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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 1

Dragana Zoranovic is the prettiest girl in town, but she won't be for long.

No one has any idea what is to come. The universe may have its own suspicions, but it holds its cards close. Tomorrow can be like that: as inevitable as inscrutable, as obvious as a lottery after the draw.

(The future is usually likely, but seldom sure.)

Doroslovo is a small place. The main intersection and the way over the bridge are cobblestoned, but the rest of the roads are packed dirt or gravel. The houses are humble, thatched and shuttered and moldering, but connected to the sagging lines of utility poles and lit at night by the flashing glow of television. To the north are the tall steeples of Sombar, blue on the horizon. To the south is an elbow of the Danube, constricted and fast, steered between ancient stone walls, its throaty hiss a constant backdrop to village life.

The bridge is flanked by two tanks. Their crews are jocular, well-fed young men from Belgrade. They swear loudly and laugh. They spend a lot of money at the bar but never leave tips. When they get bored of staring at the empty road they sometimes shoot stray cats or patronize Vasa if she's awake.

(Those six guys are putting Vasa's son through school. Also, there are more rats poking around than there used to be. Unintended consequences, both.)

It has become fashionable to move away to Budapest, so many of the houses in Doroslovo are empty. Kids sneak inside to screw around, to smoke stolen cigarettes or sip stolen liquor, to piss on abandoned kipple. Some of the houses have bomb shelters dug in beneath them, sometimes the product of a well-groomed, methodical paranoia and sometimes instead rude, improvised holes inspired by immediate fear.

(The country is coming apart, after all. Anything might happen. Unexpected events become probable when exchanges of heavy ordnance are involved. It's worse than guessing the weather.)

A couple of black-haired boys loiter at the window of the abandoned house that is neighbour to the Zoranovic cottage. They know Dragana's comings and goings, and mark their day by them, waiting for their chance to drink her in as she passes by and then touch themselves, streaking the sill. Sreten and Stevan are best friends, and they do everything together.

It's cloudy.

"Why don't we open the curtains?" says Dragana as she walks inside the cottage, pushing her bags from the market onto the kitchen counter. "It's like a cave in here."

"You know why," snaps her mother, Danica. She was handsome before she became hard. She still bothers to make herself up, and her house clothes are fashionable mail-orders from Novi Sad. Her chin is high. She sits on the sofa, a cold cup of tea laced in her long fingers, her painted-on eyebrows arched. Danica continues, "If we take them off now, we'll forget to put one of them back tonight. Bombers will see them, and then kaput -- me, you, your brother: ashes."

Dragana rolls her eyes. "Nobody's bombing Doroslovo, Mama."

"It's a war. You can't know."

Danica is anxious to see the proofs that have come through the post, anxious to see whether the money she has paid a lecher in Sombar is well-spent. She lights a cigarette and flips through the stack of large format glossies, scowling dramatically but nodding all the while. Twin streams of curling smoke jet from her nostrils. "You're gorgeous in these," she decides, eyes lingering critically over the last print. She looks up. "It would be noble to say thank you."

"Thank you, Mama."

Dragana's eyes are on her lap. She doesn't want to see the proofs. She spins her fingers together and twists them into shapes.


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