* CHAPTER 3.787
“Wake … up … wake … up … wake … up …” whispered the alarm clock next to the bed and the head of Brad Infinitum.
Brad sat up, rubbed his eyes, looked at the clock, saw it was August, pressed the snooze button and went back to sleep.
“WAKEUPWAKEUPWAKEUP” went the alarm clock again, faster and louder this time, echoing throughout the castle high atop Mount L’amoeba.
Brad sat up, rubbed his eyes, looked at the clock, saw it was September and got out of bed.
As he always did after a good long sleep – about six years this time – Brad liked to wake up with a nice hot bowl of alphabet soup.
He was in the middle of eating – between the K’s and the O’s – when he noticed he wasn’t hearing a peep out of his pet parakeet, Pi.
Still slurping, Brad headed to the nesting room, where Pi lived and flitted and slept.
The door to the room was open.
Brad gasped, and when he gasped, a soup letter stuck in his throat.
He gasped and coughed, running from room to room.
“Pli,” he called out. That didn’t sound right. “Pli,” he tried again, “Clome to Papal, Pli.”
No Pi anywhere. Brad went back to the nesting room and saw a note on the floor. It read:
“WE HAVE YOUR BIRD. MEET US AT THE HARBOR AT BLANK O’CLOCK … IN BLANK HOURS … JUST BE THERE SOON. WE’LL BE AT DOCK BLANK … JUST LOOK FOR THE BIG BIG BOAT.”
What do those blanks mean? Brad wondered. And where’s Pi? And why did I have to get an L in my throat?
Brad picked up the phone to call the doctor’s office. But just before he started pushing the buttons for the numbers, he noticed there WERE no numbers. Just blank buttons.
Now what? Brad wondered. Pi’s gone, there’s an L in my throat and all the phone numbers are missing. I’d better get to town.
* CHAPTER 3.788
Brad got dressed and jumped on his HiPi-ByePi-Cycle. It had a cage right between the handlebars. Pi loved to go on bike rides, and people would always say, “Hi, Pi” and “Bye, Pi” as they passed.
But there was no Pi this time, just an empty cage clattering as Brad headed to Valleyvale, at the base of Mount L’amoeba.
There were people everywhere. That wasn’t so unusual – Valleyvale was usually bustling – but it was what they were doing that made Brad stop and stare.
Actually, it was what they were NOT doing.
They were not doing much of anything.
There was a crowd standing underneath the big clock in the center of town, nodding their heads. They were looking up at the clock, then looking down at their watches, then tapping their watches, then looking back up at their big clock, over and over again.
“Whatl is thisl?” Brad asked a man in the crowd. (That L, getting in the way again.)
“Brad Infinitum, glad you’re here,” said the man. “It’s not a thistle, it’s a disaster. Look at the clock. Look at the store signs. Numbers have all disappeared. Just look.”
There were people standing in long lines going all the way out the doors of the movie theater and the grocery store and everywhere else. The longest line was the one coming out of the bank.
“Needl help?” Brad said to a woman in line at the bank.
“Oh, Brad Infinitum, thank you for offering, but a needle wouldn’t help right now. We’re waiting until the numbers come back so we can get money out of the bank. And those people at the stores are waiting to find out how much to pay. You have to help us.”
“I’m gloing right awayl,” Brad said.
“Don’t worry about glowing, just go!” the woman called after him. “And who cares if a whale’s right or not! Just get our numbers back!”
* CHAPTER 3,789
The missing numbers will have to wait, Brad thought. Pi, too. I have to get rid of this letter first.
Brad rode his HiPi-ByePi-Cycle to the nearest doctor’s office. On the door it said EAR, NOSE AND THROAT.
“May I help you?” said the nurse at the desk.
“I’m slick,” said Brad.
“Yes, Mr. Infinitum, you look quite slick, but what exactly is wrong?”
Brad pointed to his throat. “Owl.”
“You have an owl in your throat? That sounds serious.”
Brad took some paper and drew a sideways L inside a neck.
“Oh, you have a letter stuck in your throat. Why didn’t you say so?”
“I didl,” said Brad.
“Well, if you’d been talking instead of diddling, maybe we could have found out sooner what was wrong,” said the nurse. “Let’s find a doctor. Let’s see – the ear doctor’s aching and the nose doctor’s running late. Let me see if I can grab the throat doctor. This way, please.”
