Safety In Numbers – A Short Story

*This short story was entered into a competition – winners will be announced in October!*

Charlie didn’t know what was worse. Parents that fought all the time or parents that didn’t fight at all. That’s how it was in his home. His parent’s relationship reminded him of a cheap, sickly-sweet cake with those artificial and altogether unhealthy metallic balls on top. There was no obvious terrible taste but the toxic sugar made it unbearable to digest. Charlie had never seen his parents yell, scream, argue, throw things or slam doors but he had witnessed, since childhood, all of the things they didn’t say. They would fight through forced smiles, gritted teeth and passive aggressive, passing comments. At first, Charlie hadn’t been able to read between the lines; naively impressed by how together his parents appeared but as he had entered adolescence, it became all too clear that they were both terrified of confrontation. His mother would open the fridge and with a strained laugh remark, “your father forgot to pick up the lemon squash again.” His father would walk past the dining table where Charlie ate breakfast in silence, pick up a fashion magazine and winking halfheartedly at his son, say “your mother sure loves indulging when the finances are tight.” Whilst the instances were small, Charlie would pick up on their undertones of resentment, annoyance, frustration and disappointment.

Charlie would find himself wandering through their cold, vintage home wishing he wasn’t an only child. He would stare into the spare-room filled with dusty musical instruments and boring paintings, imagining that it was the cool, decorated bedroom of his older brother or sister. Preferably, they would have a license and their own car so they could whisk him away to a movie or an impromptu road trip. They would understand his hatred and empathise. They would scream at his parents to be normal whilst he stood behind, silently cheering them on. Charlie spent most of his time in his own room, solving complex mathematical problems or browsing video game stores for things he wanted and couldn’t afford. He attended an impoverished public highschool that had hazardous holes in the grass, dilapidated classrooms and rusty, worn benches to sit and each lunch. The only two things he enjoyed were his maths classes with Mr Ludlow and the school library where he could bury himself away in books and projects. He didn’t have a single friend and only spoke when spoken to. His mother would drop him off every morning by the front gates, rub his sandy thin hair and tell him to come straight home after school. He would spend the day avoiding Martin Kingston, an older portly bully with green eyes and black hair who despised him, and would race out the front gate the minute the bell rang. Sometimes, he wasn’t fast enough and Martin would pull him over by the gigantic green bins filled with uneaten lunches, report cards kids didn’t want their parents to see and used tampons. Martin never spoke, he just pinned Charlie against the stinking receptacles and hurt him in places covered by his clothing. Charlie didn’t speak either. In a strange twisted way, he enjoyed it. At least Martin was not afraid to release his anger unlike his parents. It always surprised him to see Martin’s face turn red; tears rolling down his puffy cheeks as his fists pummelled Charlie’s lean frame. Charlie had no idea why Martin hated him so much. He had never told anybody and he didn’t cry. He accepted his beating and trudged home when it was over.

When he arrived home, his parents would usually be on opposite ends of the house shouting their greetings. Charlie ignored them, threw his backpack on his bed and took a shower, marvelling at the splotches of black and purple adorning his skinny limbs. What did he know about confrontation? His father had never taught him how to defend himself. His mother had never raised her voice in her life. His emotional toolkit was empty. He emerged from the hot water, fresh and sore. Charlie spent the hours before dinner writing up new mathematical theorems, formulas and solving problems. He gazed at the world map hanging on the back of his wardrobe and coloured in the places he desired to explore.  Europe was top of his list but so was Japan, Peru, Capetown, Mexico and New Zealand. Once he reached 15, he would get a job and save. He would finish school, spend a year travelling the world and on return, look for a place to move into. His only requirement: far, far away from the two people who had raised him.

Dinners were the worst. Charlie had nothing to say and every word uttered from his mother and father made him feel sick to the stomach. He couldn’t exactly identify the emotion but it felt a lot like rage should. The following conversation was delivered with permanent phony smiles:

“John, did you ask your brother if we could borrow his lawn mower? The grass is going to grow into quite a jungle soon.” Cue false laugh.

“Not yet Helen. Not all of us have the luxury of time.” Cue irritating wink at Charlie.

“Oh of course! There are reruns to watch and computer games to play.” Cue shrill giggle.

