(February 2021’s short story of the month)
He wasn’t sure how he was able to do the math problems in his head like that. He just closed his eyes, and the numbers found their places, like trained dancers, or like magic. It didn’t matter what type of problem or how challenging. He could solve them all.
When he was in grade school, his teachers thought he was gifted, and this meant being placed in the highest math class available. By the time he was in middle school, he realized not everyone solved math like he did. They didn’t just see a problem and know the answer.
He started to guard his secret. He was afraid it meant something was wrong with him. When he was 8, he’d told the cashier that a total calculated by a computer was off by a few cents because of a sale sign. His parents had looked embarrassed that he argued with a grown up. And then another time, he’d told his dad that he’d calculated a tip wrong and had underpaid a waiter. His father told him very promptly that he was only 10.
Not long after that and a few other incidents involving grown ups giving him dirty looks because he knew the answer that was so clearly right in front of them, he started to protect his “math magic.”
That’s what he started to call it, but only to himself. He never said it out loud. He was afraid that if he even whispered the word magic, that it would be taken away from him.
He learned to hide his secret by writing out most, but not usually all, of the steps to solve a problem. He didn’t need to do it, but sometimes when he wanted to show off, he would just blurt out an answer in class. His teacher always glared at him. One time his teacher asked if he was cheating somehow. He was being questioned even though he’d written out his work. The teacher had never seen a student not miss a single problem the entire school year, even the problems that were bonus questions using math they hadn’t been taught yet. He just mumbled through the meeting and said, “I’m just good at math. Math makes sense to me.” He shrugged, and the teacher didn’t bring it up again.
The next year in school, he had the same teacher, and he knew he should be careful, but there was a new girl. He couldn’t help himself; he kept showing off by solving the problems fast in front of the class without writing out any steps. The teacher sat at her desk with her arms folded across her chest tapping her foot. She clearly thought he was cheating somehow.
He did everything to try and get Daisy’s attention, but she never looked up at him when he stood proudly at the front of the class. He always glanced to see if she was looking, but normally, she was just writing out the problems herself.
Walking home from school after another day of showing off in math class, he was surprised to see Daisy sitting on a fence on the route he walked. She usually walked home in the opposite direction. He looked around as he drew nearer to her to see if maybe she was waiting for someone walking behind him.
The only students behind him were not even in their grade. He hefted his backpack higher and tried to stand taller as he walked past her, but he didn’t say anything.
“Hey, Sean,” Daisy said hoping off the fence.
She knew his name. And she was saying it out loud. She was waiting for him. He tried to appear nonchalant about the whole encounter but inside his stomach was filled with butterflies and there was a voice in his head yelling, while he imagined himself running a victory lap, while simultaneously fist bumping himself.
“Hey. You’re…” he said trailing off, “Daisy, right?”
“That’s right. I was wondering if you were out of your mind?” She was glaring at him, and if looks could kill, she was repeatedly shooting him with laser beams.
“I… I… wait. What?” he stammered. He couldn’t look at her when she was staring at him like that. She was intimidating and powerful. Why did he think that? He wasn’t sure, but he knew it was true.
“I asked if you were crazy.” She was tapping her foot and waiting for him to respond.
“I’m honestly not sure what you are talking about?”
She took a step closer to him and looked around to make sure no one was within hearing range. “You can’t use your magic like that right in front of normal people. Didn’t your parents teach you better?” She was whisper-yelling.
“I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” He took a step away from her.
“Your magic.” She rolled her eyes and took a half step back. And then she was whisper-yelling again, “You know… that thing you do in math class. That magic. Whatever it is, you need to stop doing it in front of everyone. You’ll get reported to the council.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He was staring at her now. She was clearly crazy. Did she think magic was real? What was this council she was talking about?
Daisy stared at him without blinking for what felt like forever but was in reality only a matter of seconds. “You really don’t know?” She peered at him now, squinting her eyes and leaning closer to ascertain the truth.
He leaned away. He liked the attention, but she was being really weird. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Magic isn’t real. Is this some kind of prank?”
“Would you like to come to my house for dinner?” she asked.
That was unexpected. “Sure. I’ll text my parents, so they won’t worry.” He smiled at her.
This was going better than he thought. As they turned and walked the opposite way of his house, he asked, “What was that all about? Were you trying to freak me out or something?”
“It’s nothing,” said Daisy. “We should do our math homework at my house while we wait for dinner. My mom is really good at math.” She kept walking.