynamics – Excerpt

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Claire Willett

The energy of the universe is constant. The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.

–Rudolf Clausius

Chapter 1: All the World’s a Sewer

Nolan is lost and it is all Helen’s fault. Well, not all–it was stupid of him to go explore uncharted tunnels alone; stupider still to leave without telling anyone first. But most of the blame resides with her, for failing to even consider that his going, or rather his staying gone, was anything other than intentional. You must always consider every possible outcome. That was what Nolan had said, her first time in the tunnels, when she’d asked him if it was safe. Bring extra batteries, bring water, bring a cellphone. She hopes he’s heeded his own advice.

The tunnel she and the two detectives–she thinks their names are Javier and Gustavo, but maybe those are just the only Spanish names she knows–are following right now smells like rotting leaves and wet dog, though it is mercifully dry. Helen keeps darting ahead of the men, shouting Nolan’s name, too afraid of not hearing a response to bother listening for one.

“We will find him, your friend,” the tall, potbellied detective who is possibly named Gustavo says, when he catches up.

“We might,” Javier, who is about two thirds the height and half the weight of his partner, amends. Helen tears off again, leaving the men to grumble that at this stage, they really shouldn’t have to be on their feet this much, and light another cigarette.


One night was all it took for Nolan to leave. One night of Helen being a frothing mud puddle of a mess from two, three pitchers of sangria and briefly misguided hands and a shearling bind. She vacillates between indignation and guilt, but fear trumps both. Her mother would be arch and diffident. Don’t be silly, Muppet. Of course the detectives will find him. That is what they are being paid to do, isn’t it? Her grandfather would badger the Consulate’s receptionist until he got someone to agree that an American boy lost in Barcelona’s questionably constructed, long-abandoned sewer system was a matter of grave and urgent import. At the very least, I’d say we need to russell up a pack of Reserves, Ambassador. As for Nolan himself, well, he knows that getting lost is always one of the possible outcomes, in the way that school children know that fire is one of the possible outcomes of a fire drill. That is to say, you know it, but you don’t believe it until it happens to you.

Helen wonders what belief has done to Nolan. He isn’t crying–she can’t imagine him even getting to the sniveling stage. But to know you are lost and not know if you will be found, and to have little in the way of distraction… he is definitely terrified. Perhaps he is also angry. Anger would help, she thinks.

“What is he wearing, your friend?” Javier wants to know.

It seems like an odd question–they have not exactly been dodging twenty year-old boys left and right.

“A White Sox hat,” she says.

Now Javier is confused. Does she really mean a hat made of socks? Probably a knit hat, he decides. He wants to know why this boy decided to break into his city’s dirty laundry, so to speak, especially if he’d never been to Barcelona before. There is so much above ground to see–he is a little insulted the boy didn’t give any of it a chance.

Actually, Helen doesn’t know if Nolan is wearing his baseball cap. On the flight coming over, it had been tipped over his face, but he hadn’t been wearing it at dinner last night. A baseball cap provides no useful function in an abandoned bomb shelter, but perhaps it provides a comforting one.

The shelter must run over some sort of generator; the dirt floor warms the soles of Helen’s boots straight through to her skin, and the air feels slightly charged, smells like wet metal and burning ink. She wishes she had a handkerchief to tie above her nose.

At a fork, she waits for Javier and Gustavo. An unexpected fork–Nolan’s text hadn’t mentioned it. The fork means they will have to split up.

Javier volunteers to go alone, and Gustavo looks at Helen and sighs, thinking of the new leather swivel chair he just had installed in his office. It tips back, so he can finally put his feet up on his desk and survey the comings and goings and exchanges of the pedestrians in the the Placa Real. Were it not for these trespassing Americans… but never mind, he will be re-ensconced in it soon enough. Javier will find the boy–he has a sixth sense about such things.

“Do you think other people come here, ever?” Helen asks Gustavo a few minutes after the fork.

He is quick to answer.

“No. Well, drug dealers, possibly. I do not think this is a place that attracts people who have nothing to hide.”

Except Nolan, she thinks. Who has nothing to hide but emotion, assuming he has emotion to hide. There’d been that one time at Cafe du Nord, but he’d looked so horrified even as the words were leaving his mouth, she can’t be sure he really meant them.

