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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 13

A navy blue Taxi Parisienne screeches to a halt outside of Hopital Saint-Lazare. Danica Zoran bursts from its back door and runs across the asphalt to the lobby, her face anguished as she squeezes roughly past a man in a wheelchair and his startled nurse.

"My son, my son!" she cries at the reception desk. "Where is my son?"

A plump, sour-faced matron looks up languidly. "One moment, madame," she mutters and then returns attention to her keyboard.

"He's been hurt in an accident! I must see him immediately!"

"If you insist on causing a disruption I will have to call security, madame."

Danica bites her lip but remains vibrating insistently at the counter. The matron's jar of pens jiggles in sympathy. The gen d'arme standing by the door crosses his arms and watches her, his long Gallic face coloured by disdain. Danica turns away from him, staring instead at the matron's fingers as they ply the keys. Her foot taps anxiously. The computer beeps. The matron looks up again. "Family name?"

Moments later Danica is rushing down a long, ill-smelling corridor of buzzing greenish fluorescent lights, her head swinging from side to side to read the numbers on each door as she passes. Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two...

"Drago!"

He looks up. "Mama?"

She runs over to his bed with the intention of embracing him but hesitates at the sight of his attached IV, his gauze-wrapped crown, his legs in casts hoisted by an unwieldy contraption of pulleys and wire. She clutches at her face, stymied at his bedside. "Oh God, oh God -- you're ruined! What's happened, Drago? Oh God!"

He pushes aside a tray of lime Jell-o. "I'm fine, Mama. Everything's okay. Calm down."

"Your legs!"

"Mama, calm down."

She jams a fist into her own mouth and stares at him over her blanched knuckles, eyelids jittering. She takes a deep breath around her hand, the air whistling. Finally she sinks into a plastic chair and proceeds to fan herself with a scrap of paper bearing the hospital's address.

Drago smiles. It's nice to speak Serbian again, like slipping into water the same temperature as your body. "That's better," he says. "You see, it's only a small knock on the head. It's not even a concussion. I was awake the whole time."

"But what about your legs, Drago? Oh God! What's happened to them?"

"Oh," says Drago, looking down at his elevated casts. "Right, yes. My legs, they were broken a little bit. In six or seven places. I can never remember the exact number, but it's on my chart if you're very curious."

He points to the clipboard hanging on the end of his bed. Danica follows the indication with her wide eyes but makes no move. "Who did this to you?" she hisses.

"A taxi," says Drago carelessly. "It was just an accident. No one is really to blame, Mama."

"Which company?" she barks. "I'll call my lawyer this instant."

"You can't use your phone in the hospital, Mama. Besides, like I say, it's nobody's fault. It was just one of those things."

"One of what things?" she asks, suspicious.

Drago waves his hand dismissively. "Wrong place, wrong time. The poor driver feels terrible, yes. He came by yesterday and brought for me this tiny chess set. Isn't it marvelous? Let me show you: the pieces stick to the board with very small magnets..."

"I don't care, I don't care!" she cries, shaking her head. "Why were you riding a taxi?" she demands hotly. "Were you trying to find your father?"

"What?" blinks Drago, confused. "My father is living in Paris?"

Danica pales, stricken. She's said too much. She rushes ahead. "I asked you, Drago, what were you doing riding around in a taxicab like a millionaire?"

"I wasn't," he sighs. "I was just on the road."

"What were you doing on the road, Drago? Were you drunk?"

"I was doing maths, Mama."

"In the streets?"

He nods. "Dragana told me something I needed to write down before it was lost. I had no pencil, so I was scratching it into the sidewalk. I didn't look up until too late, and when the taxi lost control I was struck down." He grins. "But it's all turned out very well."

Danica is trembling, slowly shaking her head back and forth. "No," she says, "no, no, no, Drago. She's gone."

"She's mostly gone, yes, but not all the way, Mama."

"Don't say such things."

"But Mama, you must understand that Dragana --"

"Do not use her name!" shrieks Danica, clutching her head again. She moans, squeezing shut her eyes.

"Mama, Mama," coos Drago, reaching out and touching her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mama. Don't cry, Mama."

A moment passes. Drago massages the hard cords of muscle in his mother's neck. She then stands up abruptly, turns her back to the bed, and takes a compact out of her purse. She looks at her reflection in the small round mirror critically, then dabs at her face with foundation. "Now you've made me look terrible," she says quietly.

"I'm sorry, Mama," says Drago again. "But I know a way to cheer you up. Here, let me show you something wonderful. Do you have a pen?"

She narrows her eyes dubiously while she rummages around in her purse. She offers him a disposable blue byro, stepping slightly closer. "...What is it, Drago?" she asks, sounding impatient.

He takes the pen and then slips out the paper placemat from under his Jell-o bowl and folds it double. He leans over the placemat, takes a meditative breath, and begins to carefully draw on it. He works slowly and cautiously, squinting with concentration while advancing the ink just millimeters at a time.

