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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 4

They live in a shrine.

It is a tattered, streak-stained, dust-clogged, drafty and dank temple -- surrounded by the cattle mews of indigent thousands, inundated from all quarters by their rank animal reek: black and yellow bile, yeast, halitosis, jealousy, fear.

This is a displaced persons camp. None of its denizens are prisoners in any technical sense, yet the barbed-wire boundaries are patrolled by heavy tanks. They have blue and white NATO star logos peeking out from beneath the splatters and scratches. Crudely marked in the grime itself are the names the soldiers give their shells: one tank is inscribed MY SO-CALLED LIFE, and another, ENTERPRISE.

(It's 1994. You can tell by the geopolitical situation.)

There are endless rows of tents with narrow trenches of dried muck between them. There are barren flagpoles, fixtures clanging in the breeze. They used to have flags on them, but the flags upset too many people so they came down.

What would be the point of flying the banner of a defunct nation? There's no such place as Yugoslavia anymore. The dirt beneath the people's heels is nameless now, adrift in cartographic limbo.

(The dirt doesn't know the difference, but the displaced persons do.)

Here, the Zoranovics live in a shrine, dedicated to memory and loss, not of countrymen or country but for a daughter. The Zoranovic tent stands as a material homage to Dragana, her lush eyes and full lips shining out in glossy colour from photographs pinned to every available surface.

If one were a very pretty girl it might seem like a convoluted hall of mirrors: to anyone else it is a haunted place marked by a dead teenager's paper stare; inside we are hemmed in by a phantasmagoric array of Dragana's beauty marks, pink nipples, curving back and supple shoulders; her virginally unblemished navel and her coquettishly trimmed mons pubis; her expressions of earnestly simulated desire, her brow crinkled ambiguously between agony and ecstasy.

"She had so much talent," whispers Danica, her long fingers clenched in prayer. "She had such a future." Her gaunt face twitches. "I am robbed."

A rumble sounds.

Danica leaps to her feet. "Get down, Drago!" she screams. "Put your head between your knees!"

Drago doesn't move. "It's just the train, Mama," he says.

She slaps him.

The boy reels but does not lose his seat. On the stool before him is a scrap of cardboard coloured crudely with a checker pattern, the squares occupied by bottlecaps and shell casings, pebbles and bolts. Calmly he reaches out and slides a rusty wing-nut diagonally across the board, then looks up expectantly at the empty bed opposite him.

Danica starts to cry. She touches his cheek and smooths down his bramble of black hair, then tugs on his rumpled sleeves and flicks a flake of dirt from the collar. "I'm so sorry, Drago," she whimpers, looking nowhere.

"It's okay, Mama."

She takes out a cigarette with shaking hands and pushes out of the tent, pulling her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Drago watches her go, then turns back to face Dragana. "It's your move," he says.

She bites her lip, searching the board. She touches a bottlecap, lingers over it, then changes her mind and withdraws her hand. It's the hand on her ruined side so she instinctively tucks it into the folds of her skirt, the twisted scars modestly hidden from sight. "Anything I do will open me up to your check," she tells her brother.

"There are two ways out," prompts Drago helpfully. "Do you want a hint?"

"No." She studies the board. "I'll find them."

And she will. Drago knows her solution algorithms like the back of his hand, and he can see from the way her eyes flick from the bolt to the thimble that she's near the precipice of a move that will unlock the virtual stalemate they can both see two turns ahead. As she considers the situation she keeps the burned side of her face turned to the wall, so that Drago can only see the fringes of the filigree of scar tissue that crisscrosses her skin in snaking lines like a dried river bed.

Drago is almost nine. Dragana would be seventeen if she weren't dead.

She makes her move. It is not optimal. Drago pushes a shell casing forward. "Check."

Dragana's ghost cannot speak, but Drago understands her words anyway. In the ten months since the landmine exploded beside her he has learned to read the mute workings of her throat, the bat of her doe-like eyes, the information implied in the way she caresses a particular piece she feels holds a potent move in its future history.

They have between them a language of chess, expressed in a vocabulary of moves actual, virtual, possible and unrealized, suggested by micro-motions, fleeting looks and swallowed sighs, a library of innuendo and speculation built within the framework of their games.

