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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 5

Creek chops wood.

Each fresh division echoes far in the still, morning air. He hefts the hatchet again, spins it, swoops it home: thock!

It is otherwise quiet. This is the furthest edge of the reserve, backing on the glen, tucked away under a smeared-out, sun-dappled border of shadow from old, old maples. The house is small and sagging, its front and back gardens museums of grass-choked kipple: rusted engines, empty bottles, torn tarpulins, cigarette butts and woodscrap.

Creek Edges isn't wearing a shirt. He never wears a shirt. His brown chest glistens with sweat, painted through with a run of grey ash trailing from the cigarette jammed into a corner of his mouth. He raises the hatchet with a grunt. Thock!

The screen door squeaks. Creek turns, wiping his brow ineffectually with an equally moist forearm. He squints through his own smoke. "Hey," he says.

"Hey," says Sky, urging his wheelchair over the threshold. He frowns, twists his shoulders, leans left and then right; the chair rolls over the hump, bumping down into the grass.

Creek watches silently. "You're getting good at that, eh?"

"There's a trick to it," says the boy.

"There's a trick to everything," agrees Creek. He holds out the hatchet. "You want to help me some before we get breakfast?"

Sky manoeuvres closer. The boy has neither arms nor legs, so this simple act of locomotion involves prodigious effort, ratcheting the tall wheelchair wheels forward with a deft, alternating flick from each plastic artificial arm.

This condition -- known as phocomelia -- is but one of the effects thalidomide toxicity has wrought upon the young boy's form.

His artificial arms are described as "flesh-coloured" though they aren't anywhere near the same colour as Sky's light cocoa skin. They look as if they were thieved from a beautiful caucasian mannequin at some fancy department store display, modeling starched white briefs or all-in-one flannel pajamas.

He raises his plastic, caucasian arms and pinions the hatchet between the stiff, dead hands. If the tool falls it will cleave a gash in Sky's lap, but Creek doesn't move to interfere. He watches, nodding. "Attaboy, Sky," he mumbles around his cigarette. "Right on."

The kid's eyes narrow as he sizes up the log in front of him. He weighs the hatchet carefully, testing the friction of the grip, then raises it to his chin, takes a breath and pitches it high into the air. The hatchet keens softly as it spins, flashing in a shaft of sun, then drops to the dirt beside the log. Sky sighs. "Sorry, Dad."

"Ain't no rush," says Creek. He sits down on an old tire and draws a can of beer from a cooler on the grass. He cracks it, sips it, closes his eyes and listens to the breeze in the leaves.

Sky folds double, leaning against the chair's harnesses, straining to dangle his plastic limbs low enough to retrieve the hatchet. It takes him three tries. He carefully raises the tool once more and sits back, sizing up the trajectory again. He licks his lips.

Birds chirp.

The boy launches the hatchet. It strikes its mark but lacks the momentum to cut, instead bouncing away to clang against a pile of empty paint cans. Creek opens his eyes. "A little higher, maybe."

Sky says nothing. He nods curtly, eyes focused on the hatchet as he wheels himself over to where it fell. He picks it up on his first attempt this time. In another moment he's back in front of the chopping block, staring down his prey with an expression of profound concentration.

Creek watches him quietly. The boy looks tired. The skin under his eyes is puffy and purple, lined like an old man's pouches. He always looks tired. Sky's poisoned time in his mother's womb also granted him a handful of sleep disorders the eggheads in Toronto have fancy names for that Creek can never keep straight.

The long and the short of it is that they both live with the bane of Sky's night terrors. The boy screams his way through his dreams and Creek, for his part, makes sure he always goes to bed drunk enough to snore through it.

The hatchet falls again, a glancing blow. "Close," says Creek after a chug of beer. He crumples the can and tosses it over his shoulder, then leans down to the cooler to get another. "You wanna just forget about it for now, get something to eat?"

Sky shakes his head. "No," he says. "I can do it."

Creek nods. "Attaboy," he says again.

