Three Plus i (Part 1/2)

by Ventomology

As Marcos and I stand in the center of the darkened hospital room, breathing in the scent of disinfectant and acrid chemicals, I fish a crumpled piece of notebook paper from my back pocket. I have saved it for a year now, tacked to a board of pictures, souvenir pins, and old artwork.

“Do you think he’s ready, Autumn?” asks Marcos, gesturing at the boy in front of us. “I mean, to accept what happened that night? It helped us a lot, but do you think he’ll ever get over that?”

I sigh and glance at the boy’s bony frame and matted, overgrown hair. He’s never been never healthy, but he looks worse now, covered in thin hospital sheets. A cord is injected in his arm, and it hangs of the bed a little before curving towards a bag of fluids like half of a quadratic equation.

“I hope he’s ready,” I say, unfolding the paper. Biting my lips, I look to Marcos for reassurance. His smile is heart-breaking; his sharp, handsome features mollify to the point of watery eyes and the barest curve of lips. His black, wavy hair still frames his face like it did last year.

Though I want to cry now, I steady myself and read the note. On it are two equations: x^2-6x+10=0 and x^2-6x+9=0. My voice cracks on the first one. The three of us know what they mean, what x is in both cases. The only question is whether or not the boy on the bed will accept the second one.

That boy is Dan Weston, the first-prize individual winner of last year’s biggest state math competition. He doesn’t believe he won. He has never believed in himself for as long as I’ve known him.

Dan came to Polster’s Lake two weeks before the state math competition. When he walked into the club room, scrawny, pale, and freckled beyond insanity, Marcos and I thought him our saving grace.

My dad put a hand on Dan’s bony shoulder and guided him to our table, smiling like he’d won a million bucks. “I found a new member,” he said. “This is Daniel Weston, and he won third place at last year’s state competition.” My dad leaned over slightly, and his voice lowered. “Dan, tell us where you came from.”

“I’m from Murray,” Dan mumbled, “and I didn’t place third.”

I ignored what he said about the placing, more impressed that he’d moved from Murray. “Isn’t that where the Chinese cram school that always wins first place is from?” I asked.

With a glare, my dad hushed me. He grinned and pushed Dan closer to the tables. “From now on, Dan will be our third member in place of Cynthia.” Once the kid was seated, my dad ran his hands through his shiny black hair and muttered “qi shang ba xia.” He was worried.

Shrugging, I looked at Dan again. He fidgeted, probably because Marcos and I were staring. Very few people like him lived in Polster’s Lake.

“What do you mean, you didn’t win third place last year?” Marcos finally asked.

Dan froze, his eyes so wide I couldn’t see the pupils. Then he started quivering, trembling like he was in a blizzard while wearing shorts. “I-it wasn’t me,” he whispered. “Melinda taught it to me.”

Before I could ask who Melinda was, my dad clapped his hands and called our attentions to the whiteboard at the front of the room. His red, dry-erase drawings and droning speech spanned the rest of the hour, and Dan escaped from the room before we had a chance to speak again.

Two weeks passed in a dreary rain of probability and trig functions. And while it never truly rained in Polster’s Lake, the competition site saw raindrops the size of golf balls splattering against the sidewalks and buildings.

As I followed Marcos into the testing room, I could hear the rain’s constant drum beat, hollow and loud against the windows. The blinds were pulled up, showing a lethargic grey sky and the marshy grass beneath it.

Tradition dictated that teammates never sat near each other during the individual tests, a rule which I never understood. But I followed it anyways and sat in the front corner, far away from the windows. It was the best spot in the house and provided a view of the one tree beyond the glass.

When the four schools designated for the room were accounted for, the proctors passed out orange sheets of paper. There were no questions, just eight numbered boxes and a series of blank spaces for all personal information. Silently, and in tiny, half-cursive print, I filled out the spaces and waited.