The nurse took Brad to an examination room. After a while a doctor came in, wearing a long white lab coat.
“Hi there. I’m Dr. D. Dweezil Duckway, MD, PhD, GED, ID, CD, TD, DOD, LOD, JYD, PD, RFD and, of course, DVD.”
“That’s a lot of D’s,” Brad wrote on the paper.
“I wasn’t a great student,” Dr. Duckway said. “I wanted to be a musician, but my best was a D-flat. Now what seems to be the problem?”
Brad showed Dr. Duckway the drawing.
“Can’t expel the L, eh? Open your mouth and say ah.”
“Hmmm … again,” Dr. Duckway said.
“Stop that singing,” said Dr. Duckway. “Oh, yes, I see it now. You have a mild inflection.”
Brad wrote a large ? on the paper.
“An inflection, but a mild one. You’re talking with an extra letter – looks like an L. The scientific name is consonitis. Come with me, please.”
* CHAPTER 3,790
Dr. Duckway led Brad into another room. Here the walls were lined with cabinets reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Each cabinet had row upon row of tiny little trays with tiny little names printed on them.
“This is the ment room,” said Dr. Duckway. “After years of fighting ailments with the usual treatments and ointments and linaments, I realized I could probably cure just about anything with the right kind of ment. So I started making some. My first experiment was a success, and now there’s almost nothing a ment can’t cure.
“Loose tooth? Have a cement.
“Back out of whack? A little alignment should straighten you out.
“Feeling blue? Amusement, enjoyment or merriment can help with that.”
AMAZING, Brad wrote on the paper.
“It would be, with the right amount of amazement,” said Dr. Duckway. “Now, let’s see what we can do for you.”
Dr. Duckway ran his finger along the names on the tiny little trays. “Let’s see … P … P … P … Parliament, no … pavement, payment, pigment … no, your color looks fine … a-ha! Here it is.”
He pulled out a tiny tray. “Pronouncement. It’s a little hard to swallow, but it should clear you right up.”
HOW MANY, Brad wrote as the doctor handed him some small pills, all shaped like an X.
“Don’t know,” said Dr. Duckway. “Can’t tell without any numbers on the label. Strangest thing, the numbers all disappearing. Just take your medicine. And come back anytime. Something I’ve never been able to make is an appointment.”
With a big drink of water, Brad gulped down the X pills. “Thankx yul,” he said, then sighed – more of a sligh, actually.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Duckway said. “Only a temporary side effect. It’s just the X’s up against the L. Now I must go. I have another patient who just needs a moment – he’s been waiting for days.”
Brad headed for the harbor.
* CHAPTER 3.791
Harbor-bound on his HiPi-ByePi-Cycle, Brad pedaled to the sound of Pi’s cage clattering, but now another sound joined in – a flappeting sort of sound. Brad slowed down, and the flappeting slowed, too. When he speeded up, so did the flappeting.
He stopped and looked the bike over. He saw something stuck to one of the tires. It was a number. A number! He carefully peeled it off and looked at it. It was a 45, made dirty and ragged from the tire rolling over it again and again. Someone must have dropped it, he thought. He carefully folded up the number and put it in his pocket.
Once at the harbor, Brad rode past all the boats. And then he saw it. It was HMS Naughthawk written on it, and it was the biggest ship he had even seen. Bigger than any ship that ever carried people or coal or cars. But instead of people or coal or cars, it was piled high, piled to the sky, with numbers.
All kinds of numbers, all shapes and sizes of numbers: numbers from mailboxes, numbers from race cars, numbers from pennies, nickels, dimes, numbers from phone books, even the numbers from recipes for how to make the perfect meat loaf. Numbers numbers numbers, as high as the eye could see.
“I think we have them all,” said a voice behind Brad.
Brad turned around. And looked up. There stood a man in a long brown coat. He must have been twice as tall as Brad was on his best day … and this wasn’t Brad’s best day.
“Hi, I’m Harry,” the man said, smiling.
“Harry. I preside over the Indivisible Order of Anathematics.”
“The order of what? … Hey, I can talk!” said Brad. The pronouncement had worked. The L was no longer stuck in his throat.
“Well, of course you can talk,” said Harry. “But that’s not the point. We’re the Anathematics – we’re here to collect all the numbers.”