“Yes those long hours I work do justify some ‘me’ time.” Cue eyebrow wiggle.

“I’m looking forward to ‘me’ time when I no longer have to clean up after two lazy boys.” Cue nauseating grin.

“Well at least it gives you something to do.” Cue embellished hearty chuckle.

Charlie dug his fork into his potatoes watching the steam rise. It was like this every single day. Surely it wasn’t normal for a child to wish his parents would just lay into each other for once? He hated them.

“So Charlie,” his mother focused her fakeness on him. “Did you have a good day at school?”

Charlie shrugged in response and poured himself some juice.

“Do you know what Mr Ludlow’s mid-term will involve?” His father enquired.

Charlie shook his head and spooned a few more potatoes onto his plate.

“Our son isn’t much of a talker,” his mother leaned forward and ruffled his hair in her usual unwanted fashion.

“I suppose he just can’t get a word in sometimes,” his father smiled.

“Maybe more effort could be made,” his mother teased.

“Perhaps one shouldn’t be too self-centred,” his father joked.

Charlie slammed his glass of juice onto the wooden table with such force it shook. His parents looked up in surprise.

“Err…can I please be excused?”

The pair nodded, still beaming. He shot them a look of loathing and ran into his room.

Opening his wardrobe door, he circled the entire country of Europe vigorously with a red pen and threw it against the wall.

For as long as Charlie could remember, he loved numbers. Numbers made sense. They were logical, reliable and safe. They didn’t say one thing and mean another. They were honest and straightforward. Charlie was Mr Ludlow’s star pupil. His teacher would purposely set the class long, complicated problems knowing that his brightest student would solve them by the end of the day. In his latest parent/teacher interview, Mr Ludlow had proudly told John and Helen Brooks how engaged and eager Charlie was. He remembered Martin glaring at him in line as he waited for a dismal report with his mother. Nobody knew if Martin had a father & alas, he didn’t excel in academics the way he did physical education.

His parents had cheerily sniped at one another the whole way home on where their son had attained his mathematical gifts.

“Problem solving definitely runs on the Brooks side of the family,” his father chuckled.

“Something has to!” His mother cackled.

Charlie had stuffed his headphones into his ears and turned the volume up. He kept telling himself he only had to live with them for a few more years…

One afternoon, Mr Ludlow asked to see Charlie after class. He tentatively stepped toward his teacher, looking into his kind brown eyes.

“Charlie, as you know by now, you’re my brightest student and this year, we have the budget to enter into the Mathletics Competition. I would like you to represent Henley High and compete against the other nominated schools. Does this sound interesting to you?”

Charlie’s face grew hot. He recognised the rare emotion of happiness and excitement. He nodded in response.

“Wonderful! You will need to study all areas of the curriculum in order to be prepared. Will your parents allow you to be tutored once a week, say on a Tuesday evening? From 6 to 7? The competition will take place in exactly two months so you have time.”

Charlie nodded again with more enthusiasm. He couldn’t see why they wouldn’t allow him to have extra tutoring plus any excuse to be away from the house sounded perfect. The bell sounded and Charlie muttered his thanks before racing out the door and through the front gate. Martin hadn’t beaten him to it this time. It was turning out to be a pretty good day…

His parents were out grocery shopping when Charlie got home so he stole the last chocolate muffin and locked himself in his room. He pulled out his mathematics textbook and began poring over fractions, percentages and decimals. Tutoring once a week wouldn’t be enough to keep his mind sharp. After an hour, he lay on his bed and threw his small rubber ball against the wall imagining the glory of winning the Mathletics. He hadn’t asked what first prize was but he was hoping for money to put into his savings. He heard the front door opening and his parents talking in the hallway. The familiar coil of resentment snaked its way around his nervous system. He heard his father yell out “hey sport!” Charlie shouted back so they wouldn’t have to check up on him. He opened his wardrobe, underlined Brazil and went to take a shower. When his parents called him down for dinner, he had a plan. Eat quickly, ask the question and leave. Don’t give them a chance to start ‘bickering’.

Charlie sat down to a big bowl of pesto pasta and a side of garden salad. He shovelled in mouthfuls of his dinner and slurped his juice.

“Wow, someone is hungry this evening,” his mother chuckled.

