Orr awoke an hour before his alarm clock. His brain, and the various award ceremonies and numeric adventures of its invention, had sent him tossing and turning throughout the night, such that his exhaustion, despite his suddenly gittery brain, was almost enough to let him back asleep. But, after a few minutes' vain attempt, he rolled, stood, and dressed in a stupor. Then, made his way downstairs to the computer room to twiddle online for some clever contextual units. As the computer turned on, he tripped over to the kitchen, found some cereal and a bowl, and brought them as aids to wakefulness. He returned, closing the door cautiously behind him, and started the audible explosion of dialing up. Google was just becoming popular; AOL was still considered Internet royalty by middle class America; and the song of connecting to the Internet was a largely unconscious annoyance. So, Orr poured himself some cereal and began munching as he waited. And, when, minutes later, the inelegant, fragile behemoth that was AOL 2.0 finally succeeded in its handshaking with the rest of the online world, Orr started searching for miscellaneous facts.
The sun's temperature (on the surface) is 11000 degrees Fahrenheit. A good estimate for a bull's weight is 450 pounds. The average wait time at an emergency room is 222 minutes. The distance between Alaska and Florida is about 5000 (nautical) miles. The volume of the Earth is about 1.0832 x 1021 meters cubed. And, so forth.
Orr compiled a list of about five contextual units each for temperature, weight, length, and volume ranging from the extreme (volume of the Earth) to the benign (weight of a hot dog), when he faintly heard his alarm go off upstairs, and hurried to turn off the computer, and spread around the crumbs left by his casual breakfast eating before his parents awoke, in the hopes of avoiding his mother's wrath at dirtying the carpet. Then he bounded up the stairs, two-and-three at a time, to turn off the alarm and get ready for school.
Chapter II - Wham
Orr would never know it, but his system of contextual units had already been discovered and given the rather droll moniker of the "Personal Understanding Numbers." These numbers had been invented for the sake of computer scientists (though their inventor expected them to also be useful for all scientists, and eventually for all people), who deal with vast numbers in the course of their professional lives, and it is often difficult to really put these numbers in perspective. 228 doesn't seem so much smaller than 258. They both seem so big, that the differences between them are harder to register. A little bit of context will reveal however, that if a computer can do a million things in a millisecond, it can do 228 things in under a second, and 258 things in just over nine years. And, though these sorts of calculations are used most often to frighten new students to the study of computer algorithms, the need for them reveals something important about the human brain: it isn't very good with big numbers. So, our stalwart inventor attempted to create a system that helped people understand the vastness of vast numbers: 258 operations would be: "258 operations that take-ten-years-to-compute!" (the exclamation point is compulsary for almost all Personal Understanding Numbers). While, 228 operations are: "228 operations that can-be-computed-in-under-a-second!"
While the system was less elegant than Orr's, and less expressive to boot (it was useful only for giving context to comparisons between different levels of really big numbers), it received an honor that Orr's never did: on April 28th, 2008, it received a Wikipedia entry. Of course, the entry was only three lines long, enough for a brief description and an example, was written by one of the inventor's friends as a birthday present, and was disputed and removed a month after its insertion, but even this slight honor surpasses the nothing that became of Orr's UTFRs. For, unfortunately, they (along with all things child-prodigy-related) got knocked out of Orr that day at school, only to be returned years later, as happy reminiscence about the innocent pleasures of childhood.
What happened was this: Sarah punched Tom in the face.
Or, contextually, Orr's-sister Sarah punched Orr's-best-friend Tom in the face.
It happened between the first and second periods, in the hall that led to the cafeteria, the gym, and the math classes. Orr was walking to gym class, where he would meet Tom for the first time (of five, including lunch) during the day, and as for any up-and-coming child prodigies, it was an unnecessary evil inflicted upon them by an ignorant and antiquated school system, bent on perpetuating mediocrity, and a constant dummy on which to lay their frustrated hormones. It brought them together by separating them both from everybody else. And, even in doing so, it enlisted them in the larger society of socially inept intellectuals, a society that they would never leave, one that would influence their value systems and their careers, their interests and their musical tastes, and one that, when they would later try to rebel against it, even the act of rebellion would be a true sign of their lifelong membership. People would call them "nerds" for liking math over exercise, or "geeks" for their glasses and cliche appreciation for science fiction, and in a few years, as the e-commerce began to thrive (and then collapse and then thrive again), those same people would covet the term "nerd," and expect to one day see Orr and Tom in the news, now billionaires.
But, today, before the jealousy and the the expected wealth, Orr was approaching gym class, but found the path more and more densely populated as he approached. By the time he was across the hall from the door to the gym, it was difficult to move. Of course, his curiosity now was piqued, and his desire to go to gym class diminished. So, he edged forward, creeping and pushing. His small, slender frame was perfect for weaving through crowds, and he reached the front (which was now dispersing), to see his gruff, malevolent sister bent over a figure, whose dark purple sandals, bone-thin ankles and white khaki shorts made his identity apparent to Orr in one one-hundredth of the time it takes a computer to do 228 operations.
He rushed forward, and tripped/collapsed/knelt to the ground.