Her sneaker strikes something soft. Gustavo’s flashlight shines on a leather boot standing guard atop a piece of paper. Helen goes to pick it up, but Gustavo is quicker.

“Don’t touch!” he barks. From one of the pockets in his leather bomber jacket come a pair of latex gloves that he has some difficulty fitting over catcher’s mitt hands. When the gloves are half on, he grabs the paper and puts it in a see-through plastic bag. Only then does he hold it where Helen can see it. Page 329 of Voyage au bout de la Nuit.

“This is Nolan’s,” she breathes. “He’s been reading it all month.”

“All month, unng. How many pages are there?”

“I’m not sure. It’s quite a long book. Maybe 400? 500?”

“That is why I stick to crime fiction. Never more than two hundred pages.”

“Do they help with your job?”

“In a way.” He frowns, squinting at the page. “They give me an alternate reality into which I can insert myself, on slower days.”

“As fiction ought to. Though I suppose your leap is closer. Can I borrow your flashlight?”

He hands it to her and she holds it to the page.

“Looking for a clue?” he asks. A dour man, but he sounds as though he might be humoring her.

“I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t know if 329 was a deliberate choice.” Her eyes jump to the page’s one underlined quote:

“Une ville inconnue est une bonne chose. C’est l’heure et l’endroit dont on peut croire que tous les gens qu’on se reconnais sont gentils. C’est le temps du rêve,” she reads.

“What does that mean?” Gustavo asks, frowning.

Of course this boy who cares nothing for Barcelona’s outer beauty would speak French. French, the language of the eternally dissatisfied.

“An unfamiliar city is a fine thing. That’s the time and place when you can suppose that all the people you meet are nice. It’s dream time.” 

“If it was deliberate, we may find another,” he says.

Helen folds the page in two and slips it into her kangaroo pocket. They plunge on.

Chapter 2: Nolan James and the Giant Peach (colossal! all-consuming!)

It was a peach pit that started it.

In earliest September,  every fruit stand had at least three straining baskets of them. Catch a tumbler before it hit the ground, as Helen did that Monday, and the farmer would shrug, tell you to take it. You or the ants.

Helen took it. The peaches’ sheer glut was the first thing she’d seen since arriving in Paris that reminded her of home.

She ate peaches quickly, hating the stick of juice on her fingers, the smears said fingers left on screens and white jeans. By the time she’d reached the little oyster stand, this one was gone, and its pit was tucked safely into the corner of her left cheek.

From his perch between volumes 1-5 of the Dictionary of American Regional English and a fat tabby cat named Juniper, Nolan watched the girl who’d been seated two seats down from him at orientation dinner cross the Rue Charles de Gualle. What was her name? Alice, maybe, or Selene. Some gourmet potato chip of a name, crisp to the point of shattering.

At the dinner, she’d built a log cabin out of the buttery green beans, defended it with a tight circle of roast potatoes. To Nolan’s temporary roommate George St. Genevieve, she’d claimed a lack of appetite; to the rest of them, she’d said nothing, kept her eyes trained just above her plate.

The crosswalk at Charles de Gaulle and Place Mitron is long, and Helen, pensive, running a tongue over the pit’s porous grooves, made it only halfway before the blinking white man became a red one. Instantly, the little Peugots and Tigres and Smart Cars were bearing down. Under a volley of beeps, she sprinted to safety.

Nolan and Juniper held their breath until both of the girl’s feet were on the Place Mitron’s cobblestones. But the stones are oddly grooved, a few missing from the previous spring’s flooding. The girl’s foot, expecting a stone and finding none, flung its owner to the ground, and Nolan saw a small beige object arc through the air. The girl sprang up, face blank as china. She was already past the Place when Nolan made up his mind to dart out after her.

He settled for what turned out to be a peach pit, still warmly wet from the girl’s mouth. Nolan carried the pit into the washroom of Shakespeare & Co, gave it a desultory scrub with a worn bar of soap, and wormed it into his coin pocket.

Now this is not Fringe; Nolan’s life will not be saved by this peach pit, at least not directly. But, in the coming days, his fingers kept returning to the pit. He felt an instinct to rub it smooth, compress it into something that would easily slide into his wallet. He marveled at its complete lack of fruit fibers, as though the girl had hoovered it. In Paris, city of dreams, the peach pit was the knot that tied up something real.

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