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86,400. The number of seconds in a day. The time it takes for the Earth to make another mundane 360 degree turn. Life is a never-ending repetition of that number, 86,400. It’s good to know that even something as seemingly complex as life can be governed by mathematics. Numbers give stability or instability, chaos or order, answers or questions. Numbers are everything. I’m a number. You’re a number. We’re all numbers. ***-7*8-4921. My social security number. 9401*****. My student ID number. Even my order at a fast food restaurant is listed as a number, something to be called out to distinguish me from the faceless mob. Or to make me a part of it. I don’t really know, nor do I care. All I know is that I hate numbers. But if numbers are everything, does that mean that I hate everything? I don’t know. Does two plus two equal four? Is it really impossible to divide by zero? Why do numbers control everything? Who made numbers? Did they create themselves? I don’t know. All I know is that I hate numbers.
* * *
“And with that we can determine that x is equal to 13. Does everyone see how we got to that?”
The teacher’s feigned concern for her students’ understanding barely registered inside my brain, bouncing around with a kind of rubber monotony. It would take an armed gunman wasting my classmates to rouse me from this cyclic boredom. I’d rather have had a hellfire and brimstone minister condemning me to the Inferno than this mousy school teacher telling me the value of the bastard child of the alphabet.
I turned my attention to the doodle before me, its completion so much more fulfilling than that of any equation. Pacman was devouring one of his ghostly companions in a far more gruesome fashion than the arcade game would have you believe. It was one of my more satisfying creations, a true masterpiece of apathy. I tucked the drawing into the mass of papers threatening to burst from my cheap, plastic binder. I’d have to remember to store it with the rest of its kind when I returned home from school.
A soft impact to the back of my head distracted me from my train of thought. I whipped around to face the back of the classroom, searching for the culprit. A dark haired boy was staring at me with a solemn face, pointing to the ground near my chair. I couldn’t remember his name, but that was no surprise. I had no interest in my classmates, those masses of flesh masquerading as individuals. I reached down and plucked the wad of paper that he had been pointing at off the floor. Unwrapping the paper ball revealed a picture, almost insultingly inferior to my own doodles. A horde of people was viciously kicking a cowering person labeled ‘you’ while various spectators laughed on the sidelines. Idiocy. I tossed the sheet of paper onto the floor without a second glance to the row behind me while muffled snickers danced in the air.
I’d been the target of many uninspired antics for as long as I had been detained in the public school system. Anyone remotely displaying any characteristics of having their own personality was immediately subjected to rigorous conditioning. Some broke. Some didn’t. Me? I couldn’t care less.
I fixed my gaze on the window to the left, watching rain run down the glass in erratic streams. I focused on the rhythmic pattering until it was the only thing I could hear. I wasn’t missing anything in the world a few feet away, so what was there to lose from blocking it all out? A daily dose of institutionalism? If I wanted to be a part of the system, I’d watch the news and pander to the latest trend of consumerism.
But the system wasn’t something one could truly avoid. You could fight for years and start to believe that you’d finally freed yourself, and then the walls of your shelter collapse, unveiling that you’d only been hiding behind a paper-thin distortion. Perceptions and reality blur, and everything you knew is gone, leaving the painful irony that the system you hated so much is the only thing left. I was fighting a losing battle, but that was a fate I had resigned myself to long ago.
I closed my eyes, entering the final stage of my boycott on reality. Somehow, I felt that in the darkness I was the only thing that existed, that I inhabited a plane of thought unknown to all others. The pounding of the rain became my symphony and the void my orchestra. Here I could be alone, here I could indulge in lies and satiate my desire to be embraced by falsehoods. I drifted along in a sea of my own consciousness, letting myself drown, die, and be reborn in a formless world of my own creation that transcended time and space. This was my haven, my sanctuary of ascension into the realm between divinity and madness.
The moments dragged into minutes and those into hours. Days went by, years passed. I grew old and died and started over again from the ashes. The pattern of death and rebirth went on countless times, but when I finally opened my eyes, only a fraction of a second had passed. The revolting beige walls were still revoltingly beige, and the rain still cascaded down the window glass. Nothing had changed other than perhaps a bout of lightheadedness on my part. The drone of life rambled on, preaching messages of idle philosophy and painful consistency. Numbers ruled the world, and numbers never changed.
