Magic Numbers

P1070117In his bedroom, with the door shut, John sat his best friend down on the folding seat and said, “Trust me, Pete; this is really cool.”

“Why do I have to sit over here?”

“It’s safer.”

“Man, you are freaking me out.”

A giggle – the nervous kind – burst from John’s mouth. He tried to stifle it but it was too big and strong to be fought down. He doubled up on the floor, clasping his sides, trying to hold in the incriminating laugher.

Pete joined in, and in moments, they were both rolling amongst the discarded Action Men and comics that littered John’s bedroom floor.

With a hand over Pete’s mouth, John tried to calm him down. “Hush, we better be quiet, or mum’ll catch us.”

“You started it, you wing nut; what you laughing at anyway?”

“I’ll show you,” John said, scrambling to his feet. With a swipe of his arm, he cleared his desk and got out a piece of paper and a fist full of pencils. “Sit down.”

“You’re not showing me that crummy number trick again are you?”

John aligned the paper with the edge of the desk, and without looking up, said, “No, this one’s new.”

“Yeah, so you say. Is that why you don’t want your mum finding out?”

“Yeah, she’d go nuts.”

“Really?” Pete said, edging forward on his seat, “is it really that good?”

John raised his hands from the paper and sat back on his heels. “It’s all ready.” Then he snapped his head around. “You’ve got to promise you won’t scream or anything.”

“I’m no sissy girl.”


“Alright,” Pete said with a sigh, “I swear I’ll eat a dog doo; there, that enough for you?”

John grinned, pulled his small desk lamp from the clutter on the floor, and placed it at the corner of the table. He turned it on, switched off the main light, and knelt back down with his pencil in hand.

Pete gazed at him from the semi-darkness like some ghoul from a fairytale.

John grinned. “You’re going to love this.”

He started writing numbers and algebra symbols he’d made up, in a square of sixteen, four to a side. Then, without a pause, he began another block, and when that one was finished, he started another. His hand moving faster and faster with every symbol, faster than he could think.

His breath speeded up, sweat gathered at the small of his back and under his armpits. He threw the blunt pencil down and grabbed another, scattering the rest across the table and on to the floor.

John grinned and leaned back from his scribbling, although his hand continued to write faster than ever; he no longer controlled it.

The number squares and symbols on the page ran over each other, an ever-thickening mesh of graphite eating away at the remaining spots of white paper.

His hand threw away the pencil and snatched another.

John grinned at Pete, but his smile faded when he saw his friend giving him a disappointed glare. “Just wait, you’ll see.”

“You’re a lousy faker, this is the pits,” Pete said, huffing and crossing his arms. Then he rubbed them together. “And it’s cold in here. Don’t your folks ever put the heating on?”

“It’s starting,” John said, his breath misting the air in front of his face, his hand still scribbling across the paper at a furious pace. “Look, watch the table. You’ll eat a dog doo if you cry.”

“Shut up about the dog doo,” Pete said, “what’s happening? All I see is you scribbling and my breath. This is -”

He didn’t glance at Pete, but John knew – by the sudden silence – that his friend was staring at the exact same thing he was.

A ball of air on the table began to change, at first it only swirled about, making the cartoon patterned curtains all blurry, but then it began to light up, like some a crazy video game.

His hand slowed and stopped, the pencil rolling from his numb fingers, and all at once feeling like he’d dipped it into a boiling kettle up to his wrist. He winced and pushed his hurting fist to his mouth.

“Wow, that’s way cool,” Pete said.

A breeze that smelled of flowers puffed the curtains, making Bart Simpson do the hokey-cokey with Homer. It ruffled the papers and the remaining pencils rolled away.

The ball of flashing lights began to gather, making the outline of a small figure no larger than one of John’s toys.

John rubbed his aching hand. “Keep watching.”

“Can I have a go?”

John shrugged.

Then it appeared.

Pete did scream, although it came out more as a yelp of alarm. His hands flew to his face and his knees came up to form a protective bundle.

“Shut up, my mum will freak.”

“Any mum would freak. What is it?”

“What does it look like?”

“I dunno, a goblin?”

“Then to you it’s a goblin, to me, it looks like the crazy frog’s weird older brother.”

“Dude, that frog is blue, that thing’s grey.”

The Simpson’s stopped dancing and there was no longer any mist when he breathed – just like the last time.

“Can it do tricks?” Pete said, now leaning forwards.

John shrugged.

The little figure gazed around the room, its large mismatched eyes blinking slowly. It swallowed, with a click, and it gave out a low belch.

Pete laughed, so did John – more from relief than amusement – but his humour died as Pete reached out to touch the creature.

John swatted his arm aside, reigniting the ache in his hand.

“Hey, what you do that for?” Pete said.

“Don’t touch it. What if it bites?”

Pete picked up a magazine. “Then I’ll hit it,” he said, rolling it into a tube.

“Don’t be such a loser,” John said, his eyes fixed on the little figure.

“Can’t you make it do something?”

“It’ll go soon.”

Pete picked up a pencil, he threw it. It bounced off the little creature’s forehead with a soft thud.

It fell back half a step, its eyes wide, and then its lower lip began trembling.

“You idiot,” John said.

“I wanted it to do something.”

The creature raised a hand to its head and began to sob.

“It’s crying,” Pete said, giving a little laugh.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Oh shut up!”

The sobs became a wail, a high-pitched scream that seared the eardrums.

“Look what you’ve done,” John said, pressing his hands to his ears.

“Make it stop.”

Below the din, John could hear his mother calling up the stairs. He felt his heart flutter. He reached out to the creature with open hands, making cooing noises, but it was not taking any notice.

“Mum’s going to kill me.”

Then he shivered, his breath misting again, and behind the creature, a larger form took shape. From a shower of sparks and wind, a larger version of the creature materialised behind it.

Pete screamed.

John felt a scream well up in his own throat but it jammed, he opened his mouth, but no sound came out and no breath went in.

The smaller thing leapt into the arms of the larger one and buried its face in the folds of skin under its chin.

The large creature growled. It reached forwards, its long fingers groping across the desk towards John.

He felt his bladder let go, the warm damp folds of his clothes moulding to his skin.

The creature grabbed one of John’s pencils, snapped it, and threw the pieces down. Then it faded away, the curtains ruffling and the crying growing distant until that too was gone.

The bedroom door flew open, and his own mother strode into the room.

John and Pete both gave a cry.

She planted her hands on her hips, gazed around and shook her head. “I don’t know what you two have been doing but it better stop.” She turned and left. Then as she closed the door she said, “and tidy up that mess.”

Pete uncurled, putting his shaking feet back on the floor. He swallowed and looked at John with eyes as big as boiled eggs.

John just shook his head, and, fighting his own tears, he scrambled to seize all his remaining pencils and then set about breaking every one of them.

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