Chapter 1: Numbers
At the age of thirteen, Orr considered himself something of a child prodigy. He was slim, wore glasses, couldn't be bothered to clean up his room, but spent hours every day building mammoth structures out of legos, pieces from the various erector sets he owned, and whatever else he happened to find. Four years earlier, his father had brought home a large sheet of tin, and the two had all but sheared and blowtorched it into oblivion, but the resulting inch by inch by inch cube was still a pinnacle on Orr's highest constructs. It currently sat proudly atop a structure two feet larger than Orr himself, which had taken three erector sets and a full third of Orr's lego collection to piece together. Every morning, the sun would shine on the tiny silver block-shaped thing atop the faded-yellow-and-red-and-green-and-silver behemoth that was the pride of Orr's thirteen-year-old life. Orr even prided in its mismatched colors, in the way that the method of the structure's creation was apparent to the eye. It hid nothing about its maker's engineering genius like the tools of our everyday life do.
Of course, as any builder knows, especially one with such limited resources as Orr, almost as relishing as the construction of elegant structures is their ultimate collapse. This, too, took some creativity if the doomed piece of machinery had been designed with as much care as Orr applied to his. A card castle may disappear if one card is tittered too much, but Orr's behemoth, or a clock radio, or a broken camera, these things require a great deal of care to bring down to their component bits, at least if one expects those bits to be functionable after the demise of their whole. Orr had a hammer ready whenever some new piece of equipment arrived (usually from one of his parents) that needed decimating, but he almost never used it. The household screwdrivers were almost always enough. With his own structures, he applied supreme care, analyzing them for as much as an hour beforehand to decide what could be removed and would could not so that the structure would never collapse under its own weight and ruin his beloved pieces. The entire process would take hours, often days, and several more hours if one counted cleaning up the mess that destruction inevitably brings with it (which, of course, Orr always neglected to count).
These activities are perhaps not enough to give one the conclusion of one's own genius, but the proper parental motivation, along with good grades and boredom in school, can have an altogether too-powerful effect on one's self-esteem. And, Orr's self-esteem had surged and swelled, until it encompassed and even overshadowed the structures on which it was partly based. Orr would later come to recognize and despise this ego. He would blame his parents, or more often, himself for not being able to overcome it, but the recognition itself would serve as a further foundation of his intelligence. After all, not all egotists are cunning and self-reflective enough to see their egotism. For now, however, Orr's ego and the question of the morality of possessing it were far from Orr's mind. His chief concern was to be a child prodigy, that is, to produce wondrous things before intelligence could be dimmed by public school.
Orr spent the first two weeks of his third month as a thirteen-year-old pondering what sort of genius he could bring to the world. His obvious first hope was to revolutionize engineering. His experiments with construction and destruction must lead him to a new method, a new idea, that no one had before considered. He started attempting different techniques. He laid a circular base, then a triangular one. He tried two bases that connected higher up, then tried three as a triangle, four as a square, tried connecting them at various levels and made the connectors different shapes. He even, very briefly, experimented with color coordination, but gave it up as unimportant after a few minutes. The giant structure that was currently honored with the silver cube as its pinnacle was roughly hexagonal in that it had six bases, each quite close to its neighbors, such that only four or five legos were enough to connect them. They connected throughout, at various levels, sometimes to their neighbors and sometimes to pillars that lived farther away. At the top, all six came spiraling together (or as close to spiraling as they could given Orr's very non-curved pieces), and came to a small plateau, only two legos wide, on which the cube rested contentedly. The structure represented a nest in its complexity, but it lacked a middle other than the pinnacle and the bridges from one pillar to the next, and before the pinnacle was added, it had looked from above like the three-dimensional equivalent to a very rough sketch of a Star of David surrounded by a circle.
It was grand; it was sprawling; it was complex almost to the point of overwhelming the senses; Orr had never been more proud of anything, nothing he'd built, no grade he'd gotten, not even his first successful venture atop a bicycle, had brought him as much pleasure as the nest in the corner of his room. A few seconds after adorning it, finally, with the cube, and inspecting it thoroughly, with the engineer's glitter in his eye, for any problems that had hitherto evaded his vision, he bounded downstairs, accosted his father in the living room, and demanded his presence at a momentous unveiling. His voice was shrill, even for a boy just entering puberty. His hands were clammy. This, he thought, is the beginning. He assumed that, on seeing it, his father would call the media, or bring around some real experts, and soon, Orr would be standing in front of a podium, smiling to camera flashes and the beginning of a fame-filled life. This image appeared so readily in his head and was so detailed (his tie would be striped red and white), that despite his better judgment, he thought it a prophetic vision about to be made manifest.
