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The Outlier

Story by Al Kratz (Read author interview) August 5, 2019

Art by Fanny Cammaert

Of course, I heard about it from my brother Ben.

Ben lying there on the couch, shoed feet up on the leather, reading the Philosophical Quarterly (Volume 53, No. 211, 2003), holding the magazine far from his face like a soloist preparing to sing God’s praise, ready to testify.

“What kind of junk are you reading now?” Dad asked and swatted Ben’s feet off the leather.

Ben let them hang unnaturally. “I’m reading about how probable it is that we’re all in a computer simulation.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Dad said.

“Hundred bucks,” Ben said. “I can prove it more than you can disprove it.”

Dad looked down at Ben with contempt, and the feeling was contagious. I wanted to smack Ben’s feet around a little bit. Rip those muddy shoes right off his disrespectful feet. Turn his Philosophical Quarterly into confetti.


Of course, I told my girlfriend Tracy about it.

On the merry-go-round at Greenwood Park, lying on our backs in our faded jean jackets, making ourselves right at home on the rusty iron like none of us were meant to stay clean. Up above us, the trees and the clouds and the houses across the street were dancing for us, making us feel like we’d always be free. We’d always get to do stuff like this. We’d never stop.

I told her what Ben had said about the simulation. How Dad said it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.

“Your Dad’s the dumb one,” Tracy said.  “Ben’s awesome!” She sat up to push us faster and when she laid back down next to me, the trees and the clouds and the houses formed a unified blur. “I hope we are in a simulation,” she said.

I told her how serious Ben was about it. How he recited the premises like a scientist or a lawyer or a philosopher. How he said there were three possibilities:

  1. Humans become extinct before reaching a post-human stage with the ability to create complex simulations.
  2. Humans reach the post-human stage, but choose not to conduct simulations.
  3. Humans reach post-human and create significant numbers of sophisticated computer simulations.


Of course, I thought about it all the time.

I watched strangers on the bus, looking for clues, but no one gave it away. No one looked the same, everyone different, but sneakily in the same ways. Just minor adjustments. Everyone walking on the bus, looking at the outside world like we were the fake ones and they were the real ones inside. I watched my friends and the more I saw, the less real they seemed to be.

I studied Dad on his recliner doing his crossword, bringing order to his world one word at a time.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I lied to my father.

“Do it somewhere else.”

I had to catch the world when it didn’t know I was looking. I had to see it slip.

I climbed up on the roof and hung my head off the gutter over Ben’s room. He came in and sat at his computer, typing furiously while the blood rushed to my head. He yanked his sock off and began picking at his big toe.

“Gross,” I said out loud. Ben threw the sock at the window just below my head. Then he turned and kept typing, one foot still socked, one foot bare.


Of course, Ben kept arguing with Dad.

“So you think none of this is real?”

“That’s almost inevitable.”

“You know that includes you?”

“That’s the whole point, Dad.”

“I know that you are real, you little shit. I had sex with your mother, and I watched them pull you from her body.” Dad’s eyes flickered, a power surge I knew must have been brought on by the memory of Mom. By thinking about what it all meant, these things Ben was saying.

“None of it’s real,” Ben said.


Of course, I saw it all in slow motion.

My dad moving on Ben, leading him back against the wall. Dad’s hand across Ben’s collarbone, just below his throat, not quite choking but showing the potential. Ben’s face turning red, not from the lack of air but from being put to the test. I didn’t want to see us being put to the test, but that’s what we were doing.

And then Dad let go. He lowered his hand to Ben’s chest, held it softly to the heart. Ben relaxed against the wall, comfortable as if it was a natural place to be.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” Ben said. “Just basic probabilities. If infinite simulations are possible, their chance of being real outweigh the finite. The one chance our world is the real one? That’s the outlier.”

Dad pushed off of Ben’s chest, clearing a few feet, the space between them still heavy, but becoming lighter. Dad forming the four points of a cross across his chest. I saw his imaginary cross become as real as anything else I had seen. The splintered wood and the nails hammering our father to this world, pinning him down and setting him free.


Notes from Guest Reader Lori Sambol Brody

In stories, I search for something that gives emotional resonance, whether it’s a description, a symbol, or an analogy. I picked Al’s story because the philosophic/scientific theory he refers to deepens the story and subtly reveals how the characters deal with their grief — in a story where the mother’s death is not mentioned at all.

About the Author

Al Kratz lives in Indianola, Iowa. He is a Senior Fiction Editor at New Flash Fiction Review.

About the Artist

Fanny Cammaert is a digital artist living in Belgium. She adopted the stage name Lizzie Stardust as a member of the electro group Velvet Underwear. Since recording and touring with that group, she began working in visual media. Drawing on the kilim weaving that is part of her Ukrainian heritage, her art explores the interplay of digital patterns and electronic glitches. Thematically, her work brings digital infinity into connection with human emotions.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Five

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