Hundreds and Thousands

This boy, he walks when he should be sleeping. Consciously, he does it. Chooses to slip clear from the duvet and sit at the edge of his bed before standing. Spread-eagling toes into blue weave of the carpet, hooking them so that the nails catch on finest loose threads.

A breath then, deep, and he is upright, in a rivermud-dark room, and he begins, with hesitance, to move. As he moves, he fixes his eyes shut, practising something. Practising counting. An important skill, especially in experimental situations such as this. He counts, each night, the number of footsteps from the point he rises to the patch of slightly worn-smooth carpet just before the door. He remembers the totals, takes a weekly average. Goes back over them, studies these figures for trends. Over the past months, this average has decreased. This boy is growing.

His counting habit – a hobby, really – is not limited to simple steps. On his way back towards the bed each night this boy pauses, slides each sole sideways against the carpet grain, and, whilst those slides are underway, a finer calculator inside of him starts up. The number of lines on the ball of each foot that the carpet ruffles as it is overswept. The number of woven rows – like tidal breakers, when he scans them in the light – that those lines pass over. Not easy tasks, either of them. Less easy still when he attempts the count concurrently, and, admittedly, he wasn’t very precise at all at first. But this boy, he is a quick learner, and now he thinks that he can get the number within one or two each time. He impresses himself with this secretive skill – in maths class, he barely scrapes by with Bs.

When he walks that pathway hanging coastal round his bed at night, however, this boy is practising more than mathematics. The art of seeing with organs other than his eyes has long intrigued him, of being more aware; tales of bats and whales with sonar. An extension of his youthful urge towards inquiry, perhaps. A superhero fantasy, the development into preternaturality achieved through nothing other than this commitment and application of his will. The will that keeps him rising every night to test his memory, and glory in the chill air that brushes each well-catalogued hair upon his cocktail-sausage toes.

This development, this progress, has made him think, dangerously, of taking his barefoot experiment elsewhere. Increasingly, he wants to work further afield, all the while when he should be sleeping. Onto the landing, past his parents’ door. Onto the descending stairs. Into the living room. The dining room. Kitchen. And so, tonight, this boy does.

Exhilaration, that’s what it is. His first transgression against his bedtime curfew is a strange one, perhaps, but this only fuels his thoughts of being more than normal in some way. This is not the step that most children would have taken. These are not the steps.

On the landing, he counts the carpet rows – streaky beige, like a beach, in the daytime – and settles each foot with a delicacy that bangs against the borders of his boyish self-control. A creak now would be disastrous, would wake his mother, see him taken back to bed and made to sleep. See him watched, perhaps, on future nights, and all his practise go to waste.

Soundless, though, the transition to the stairs is made. He counts each jutting jowl of wood, imagining it for a second as a long-necked dinosaur’s open spine. For a second only, because thoughts like that become distracting, suggest he is too young and tired for a demonstration such as this. Not this boy, though. Not this boy.

The door to the living room opens with less sound than a breath, and he enters and then freezes as it shuts like a snore. A light one, but a snore nonetheless. In his stilled stance, he listens for any movement upstairs. Clumsy, adult movement. The kind that doesn’t give full credence to the quantity of lines upon each sole, or the quality and tightness of the carpet weave.

All remains quiet, and so he walks on. Counting the steps to the dining room table, which he almost bangs into but doesn’t, because his eyes come open just before. The pressure of keeping them shut this whole time has been telling. Little headaches building up to a shake in each temple, and again sending his excitement sagging to doubt.

Still, this boy doesn’t stop, and walks around the table, tracing fingers upon its upper edges and toes between the stanchions at its base. Counting their number and the seconds that it takes to cross the gap in between.

But the cold of the carpetless kitchen comes unanticipated and he’s forced to halt, hold up, and for several moments his calculations are confused and the subject of his next tally is uncertain. His soles are numb. Like someone turned the lights down on the sight that he was cultivating there. He knows he’ll have to wait it out, wait for the skin to readjust.

Once it has, this boy elects to slip his feet across the lino, rather than taking simple steps. Decides to count the separated squares of it – grey and slate-effect, like a car park. There are more than he’d have guessed. He makes another pass to verify his findings. Must always be meticulous. Always get the answer right.

There are more than he’d have guessed, and yet still it seems a low number. The sudden coldness of the floor has woken him, perked his senses, and the kitchen doesn’t feel a fitting challenge for his talents anymore. Opening his eyes, he looks towards the door that leads outside.

Shoes would make a mockery of this, and so he risks it, steps out onto a way-past-midnight paving slab, and, whilst it is chilled, the linoleum has helped prepare him for the shock. The rest of him shivers but his feet they function fine.

They function and are faultless in their count of flags as he moves across the top end of the driveway to the garden, to the grass. Because it is indeed the lawn that he has realised should provide a suitable measure of the talent that he’s taught himself, that should let him demonstrate that talent’s worth.

That he is aware of the light being switched on somewhere behind him doesn’t stop his first sweet step onto the green, and when the second follows it is almost just about too much. Trained to recognise and register what’s underneath them, his feet transmit through complexity of nervous system a message to his brain. Higher numbers than he’s dealt with yet. Each blade of grass and plant leaf charted, added to the one before. Each bare dot of mud between made note of. Further steps seem risky but he takes them nonetheless.

Calculations being processed far more quickly now. Whole number is into the hundreds and then pushing at one thousand, pushing at two. Whole number is under control and he starts to think that he is truly special, that he could teach this technique as a form of meditation and become a millionaire, that—

This boy’s mother starts calling him, and suddenly his concentration wavers. The count is lost, and he simply stands there, tempted but too tired to start over again. Despite the temperature, he has actually perspired.

His heartbeat is fast.

He hears his mother call him once more across the grey and the black and the dark green of the garden. She thinks he is difficult.

She hasn’t tried this.

Dan Micklethwaite lives, writes and film-watches in West Yorkshire, UK. His stories have featured or are forthcoming in a range of magazines and journals, including BULL: Men’s Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, Notes from the Underground, 3:AM Magazine and The View From Here. Other examples of his work can be found on his blog:

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