It has been six months since the Canadian doctor told Danica her mine-mangled daughter had acute lymphocytic leukaemia, to which just three months later Dragana succumbed. In the end she was deaf, exhausted and tortured. Bruises bloomed wherever she leaned, even for a moment. Her head ached constantly. She could not hold down food.

There are few medicines to be had while shells fly.

The Canadian computer is broken, and it refuses to accept that Dragana is gone. The soldiers still distribute three meal ticket books to the family, one with each of their names: Zoranovic comma Danica, Drago, Dragana. They get water for three, and an extra dose of vitamins. To avoid interrupting this material boon, Danica and Drago are used to playing along, used to pretending Dragana is just out of sight, or has stepped out on her way elsewhere.

(Dragana's not dead -- she's just peeing.)

This is what gets Drago wondering how the universe knows about Dragana. There is the paperwork -- somewhere an official death certificate, perhaps lost in the post -- and the ashes, of course, but aside from these artifacts Dragana's death is only an idea entertained inside the minds of the Zoranovic family and their closest friends in the camp. According to the world at large Dragana drinks and eats, takes showers and uses soap, signs her name and stays out of trouble. She is a good, if shy, girl.

The games of chess between Drago and Dragana continue unabated. Drago is intimately acquainted with Dragana's problem solving sieves, and he applies them in a sequence he finds credible against memory. This is how he generates her moves, which are statistically indistinguishable from moves she might have made were she still actively making decisions.

The ongoing reconfiguration of the board is a dedicated simulacrum of how this little corner of the world would continue to change states in the presence of the actual Dragana. It is a shrine within a shrine, and this is where Drago lives: powering the Dragana chess engine with his mind.

He wonders how much of the universe must be touched for an idea to become a fact. If he and his mother can convince themselves that they really do see her, would her death have left any mark at all on the world?

Does God know she is dead?

Drago is nearly nine, but he is brave. He decides to hide his sister's death from reality. He will lend his shade to whatever shadow of an existence she's connected to. He can eat her food and his mother can sell the vitamins. He can rumple her bed, and wash her clothes, and do her chores. He can play out her chess games, and thereby converse with her virtual self.

"Mama seems especially anxious today," Dragana tells him.

Drago looks over at her. "I wouldn't have noticed that."

"I think she's heard from our father. This is how she gets."

"I want to meet him."

"She'll never allow it."

"I might like him."

"That's what she's afraid of, Drago."

Dragana's ghost is wrong. Her mother is not in communication with Ratko Zoranovic. Instead Danica has left to retrieve the results from the tests Drago took at the NATO base. She is sure they will say that her poor boy is retarded, and cautiously optimistic that this will qualify her for additional assistance. She is worried, however, about any scrutiny of her family situation lest she lose her daughter's share. She despises herself for the priorities she is forced to keep.

The military psychologist is young and handsome: auburn hair, steely eyes, a hard jaw. His hands look soft. Danica surreptiously prises her old wedding ring from her finger and drops it into a pocket. The psychologist looks up. "Mrs. Zoranovic --"

"I go by Zoran, actually. I'm not the son of anyone. It is my dead husband's name. I'd drop it but my father's is worse."

He smiles politely if fleetingly as she takes a seat. He toys with the boy's file, flipping pages randomly. "I'd like to discuss your son's WISC scores with you."

"He's been kept out of school, you know. It isn't his fault. It's been so hard for us."

"There's no need to be defensive, Mrs. Zoran."

"I know he's slow. I'm protective."

The psychologist looks up sharply. "Slow?"

"I'm sorry I don't know the correct word for this. An idiot?"

"Your son is no idiot, Mrs. Zoran."

"A moron?"

"No, no. What I'm trying to say is that he's exceptional."

"Exceptional?"

He puts the file aside and smiles reassuringly. "A genius, as it were," he says. "Gifted, you might say. Highly intelligent, if somewhat less than well-rounded."

The skin between Danica's eyes crinkles, briefly an echo of her daughter's desire as plastered around the family tent. She is not aroused but confused. She is sure this is a mistake. She is sure this will mean nothing for her. She is aghast.

"Would you like a glass of water, Mrs. Zoran?"

She smiles bleakly. "Yes, thank you."


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