Thock! The log splits. Creek grins, utters a paint-peeling string of congratulatory swearing, then claps his son on the back and declares it meal-time. Sky smiles as he lets himself be pushed, his chair rattling as it is propelled back over the threshold by Creek's strong but unsteady hand. The wheelchair blasts down the hall and then skids across the grimy kitchen tiles, spinning out wildly as Creek cranks against the handles. "Remember when we used to tear around like this all the time, breaking shit and everything?"

Sky laughs. "Yeah," he says.

For breakfast Creek prepares fried bread and a can of pork and beans with melted cheese on top. He whistles aimlessly as he works at the stove, his sweaty back glistening, making his tattoos shine. "How bout some fishing after breakfast?" he asks over his shoulder, voice muffled by the crackling pan.

"Really?" exclaims Sky.

"For sure, really," says Creek, bringing the steaming pan to the table and pushing its contents onto Sky's plate with a half-melted spatula. "I know we had a tough time before, but I also know how good you get at something once you've had a chance to sleep on it. I got a good feeling about them fish today, boy. I think they're gonna be in a biting mood."

"What about school?"

"Screw school."

The boy's eyes light up. Creek looks away, wipes at his face with a rag. He sits down at the other end of the table and methodically shreds bits of hashish, marijuana bud and tobacco into three little piles while Sky slurps down his breakfast. Between mouthfuls Sky asks after his siblings.

"They're at Auntie's," says Creek, tearing off flakes of hash between his dirty fingers. "It's just you and me today, bud."

"Okay," says Sky.

Creek glances up to watch him eat, admiring the way the eleven-year-old expertly keeps the spoon pinched in the groove between his plastic fingers, dragging it across the plate to catch the last gooey scraps. Creek sweeps his own shredded piles together with the side of his hand and mixes the powdery concoction in a yellowed glass, then shakes it out into the bilges of three crisp, white rolling papers. He licks the seals and rolls them tight. He looks up again. "Ready to roll, buddy?"

Sky is already wheeling back into the kitchen, the heavy tackle box on his lap.

They fish. The sun sparkles on the water, the water sloshes against the empty jugs holding up the dock. Gull wheel overhead. Creek cracks open another can of beer as he watches his son struggle to attach a lure, patiently repeating the complicated process for a third or fourth time. The can hisses and sprays, so Creek lunges at the beer and sucks away the foam until it calms down. "You almost got it there, eh?" he says, wiping his mouth on his hand. "Just pull that there line taut and you got your knot."

"I'm not sure I tied it right," says Sky.

"You tied it fine. You know how I know? Because it's pretty," says Creek. "An ugly knot'll never hold nothing, but that one's a beaut." He squints out at the water. "Now cast off."

The armless boy performs a remarkably fast twirling flip of his plastic limbs, and a second later the lure is sailing out clear. It drops into the water with a dignified dloop! and bounces back to the surface. Sky reels in a bit, to give it a life-like tug.

Creek nods approvingly. "Right on, bud." He takes a joint from behind his ear and lights it, his own fishing pole lying forgotten across his lap. He exhales a rolling ochre cloud, gives it up to the breeze.

Sky is watching the water. Creek reaches up to tousle his long, black hair then pauses, frowning. "What's this?" he asks, gently feeling out a hard lump on the scalp. "You take a fall?"

Sky jerks his head away. "It's nothing."

"Those assholes at the school were picking on you again, eh?"

Sky shrugs, watching his lure bob. "They said I've got a girl's name." After a moment he adds, "And they said I made Mom leave...that I drove her nuts." He pauses, swallowing. "They said it's because I'm a freak. I tried to hit one of them so they pushed over my chair."

"Them nuns didn't do nothing?"

"They don't ever do anything."

"Mother of Hell," says Creek. He spits, then draws on his joint. "Forget them. Never think about them again. They ain't fit to be part of your world." He exhales another cloud. "You wanna go swimming?"

"I haven't caught any fish yet."

"Screw the fish. It's hot, bud. Let's get wet."

