There are two yellow sticky notes in Allen’s pre-algebra textbook: the first reminds him about variables (We studied this last week! Solve for x!). The second sticky note says, Love, Madre. Around the time Allen’s older brother went away to college, Mother started to sign her notes in different languages: Mère, Maman, Madre.
It’s 8 AM. Being homeschooled doesn’t mean he gets to sleep in, Mother always says. Snow falls in wet globs that stick against the window.
Problem #1: 5x minus 6 equals 14. Solve for x.
Allen listens to the radio on headphones, one ear partly uncovered to listen for Mother’s approach, the creak of the stairs. Howard Stern is making fart noises over that new Britney Spears song. Way to go, Howard! He raises the volume a couple notches.
This afternoon is art class. Art class equals Cassie. Cassie in the tight jeans. Cassie who smells like Jolly Ranchers and likes to hug. She always sits next to him, even though she’s 14 and he’s only 12. Allen! she says. Hey, Allen!
Hey, Cassie (nonchalantly). What’s up?
Another sticky note inside his notebook says, Keep doodles to a minimum, please!
His notebook is full of eyes. Big, shiny, anime eyes. He’s terrible at hands—they always come out boneless, like empty gloves—but he’s great at eyes. Exquisite detailing in the iris, delicate bubble reflections like in all the manga comic books he’s not allowed to buy. The eyes show a range of emotions: suspicious, surprised, curious, playful. Long eyelashes, a wisp of eyebrow, unmistakably feminine.
He used to draw more than just eyes, but Mother discovered his secret sketchbook when she was putting away his socks and underwear. There was a long talk. Certain things were not okay to draw.
Solve for x.
Okay, he has to deal with the minus 6 first, add 6 to both sides. 5x equals 20, so x equals—4. He turns the page of his textbook and there’s another sticky note: When finished, come downstairs and we’ll go over your work!
On the radio, Howard’s doing a contest called Will It Stick? They brought a bunch of strippers into the studio and they’re taking turns throwing slices of deli meat at the strippers’ butts. There’s lot of cackling and fart sounds just for the heck of it. They place bets on which variety of deli meat is best for sticking to a stripper’s butt. Unclear how far away they stand when they throw.
Problem #2: x plus 2.5 plus 12 equals 18.
Pupil. Iris. Lashes. Eyebrow. One eye becomes two becomes a face. He would love to draw a neck and move downward. One day he will draw more realistically: he’ll capture the form of each hand, the soft complexity of a woman’s back. He wants to draw Cassie.
x plus blah blah plus blah blah equals 18.
Too much snow against the window. Art class will be canceled. Allen erases and rewrites his work, erases again and blows the curlicued debris off the page. He skips problem #2—Mother will help him later.
The snow is sealing him in, blotting out the outside gray. Problem #3 keeps getting lost somewhere between the textbook and his notebook. What’s that supposed to be, a 7? Allen erases and rewrites and erases some more until the desk is littered with bits of arithmetic. He pokes the pencil into his wrist. No art class today. No Cassie.
Baloney wins, proving more adhesive than either turkey or salami. Howard and company are fighting over the results. Howard fires his producer.
Enough! He pulls off his headphones and throws them to the floor. With nearly 30 problems to go, he slams the textbook shut, spins in his chair and kicks: the wicker wastebasket somersaults across the room and spews its contents—pencil shavings and balled-up tissues and a Snickers wrapper and countless sticky notes — all over the floor.
Downstairs, floorboards creak: it’s Mother, heading for the stairs. Probably to check his progress, maybe to call him downstairs for Bible Study or Biology or simply to let him know that art class is canceled. No shit! he wants to scream.
Or maybe she has a cup of tea and some crackers for him, a little sticky note tucked between: Keep up the great work!
The pad of slippers on stairs. Allen wipes his eyes with his sleeve and scrambles to the mess on the other side of the room. He frantically scoops up the curlicued pencil bits and crusted tissues and sticky notes. So many sticky notes, singly and together, stuck to the floor and wall and trembling in the draft of the vent. (Footsteps getting closer. She’s reached the top of the steps.) He gathers the trash as fast as he can, panic streaming down his face, the room darkening as snow thickens against the glass. His head throbs and eyes blur and he scrambles to collect a week’s worth of sticky notes, messages from Mother: Love, Mutter, Mère, Moeder, Madre. (Footsteps in the hall, a gentle knock.) Mama. Mother. Mom. Mommy.
Eric Hawthorn lives in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in places like LIT, The Cafe Irreal, decomP, and Spork. He is the founder and curator of FictionFeed.net, a showcase for the internet’s best short fiction.