* CHAPTER 3,792
“But why take all the numbers?” Brad said to Harry, he of the Indivisible Order of Anathematics.
“Simple, really,” said Harry. “Though man invented numbers, those numbers have come to rule man. All your life you are measured or gauged or counted in some way. How fast were you going? How much is that doggie in the window? Your life is just one calculation after another.”
“But that’s how the world works,” said Brad.
“Your world, perhaps, but not ours,” said Harry. “We live in a land without numbers. We are not beans to be counted, nor are we chickens or noses or heads. We believe not only in the letter of the law, but that letters ARE the law.” He whispered, “Besides, we always hated math in school.”
He continued: “But because you insist on living that way, even your days are numbered.”
“Our days? Numbered? How many do we have left?” asked Brad.
“Who knows?” Harry said. “But we can’t take the chance that when your number is up, that ours will be, too. So we’re collecting all the numbers and taking them home to Zilchville. Let’s go. You’ll see your bird soon.”
Harry and Brad boarded the Naughthawk and headed out to the open sea.
Harry told Brad more about the Indivisible Order of Anathematics. They weren’t going to dump the numbers overboard, nor bury them in a cave. Their plan was to take the numbers back to Zilchville and fix them, or “reconfigure” them, as Harry called it.
With a little bending here, some hammering and chiseling there, they were going to take every 1 and make an i out of it. The same with the 3 – it would be turned into a B. The 7 would become an L, and 6 and 9 could be made a b or d or q or p. The 0, of course, would make a fine o. Then the Anathematics would bring them all back, and everyone everywhere would live by the letter.
* CHAPTER 3.793
As the HMS Naughthawk pushed through the waves, Brad noticed for the first time other things amid all the numbers. “What’s all those?” he asked.
“Oh, that,” Harry said. “Once we collected all the numbers, we found it necessary to collect all those objects that have numbers for names. So we collected every nine-iron, eight ball, seven of diamonds (and clubs and spades and hearts), six-shooter, high five, four-leaf clover, three-piece suit, Number Two pencil, and, of course, every one-horse open sleigh. But just the sleigh, not the horse.”
“What, no 10-gallon hats?” Brad joked.
Harry stared hard at Brad. “Perhaps on our return trip.”
He continued: “Anyway, that brings us to your bird. We have a favor to ask. We need you to give him another name.”
“Change his name from Pi? Why?” Brad asked.
“The last thing we need is Pi flying about to remind everyone of never-ending numbers. They might start to want their numbers back. Come, let’s go see your bird.”
Harry led Brad down and around and deep inside the ship to a dark gray passageway with a series of doors. “Funny, we haven’t heard a peep out of your bird since we collected him,” Harry said, unlocking one of the doors.
“Pi?” said Brad as he stepped into the room. From the shadows he heard a rustle of feathers. “Pi? Come to papa, Pi.”
In a burst of color and flight – so quickly that you couldn’t tell he had been in the air at all – the parakeet was out of the shadows and perched on Brad’s shoulder, rubbing his little yellow beak against Brad’s cheek.
“Pi … good to see you,” whispered Brad.
Pi began to sing.
“3 … 1 … 4 …”
Harry’s eyes grew wide. “What’s that … that sound?”, he cried.
“That’s Pi’s song,” said Brad. “Sing, Pi, sing.”
“… 1 … 5 … 9 … 2 … 6 …”
Harry ran from the room screaming.
* CHAPTER 3.794
Harry ran through the ship as Pi gave chase, singing merrily, thinking it all a great game.
“ … 5 … 3 … 5 …”
The Anathematics fell all over each other as they tried to escape the sounds echoing off the walls.
“… 8 … 9 … 7 … 9 …”
Some even jumped overboard.
“… 3 … 2 … 3 … 8 … 4 … 6 …”
“Enough!” Harry screamed. “We’ll return the numbers. Just make him stop!”
Brad nodded at Pi, who stopped singing. “You’d better, or you’ll never hear the end of this,” and again nodded at Pi.
“… 2 … 6 … 4 … 3 …”
At the sound, Harry stumbled against the ship’s sink-or-swim switch, pushing it to “sink.”
Which the HMS Naughthawk promptly did.
The ship slipped into the dark sea, taking down with it every number and every numbered name. Not even a single four-leaf clover remained.
