As long as anyone remembered, K…(that’s what they called him: “K” — the letter, not the nickname)…K was always counting: One, two, three as he walked. He measured time when his teachers talked, usually thousands, when his friends played tag (Edgar was the best, he always tagged someone before eight) — his first kiss was a one. But later he and Sally kissed all the way to seventeen before his friends caught them behind the school and made fun of them…
K sat in his room one night, long after everyone was asleep, and stared at the Sudoku book on his lap. It was a gift from his parents. His “focused” behavior — no one used the word “obsessive” in their house — was a source of shame for his parents. But they also realized that his genius wasn’t all bad. K got to hear his Dad tell people lots of jokes about visiting Vegas.
K was ashamed of how well he did at number puzzles. But he was proud, too.
He stared at the first puzzle in the book. He saw a grid of eighty-one squares, nine-by-nine — or, if you prefer: a grid of nine 3-by-3 grids. Selected squares had a single number, one through nine, inside them. Most of the squares were blank and you were supposed to fill those in. Each row, each column, and each 3-by-3 box within the overall grid was supposed to contain only one each of the nine digits, one through nine. That was the puzzle.
K thought that the beauty of it wasn’t done justice on just some sheet of paper.
It was five hundred and thirty (almost ten minutes?) before he cracked the algorithm. Just a matter of time, he smiled to himself in two. Knowing how the puzzle was to be done, he began. He flipped the page to the very last puzzle in the book — presumably, it was the hardest.
K mentally inserted all nine numbers into each empty square and then subtracted those that had already been revealed by the puzzle-makers in adjoining rows and columns. Simple enough. Then he subtracted those numbers which also existed in the same 3-by-3 grid…it was like the unnecessary November pruning that Mom did in the garden when she got sad thinking about Alex. The grid started as a tree struggling for life and then slowly each possible number fell away until all that was left was the cold, lifeless winter thatch of final answers.
He finished in one hundred and six. The puzzle was solved and it was a dead thing.
That was it? “No,” he thought in one, “the paper is hiding it.”
He stared at it some more (four hundred and three, four hundred and four); It wasn’t but about five hundred before he began deconstructing the puzzle itself: removing not only the answer-numbers that he’d written, but also the numbers shown at the start by the puzzle-maker, leaving yet more blank squares.
That was it! It was like floodgates opening up inside his brain. Each number destroyed created other possible numbers in the adjoining squares…the cycle of life — creation through destruction: the Cosmos under his eraser he thought.
He couldn’t stop. His chest thumped as he stripped away even more numbers. He used markers on the walls, added more rows and columns. No need to stop at nine, the grid expanded into hundreds of squares. Would that be enough? No, he caught up to his breath, he needed more in order to find what he was looking for…a particular number. He opened his third-story window. A chill breeze lifted his skin.
His body trembled, but it didn’t matter. The puzzle was no longer contained by paper, his mind no longer sat in his room. It was real. Real! He leaned outside his window and looked to the night sky…he let his mind wander out into the ether, looking, each number that he found, he destroyed — and other numbers appeared. That was the way to create the number he needed…the number that was the key: K knew which number contained his late Brother, Alex: Twenty-two Thousand, Eight hundred and Ten. He had to create that number…it was in the stars somewhere…
He climbed into the window.
Twenty-two Thousand, Eight hundred and Ten.
That was how long it was between when Alex had left that night, five years ago, and when they got the phone call from the Police about the accident. Kevin (“K”) had caught Alex sneaking out after curfew; but Alex had convinced him to not tell Mom and Dad with a bribe — a Games magazine, the first one he’d ever seen. He did his first Latin square that night, counting as he did it…and then continuing the count even after it was done. He counted as he waited for Alex. It seemed like forever.
But it was Twenty-two Thousand, Eight hundred and Ten. Then the phone rang.
And now he cried to the heavens. Why hadn’t he told his parents when Alex left that night? Why hadn’t he stopped his big brother? He sat in his window, looking upward for answers…
He had made all of the other numbers disappear except his brother’s. He just stared at it. Just him and his brother’s number, staring back down at him. What now?
Finally, the thought occurred to him: What is my own number?
Should it be right now?
Do I decide or do I let someone else? Does it matter?
Slowly, deliberately, wiping the tears from the stars, he removed even his brother’s number.
He stared at the cold, dark, blank page of his life. Not even the squares remained. But eventually some numbers returned: he imagined that he could see the number of weeds in Mom’s garden, the number of sips of Dad’s bourbon. He saw how their numbers might be counting away.
He saw how any number was possible, then.
Returning to his room, he closed the window and stopped counting.
Photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash