Gina approached Mr. Cripley’s desk. “Hello, I’m Henry’s mother,” she extended her hand.
He barely responded, and she glanced furtively around the empty classroom. “No students?”
“Lunch!” answered Mr. Cripley curtly.
“Oh, I just stopped by to ask how Henry was doing in math class.”
“Great, Henry placed into Advanced Math.”
“Wow, he didn’t tell me.”
“I just hope he can handle the pressure,” Mr. Cripley’s hooded gaze made her uneasy.
“I can always help him ….”
“No, you can’t! Henry must complete all assignments on his own.” A strange gleam appeared in Mr. Cripley’s eyes.
“OK…” Gina clutched her purse as Mr. Cripley turned back to his work.
“It was nice meeting you, Gina.”
She nodded, knowing she’d been dismissed.
That evening, Gina returned home to find Henry hunched over at the kitchen table, immersed in his homework.
“Henry, you never told me about Advanced Math.”
“The laws of probability dictated that you would eventually find out, Mom.”
“Still, I’m very proud of you.”
“Thanks,” he didn’t bother looking up.
“You know, Henry, you should go out and have some fun.”
“Fun is a local statistical deviation, Mom.”
Gina sighed. “O.K., I’m here for you if you need anything.”
He paled. “Are you offering to help me?”
“No, I was warned against that by your teacher.”
Henry looked up; his eyes were distant. “It pains me to think of mathematical beauty clashing so violently with the experimental nature of the universe.”
“Is the universe an experiment?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” He shrugged and went back to his work.
“That sounds awfully complicated.” She yawned, “…speaking of which, I’m heading up to bed. Good night!”
Henry remained hunched over at the table, lost in his equations.
Gina woke up bathed in sweat and padded softly down the hallway to Henry’s bedroom.
Henry?” She rattled the knob. There was no answer.
“Henry, open up!”
The silence was so oppressive that she became acutely aware of the cold draft sweeping the hallway. Her hand trembled on the doorknob.
Gina shook her head as she headed downstairs. When she turned the corner into the kitchen, a swatch of light appeared over Henry sitting at the kitchen table.
She stepped toward him. “Henry?!”
When he looked, she saw deep circles etched under his eyes.
“Henry, are you aware of the time?”
“Time is immaterial, Mother.”
Gina straightened. “You know, Henry, I’m very uncomfortable with this whole advanced math thing.”
“Math is not a thing, Mother, it’s a universal paradigm.”
“You’re too preoccupied with your work to make sense anymore.”
“You speak from a perspective of ignorance, Mother.”
“You’re like a dog slumbering by the fireplace, oblivious of the universe beyond.”
Gina opened her mouth to react when the phone rang. She turned to see a series of zeroes displayed on the caller ID.
“Gina, this is Mr. Cripley. How’s Henry doing with his homework?”
“Who cares!? I’m withdrawing him from Advanced Math.”
He coughed. “You can’t, Gina, we have an ’open entrance, no exit’ policy.”
“I’m sorry, but I think you’ll have to explain that one to me.”
“I don’t have time right now. Listen, by accident, I gave Henry the wrong assignment. He needs to stop working on it right now.”
“Tell him to stop, Gina, before this whole thing gets out of control.”
“Fine, but stay on the line with me.” She turned to face the boy she barely recognized as her son. “Henry,” she said loudly, “your teacher says that you must stop working on this homework assignment right now.”
Henry appeared not to hear her. She yanked on his notebook but he held it in his vice-like grip, his lips moving soundlessly as his dark eyes remained transfixed.
“Henry!” She tugged on his shirt with no effect.
“I can’t,” she panted into the phone, “he won’t stop.”
“I’m coming over,” said Mr. Cripley, and the line went dead.
Gina paced the garage, thinking of the dog Henry had mentioned. She decided that in the end, ignorance must surely be a blessing. She turned to see the headlights of Mr. Cripley’s car screeching to a halt in the driveway. As he jumped out and charged into the house, Gina followed. Henry was working on what appeared to be the fiftieth page of calculations. His once lustrous hair had grown gray and his flesh sagged as though he’d aged decades.
“What happened to you?” cried Gina.
He stared at her with bloodshot eyes. “I found the answer.”
“What is it?” Mr. Cripley rushed excitedly to his side.
“I thought you didn’t want him to solve the problem.” Gina interjected.
Mr. Cripley ignored her. “Tell me, Henry, tell me!”
Henry spoke as though from far away. “Zero. The answer is Zero.”
“Zero?” Mr. Cripley paled.
“Zero?” Gina gasped.
“Zero: Absolute Zero, as it defines the edge of the universe.”
“I don’t get it,” Mr. Cripley shook his head.
“Henry, no,” screeched Gina, as his gray hair whitened and the circles under his eyes deepened into black pools that seemed to absorb his entire being.
“…like a dog slumbering beside the fireplace, ignorant of the universe beyond…”
They were the last words he uttered before fading from her view.
“What happened?” cried Gina.
“I doubt you’ll ever see him again.”
As Gina fainted, Mr. Cripley looked through Henry’s calculations, smiling and nodding. He tucked the notepad under his arm and headed back to his car, muttering.
“If the edge of the universe is no further away than Zero, then Advanced Math, for all its complexity, is deceptively simple.”
He drove off thinking of Gina, oblivious of the universe beyond even as her son entered its outer edges. For a second, he felt a pang of sorrow, but that was before the beauty of math moved him beyond the immediacy of the moment.