Mental math was my least favorite test. As the proctor read questions aloud in her steady, confident voice, I bit my lip and squirmed in my seat. The rain was distracting, as was the constant gesturing of the boy next to me. A light in the back corner of the room blinked on and off in rapid-fire morse code.

I answered six of the eight questions, leaving only the first two blank. I had learned to squeeze my eyes shut as tightly as possible, leaving a blackboard of space where chalky, white lines scrawled equations for mystery numbers. The noise was still there, but it was easier to ignore.

I stayed seated as the proctors took up our orange sheets and passed out packets with green paper on top. It was a soothing green, something light, but not saturated, like the mint in those layered chocolates.

After writing my name and team at the top, I glanced at Marcos, who’d picked the corner closest to the windows. He waved at me and grinned, then flashed two thumbs-up signs and raised one eyebrow. Averting my eyes, I shrugged. I doubted I could do as well as he did.

Then his head turned towards the back of the room, where Dan was seated. I looked as well, twisting around in my chair and craning my neck to see him beyond the crowd of other kids.

Dan looked miserable, more so than other kids I’d seen who failed to answer even one question on the mental section. He rested his head on crossed arms which were laid across the table, a position I used when I tried to sleep during math club. His face was turned to one side, and even from the distance, I could tell he was staring into space.

The proctor at the front of the room cleared her throat, and Marcos and I left the matter alone.

Test number two was a grueling affair, thirty-five minutes to answer thirty questions, each one far beyond curriculum. Several times, I found myself looking at the ceiling, counting the speckled tiles between the lights. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Marcos scribbling on his pile of scratch paper. The kid next to me wrote with equal fervor, though the next one kept scratching his head and shifting in his seat.

After a few seconds of staring, I looked back at the questions. I was on number twenty-two, having skipped at least seven already. Seeing the word ‘binary’ almost sent me skipping on to twenty-three, a question with a triangle drawn underneath, but suddenly, a gear clicked into place in my mind.

I just knew how to count in binary. It was a simple matter of lining up my powers of two and their binary equivalents, and adding until I reached the right number. It was a number system–base two, in fact.

I was a storm of pencil scratching after that. Thirty-nine became thirty-two-plus-four-plus-two-plus-one. Thirty-two gave me a one in the millions place, four, a one in the hundreds. My answer was one-million-one-hundred-eleven, and a burning feeling in my gut told me I was right.

Though I had no more revelations during the individual test, when the proctor collected our answer sheets, I flashed Marcos the biggest smile I’d had in weeks. He returned the favor, and we stood up to stretch out before the team tests began.

Since Dan was a shivering mess, bound to the desk he’d first picked, Macos and I joined him at the back of the room. We slid two tables over, forming a pyramid of sorts, and watched as a proctor placed the next test at the crack where all three tables met. It was blue this time.

“So, Autumn,” Marcos began, reaching towards the ceiling. His fingers were splayed, and his back was slightly arched. His eyes were closed in satisfaction. “What did you think of that test?”

I felt my cheeks warm, tingeing with pink as I beamed at the floor. “It wasn’t too bad,” I said.

“That’s good.” He turned to Dan, leaning on the desk with his elbows. “How about you?”

I didn’t know what I was expecting, but Dan cringing and bringing his hands over his face wasn’t it.

“I listened to her.” he whimpered. “I tried to do my own work, but Melinda just kept telling me the answers!” He scrambled through the mound of lined paper on his desk, searching for something. On every sheet was enough work to fill a novel.

Marcos and I just watched, frozen as the proctor took away Dan’s “evidence” of ignoring Melinda. I followed the proctor with my eyes, and she shook her head slightly upon reaching the front of the room. Proctors didn’t usually take our used scratch paper, but maybe Dan had been making enough of a fuss to justify it.

We started the team test a minute later, distributing questions based on prior knowledge of speed. Dan took the first five, and Marcos and I split the second half.

I began with number ten, just like always. It was a question regarding a girl named Susan, and how she could put beads on her bracelet.