In those few moments, Brad managed to grab Pi and jump in a lifeboat. He saw the Anathematics in lifeboats, too, heading back to Zilchville.
As Brad paddled, he thought about how the world would be different. How will people know their shoe size? How many strikes and you’re out at the old ball game? All for the lack of numbers.
Numbers. Then he remembered. He felt his pocket. Still there!
He carefully pulled out the 45. It was soggy now, as well as dirty and ragged. He laid it out in the sun to dry.
He neared the harbor, seeing only a woman standing there, wearing an orange jacket that said IN on the front and SPECTOR on the back.
Brad told her how the numbers had been lost at sea. He showed her the soggy, dirty, ragged – and now faded from the sun – 45.
“A number …” she whispered. “This looks like a job for…”
“For me, right?” Brad said.
“No, sorry. This looks like a job for …” She pulled out a walkie-talkie and shouted, “THE CORRECTOR SECTOR!”
* CHAPTER 3.795
A fleet of black cars came screaming up. People in dark glasses and dark coats got out.
“Meet the CORRECTOR SECTOR,” the woman said. “The Director here is in charge of things. I’m the Inspector; I keep a close eye on things. This is the Dissector, who takes things apart, and the Reconnector, who puts things back together. And, finally, the Protector, who’ll make sure we work safely. Whether it’s a bomb or a bread crumb, you have to be extra careful.
“Here’s the situation, team,” she continued. “We only have this one number to work with. Let’s hope it’s enough.”
“Hey, what about me?” said a voice from the group. “Just because I think this is a bad idea – ”
The Inspector sighed. “Don’t mind him,” she said to Brad. “That’s the Objector. He never wants to do anything.”
Carefully carrying the soggy, dirty, ragged, faded 45, the CORRECTOR SECTOR went to a big warehouse nearby. They crowded into a small room, laid the 45 on a table and closed the door behind them.
Brad and Pi sat outside. Every so often they heard voices – “Clamps! … Gently … Tie it right there … Don’t we need someone more skilled in the numeric arts?” (that last voice was the Objector).
At last the Inspector emerged. “You can come in now,” she said to Brad.
There, laid out across the table, all fresh and new, was a row of perfect little numbers. A 1. And a 2. And a 3, a 4, a 5, a 6, a 7, an 8 and a 9.
“A complete set,” the Inspector said proudly, “all healthy.”
“And the 45?” Brad asked.
“Just fine,” said the Inspector.
Brad frowned. “But there’s no zero.”
“Ah, over here,” the Inspector said. “Just when we thought there was nothing more left, it popped out. Would you like to hold a number?”
Brad cradled a 1 in his hands. “Hello, little one,” he said to it. “Will people be glad to see you.”
* CHAPTER 3.796
Brad bundled up all the little numbers and hurried to the nearest factory. Luckily, it was a factory of widgets and whatchamacallits and such, so the people there knew a lot about little thingamabobs and how to make them.
Brad told the factory manager that he had numbers, ALL the numbers, but he needed a lot more. Fast.
The manager set to work right away. He had the machinery and assembly lines turn out numbers instead of widgets, whatchamacallits and thingamabobs. Soon the factory was humming with numbers by the hundreds … then by the thousands … then by the millions. They were shipped out and put back into computers and clothing tags and especially meat loaf recipes.
Other factories joined in to make numbers of different sizes. Soon those numbers reappeared on billboards and elevators and especially big rumbling race cars. Still other factories were enlisted to replace all the nine-irons and eight balls and the like.
It was decided that Brad should keep the 45, since he was the one who had found it. He put it up at his castle and for the first time in his long, long life, he had an actual address: 45 Mount L’amoeba Lane. And a nice new mailbox, too.
In time (now that there was time again, with numbers back on clocks and calendars), life returned to the way it had been. People counted their money and took calculated risks. They weighed decisions and added on to their houses.
But in schools here and there, some children – one or two or maybe more – groaned their way through math class again. They had liked living without numbers. For one thing, they liked not having to be told to eat the last five bites of broccoli.
So they sat there, staring at their math books, counting the seconds until the end of class, counting the hours until the end of school, counting the days until they themselves might run away and become … Anathematics.
(note: this ran in the charlotte observer and the providence journal in 2006)