Creek wades through the reeds with his jeans rolled up to his knees. Sky is in his arms, wearing Batman underwear a size too small for him. At the base of his pelvis are two stubby, feckless flippers. The flippers at his shoulders are evident too now that his plastic limbs have been undone. Their straps have left pale, slighly sweaty depressions across the boy's chest.

Creek stands in the shallows and gently lowers the boy into the water so he can float on his back. "It's cold!" squeaks Sky.

"It's refreshing," claims Creek, dragging on his joint. The long ash drops into the water with a hiss. "Ready for me to let go?"

Sky nods. Creek lets his arms fall away from the boy's soft skin. Untethered and unbound, Sky floats. He closes his eyes, his eyelids lit pink from the sun and flashing with caustic reflections from the gentle waves. The water laps in his ears but he doesn't mind.

Creek tosses the end of his smoke, then wrestles a fresh can of beer out of his hip pocket. He cracks it, sips it, gazes out at the hazy blue horizon and allows himself to absorb the warm buzz of a perfect moment. His love for his son makes his chest feel tight and cold, like he's got to cough. He grimaces, turns away, spits and then quietly swears.

"Y'okay?" he mutters.

"Never been better, Dad," says Sky, a peaceful torso bobbing in the sun, a fan of black hair splayed out around his head like a dark halo.

Creek coughs.

On the way home Creek is quiet. He pushes the wheelchair lazily as if he doesn't care if they ever get there. He points out stuff on the side of the road: breeds of tree, a sprout of mushrooms, scat from a deer, an almost invisible toad crouching in the shade of a potato chip bag. His heart isn't really in it, and when Sky asks follow-up questions it seems that Creek can't hear him. "Huh?" he says. "Yeah, yeah. Probably, eh?"

Lucky is waiting for them by the gate. He looks up. "Hey, man. Where you been?"

"Not today," says Creek, shaking his head.

"What?"

"I ain't doing no business today, Lucky. I'm spending the day with my boy."

"I just need a few grams, man."

"It's not a good day for it. Don't make me tell you again, eh? Seriously, Lucky. Take off, okay?"

"You don't have to be an asshole, man."

Creek ignores him, pushing the wheelchair through the gate and then closing it behind them. They bump over the threshold and into the house. Creek grabs the tackle box from Sky's lap and tosses it into a corner with a bang, then goes to the fridge and pulls out another can of beer. It's the last one. "Should we to go the store?" asks Sky, tugging a towel free from the battered sofa on which his father passes out each night.

"Nah," says Creek. "Nevermind that, bud."

Sky hesitates with the towel, looking at Creek with narrowed eyes. "What's going on, Dad?" he asks quietly.

Creeks sits at the kitchen table. He busies himself fussing over a piece of hashish for a moment, flaking bits from an end and gathering them with a pinch of tobacco. "There's some things I wanna tell you," he says, licking a rolling paper and keeping his eyes low.

Sky wheels slightly closer. "...Like what?"

"I ain't the best man in the world, Sky, and you know that," says Creek, lighting the joint. He draws on it, eyes closed. "Everybody knows that," he adds, breathing out slowly. "But even so there's a few things I've learned good. I'm going to tell them to you now, and I want you to listen better than you've ever listened before. Got that?"

Creeks looks up briefly, meets his son's eyes, looks down again. "Got it," whispers Sky.

Creek's eyes are closed again. He isn't drinking his beer but he's clutching the can against his chest. The joint fumes on the table, ribbons of smoke curling up into the shafts of sunlight coming through the dirty kitchen window. "Number one," he says; "look people in the eye." Creek shifts in his seat. "Number two: if somebody asks you a direct question, answer it and tell the truth. Otherwise, talk is mostly useless."

"Dad?"

"And number three," persists Creek; "get yourself a mission in life. Having something to give a shit about keeps you from falling too far off the path." He opens his eyes, and Sky sees with a nervous start that they're brimming with tears. "You are my mission," Creek says, voice quavering. He reaches out and touches the side of Sky's face with his knuckle. "Having to take care of you is the best thing that ever happened to me."