“Well, he is a growing boy who isn’t fed adequate servings Helen,” his father chortled.

“I suppose that’s what happens when nobody is around to help me,” his mother laughed.

“Mum, Dad can I please ask you something?” Charlie interrupted. He already felt ill from poor digestion and the way they ‘communicated’ was like nails down a chalkboard.

“Sure sport,” his father smiled.

“Mr Ludlow offered me an opportunity today,” Charlie pushed his bowl into the centre of the dining table indicating he was full.

“What kind of opportunity honey?”

“Well, he said that this year our school was having a Mathletics Competition and they want me to represent the school in two months…”

His parents both leapt up from their seats in excitement.

“How wonderful!” His mother crooned. “That’s our son!” His father beamed.

Charlie should’ve been pleased but their typical dramatic outburst irritated him. They loved good news because that’s what they could handle. Anything negative was brushed under the rug and ignored. If he was hit by a car, would they laugh and say “well honey maybe if you had picked him up…?”

“Mr Ludlow would like to tutor me every Tuesday evening at 6pm for an hour so I can be prepared. Is that okay?”

His parents exchanged glances and Charlie felt a little thrill. He had just remembered Tuesday evening’s was his mother’s yoga class and that meant his father would have to pick him up. His father hated leaving the house once he came home from work. He had done his duty for the day. His mother could pick him up but her studio was on the other side of town and it would be inconvenient to drive all that way and back. Would they finally argue about who should do it?

They stared at each other in silence for several moments; nobody blinking or breathing. Charlie could hear the grandfather clock ticking away in the living room. Finally, his father spoke:

“Helen your class finishes at 7:30…could Charlie wait for you at the school?”

For the first time in his life, Charlie saw his mother’s lip curl momentarily in anger but in a flash, she went back to a smile.

“John, it’s not fair for Charlie to wait half an hour. Can you please pick him up as the school is so close to home and nowhere near my yoga studio?”

His father bit his lip and through sheer will forced a grin. “I suppose it’s all about compromise isn’t it buddy?”

Charlie looked away before he caught sight of his father’s maddening wink.

He went to bed feeling defeated. It wasn’t enough that they had approved his tutoring. They had been so close to an argument and still…nothing. Charlie used to picture them screaming and hurling abuse at one another whilst he danced in the corner. He was a sick kid but they had made him that way.

Monday afternoon, Charlie was accosted by Martin and dragged to the bins. As per usual, he allowed his bully to punch, kick and shove him around. He barely noticed the pain; excited about his first tutoring session tomorrow. Typically, their one-on-one sessions were silent but this time Martin was whispering ‘maths nerd’ over and over as his fists connected with Charlie’s sides. Did Martin know about the Mathletics or was he upset about his last parent/teacher interview? Charlie averted his eyes; a stoneless expression on his face until Martin had gotten it out of his system. His bully ran off and Charlie meandered home.

After school on Tuesday, Charlie was studying in the library until 6pm. He could’ve gone home and walked back but the wind was icy and his parents didn’t like him being outside when it was getting dark. He was sitting in his usual corner at the back behind the stacks of geographical atlases with his calculator and textbook out. There were only a few students left milling about or sitting at the computers with headphones plugged in. Mrs Welsh, the school librarian, was cleaning out the private Year 12 study lab which was always filled with food wrappers and handwritten notes that were thrown around in protest of not being able to speak. Charlie loved the peace and quiet. Later on in life, he would be labelled an introvert but the trait wasn’t inaccurate. He was a boy of quality not quantity and thus far in his adolescent journey, he hadn’t found any friends worth spending time with. They didn’t understand his need to unwind. They didn’t fit in with his plan of future solo travel. They would mock his desire to become a mathematics lecturer at a University one day. What was the point? He certainly wouldn’t want to invite any of them over for dinner. They would have normal parents that fought and he would be filled with envy. As for girlfriends, forget it. All the girls in his grade saw him as the weird geek that never spoke. He had it all planned out. In Europe, he would have his first fling with a woman that didn’t even need to speak English. They would spend a week together and then never see one another again. As a man, he would meet a fellow mathematical professor and they could start a life together far away from his parents. He would tell her they were dead. He would yell at her when she annoyed him and she would yell back. It would be the happiest marriage. Their children would be exposed to the highs and lows of emotions. They would be content and they would never be bullied. Mr Ludlow sat with Charlie at 6pm in the unobtrusive corner of the library and began preparing for the Mathletics Competition. His teacher explained that there would be ten students in total from competing schools. The students would have to solve problems that became progressively harder each round. Charlie liked the sound of this. He would study so hard that no problem could stump him.