Father and son climbed the stairs, Orr well ahead. When Orr reached the middle landing between the two floors, he stopped and turned back to his father. His father was craning his head to the side as he climbed. The words from the television (which his father was attempting to watch) were clearly audible, but Orr could not make them out. At every word, his mind raced more quickly. He imagined his father looking at him on the television, but before it could be made out properly, he started imagining further structures, more complicated. He could not make them out, for they flooded by too quickly, but they were in his head, and they would soon appear less ephemerally, he was sure. His father was bent at a 135 degree angle, which was as close to ninety as his body would take him. He sighed, straightened up, and continued up the stairs more quickly. Orr's fingers twitched, longing to pull his father more quickly, but his brain was too preoccupied to pay them heed.
His father reached the landing, and the two continued up.
Orr felt numb. His brain had started to work so hard that, instead of coming to him quickly, thoughts inched by and took several seconds to form at all. The air felt thick. The inside of his head itched. As he climbed, he managed to convince his hand to scratch the outside, hoping that it would help. It did not. He tried to smile to himself, but that only made his throat itch. He managed to convince his saliva to go down his throat, to soothe it. He reached the top of the stairs. He forgot to wait for his father this time and just continued to his room, holding the banister for support.
This, he thought, is the beginning.
The carpet was crunchy under his bare foot. It felt foreign, and his room looked suddenly foreign, as if through a shimmering portal and not a doorframe with chipping paint. He tried to smile as his fingers brushed against the frame, and he turned to the structure in the corner. It glimmered in the artificial light, the cube as beautiful as ever.
From behind him, he heard his father whistle. "It's big!"
Orr took this statement to be a compliment, though not as awed as he would have liked. It was pretty big, though. He said, "Yeah."
His father said, "It must have taken you all day!"
It had taken the him the afternoons and evenings of Thursday and Friday combined, which Orr figured added up to just about an entire day, so he said, "Just about."
His father turned to him, looked down, smiled, and said, "I'm proud of you, Orr!" He then continued to turn and started moving back down the hall.
The inside of Orr's stomach started to tickle. He blurted, "Wait!"
His father stopped and looked back. "Yeah?"
"Is...?" Nothing was coming to Orr's head, but his stomach had begun to feel cramped, and it was becoming more so by the second. "Is...?"
The words "Is it good?" popped into his head. But, he know that they were wrong. He wanted to ask something else. He wanted to ask if it was something, something indefinable, something brilliant, something new and revolutionary. He really wanted to ask a question about himself, not about the structure, but the only words that made the journey into his inner ear were, "Is it good?" His voice was even feeble in his head, so it was no surprise to him when it sounded feeble coming out of his mouth.
His father smiled. "Oh yeah. Best thing you've built so far!" He walked back down the stairs and, presumably, into the living room.
Orr could not help but feel cheated by his father's untrained eye. But, he was also young, and though he spent the night brooding, the next morning brought a new idea into his head. It came to him as he lay in bed, trying to count how long he'd spent on the structure residing in the corner of his room. He figured that it must have taken about fifteen hours, but it had felt like a lot longer than that, like a journey, an adventure that was just coming to its close. So, he tried to measure it in minutes instead, which came to about nine hundred. That sounded better to him.
He stared at his structure: nine hundred minutes shone in front of him, glistening in the morning sun.
Then, he started to wonder how many seconds it had taken him. That came to about fifty-six thousand. He picked up his watch from the floor and watched a second go by. He thought, fifty-six thousand of those. He watched another second go by, then ten seconds. It felt like a long time, but more than five-thousand of those pieces of time had gone by during the construction of the thing in the corner. That was when the feeling of "adventure completed" started to sink in. He watched another ten seconds go by, and a shiver traveled down his spine. That had really been a long time.
Then, he started to wonder why, in hours, it hadn't seemed long enough, but in ten-seconds it had. What was special about ten-seconds?
He thought about this question for several seconds, watching them slowly move by. The movement was so fluid. Ten seconds couldn't mean anything in particular. But, neither could one second. It was all part of the same fluid movement. A minute, a second, a ten-second: they were all just ways of dividing the same fluid movement. He started counting two-and-a-half seconds to prove it to himself, and time continued to flow, just the same as before, in the same fluid movement. He measured a full minute in two-and-a-half seconds. There were twenty-four of them. Another shiver flowed down Orr's back. Against, he wondered briefly if he were prophetic, but now in a mathematical sense. Had he felt that two-and-a-half seconds would fit so perfectly into sixty? Two-and-a-half had come so easily to him, as if from elsewhere than his own brain. And, yet, it went into a minute as many times as an hour goes into a day.
But, as soon as he started to think about hours and days, thoughts of prophecy were expelled from his brain. What if I did the same thing with hours? Can I measure two-and-a-half hours instead of one?