In the distance, police sirens wail.

Sky waits for his father's reaction -- his reflexive anxiety -- but it doesn't come. "I hear cops," says the boy.

"Yeah," agrees Creek with a strange shrug. "I hear them, too."

Sky swallows. "You know who they're coming for?"

Creek nods. "Yeah, bud," he says slowly. "They're coming for me." He turns away and stares out the window, eyes unfocused. "This is our last day together, son. This is it for you and me."

Sky starts to breathe very quickly. "What do you mean? What are you talking about?" He looks around wildly. "We've got to hide you! We've got to get out of here!"

"Nah," says Creek in a distant, numb way. He turns back to Sky and looks him square in the eye again. "There ain't a damn thing we can do about this, Sky. You understand me? It's arranged. It's already happened. You and me? We're just passengers in all this shit. We're fish in a bag. No use us fighting it."

"What do you mean it's arranged? Who arranged it?"

"No point getting into that. Can't change it none. I ain't a fit father, that's been decided, and so they're coming to bust me for dealing. I'm going back to jail."

"What about me?"

"Children's Aid is coming for you. They sent a letter about it. They're going to take you to a Foster home, with probably some real nice people to look after you. They'll probably be white. They'll have a television and everything."

The sirens are closer. Sky's face starts to twitch and then he's crying, his mouth working silently, his face contorted. Creek reaches out and pulls him into a tight, all-enclosing embrace, the boy's head pressed into his bare chest. He wraps his arms around him.

Creek mutters vicious profanity over and over again: such vile words have never been uttered with so much love.

"It's not fair," blubbers Sky.

"That's right," agrees Creek. "It ain't."

"But you're the best dad in the world!"

Creek smells his son's damp hair. He tries to speak, but finds he cannot.

Yellow police cruisers with spinning red lights on top draw up to a squeaking halt in the front garden. Doors slam. Footfalls shuffle on the cluttered walk. An authoritative knocking raps on the metal edge of the screen door. "This is the police!"

Creek gently separates himself from the boy, then chugs the last of his beer. "Stay strong, bud," he whispers, tears running over his high, sharp cheeks. "You just remember never to let nobody tell you what you can't do, okay? You're Sky Mississauga: you can do anything. You keep by that, and you'll manage. You got that? You'll manage whatever comes your way."

A second later Creek is tackled, thrown to the floor, handcuffed, surrounded by shouting police officers. In the middle of it all he looks up at his son and flashes him a smile.

Despite his pain Sky manages to smile back.

He won't speak a word to the people from Children's Aid. They ferry him to a brown sedan and load him into the back seat where a nurse in starched whites takes his blood pressure and listens to his chest with a stethoscope. They shine lights into his eyes and ask him a million questions. They assure him over and over again that everything is going to be "okay."

The boy turns to the social worker squeezed in beside him. "Do you have kids?" he asks suddenly.

She blinks. "Yes, Sky, yes I do. I have a little boy and a little girl at home."

Sky nods. He says, "I hope someone takes them away from you one day." He then turns his head to look out the window, and will say nothing further.

The car pulls away, winds up the dirt road, and leaves the reserve with a rolling cloud of dust in its wake.

It plies the highway, engine humming. They descend into the city. The vehicle doesn't head downtown, however, which is where Sky goes to see his doctor, but instead proceeds along small, curved streets among looming houses with iron gates and rolling green lawns dotted with automated sprinklers. The cars in the driveways are unrusted, and none of them is propped up on cinderblocks. This is a foreign country to Sky: a land of rich white people.

The car pulls up in front of a mansion. Sky is gently carried to his wheelchair, then manoeuvred along a lattice-brick walk surrounded by ornate arrangements of flowers. A make-shift ramp of plywood has been laid over the stairs, and with a grunt of effort the nurse pushes Sky's chair up it and through the front door.

He is wheeled into a den, parked between two leather chairs facing a cold hearth over which hangs a grand portrait in oils of balding, fair-haired man sporting a pompous, checkered ascot. The man is homely, his lips fleshy and his eyes small. Sky can hear adults talking in the next room, and a moment later the nurse and the social worker depart.