As I tried to remember whether to use permutations or combinations, I heard snickering behind me. I tilted my head so I could see backwards, and narrowed my eyes. Only a group of four black-haired kids in matching, teal t-shirts sat in range, and they were silently hunched over, heads together like a pre-game huddle.

I caught the name written on the backs of their shirts– MCAA Cram School. Murray Chinese-American Association. They wouldn’t. It was rude to make fun of people. Then I remembered that I didn’t even know if they’d been laughing at someone.

My face was hot, and my brain was on fire when I turned back to stare at my questions. Black text burned against white paper, and I caught the motion of Dan’s arm as he took our answer sheet.

I swallowed and took a breath to steady myself.

Eventually, I realized that I needed neither permutations nor combinations to solve the problem. Susan could put any color bead she wanted on her bracelet, or she could even string on no beads. This was not a factorial question, but a matter of exponents.

The math was tedious, exhausting, but I managed to multiply eleven by itself nine times and scribble my answer on the blue sheet before the proctor called time and everyone had to set their pencils down. My scratch paper looked like a disaster, all crossed out numbers, lines, and carried digits.

The following multiple choice test was uneventful, just fifteen kids whispering about math, all of them clustered in their own groups. There, in the back of the room, the blinky ceiling light caused me even more frustration. Constantly, the walls flashed from bright white to almost grey, and I kept pulling my bangs over my eyes to block out the distraction.

When the proctor finally told us the test was over, sighs of relief bounced around the room. Some kids shot out of their chairs, eager to stretch and leave the room. Others looked around, their faces wide in bewilderment, as though waking up from a dream.

Dan just pushed a small stack of paper towards me and Marcos. He whimpered and sank lower into his chair.

I already knew it would be the same as after the individual tests, but I looked at his scratch paper anyways. It was a whirl of grey numbers and slashes that I could not comprehend.

“What do you think we’ll have for dinner?” Marcos asked suddenly. Maybe he wanted to change the topic.

I frowned, trying to remember what pieces of Chinese I’d heard my dad say earlier. “We’re getting pizza,” I said. “Hawaiian, I think.”

Dan seemed to brighten at this, and Marcos snorted before leaning back in his chair.

“I will never understand why anyone thought to put pineapple on a pizza,” he said, “but I didn’t understand why anyone would do algebra until I tried it, so I guess they weren’t that weird.”

A moment later, the proctors announced that we were free to leave. The door swung open, and kids streamed into the hallway, their excited murmurs covering up their footsteps and growling stomachs. Marcos and I would have been in that group, but we found sticking with Dan more imperative.

Slowly, our trio strolled past a hundred identical doors and into the commons. When we arrived, my gut lurched, and I curled inwards. The smell of greasy pizza and garlic made my eyes water, and I had to cover my nose. This was why we never ate out–I always got sick.

I caught a view of my dad waving at us, the shoulder of his blazer poking up with every swoosh. When he realized we’d seen him, he gestured at a thin box on the table behind him and beamed.

Marcos led us through the crowds, weaving through gaps like a New Yorker. We reached the table without incident and sat, huddling around one end. My dad slid the pizza box towards us and crashed onto the seat next to me.

“So,” he started, “do you have any questions you remember that you want me to explain?”

I shook my head, and Dan looked at the floor. Marcos opened the pizza box and asked about the number of ways to arrange people in a circle.

As I reached for the napkins, I strained my ears to hear the answer. Extraneous noise buzzed around me, and I nearly missed the “n minus one factorial” that came out of my dad’s mouth. Marcos peppered my dad with more questions on how that formula worked, and why, and what else it could be used for.

Meanwhile, I plopped a slice of pizza on a paper plate and grimaced at the pool of orange liquid sitting atop the cheese. Biting my lip, I mopped up the grease with my napkins and watched as my dad drew circles on a piece of paper.

I ate half of one slice before we had to go back to the room for the final event. My dad followed, his excitement permeating the masses. As if the sheer number of people was completely new, he kept whispering “ren shan, ren hai.” People mountain, people sea.

