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Lesson In Mathematics

airplane in sunset

For Round 7 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that have a character come to town and someone leave town.

The old man started it.

In simpler days, when Martin was a boy, he and his father had been able to go to the airport and watch the planes take off and land from any gate they wished. Martin ran up and down the concourse looking for the biggest jet he could find, and they watched through the windows filled with grey winter light as the planes came and went. His father told him stories about all the people who wanted to see the world from the sky, and Martin wondered how those rumbling, roaring machines floated on air.

Once, an old man who overheard them talking told Martin that engineers knew all the numbers that were needed to make planes fly, and if he studied hard and was a good boy in school perhaps he could grow up to design them himself. And the idea took.

It carried him through mathematics and physics and the history of design. It seated him at a drawing table and inspired bold designs on paper skies. He believed in all of it — the symbols, the numbers, the books filled with logic. It didn't take him to Jenna — she had come to him instead, arriving in Seattle young and honest, ready to begin her life and sure that the rain wouldn't be so bad. It was harder, but he tried to believe in her, too.

He thought she understood the implications of those invisible solutions, ethereal, yet solid enough to float steel in air. Numbers could give a man anything, even the ability to fly. In a way, Jenna envied him his simple faith in it all — he buried himself in the lessons of other men's minds and sought his own life within them. Each day, she waited for him to rejoin her. Each day, he let her, right up until the day she was gone.

She accused him of thinking only in equations and said he was blind to anything else — a good plate of food, the soft mist of dawn, the rumpled warmth of their morning bed. She told him that his obsession had ruined them and she was going back to Chicago. The quiet click of the door latch seared him with a precision that left everything he knew littering his gut like fine ash. He sat in the wake of her words, slowly sifting into darkness.

Martin dreamt he was a boy in school again. His teacher was explaining the intricacies of formulas that were suspended between them, but the numbers fell to the floor. When Martin picked them up and tossed them in the air they wouldn't stay aloft, landing instead at his feet like injured birds. Pages drafted around him, the paper whispering riddles about velocity and air and the weight of souls. He woke trembling, wondering if he had lost himself or found insanity.

He flew to Chicago. On the way, he drank hope out of tiny, clinking vodka bottles, and the seams on the metal skin outside his window grew thicker and darker with each one, looking for all the world like the blue veins on an old man's hand, pointing the way to absolution or ruin.

Martin arrived at Jenna's door with a sprig of forget-me-nots that were the color of her eyes. She saw the truth in it, and forgave his fears. Later, when she let him, he laid his head against her chest and silently counted the perfect rhythms of her heart.