“What is the prize?” Charlie mumbled, looking up from his book.

“First prize is $100 and a brand new, scientific calculator for students to use when they advance to Maths Methods in Year 11,” Mr Ludlow smiled.

$100 was a lot to a 13 year old boy and he had been dreaming of owning that calculator since Primary School. It was incredibly expensive. He nodded at his teacher and got to work.

At 7pm, Charlie was surprised to see his mother waiting for him outside the front gate in their small black Honda.

“Your father called me to say he wasn’t feeling well so here I am,” she smiled.

He could tell she was bothered but her expression remained pleasant. What was she so afraid of? He wasn’t an idiot.

They drove home in silence; his mother not asking once about his tutoring session. Had she asked, he would’ve told her about the first prize but as she hadn’t, he slumped in the passenger seat and stared out the window into the cold, dreary night. In the driveway, before they got out of the car, Charlie found himself saying the words he had always pictured himself saying:

“Why don’t you tell Dad you’re angry?’”

“Angry about what?” His mother turned to him, a wisp of strawberry blonde hair covering her left eye.

“That he didn’t pick me up when he said he would. I know it bothers you…”

His mother let out a condescending laugh. “Oh Charlie, I wouldn’t want to rock the boat now.”

The boat has never been rocked! Charlie wanted to scream. He realised in that moment he had zero respect for both of his parents. They had no sense of honesty and were quite frankly, dithering cowards. Numbers are reliable, number make sense. That night Charlie dreamt of winning first prize at the Mathletics Competition; a medal hanging from his neck and a shiny hi-tech calculator in his hand.

For the next month, Charlie studied obsessively. His tutoring sessions with Mr Ludlow were interesting. During the entire hour, they barely spoke (as Charlie preferred) but rather communicated through taps of the pen and affirmative nods when Charlie would hold up his calculator with a particular figure. He struggled with trigonometry the most. The class hadn’t covered it yet so a lot of time was spent working out the values of X, Y, sin, cos & tan. His father picked him up every week since the first night and grumbled in his stupid grinning fashion that Charlie’s mother was lucky to have extra-curricular activities on top of working part-time and how he absolutely loved going out into the cold after dark. Charlie would take those opportunities to interrupt him and ramble on about maths problems. Martin had been off sick with the flu for two weeks so Charlie’s skin had resumed its pale, freckly complexion. No doubt it would be filled with colour once he returned.

One afternoon, Charlie walked to the local shopping complex after school and bought a travel guide to Europe. He hid it in his backpack and read a page each night with bright-eyed fascination. Where would his mystery lover be from? Italy? France? Norway? His map was now filled with scribbles, circles and exclamation points. His life-plan was beyond perfection and nobody would interfere with it. The Mathletics Competition was only a month away and he could practically taste victory. On the day, Mr Ludlow would accompany him on the train which would take them to the city centre fifty minutes away. They would pick up a quick lunch and walk to the Jackson Conference Centre where the competition was being held. Parents were invited to attend but Charlie hadn’t and wouldn’t bother telling them that. He needed to keep a clear head. The only adult worth Charlie’s respect was Mr Ludlow and he would be there rooting for him.

One week before the competition, it was Charlie’s birthday. His parents surprised him with the latest gaming console and a brand new game he had been eyeing in the stores. Further still, his parents had moved the old television from the living room into his so he could play in privacy. Charlie felt a pang of guilt. They had been very generous and weren’t overly well off. Perhaps he was being too harsh. After his father had finished helping him set everything up, Charlie placed a hand on his shoulder and muttered his thanks. His father looked up in surprise; clearly not used to his son’s affection.

