by Allen Lu
Charlie’s toothbrush was just for show. Their mother always used to say: “I don’t care if you’re running late, half asleep, or on your death bed! The first thing you do when you wake up and the last thing before bed should be to brush your teeth!” Charlie kept the toothbrush around because he didn’t want his little brother Tom to worry, but he had exempted himself from her requirement long ago; he hadn’t slept in many years, so there was no waking up or bed time and therefore no need for brushing teeth.
His doctor had called it insomnia, but Charlie called it determination. Ever since work started scaling up, sleeping just felt too much like a waste of time. There were always more entries to perform, and there always would be. The sum always rises, he would tell himself. His eyes glazed over now as he saw the general entry string in his mind:
> ‘SUM’ + 0
> ‘SUM’ + 0
> ‘SUM’ + 0
> ‘SUM’ + 0
His eyes refocused on the bathroom mirror, and he marvelled at his eye bags, listening for a moment to Tommy’s steady snoring from the bedroom in a rare moment of calm. It was before-before-before-dawn, so the half moon still hung lonely and blue and silent in the blushing sky. He loved this time of day: productivity ready to burst forth from his veins, his brother, the only potential distraction, peacefully asleep, everything drowsy and hanging like the moon. He really was proud of his eyebags. They were a shade darker for every sleepless night, as if his oil-black hair was not thinning, but dripping down his nose to relocate in dense pools under each eye. He welcomed the insomnia; it gave him more time to think and more time to work, and think and work he did, exclusively. Charlie liked to think about all sorts of things. Sad things, bad things, lonely things, random things. It never worried him because those things only existed in his head and stayed there. Yes, they stayed there.
He stared into his dark circles for a while longer, and suddenly, with the stillness and his dry toothbrush and the moon judging him from the window, he felt afraid in the overwhelming quiet. He quickly flicked off the bathroom light and hurried out of the bathroom and down the stairs into the living room.
It was now before-before-dawn: time to work. He nestled into his late father’s beige armchair and opened up his laptop. He connected remotely to the IntellectaX5 and began typing entries: click click clack, click click clack, click click clack:
> ‘SUM’ + 0
> ‘SUM’ + 0
> ‘SUM’ + 0
Charlie had gotten the position easily enough out of high school. He’d come across a job listing from a computational mathematics research lab looking for a reliable worker, someone willing to put in long hours and good work, and they gave him a shot. Charlie was put on a new project in the hot topic field of number mining, which starts from barebones assumptions and attempts to push the boundaries of mathematical reasoning, usually through a repeated entry-based approach. This particular job started from the assumption that zero exists and that the addition operation is defined. By harnessing the computational power of the IntellectaX5, the latest processing model and constructed several miles below ground, Charlie was to start from zero and repeatedly perform the following entry string until, well, something happened:
‘+’ ‘0’ ‘ENTER’
He had gone at the job with lightning fervor as young people do, and he made great strides in the field. Over the ten years he’d been with the company, his sum had increased to 0.6784201100011.
While he worked, Charlie liked to let his mind to wander and unrestrain his fingers from consciousness, letting them ride the rote rhythm of many years of repeated entries. He shifted in the beige armchair, and he wondered why he ever sat in this chair. It was uncomfortable and the springs had since given out. Yes, they had given out long ago. His mind floated now to his father: how many nights of potential had he wasted away asleep in this armchair? What a pity. But Charlie didn’t blame him. He thought back now, easing back into the armchair as the dead springs wailed, easing back into memories…
Charlie’s father had been a tired man and had worked a tiring job. He had tired shoulders and a tired gait and a neck too tired to keep his head up. His face had been the color of a sunset: purple-pale skin, tired red eyes, dark circles. Each day, he would wear the same tired tie and the same tired shoes that he never seemed to get tired of. He would come home tired at dinnertime, collapsing into the dull beige armchair, snoring hushed, tired-sounding snores. He had worked for a tire factory, all those years ago.
Charlie thought about how he didn’t come home one day, how Mom had told them he had just gotten lost on the way and would be back soon. Tom, the angel and the fool that he was, believed her for the longest time. But Charlie knew that their father had just gotten tired of it all.
A timid creaking now disturbed Charlie’s galloping thoughts. Charlie noticed Tom coming down the old stairs but didn’t glance up from his work. Charlie felt a prick of annoyance. It was still far too early for Tom to be up; he needed his rest.
“You’re up early again, Tommy.” It sounded like a challenge. Yes, it was far too early for the boy.
“Well, books don’t write themselves, do they?”
Tom flashed a groggy grin in Charlie’s direction, and Charlie felt annoyance flair up again. He stumbled on an entry in his distraction and had to pause, reducing his efficiency. Tom had been waking up earlier these days, going on and on about some bogus book idea, something about a hero and a villain, something about how it was the real deal this time. The IntellectaX5 flashed a report: Charlie’s average entry rate has decreased by 0.048% in the past few weeks, ever since Tom had begun his nonsense. A wave of urgency surged up and Charlie quickened his entry rate. He noticed Tom stride across the room to the dining table, where his manuscript was laid out. Tommy insisted that he was an “old soul” that preferred writing books by hand, but even if Tom asked, Charlie had long since made it clear that there wasn’t enough money for a second computer.