My team was the last to arrive to the room, and it was already filled to the brim with people. A line of nine desks stood at the front of the room, barricading the contestants from everyone else. On the center desk sat a small contraption with two LEDs sticking out of the top and a long string on either side for each team.

On the whiteboard, one of the proctors had written the names of two schools in a T-chart. Polster’s Lake was not one of them.

My group stood in the crowd and watched as the two starting teams took their places. The reading proctor asked everyone to be quiet and then told the kids to test out the contraption with the ropes. She nodded at another proctor, who sat at the whiteboard with his phone out, and round one began.

“How many seconds are in one hour and three minutes?”

The kids automatically began writing, their heads bent over their papers. I had barely registered the question when I saw Dan move his lips.

“Three thousand seven hundred and eighty,” he mouthed.

The team on the left got it right, having reached the answer a beat after the girl proctor finished the second reading. Silently, the guy at the whiteboard placed a tally on the left side of the T-chart.

“Matthew paid six hundred and fifty-eight dollars for a nine hundred and forty dollar TV. What was the percent of his discount?”

Dan got thirty, and two seconds later, so did the team on the right. The battle continued, neck-in-neck as points alternated between the left and right teams.

The left team won, and we were called up. Round two was a blur, as were rounds three and four, in which Polster’s Lake did not compete. The entire time though, I watched Dan and Marcos reach their answers full seconds before anyone else.

Round five pitted us against the Murray Chinese-American Association. As I took my seat at the end of the row, I stared at the speckled carpeting and tried to steady my pounding heartbeat. I’d never sweated much, but I felt moisture evaporating off the back of my neck, and something warm dripped from my hair.

In the audience, my dad sat forward in his seat, his elbows resting on his knees. He clasped his hands together, and his eyes were trained on the LED contraption.

The room quieted, and the proctor began reading.

“How many ways can you arrange the letters in the words ‘math is cool?’”

I jumped in my chair as Dan jerked on the rope. He did not even wait for acknowledgement before blurting out “One million, eight hundred and fourteen thousand, four hundred.”

“That is correct,” the proctor said. She shook her sheet and cleared her throat. “What is the probability of drawing an eight or a spade from a standard, fifty-two card deck?”

Marcos answered four thirteenths and earned us another point. With equally blinding speed, we blazed through the next five questions.

I saw the cram school kids clench their jaws and hunch further over their papers. They were so obviously unused to this kind of treatment, getting beaten. I sniffled and glanced at my dad; unlike me, he appeared unsympathetic for them.

Scratching my head, I listened to the next question and wondered what the cram school students would tell their parents after this.

“What is the largest number of sections that can be made by drawing three lines through a circle?”

Dan pulled the rope. The proctor looked up at him, her eyes burning with unbiased curiosity. Two seconds passed, and I wondered what she was like when she smiled.

Her eyes flicked towards the boy at the whiteboard, and I registered the situation. Dan suspected a trick in the problem, and had acted too soon.

“Seven!” I yelled. Marcos stared at me, his face skewed as though I’d said the most stupid thing in the world. I was probably wrong. The answer was six.

The room was silent. I gulped, and drew in my limbs, careful to keep my fire-red cheeks hidden from the crowd. Then the proctor’s stern voice cut the air.

“That is correct,” she said.

I gasped and broke into a smile, but a parent’s voice crushed my joy.

A tall woman in a green suit shot up and pointed at the proctor. Her curly brown hair was like Medusa’s mane of snakes, all coils of anger and rage.

“That can’t be right!” She jabbed her finger at the tallying boy as though daring him to mark another point to Polster’s Lake. “You can only get six sections!”

The proctor smiled politely and turned to her partner. “Tyler, can you draw a circle please? And then three intersecting lines that form a triangle in the center.”

He did just that, and then counted the sections in a loud, scratchy voice. There were seven. I was right.