“You’re welcome sport! Your mother wanted to give you movie tickets but I know what boys like.” He chuckled and slapped his skinny son on the back. Charlie recognised the unnecessary passive aggressive comment and slammed his bedroom door a little too loudly. He gazed at the shiny cover of his first video game Hunters & Gatherers. It was a first-person shooter centered around a team of assassins assigned to take down wealthy and evil members of government. That evening, Charlie squealed in delight as his M25 sniper rifle blew holes in his enemies. The faces of his targets were replaced with Martin Kingston and his parents. It was therapeutic…

The big day of the Mathletics Competition had arrived. Charlie wriggled out of his mother’s suffocating hug as she dropped him at the train station.

“Good luck honey, you’ve got this!”

Charlie managed a weak smile and ran to the platform where Mr Ludlow was waiting in casual blue jeans and a forest green turtleneck. It was strange seeing teachers outside of school. It was difficult to imagine they had lives outside of the classroom and real-world problems of their own.

“Nervous?” Mr Ludlow grinned.

Charlie nodded and swallowed. The week leading up to today, he had been distracted by his new video game and shirking his studies. The only attention he had given the Mathletics was their tutoring session last Tuesday evening. His head was now filled with quests, weapon upgrades, tactics training and skill points. He was feeling mathematically fuzzy; unable to express his increasing concerns.

The train ride passed in silence. Charlie stared out the window doing his best to recall everything he had learned in the last two months. He should’ve waited to play his game until after the competition. Better yet, his parents shouldn’t have selfishly distracted him with the one thing that could throw his focus. He internally cursed their names as he trudged quietly alongside Mr Ludlow to the city from the station. They found a jazzy themed diner one block away and ordered some lunch. Charlie munched on his hot chips slathered in tomato sauce whilst staring at the laminated menu in its metal holder.

“Is everything okay Charlie?” Mr Ludlow tapped his arm. “You’ve been quieter than usual.”

Charlie looked up into the kind eyes of his teacher and mentor. He felt an immense sadness tugging at his chest. His parents should’ve come today. He should’ve wanted his parents to come today.

“Yeah,” he winced. “I just can’t wait to move out of home.” He discovered a stray chip hiding outside of his basket and stabbed it into the sauce.

Mr Ludlow nodded, seeming to understand. “I remember being a teenager and hating my parents too. It’s completely normal. One day, you will appreciate that they were just doing the best they could.”

Charlie excused himself to go the bathroom. He washed his face in cold water and stared at his pale reflection in the mirror. He made a vow that he wouldn’t tell his future wife his parents were dead. He also made a promise to visit them once a year.

When he emerged, Mr Ludlow was at the register paying. Charlie nodded gratefully and they hurriedly walked to the Jackson Conference Centre. They entered the building, signed in at the reception and followed the ‘Mathletics Annual Competition 2016’ signs until they entered a large auditorium. The stage was poorly lit with ten podiums arranged in a circle. Each podium had a banner plastered on the front with a brightly coloured student’s name and the school they were representing underneath. Charlie could see a pen, lined pad, calculator and red buzzer laid out for each competitor. To his dismay, the other nine students were sitting in the aisles talking excitedly with their parents. A reporter from a local newspaper was standing by with a cameraman.

Mr Ludlow laid a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “You didn’t tell them they could come did you?”

Charlie shook his head, staring at his feet. They took a seat at the back and waited for further instructions. A lady approached them with a clipboard after several minutes and ticked Charlie’s name off, escorting him to take his place behind his podium. He looked back at Mr Ludlow who gave him a thumbs up.

Charlie eyed the other participants warily. There were four boys and five girls round about his age. A bubbly dark haired girl began introducing herself to her fellow competition. It seemed kind of redundant to Charlie as their names were so obviously displayed for everybody to read. Still, he nodded at her and mumbled “Charlie” when she shook his hand and said “Bethany.” He didn’t understand extroverts. The way they drew energy from others. He just wanted to fast forward to his triumphant win.

The lady with the clipboard stepped onto the stage and cleared her throat. Bethany stepped back behind her podium grinning at her new friends. The lady signalled at the reporter who pointed at the cameraman to begin filming.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and welcome to this year’s Mathletics Competition!”

The parents began cheering and Charlie noticed to his amusement some of the students blushing in embarrassment. That would’ve been his parents had they been there.