As he does he explains, "To put my legs back in order, the doctors made me sleep. It was a very funny sleep, not at all like real sleep -- darker and more solid, with all sense of time gone. Waking up was very slow and difficult, and my mind was slippery and loose like a baby's."

Danica watches him anxiously. His tongue intermittently sticks out of the corner of his mouth, as it did when he was a boy playing with blocks. On the placemat a complicated glyph of crisscrossing loops and swooping curves is taking shape, the lines so fine and close together they seem to scintillate in her vision. She looks to his face, instead, bent to the task. "Yes, Drago..." she prompts.

"I had an epiphany," he continues, focused on the drawing. "This is the right word, yes? An epiphany. I recognized that some complicated things that seemed to have nothing to do with one another were, in fact, just different faces of one very simple thing."

Danica sits down on the plastic chair again, furrowing her brow as she watches his labour. "What are you drawing, Drago?"

"Zero," he says, voice touched by reverence as he continues to define the strange, complex shape. "I've found zero, Mama."

"What do you mean?" she asks irritably. "When was zero lost?"

He shrugs, tongue sticking out. "I think this is new. I think this is something nobody has ever known before. And if somebody did know it before, I doubt they knew why it was so. Somebody might have known this by accident, but I think I might be the first person to ever know it on purpose."

"But, Drago, everyone knows about zero."

He allows himself a chuckle. "Not like this," he says seriously. "Not for real. It's too real to even bear thinking about; I need -- I need her -- to think about it for me, to keep my own mind safe from it."

Danica glances down at the waste basket beside the bed. It is filled with crumpled napkins and placemats half-covered by attempts at the same glyph he's drawing now. She frowns. "You're babbling, Drago. Something's wrong. I'm going to call the nurse."

"Don't. Hold on: I'm almost through. You'll see. This, Mama -- this is an actual zero...not a symbol, not a note, not a figure: instead it is a process, absolutely pure."

"Pure?"

He looks up at her, eyes keen and glittering. "Do you want to see it?"

Danica nods mutely. The lights buzz and flicker. Drago pushes the folded placemat toward her.

She blinks.

"But...there's nothing there, Drago."

His face doesn't fall. His eyes don't flick down to check her word. He breaks into a wide grin that squeezes his eyes to happy slits. "Naturally, Mama," he says. "It's zero: how could it be anything but nothing?"

She stares at the blank paper, face tight. "But I saw you draw it." She looks at him in accusation: "It's a...magic trick?"

"No," he says lightly. "No trick. I despise magic. This is a real thing, Mama."

"It's cruel to mock your own mother," she says, "but I'm not stupid." She nods to herself as she decides, "It's disappearing ink!"

He shakes his head. "No, Mama. It's your pen, remember?" He holds it out for her inspection.

She doesn't take it. She rises out of the chair and then stumbles against it as she steps back away from the bed. She's shaking her head slowly back and forth again. "No," she whispers.

"It is a shape that cannot be written," he explains blithely, "because to write it is to unwrite it. Do you see, Mama? It cannot be, so as soon as I finish writing it, it isn't anymore." He grins again, pushing a hand through his bramble of black hair above the lines of gauze. "And in a hour, or maybe two hours, neither of us will know about this demonstration. It's true. We cannot remember what isn't, and so we must forget. If I didn't have -- didn't have her -- to keep it for me, I would not know I ever knew it myself." He grins again, eyes flashing. "I can create nothing, Mama, and it uncreates itself the moment it is done." He snaps his fingers, making her blink. "Zop!"

Danica bites her lip. She's trembling. She takes another step backward. "There is something sick in what you did there," she pronounces carefully. "This is something unholy, Drago."

"No, no, Mama. This is knowledge. There is nothing unholy about learning how the world works. This is how we all grow, by finding out. The world wants us to know. That is why we all have our brains."

"No," she says again, hands clutched at her heart. "This is wrong, Drago. You're colluding with black things. You're acting against God." She shudders. "This is not maths!"

"But it is!" he cries. "It's the new maths, Mama. It's the future." His face softens. "I know it's shocking, but don't be afraid. Here, let me show you once more --"

"No!" she screeches. "Never do it again, Drago!"

He startles her by laughing. "Mama, Mama," he says in a soothing tone as if she is now the child and he is the parent; "you don't understand: this is only the beginning. This is my life, for every hour for every day from now on. This isn't just maths -- it's me...and it's her." He swallows, eyes moist. "This is what we are for."

Danica is breathing hard. "'We'?" she echoes vaguely.

"Dragana and me," replies Drago, his voice low as he casts his gaze searchingly out the small window, expressions of pain flickering across his features. "We do it together, Mama."

A moment passes. It's starting to rain. Drops pitter against the pane. Outside in the corridor an intercom buzzes tinnily, paging a surgeon. Drago can also hear the squeaking wheels of the dish cart making its way up and down the corridor, destined to collect his empty Jell-o bowl.

"Mama?"

He looks back. He is alone. His mother has gone.


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