Tom held his head in his hands and yawned, then extended his arms up and out, stretching to his full height. He had a tall, thin frame that struggled to support his head of heavy, red hair. Despite his height, Tom was always hunched over as if he’d been punched in the stomach and his confidence had taken most of the hit. He was frail and fragile, and Charlie had deemed him incompetent and unfit to work from a young age, scrawny as he was and precious as he had been to their mother. Yes, how he had been precious to Mom.
Tom offered coffee. Charlie didn’t respond. He didn’t need coffee; his work was his coffee. He was focused now; he couldn’t afford to keep messing up if he wanted to break a sum of 1.0000000000000 by year’s end. After all, the research didn’t mean anything until a tangible, integer result had been achieved. His fingers continued to fly across the keyboard in their jerky click click clack waltz:
> ‘SUM’ + 0
> ‘SUM’ + 0
Tom set a tall glass of coffee down next to Charlie’s hand. Charlie flinched, and his finger slipped on the ‘ENTER’ key. Another delay. His anger bubbled up and fizzed over. No time for fighting. He flashed an angry glare at the back of Tom’s head. It bothered him that Tom was so active these days. For the past many years, ever since he dropped out of school, Tom had mostly stayed in bed and out of Charlie’s way each day. But there was something about this new book idea that got him restless. It wasn’t good for him, fragile as he was. Yes, Tom needed his rest.
Charlie found his rhythm again and his fingers resumed their waltz. He let his mind wander now to protect against extraneous sensory distractions. He thought back to Mom, to her funeral now. It had been on the hottest day of the year, one of those days that makes wearing a tux look funny and impractical. Everyone took shelter in the shade of the tall skeletons of trees that loomed on either side of the funeral home. Tom had given some beautiful, childish speech about his mother, about how the day was sunny and beautiful and cheerful just like she would’ve wanted it to be. About how it was so hot because even the sun wanted to see her for this last time. It was touching as speeches like those often are, and the people sitting in the shade clapped and smiled. It was really stupid. Charlie knew Mom would’ve wanted it to rain on her funeral, for the clouds to stagger in black and blue and to hang there long after the last mourner had gone away. She had been sad like that. But Tom didn’t (or couldn’t) see that in her. Yes, he couldn’t; maybe that’s why he’d been her favorite.
Tom dropped out of college shortly after the funeral. It was good for him; he needed a break from it all. Around that time, Charlie stopped wasting time sleeping and his sum started to take off, starting with some binary noise and then eventually adding into more concrete totals.
Charlie grimaced. Tommy was scribbling and scratching away noisily now, some nonsense about dragons or saving the day or whatever. Charlie glanced up for a moment, and saw Tommy’s face scrunched in concentration as he jotted down more words that would never amount to anything. The poor kid looked exhausted; what was he doing to himself? Charlie tried to focus. He concentrated on increasing his entry speed and let his mind drift away as his fingers flew across the keyboard. He thought again about that funeral day, how the dust of the earth drew up in dry tendrils that were beaten down quickly in the summer heat, how the desert dirt had been cracked in long creeping lines, with a lifeless tone as if the parched sun were jealous and angry towards any moisture that was left in the world. How impractical had it been to be wearing black on a day like that! His hands were really going crazy now, dancing erratically and wonderfully to Charlie’s steady heartbeat. His eyes wandered over to Tom’s face. It had a worrisome expression, half-smiling in concentration, his mouth muttering silent, excited whispers. Slowly, his eyes lit up and his jotting speed increased, and his face contorted in emotion as if about to sneeze…
“Got it! Yes, got it!”
Tom’s sudden jolt of animation short circuited Charlie’s rampant thoughts and fingers, causing Charlie’s hand to jerk outwards suddenly, pushing the tall coffee cup violently at the base. The cup teetered for a moment as if deciding which way to fall, then crashed wickedly down towards Charlie, spilling its contents inwards onto the laptop. Charlie frantically swept away scalding liquid from the keys, but he already knew it was lost.
Tom rushed over with some napkins as Charlie tried in vain to turn the computer on again, which had already frozen up and died.
“Charlie! I’m so sorry I just–” stammered Tom, “I just got this great idea for one of my characters and I got excited and…I’m so sorry.”
Charlie put his head in his hands and exhaled deeply. The rage was crawling on his skin, crawling in his ear, threatening to burst forth in any form, from any crevice that presented itself. He counted his losses: the whole morning of unsaved progress and an extra day lost to purchase a new computer. He exhaled again, trying to relieve the pressure in his skull. He looked up at Tom’s worried, infuriating face.
“Get a bag of rice from the grocery store. I’ll try to salvage it.”
