Number Theory(Nyeogmi; 912 words)

I’m just here to get an egg salad sandwich before I go to bed. The entire pantry display is covered, wall to wall, by dragons eating dinner.

Some are big like me, others are much smaller; some are eating chicken, others are crunching ice cream cones. Every single one of them has a collar. All those collars lead back to a single source.

A kobold. His nametag’s a little hard to read.

“It’s Twitch,” he says. “You big doofus.”

“Hey, I’m not a —“

I’m not sure I heard that.

I try to recover. “What’s good here?”

“I dunno. Nothing to raze tonight?”

He’s making me blush. I know it wasn’t a stupid question, but it feels like it was.

“Sit.” His clawed hand squelches against the cushion on the seat. It sounds like the word “oaf.”

“Do you work here?”

“It’s an automat,” he says. You dummy. “No one works here.”

“Oh, uh…”

“Heh,” he says. No, that’s the chair.

“How do I get the food?”

“You put a coin in the machine and it pops out.”

There’s a big red dragon on his hands and knees, panting like a dog, blocking the coin slot. The edge of his underwear is poking out above his belt. His tweed suit sticks up behind his raised ass and his necktie is on the ground, and it’s kind of unbecoming.

I try to slip the quarter in behind him and he sidles up to my leg.

“Can you make him…?”

“I don’t own him,” says Twitch.

He’s not looking at me; he’s looking at his master, like he expects a treat.

“Look, he made space for you.”

Now that he’s… resting against my body, I do have room to put the coin in.

“Excellent,” says Twitch. “Five to go.”

“Oh, no, that was a dollar coin.”

He relaxes in his humble seat, resting his small feet on a blue dragon’s backside. “Then use a quarter, dummy. Then a dime, then three nickels. I need a calculator.”

“Hey, you don’t need to call me names.”

“Sorry, what did you say your name was?”

I don’t know.

One of the dragons hands him a calculator. “Apparently I do,” he concludes.

Then he hands me the calculator.

“Make there be math on the display.”

123, I type.

“Boring. Make it say boobs.”

80085.

“Boring again. Type 23 x 164419.”

3781637.

“Turn it upside down,” he says. “What’s that say?”

My vision blurs. My eyes water. I struggle. My sandwich drops to the floor in the machine behind me.

“Don’t turn from me,” he says. “Tell me what it says.”

“I can’t.”

“Say what you can’t do.”

“I can’t read the calculator.”

“No, exhaustively list what you can’t do.”

“I can’t read the calculator or turn to get my sandwich.”

“Very good,” he says. “Now give me the calculator and take your sandwich.”

I bend forward. He tips backwards in his seat, with the help of a green dragon who keeps it from freely falling.

When he has the calculator, he takes it, turns it upside down, and reads the digits on the display.

“It says LEGIBLE.”

“Oh,” I say.

“A large semiprime.”

He yanks an invisible collar and I fall forward. The air cracking against the leather restraint seems to say “nimrod,” and the sound as he pulls it tight almost sounds like “illiterate in basic number theory.”

Then I remember that’s stupid — I don’t have a collar.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Calculator.”

“But you’re terrible at math,” he tells me. “Bite your sandwich.”

It’s in the machine, I think.

“No, bite it.”

My mouth sticks.

“Oh, it’s an extra gluey, extra greasy peanut butter sandwich. The glue’s stronger than the grease. Your mouth won’t open. Not even if you cut it open with a knife. Add that to the list.”

The list?

“The things you can’t do. List them.”

“Mmmh fffffffff.” I can’t speak. “Mmm.” I can’t read the calculator. “Mffffffffff.” I can’t get my sandwich.

“Good boy,” he says, and pulls my collar. I fall to my hands. “What’s your name?”

“Mm.”

“That’s not a name, that’s a bodily sound. Talk.”

I can’t, I think. I can’t open my mouth. I struggle to get out an mm, but even that’s difficult.

“Talk,” he says.

I notice something.

His lips aren’t moving.

“Now zonk out,” he says. There’s no need to open his mouth. “Fall deep asleep. In your dream you’ll be good at math.”

I look around at the other dragons. No fear, not even any signs of wakefulness. If I felt the way they looked right now, I wouldn’t lift a finger.

I can see that there’s no collar around my neck. I can reach up with my own arms and feel that it isn’t there. It doesn’t stop him from reeling me closer, hand over hand, until our faces touch.

There’s subtle, shifting green at the back of his swamp-black eyes. There’s a whole world there.

He makes a pair of scissors with his fingers, sticks them both up there, turns me over. I’m floating at the top of a creek. I’m something less than a dragon.

I’m a bloated alligator.

Or maybe I’m just a fallen log.

I drift a long time on the surface of the water, not thinking of anything. The birds in this swamp sound familiar. I hear “moron,” and “dummy,” and “doofus,” and it all feels very affectionate, like I’ve got a place of my own in this hidden swamp.

All of the numbers are gone. There’s many things in my surroundings and nobody needs to count them all. I don’t have a name and no one’s going to come up to find me.

I lie on my back and heel at the foot of my master. A warm leather collar feels good around my scaled neck.

The fish in the stream sound like a kobold eating the last couple bites of somebody else’s sandwich.