He said, "Tom!" This was all he could manage at first.
His sister's head jerked up, and her large, eyelined eyes grew wider still.
She opened her mouth.
She closed her mouth.
Tom moved his head up and twisted his body to the side to face Orr, his back to Sarah. His cheeks were flushed, his glasses off, and his right cheekbone was bright red. There was a cut on the bridge of his nose, bleeding slightly. He smiled and raised his eyebrows, one slightly above the other.
Orr asked, "What happened?"
Tom started to answer, but before he could, Sarah blurted, "I gotta get to class," got up and left for the cafeteria, where she usually waited for third period to begin by playing card games with her friends.
Tom, without turning, yelled "Bye!" But, Sarah didn't answer.
Orr asked, "What happened?"
Tom said, "She surprises me every day." He smiled at Orr, "Your sister, I mean."
Orr nodded, though he did not understand.
Tom said, "What a rush." He laid back down, and said, "I have a confession."
Orr nodded again.
Tom said, "I just asked your sister out."
Orr's nodding had become monotonic: no amount of information, no matter how confusing, could induce it to slow or stop.
Tom turned his head at Orr and grinned. "I never told you, but I've kind of liked her, you know, kind of a lot, since..." he paused and turned back to face the ceiling, "... for a long time."
Tom started tapping his sandals together. He said, "I wonder if I can get out of gym class." He smiled at Orr.
Orr smiled back, automatically, but the action finally ceased his nodding, which finally gave his brain a moment of peace with which to process its new pieces of knowledge. Unfortunately, as it struggled with the precarious word "like," and its incompatibility with the word "sister," the bell rang, splitting his ears and emptying his brain again.
Tom said, "I bet I can get you out too, for a little while at least. Let's go tell him that I have to go to the nurse."
Without waiting for a response, he pushed himself up to his side, and then to a seating position, rocked back-and-forth a bit, and then stood up, teetering.
He smiled at Orr again and said, "What a rush, huh?"
Then, he turned, walked to the gym door, opened it, and walked through, without looking back.
After a short period of shock, it took Orr only a few seconds to process the information presented before it, and he found himself, though still surprised, also rather indifferent. In fact, the whole situation, as it had unfolded itself to him, seemed so preposterous, that he felt almost as though he were at the beginning of an episodic show, and this episode's topic was "Tom loves Sarah," which had no precedent in previous episodes, and would be completely forgotten in next week's episode. Actually, the fact that this metaphor presented itself to Orr was, in itself, more interesting to him than what the metaphor represented. It occurred to him that, actually, he had seen an almost identical plot in any sitcom that had siblings in it. In fact, Orr couldn't think of any pair of television siblings, in which there had been no episode revealing the secret affection a best friend had for a sibling, or a sibling for a best friend. If anything disappointed Orr, it was this: his friend, for all his creativity and disdain for stereotypes, had proved to be an actor in one regardless. But, this too was no huge disappointment.
After leaving gym for the nurse's office, Tom had missed third period geometry as well (which he shared with Orr). And, their next opportunity to see each other was lunch. Here, to Orr's relief, Tom presented himself, holding himself proud, like a wounded hero.
The two friends regularly spent lunch with a group of eight other first-year students, of which only three were ones Orr considered close friends: Kelly (who was, due to her regular position as dungeon master, an unofficial leader and social organizer for the group), Arthur (who had recently proclaimed for himself the title of "Dewy," for his most beloved beverage, though the only nickname that had stuck for him was "Rat," for the rat tail he sported proudly in middle school and had cut without precedent over the previous summer), and Tiffany (who had gone to a different middle school, but had become fast friends with both Tom and Kelly at the beginning of the year, and was now an inseparable part of the group; she had, over the past month, acquired the nickname "Toff," as a combination of "Tiffany" and "Toffy," though the exact etymology deluded even the five of them).
Orr spent fourth period working on English reading and writing, which took place on the fourth floor, so by the time he arrived for lunch, the other eight were already midway through their lunches. As he approached, Tom looked up at him and grinned. His glasses were taped together at the bridge, and his right cheekbone was beginning to look purple.
Orr scooted into the seat next to him, and said, "How are you feeling?"
Tom said, "You should have seen the other guy!" and everybody laughed, Orr included. But, Tom did not, though his eyes twinkled with pride.
When the laughter subsided, and attention was returned to a long-standing conversation between Kelly and Toff about a new campaign on which Kelly had been working for the past two weeks, about how it was going, and when it would be ready, and so forth, Tom looked at each of them in turn, then leaned in and whispered to Orr, "But, seriously, could we talk later?"
Orr smiled, and whispered back, "Sure!" He felt prepared to handle any new twist of this episodic adventure and was excited to see it unfold.
Tom whispered, "Thanks," then, aloud, said, "But, I have to go. Bye, everyone." And, again without waiting, he took his half-eaten lunch, stuffed it back into its bag, threw the bag into his backpack, and sneaked out of the table, still holding the open backpack in both hands.
As he left, Toff said, "He's probably hoping to get his other cheek kissed too!" and Arthur howled with laughter.