Tommy bolted out the door, leaving it wide open, and Charlie noticed it was raining heavily outside. Silence returned to the room, and the air was thick with potential. It was fifteen minutes to the store so Charlie knew he had some time. His rage was steaming from his ears and eyes and condensing in great thunderous clouds above his head, the lightning striking down on his skull as if to invite the rest of the rage to emerge in explosive storms. His hands clenched into fists and his mouth was dry like funeral days. And suddenly, Charlie’s anger erupted in his eyes; they widened into moons and they flew searching across the room, landing like hungry talons upon the dining table. Charlie felt his body rise up and barrel over to Tom’s manuscript. His fingers flew hungrily to the paper and tore into it — first page by page then in big clumps and handfuls. The paper’s words wept as his wet, sweaty hands bore into the manuscript, creating blotchy ink-stains across the pages that he gripped and tore, as if the blackness of his rage was spilling out into the pages, re-writing themselves over the story Tommy had created and loved.
Charlie collapsed exhausted into the beige armchair. Everything was tinted red and moving a little slower now. His rage laid in mangled heaps strewn about the room. His hands were bleeding because the paper had been thin and cheap, so it had retaliated with a flurry of paper cuts as it died. His hands bled quickly, for his blood ran hot and fast, finally unbridled after laying dormant for so long in his heart. Charlie made a note to himself to exercise more; it would improve work efficiency.
A heroic calm settled over the room, but a timid nervousness crept into the place, tip-toeing into the room, over and around the scattered shreds. Charlie worried that Tom would take this medicine with difficulty. Of course, it had to be done, but Tom might not understand right away. Charlie hoped he wouldn’t be upset.
The doorknob turned. Charlie didn’t notice that he held his breath as the door swung open. Tom’s shadow stood in the doorway, hunched over a bit because of his height. Suddenly, Charlie thought about his father, with his head drooping like a teardrop on his neck, lazily snoring his evenings away. He was suddenly very aware of how awful and ugly the chair was, how uncomfortable it was with the springs old and worn.
Tom stepped into the room, straightening in the brighter, taller space. His red hair was wet and cold and gloomy and pressed down by the storm that still raged outside, but it shone, and it shone marvelously in the dim living room light. He dropped the bag of rice at his side and it spilled out generously onto the floor.
“It was for your own good.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t want any of that Tommy. That book was killing you, Tommy. Don’t make this difficult on yourself now.”
“You…I can’t believe…why?”
“Don’t you see how tired this work makes you, Tommy? Listen Tommy, you weren’t made to work. Just like our father, just like Mom, you’ll get tired of it all. I don’t even know why you went so stubbornly at this.”
“Because it was my passion! I poured myself into this! This was my freedom!”
“Freedom? Nothing is liberated in this world, Tommy. We are carried by the wind of fate or the soft sighs of whoever is in charge up there. Like feathers in the wind. Sometimes we are blown in new directions, and whichever way it blows, we have to bend, we have to yield. Sometimes we break.”
“What the hell are you on about?”
“I just didn’t want you to worry Tommy.”
“You didn’t want me to worry? Where were you when Dad left? When Mom died? Where were you the past eight years? If you knew half the things I worried about, if you…”
Charlie tuned out looked over at his dead laptop. He was really wasting a lot of time. He glanced back up to Tom, hot tears streaming down like blood over his reddened face. Charlie thought about the day he had told him the truth about their father. Tom’s face had been a similar shade of red then. Charlie was really tired from his burst of rage. It felt good to just sit and be still for a while; the armchair really wasn’t half bad. Sure the springs were stretched out and the surface rough, but it held his frame well and he sunk into it like a stone. No wonder his father had stayed on this for so many nights.
“…never done anything for me! My whole life has been built out of noth-…”
A dull ringing in Charlie’s ears swelled into a great clamor. It grew like a huge gong in his head until the fullness was fit to burst from his eardrums and ungulf the room in sound. He really was tired now. Tom had left the door open, the inconsiderate kid. Tom’s mouth was moving too quickly for Charlie to concentrate. He had a throbbing headache. He closed his eyes now, for the first time in so long. Yes, the armchair really wasn’t half bad. What else did it need to be besides a little soft and a little warm?
His eyes flipped open lazily for a moment. Tom had moved in front of him and was shaking Charlie violently. His face was a brilliant crimson, his hair marvelously on fire. But Charlie closed his eyes now and kept them closed; this felt good. Slowly the shaking subsided as he focused on the black of his eyelids, blacker and more perfect than any dark circles he could ever form. He supposed that sleep wasn’t so bad. It had seemed so sickenly sweet for these past years, too lavish a hobby for someone like him to partake in. But it didn’t seem half bad now. Yes, Charlie had done a good thing today, an actual good thing. Setting his brother on the right course was worth a rest. Yes, it was alright now.
He peered deeper into his eyelids and saw it all. He saw years and years of sleep reaching out to him, calling him to come back and delight. He reached out and held hands with all those nights of sleep as the shades smiled and engulfed him. He laughed as they broke down his mind and his thoughts, broke down his flesh and soul into zeros and zeros, pulling them like comets into the dirt: burying them in a deep sleep miles below the earth, below coffee and coffins and computers, below the Sun and sums.
It was a wonderful dream. ◆