“I will never understand why anyone thought to put pineapple on a pizza,” he said, “but I didn’t understand why anyone would do algebra until I tried it, so I guess they weren’t that weird.”

Is this a review?

Points: 17344
Reviews: 293

Sun Mar 29, 2015 9:53 am
BrumalHunter wrote a review...

Salutations

It's a pity I cannot review the second part as well, but you did say you were unsatisfied with the end, so I shall happily review it once you submit it. In the meantime, let's see what literary magic you weaved this time.

My Legend:
Red - correction
Orange - suggestion
Blue - removal

As Marcos and I stand in the center of the darkened hospital room, breathing in the scent of disinfectant and acrid chemicals, I fish a crumpled piece of notebook paper from my back pocket. I have saved it for a year now, tacked to a board of pictures, souvenir pins, and old artwork.

The first thing I noticed is, of course, your usage of the present tense. By now, you'll probably know that while I consider it to be a thorn in my side and therefore always pull it out, it may be used in a story, but it's a risky venture - once you start writing in the present tense, the whole story must be in the present tense.

Furthermore, that last sentence gives me the idea of incompletion. As such, I suggest you rewrite it to convey that message more clearly, e.g. "I have been saving it for a year now, tacked to a board of pictures, souvenir pins [← are you sure you meant to say that?], and old artwork..."

Other than that, it makes for an interesting first sentence. The reader wonders what the boys (if the speaker even is a boy) are doing in the hospital.

“Do you think he’s ready, Autumn?” asks Marcos, gesturing at the boy in front of us.

Interesting choice of name, but remember, if you are using a name as unique as that, it must have a reason; you can't use the name simply because it seems right. This is, after all, a story about mathematics, so it must have a logical reason.

He’s never been completely never unhealthy, but he looks worse now, covered in thin hospital sheets, than ever before.

Repeating "never" twice in the same sentence is chancy already, but in context, it makes the sentence awkward. Hence, my enthusiastic colouring.

A cord has been inserted in his arm, and it hangs off the bed a little before curving towards a bag of fluids like half of a quadratic equation.

I corrected the single spelling error in the sentence and made some more suggestions concerning wording. (The "of" I advise removing because it reads more easily that way.)

His smile is heart-breaking; his sharp, handsome features mollified to the point of watery eyes and the barest curve of lips.

A beautiful sentence.

On it are two equations: x^2-6x+10=0 and x^2-6x+9=0.

I have the feeling the boy in the hospital bed is the x, but the rest of the equations will only make sense later on. However, I can guess that the difference of one in "+10" and "+9" is quite significant.

When he had walked into the club room, scrawny, pale, and [dm]more freckled than we had thought possible[dm], Marcos and I thought him our saving grace.

I don't think "freckled beyond insanity" is a very effective (or very considerate) description. Moreover, even when you are writing in the present tense, you cannot use the past simple tense in cases like this. Whether you are writing in present or past tense, you must always use past perfect in such situations.

In the rest of the story, you continue to use past tense when describing Dan's joining of the group, so I shan't point it out constantly, but keep it in mind. (You could even write in the present tense in that part, since you've already established it has happened already. I believe ths is known as the Historic Present Tense.)

Once the kid was seated, my dad ran his hands through his shiny black hair and muttered “qi shang ba xia.”

Writing a story about mathematics is, like you said yourself, a risky endeavour in itself, but if you add Mandarin or Cantonese to it as well, you are really pushing it. Remember, these unfamiliar elements might scare portential readers off.

“Melinda taught it to me.”

Please, please, please, never say "somebody taught something to me" - it sounds like something the other pupils in my school who take English as a First Additional Language would say, simply because it sounds horrible. I believe you should say "Melinda taught me" or "Melinda taught me how to (do it)". I hope that didn't come off rude, but it frustrates me to no end when I hear my classmates speaking like that.

Tradition dictated that teammates never sat near each other during the individual tests, a rule which I never understood.