A grandfather clock in the corner chimes the hour, its mirthless voice echoing throughout the massive house.

"Hello, Sky."

The boy turns. A plump white man in a grey suit is standing at the threshold to the hall, hands clutched behind his back. He's wearing an ascot, too, like the man in the oil portrait. His white hair is gelled flat, his green eyes bright. Sky says nothing.

The man advances slowly into the room. "I can well imagine what sorts of things you must be feeling right now, and I know it can't be easy. You must understand, however, that certain decisions have been made with your best interest at heart. There are people that care about you, Sky, and I'm one of them."

Sky shifts. "Who are you?"

"My name is Mr. Willoughby, Sky. I'm a friend of your mother's. And, whether you know it or not, I've been looking out for you since before you were born." He stops his advance, now just steps away from the wheelchair, his shadow falling over Sky's lap. "Are you hungry?" he asks.

Sky shakes his head, but Mr. Willoughby isn't convinced.

A trolley is wheeled in by a black lady in a maid's dress. She silently takes a seat on the leather chair closest to Sky and then takes the lids off the dishes, immediately releasing clouds of perfumed steam that cause Sky's mouth to involuntarily water: thin-sliced roast beef, scalloped potatoes, sugared carrots, garlic toast, fried beets, plum-tomato salad and hot gravy. Sky makes a steadfast attempt to seem unconcerned as he licks his lips.

The maid cuts free a ribbon of beef and offers it up to Sky on the end of a silver fork. He eats it.

The maid smiles. Mr. Willougby smiles, too. "A growing boy needs his food," he says with a sigh. His hands are still clutched behind his back, his rotund belly thrust out carelessly. "And you probably can't imagine how gratifying it is to me to finally be able to provide it for you. But it's true. I'm here to take care of you, Sky. If there's one thing you can count on this world, that's it."

Sky chews. He looks to the maid. She has a fork of potato at the ready.

"I am not entirely unfamiliar with your predicament," continues Mr. Willoughby, gaze cast now at the portrait over the hearth. "You don't believe me?" he asks rhetorically, turning halfway toward the boy. "Let me prove it." He brings out his hands, and rolls up the sleeve of his right arm to showcase a plastic artificial limb not entirely unlike Sky's. "I lost my arm in Korea," he explains softly. "In the war. And I know what it's like to be told you can't do something -- that it is firmly beyond your reach. That you're handicapped. An object of pity."

Sky looks at him but says nothing. He swallows, wincing briefly at a bitter aftertaste that follows the potatoes.

"What would you say, Sky," says Mr. Willoughby, "if I told you that there's a better way to live? What if I were to tell you that you are not trapped inside your body -- that you are only trapped by your mind?"

Sky considers this. "What do you mean?" he asks.

Mr. Willoughby shrugs casually, eyes on the portrait again. "Would you care for a drink?"

Sky nods.

The maid reaches for a glass of ice water on the trolley, but Mr. Willoughby holds up a hand to tell her to stop. Instead, he reaches his own hand toward the trolley with an open palm and closes his eyes meditatively. Sky studies his face. He then jumps, startled, as the glass slides across the tray of its own accord and hops right into Mr. Willoughby's waiting hand without spilling a drop. Mr. Willoughby opens his eyes and holds the glass out to Sky. "It can be as easy as that," he promises, eyes wide and fervent.

"How...?"

"You'll learn how, in time," says Mr. Willoughby. "You'll learn to gain full control over the reactive mind, over the body, over matter, over people. Today you are starting down a path that leads to your total personal empowerment, and the awakening of skills you don't even yet suspect you possess."

He tips the glass at Sky's chin, and Sky drinks, eyes riveted on the man.

"I was once a Catholic," says Mr. Willoughby seriously, "but now I see. Now I know not only how, but why. Now I know how the world works. Now I am complete, and so too will you be, young Sky Mississauga."

"Where did you learn this?"