I lifted my gaze to the teacher, who didn’t seem to be looking at anything at all but still rambled on about her numbers and letters. I wondered what would happen if she simply disappeared, vanished into the void. Not missing, mind you, but as if she never existed, all traces of her presence sucked into nothingness. Would the students notice? Would they care? Would another teacher rise out of the earth to assume her position, a surrogate to make sure the numbers didn’t take a loss? And if that were true, were any of us really first editions, or just substitutes for the original? Perhaps the world itself was a substitute, replacing the previous Earth with not a soul taking notice. I didn’t know, but when everything was numbers, anything was possible.
I continued studying the drab woman for a while longer, until I felt my eyes began to close involuntarily. It would seem she did have a use after all; I’d just think of her from now on when my insomnia acted up. I drifted into the realm of sleep but soon began to feel like I was falling and my eyes flashed open with a jolt.
The classroom hadn’t changed at all, but something felt different all the same. Ah, I thought, nothing is moving. Time seemed to have frozen, all the students and the teacher locked in the positions I’d last seen them in. The room had become a Polaroid of reality, capturing everything but the motion. I marveled at the curiosity of it all, taken in by the surreal nature of this strange new world. Surely, this was all a dream.
I’d barely begun to wrap my head around the concept of a world without time when numbers, inky and black, started to seep from the ceiling, running along the walls in some kind of cheap Matrix rip-off. Zero through nine – every numeral was represented dozens of times as they twisted around the room. Slowly, the world bleached white and the dark numbers contrasted against the clear background. There was no floor or ceiling, no walls or windows, just pure white in every direction. The numbers still floated in the space, lazily making their way around the white infinity.
And then a single man appeared before me. He was very tall and unnaturally thin, his gangly limbs hanging off like vines. His skin was nearly as pale as the world around us, so much so that I may not have noticed him were he not clothed. Donning a lavender suit with golden numbers emblazoned from shoulder to shin, he looked like a jester or carny. Atop his head rested a tall stovepipe hat the same shade of purple as his suit. In his right hand there was a cane, or rather the number “1” molded into a cane. But his face was the most peculiar part of him. Large amber eyes bulged from their sockets like overripe squash. He had no nose, only an empty space where it should have been. A thin line ran from almost one side of his face to the other, a mouth with no lips. The man was a grotesque display, odd and fantastic in every sense.
“Welcome, welcome! Do you know where you are, little boy? Why, you’re everywhere! Quite a place is it not?” the man said vibrantly, his mouth revealing a great maw of blackness.
I was stunned into silence, events unfolding at a pace my mind could not match. My senses were being bombarded by foreign stimuli. All I could do was gape, slightly slack-jawed, at the flamboyant man.
He frowned, his whole face contorting. “Come now! Don’t be shy! You’re an honored guest here,” he informed me in his overzealous voice. He beckoned me forward with a bony hand.
Finding my bearings, I took a few tentative steps in his direction, warily watching him for any sudden movements. He didn’t seem perturbed by this, only slightly amused as I inched ever closer. I didn’t trust this bizarre man, and I was certain he knew that as well. I finally stopped a few feet away, relaxing a bit as it seemed I was in no immediate danger.
He beamed at me and clasped his hands together with a smack. “That’s my boy! Not too hard, right? Well, you’ve probably got a lot of questions for me, but don’t fret! I’ll answer everything in due time,” he chirped.
“Who are you? What is this place?” I asked in quick succession. The man was right about one thing: I had a lot of questions.
His eyes widened past their already considerable diameter. “Oh, how rude of me, not even introducing myself! But I do believe that we’re already acquainted with one another,” he said expectantly, but then sighed at the blank look upon my face, “The Numbers, dear child! I’m the Numbers!”
I blinked in surprise at the claim. But what he said made perfect sense. The numbers hovering all around, the avant-garde feel of everything, his mere presence here – this was place was everything, just as he said, the nucleus of the universe. The Numbers were an entity, a kind of primordial deity residing in an alternate dimension. But none of this was real. I was still asleep in the classroom, just waiting for the dream to end.
“Child, this is every bit as real as that place you’re from. Don’t doubt what your eyes see! You’ve been invited here by me, the Numbers. I’ve taken a great interest in you,” he chided me, reading my mind.
I stepped backwards as anxiety took root inside me. “An interest?” I repeated guardedly.
“Yes, an interest. You’re not like the others. You see things as the Numbers do, as I do,” he said fondly, lowering his voice for the first time.
I probed the Numbers for a few seconds before I spoke. “You didn’t bring me here to chat. What do you want with me?” I asked bluntly.