Why? I know you tried to imply something with this, but the best thing of which I can think is that the speaker is honest and never even considered the idea of cheating.

I just knew how to count in binary. It was a simple matter of lining up my powers of two and their binary equivalents, and adding until I reached the right number. It was a number system–base two, in fact.

If you included this part to make the reader understand what it feels like to be one of those students who fail to answer even one question, you have succeeded.

Since Dan was a shivering mess, bound to the desk he’d first picked, Marcos and I joined him at the back of the room.

Even though Marcos and the speaker (Autumn! There we go.) have no choice other than to join Dan, they still appear considerate. (Also, I corrected that typo for you.)

I frowned, trying to remember what pieces of Chinese I’d heard my dad say earlier. “We’re getting pizza,” I said. “Hawaiian, I think.”

My favourite!

Anyway, I used this as an excuse to take a break from reading the story. The reason I haven't commented for so long is because the story enraptured me, and it's difficult to find fault in a story from which you can't pull your eyes away.

Marcos led us through the crowds, weaving through gaps like a New Yorker.

I don't hail from New York, but I assume this comparison refers to weaving between traffic. Thus, I'd say it's farely effective.

Meanwhile, I plopped a slice of pizza on a paper plate and grimaced at the pool of orange liquid sitting atop the cheese.

I hope the pizza my friends and I will be ordering on our Matric Day this Tuesday doesn't resemble that, because then I'm letting them pay for it.

My team was the last to arrive at the room, and it was already filled to the brim with people.

Unless it's filled to the brim with something that isn't people, you don't have to specify.

A tall woman in a green suit shot up and pointed at the proctor. Her curly brown hair was like Medusa’s mane of snakes, all coils of anger and rage.

Words cannot describe how amusing the visualisation of this is.

Nevertheless, it is an outstanding figure of speech.

“I will never understand why anyone thought to put pineapple on a pizza,” he said, “but I didn’t understand why anyone would do algebra until I tried it, so I guess they weren’t that weird.”

Wait, what? If Marcos said that, why does the tallying boy say it as well? Or is this a well-known quote among mathematicians, I was simply too daft to realise it?

If the former is the case, please change "he" to "Marcos", as the personal pronoun creates the idea that the tallying boy said it. However, if it is a well-known quote, then it makes for a very effective ending to the first half of your short story.

You need not fear about the quality of your short story, Buggie, for it is outstanding, and I even found I didn't mind either the maths or the Chinese. In fact, my only problem is that you didn't submit the second part as well, because now I have to wait for it. Humph.

This review courtesy of

Ventomology says...

Hunter, I have submitted the second part! Unfortunately, I am without computer access for the rest of the week, and therefore will not be submitting to the journal. It's fine though; part two is really really raw.
Thanks for the review, as always! I shall fix it up when I have survived all of the university tours.

BrumalHunter says...

:O

I am sorry you won't be able to submit your short story, Buggie. I shall review the second part nevertheless, and besides, your short story will then be ready for submitting next year.

Points: 9984
Reviews: 173

Sun Mar 29, 2015 7:18 am
donizback wrote a review...

OMG! That wasn't too easy to read all of this, really! It literally took me more than 30 minutes or so. haha
Anyway, it's my turn to make you read now. Tit for tat. lol

Happy review day! And here I am for one (well, call it two because I have read part two of it so I'll review the next one right away).

I would like to start talking about the title first. Well, I still am unsure as to why you used that weird "i" in there. I mean, is there any specific reason or is there something I missed while trying to go through it really fast? Sorry if I missed anything.

One good thing you did was that you split the story into two parts; it would have been a nightmare to read all of this on one page - I might have just died reading all that. lol

The story was good and cute. It had that humor part in it and I liked the way you used your powerful vocabulary. You did it really well to pick up the right word at the right time. So well done on that part.

"I will never understand why anyone thought to put pineapple on a pizza" I promise I said that to my siblings last year while having a pizza. lol