Mr. Willougby turns to the portrait again. "From him," he says. "From the Source. From the greatest prophet to ever walk the Earth. He has been my teacher, and he will be yours, too." He leans closer, his smile beatific. "He is very anxious to make your acquaintance."

"Doctor Ananthan has been helping me..."

Mr. Willougby snorts, straightening again. The maid takes the ice-water glass. He says, "The first thing you will learn is that so-called doctors like Ananthan are charlatans. They're flim-flam artists, nothing more. Psychiatry, psychology, kinesiology: these are fields of pseudo-science, perpetuated by liars and idiots." He frowns. "They are the cause of your alleged handicaps. They keep you weak, docile, and ignorant." He smiles again, his teeth white and neat. "But a human being is so much more than that, Sky. You'll find that out when you learn to tap your true potential."

Sky accepts another mouthful of food, swallows it hastily. "I could learn to do...what you can do?"

"Yes, Sky. That and so much more. A whole new world is opening for you. It's very exciting. It all begins as soon as we get to Florida."

Sky looks up. "Florida?"

"That's where our new facility is, where people like you and I live together to learn from each other, to audit each other through our problems, to help free one another of the shackles of lies we are fed from birth."

Suddenly any hint of excitement is drained from Sky when he considers how far away Florida is from his father. "What if I don't want to go?" he asks.

A woman walks into the den, and she lets her fingers gingerly slide over Sky's shoulder as she comes around his wheelchair. "It's for the best," says Fleuve. "Trust me, baby. This is right."

"Mom?"

She is indeed Sky's mother, though Sky has never seen her looking this way: rosy-cheeked and fresh-faced, eyes glittering, her skin smooth and clear and taut with nourishment and suffused by careless beauty. She's wearing fine clothes and holding herself tall like a lady, her fingers sparkling with rings. She smiles down at him, her brown eyes infinite as she places herself next to Mr. Willoughby and touches his arm tenderly. "Dean only wants what's best for us, Sky. He always has."

Sky doesn't know what to think. His head feels heavy and his ears buzz. "But what about Dad? What's going to happen to him? The police came and took him to jail!"

"We tried to bring him, baby," says Fleuve, "but he wouldn't listen."

Creek told him not to fight fights he cannot win, but Sky can't help himself. He thrashes backward, knocking away the maid's arm and sending a dollop of sugared carrots flying at the wall. "I won't go!" he shouts, crying again. "I'm not leaving Dad behind!"

"I know it's hard, baby --"

"You don't know anything! You don't even know me! You left! You ran away!" Sky pauses, suddenly dizzy. He blinks and shakes his head.

"In hindsight you will see the wisdom of what has gone on here today," contributes Mr. Willoughby blandly, his hands behind his back again. "When the time comes I know you'll come to think of me as a kind of father to you, too. I've always been there for you, Sky."

"No!" screams Sky, eyes pinched shut. "No, no, no! Let me go home! Please? Just let me go home. Mom?"

Fleuve shakes her head. "This is already happening, baby. We're already on our way."

Sky is about to holler back but he pauses, his head swimming. He groans. "I feel weird," he croaks.

"It's just a sedative," explains Mr. Willoughby, "so we can all have a nice, quiet flight down to Clearwater. It's sunny all the time there, did you know that? There's no winter at all. Just palm trees, and beaches, and little lizards that scamper up and down the walls. It's amazing. You'll see. Have you ever met an alligator?"

Sky looks at the hot food still steaming on the plate on the trolley, his tongue still numb from the subtle but bitter aftertaste following each bite. He dashes the plate to the floor with one swipe of his plastic arm. "No!" he bellows, face red; "I don't want to sleep!"

Fleuve's brow crinkles in concern. Mr. Willoughby pulls her closer, whispers in her ear. The maid, with gross indifference, leans down and begins picking up the bits of broken plate.

The last thing Sky remembers is the oil portrait looking down on him, the simulated eyes of some strange prophet seeming to bore into his innermost mind, mocking.

"Dad!" he gasps, then slumps limp into his own lap.


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