“My name is Lisa Chapman and I am the events coordinator of the Jackson Conference Centre. Firstly, I wish to congratulate the ten outstanding students selected to compete and represent their schools today. You should all be very proud. Secondly, I would like to remind you all to switch your mobile phones to silent.”

Lisa paused as several adults frantically fidgeted in their pockets and bags to turn off their phones.

“Before we begin, let’s run through some ground rules. Any parent or teacher attempting to assist their student will be asked to leave. Any student caught attempting to cheat will be automatically disqualified. You are not allowed to yell out any answers. We understand how excited you all are but you must follow protocol.”

Charlie’s palms were beginning to sweat and his stomach churned. He no longer felt prepared or ready.

“Now that we have the rules out of the way,” Lisa grinned. “Let’s discuss what you are playing for!”

A pretty blonde, older teenager walked out carrying a $100 note in her left hand and a large scientific black calculator in her right. Both parents and students cheered. Charlie noticed Mr Ludlow clapping in excitement.

“The winner of today’s Mathletics Competition will receive $100 and a brand new scientific calculator for their Maths Methods class. These calculators are very expensive so I’m sure all of your parents are hoping to avoid paying for it!”

The parents erupted into laughter, making eye contact and nodding enthusiastically. Charlie knew his parents struggled with money. His win would be theirs too.

“I will now discuss how today is going to play out,” Lisa said. “You will work through rounds that get progressively harder as you go. The first round will consist of basic maths. You will write your answers on the paper provided. If you get them right, you will receive one point which will be tallied at the end of each round by Jennifer,” Lisa pointed to the attractive older teenager. “The student with the least amount of points will be eliminated and we will continue in this fashion. When we reach the final four, you will use your buzzers. If you both press your buzzers at the same time, whoever’s birthday comes first in the year gets to go first. Whoever answers the most questions correctly in ten minutes will advance to the final three. The final two will compete in a lightning round. They will be given a trigonometry diagram to solve. Whoever buzzes first and provides the correct answer will win the competition. If there is a question nobody can answer, a new one will be selected. You must press your buzzer before you answer. Does this make sense?”

The students nodded eagerly and anxiously. Charlie hoped against hope he wouldn’t be the first one eliminated. That would be humiliating.

“Alrighty! Get ready students!” Lisa roared.

Round one began. Charlie was surprised at how easy it was. He was also amazed at how many students needed time to work out their answers. They came so quickly to him. After twenty questions, a loud shrill echoed inside the auditorium indicating the first round was over. Lisa nodded to Jennifer who sidled over, showed her the results and sat back down.

“Well done students for completing the first round!” Lisa congratulated. “Unfortunately, Bethany Jones received the least number of points. Thank you for your participation Bethany.”

Bethany shook Lisa’s hand good-naturedly and stepped off the stage. Charlie figured she was more interested in social aspect than the competition itself.

The second round was decimals. Another easy topic for Charlie. He had no idea who was on top of the leader board but he guessed he was quite high. Every now and then he would steal a glance at Mr Ludlow who was looking very pleased. A dagger of guilt kept twisting in his sides. I should’ve invited them…

Charlie aced round three fractals, round four brackets and round five square roots landing him in the final four which required buzzers. The sixth category was percentages. Charlie was fairly confident in this area. There were two boys and two girls left standing. Charlie could tell they had studied just as hard as him. The timer was set for 10 minutes and the questions began.

“24 students in a class took an algebra test. If 18 students passed the test, what percent do not pass?”

Charlie pressed his buzzer at the same time as the boy next to him. Lisa laughed.

“Ooh our first draw. Jordan when is your birthday?”

“15th of November,” Jordan replied.

Charlie breathed a sigh of relief. His birthday had been last week. “August 5th,” he answered Lisa’s questioning head tilt. They couldn’t lie as their sign-in sheet had asked for their dates of birth.

“Okay Charlie, 24 students in a class took an algebra test. If 18 students passed the test, what percent do not pass?”

Charlie all but shouted: “25%.”

Lisa made a gesture with her thumb and forefinger. “Correct!”