He looked delighted at the question. “So clever! I can’t hide anything from you, can I? You’re right, child, I want to make a deal,” he trilled in unadulterated ardor.
I grew more apprehensive as he spoke, but I could not help my interest from piquing. “What kind of deal?”
He threw me a lopsided smile. “Just a simple exchange. A life for a life. Two plus negative two; we walk away even in the end.”
I was vaguely reminded of the old folk tales in which a man sold his soul to the devil in exchange for some kind of earthly gain. Such tales did not often end well. I was understandably averse to eagerly rushing in without forethought.
“And what life do I provide you? What do you gain from someone’s life?” I pressed, not committing to anything.
He snapped his fingers and flicked his cane, a humorous gesture in lighter circumstances. My teacher appeared to his left, still petrified in mid-lecture. My eyes darted from him to her in an effort to comprehend what was happening. An ominous chill crept up my spine as I watched a devious grin work its way onto the Numbers’ face. Without any warning from the Numbers, an axe appeared in my hand and caused my arm to drop with its weight.
“It’s very simple, you see. Kill her and I’ll grant you anything you desire from that dreary little place called Earth,” he whispered, dropping his voice an octave as well.
I stared at the axe my fingers were twined so tightly around. The Numbers wanted me to murder my teacher, to cut her to bits with the axe? I felt my stomach lurch as the images raced through my head. I was no longer sure this was a dream; it was all too vivid to be an incarnation of my mind. I was being offered my heart’s desire to kill a person I wasn’t even sure was really there. Perhaps she was just an illusion to give substance to an otherwise fraudulent offer. Besides, what could the Numbers possibly gain from me doing this?
“This is a trick,” I accused the Numbers, “You have no intention of giving me anything, not that you could offer a single thing I want. You gain nothing from this arrangement. You’ll have to do much better than this to fool me.”
The Numbers seemed unfazed by my refusal to participate. “You think much too hard, child. This is merely a trade of interests. I wish to see this woman gone from the world, and you wish to be freed from your dull life. I can give you that freedom,” he offered delicately.
I paused for a fraction of a second as the temptation of release took hold of me. Could he truly give me that? I had sought a way out of the banal prison of reality for many years to no avail. But I smiled slightly to myself; I had already won this deal.
“You chose me for this task, why? Because I interest you? I’m certain of that, yes. But you could have asked anyone to kill this woman. You could have even done it yourself. All you want is me. If I accept your proposition, I’ll never leave this place,” I deduced, striding up to the Numbers. “You’ve already given me the thrill of a lifetime. What you offer is worthless to me.”
The Numbers started to shake and rattle menacingly. “I underestimated you, child. But you’ll be mine either way,” he hissed. The fabric of his clothing began to tear as his body enlarged, muscles pulsating as they rippled. Fangs grew inside his slit of a mouth and horns curled out of the sides of his head like a ram. He let out a guttural bellow as he completed the transformation into his true, terrible form.
Real fear gripped me for the first time. The Numbers was going to devour me and steal my soul. I scrambled backwards to avoid the first lunge, his jaws snapping at my feet. Somehow I managed to pull myself into an upright, standing position. I had all but forgotten about the axe in my hand as a narrowly escaped another death blow. I swung it blindly in a flailing maneuver as the Numbers advanced upon me again. He easily parried my attacks with his meaty hand. I was seconds from my demise if I couldn’t beat him away.
And then I saw my chance, an opening in his defense. As he extended his neck for another strike, I brought my axe down upon his skull with all my might, imbedding the blade deep inside with a sickening crack. The Numbers screamed in agony, rearing back with the axe still stuck in his head. I watched in awe as the world around us began to crumble, numbers falling and fragmenting against some unknown surface. A dark rift opened in the space above me, stretching as far as I could see. The Numbers cried out a final time before bursting into dust and evaporating in the air. There was a metallic scraping as the dimension folded in upon itself, unraveling as space-time ruptured and tore apart. I felt pressure all over my body before my vision went dark and even the sound of silence ceased.
I suddenly found myself back in the classroom, no time having elapsed at all. The teacher was no longer frozen, her lesson resumed and she blissfully unaware of everything. I laughed at the irony of the whole situation, earning several glares and uneasy glances from my classmates. But I didn’t care what they thought; I hadn’t before and I wouldn’t now. I sighed softly as I leaned my chair back on two legs, staring out the window where rain still pattered. A single thought crossed my mind, affirming everything I knew: I hate numbers.