Charlie passed the sixth and seventh round with flying colours. He couldn’t believe he had made it so far. He was so close to the finish line. The 8th and final round involved trigonometry which required the scientific calculator. This category was his weakness. A large laminated triangle was given to last two standing as well as displayed on the projector for the audience to see. They had to work out the length of the marked X. Charlie had worked the hardest on this area with Mr Ludlow. He tried to ignore the images of sniper rifles and assassins dancing through his brain. His opponent, a petite girl with chestnut braids and glasses was scribbling furiously on her paper and punching away at the calculator. He could tell the girl was close to figuring it out but he couldn’t stop staring at the big yellow triangle blankly. What did it all mean? What did it matter? Why couldn’t his parents be normal? They could’ve been here today if they had been normal. He was sick of his life. He was envious of all the parents in the crowd. He envied Bethany’s ease of friendliness.

Just then, the girl pressed the buzzer. “Abigail?” Lisa enquired.

The entire auditorium was dead silent. Charlie didn’t dare look at Mr Ludlow or the other students now seated in the dark.

“The value of X is 10,” the girl answered.

Lisa opened her mouth. Everybody in the audience leaned forward in anticipation. Charlie couldn’t breathe.

It was raining by the time the train arrived back. Mr Ludlow offered to drive Charlie home but he decided to walk. He wanted to be alone.

“It’s okay Charlie,” Mr Ludlow sighed. “You came second. That is incredible. You beat eight other students. Trigonometry is hard…even I had to think about that one.”

Charlie saw Mr Ludlow’s car keys in his hands and his patient, compassionate gaze directed at him. He looked away, overcome with emotion. Suddenly, he burst into tears. “You don’t understand!”

Mr Ludlow took a step back in surprise. Charlie couldn’t contain the anger that was hurtling from his chest to his mouth.

“I hate my parents! I hate them! They ruined everything! I would’ve won if they had just been normal!”

Mr Ludlow’s eyes were wide with concern. He took a step closer to the sobbing boy and attempted to comfort him.

Charlie pushed him away and ran.

His parents were already home when he arrived soaking wet and cold from the rain. They shouted his name as he ran up the stairs still sniffling from his earlier breakdown. He kicked off his shoes, threw his backpack on the floor and buried himself under the covers. Seconds later, he heard a knock.

“Charlie?” His parent’s heads peeped around the door frame.

“Go away!” He screamed.

To his frustration, they both entered and sat down on his bed.

“Honey, do you want to talk about it?” He felt his mother pat the lump of quilt that was his head.

“I lost,” his muffled voice sounded from below blankets.

“We know…,” he heard his father say.

Charlie pulled the covers down and sat upright. “How?”

“We saw it on the local news just now,” his dad replied. “There was a reporter who filmed the event. You were runner up. How fantastic!”

Charlie felt the tears threatening to flow again. If they saw the event, then they probably knew…

As if reading his mind, his mother gave him a sad smile.

“Darling…why didn’t you invite us to come? The reporter said the auditorium was filled with proud parents.”

Charlie stared at the pattern on his homemade quilt, unable to answer.

“You can tell us sport,” his dad urged. “Haven’t we always supported you? We were so excited when you told us the news and we drove you home from every tutoring session.”

His mother pulled out a tissue which Charlie took and blew his nose on. He saw his gaming console lying on the floor and resisted the impulse to throw it out the window.

“I didn’t want you guys there…”

They let the words hang for a minute in suspended confusion.

“Can we ask why? Do we embarrass you?” His mother spoke softly.

Charlie felt trapped. There was no going back now.

“You aren’t normal,” he blurted out.

His parents looked at one another and laughed.

“See!” Charlie straightened up. “This isn’t normal. This laughing and never fighting and never showing anger. I hate it! I don’t understand you!”

His parents exchanged bewildered glances. He watched his father resist the urge to chuckle.

“Are you saying, you’re mad because we never argue?”

“Yes!” Charlie was shouting now. “You are passive aggressive! I looked it up on Google. It means avoidance of direct confrontation through subtle comments and behaviour. You both annoy each other but you never actually say it. I can’t stand it anymore. I want to leave and never come back!”

His mother placed her hands on his shoulders and asked him to calm down. Charlie shrugged her off.

“No! That’s the whole problem. Instead of letting me be angry, you want to pretend it isn’t happening. Dad pisses you off and you piss him off. Just say it! The world isn’t going to end!”

Both of them stood and walked to the door.

“We’re not sure what you mean Charlie. Your mother and I are very happy together,” his father laughed. “When you’re ready, come on down. Mum has made your favourite mashed potatoes with gravy.”

They walked out and closed the door gently. Charlie stared after them, his insides numb.

The following day, Charlie sat silently at the back of his maths class. He didn’t make eye contact with Mr Ludlow, embarrassed about his outburst. When the bell rang, he heard his name being called but ignored it and ran for the front gates. Martin Kingston had returned, healthy once more and ready to release his frustrations. He hauled Charlie over by the bins and began laying into him. This time, Charlie felt every kick, jab and scratch. With a renewed ferocity, he pushed back against the bully and watched in satisfaction as Martin stumbled against the green receptacles. Martin stared at him in surprise, then glared and marched straight for Charlie. He swung a punch which Charlie dodged.

“Well,” Martin snarled. “Finally fighting back hey?”

“What’s your problem Martin?” Charlie yelled, sounding braver than he felt. “Why do you hate me so much?”

Martin rolled up his sleeves ready for another round. He grabbed Charlie’s shirt with one hand and raised a fist with the other.

“Because, you think you’re so good nerd. You and your perfect family. I don’t have a dad. I see them pick you up. I see them at parent/teacher looking all proud. You’re rubbing it in my face and for that, you have to pay.”

Martin’s knuckles connected with Charlie’s nose. It was the hardest blow he had ever been dealt. He sank to the ground, blood gushing from his nostrils. Martin looked around in fear and ran off. Clearly, he hadn’t intended to draw blood…

Mr Ludlow was walking to his car when he saw two feet sticking out from the bin area. He raced over to find Charlie lying on his back, his face white and bloody. Alarmed, he pulled him gently to a seated position.

“Charlie! Are you okay? Let me call your parents.”

Charlie turned to his teacher, his nose undeniably broken.

Mr Ludlow placed a finger under Charlie’s chin and shook his head. “Who did this to you Charlie? Tell me.”

“Martin Kingston,” Charlie croaked. “He’s jealous of my life…said my parents were perfect.”

He let out a high pitched giggle. Mr Ludlow stared in surprise as Charlie let out peal after peal of hysterical laughter. The blood continued to flow and as Charlie’s vision darkened, he was sure of one thing and one thing only: Numbers are reliable. Numbers make sense. Numbers are safe.

Photo credit: Francis Fittipaldi

4 thoughts

  1. This was such a good story, Bec. The themes of perfect and imperfect, love and hate, introvert and extrovert, trust and distrust, parent and child are all entwined and explored so well. I love how Charlie is the protagonist and we get to see the story through a teenager’s eyes, and his maths teacher is a great support and offers another perspective.

    I like how you ended off the story with the phrase, “Numbers are safe”. It reminds me of the fact that all of us want some sort of security in our lives, when things will go according to plan so we can relax and don’t feel stressed. Some of us will find it in routine just like Charlie, the things we do day in and day out. Then again, I think we are all the more happy when we have more variety in our lives – just like how Helen goes to yoga classes each Tuesday. It’s okay to poke fun at others and when they snipe at us – sometimes that is a mark of a great friendship and true love but at times others may see it the wrong way, delusional as we get caught up in the mundane. This message is so well illustrated through your short story.

    Good luck with the competition. Very proud of you to have come so far and you already are a winner in my eyes x

    1. Thanks so much Mabel! I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and write such a positive review! It’s so true that Charlie needed a security in his life when nothing else made sense and numbers was that for him. Something to rely on and depend on. You’re so sweet! I will continue writing short stories when inspiration strikes! <3

  2. Wow! A sad tale with a message that captured and held my attention throughout. I liked that you included the revelation that the bully, ironically, was so envious of Charlie’s situation, whilst Charlie actually hated it! It is always illuminating seeing another perspective, and this is why communication is so important! I felt this was a message you were trying to convey to the reader?
    Well done and keep writing! I look forward to reading more!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and your lovely comments. I truly appreciate it. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and captured the message I was trying to convey. Not is all that it seems. A lot of us have no idea how others live behind closed doors. I hope you have a lovely day and thank you once again! 🙂 <3

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