216 Digits

216 Digits

By: James G. Boswell

“The problem with people is that we’re only human,” Jenna said as she wrote arithmetic formulas on the chalkboard. “People make decisions for emotional reasons, then justify them later with logic. We’ve always been this way. Human nature never changes.”

“I thought this was math class, professor” said a voice behind her. “Not psychology.”

“Or philosophy,” added another.

Jenna finished drawing the last symbol, then whirled around to face her students in the small lecture hall.

“You’re right, Joe, this isn’t psychology class. Nor is it philosophy, Chloe. It’s a math class, a class about number theory, to be precise.”

She continued, “Number theory lets us use a small amount of data to determine the outcome of events. It does this by showing us patterns in nature we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. This means it’s relevant in many contexts, not only math. That’s because emotions lead to behavior, and emotions themselves follow a pattern as well. As a result, even complex human behaviors can be predictable with number theory.”

One student scoffed and she raised her hand.

Jenna said, “Yes, Susan, I know you’re skeptical. But the data’s there, if you know where to look. We’ll discuss this as we review the work of Max Cohen, a brilliant mathematician from here in New York. I had the privilege of knowing him when I was a child.

Another student said, “Didn’t you get a lot of his research published for him?”

“That’s correct, Horatio. He died before he could publish any of it himself. But he shared much of it with me while he was alive, though I was far too young to understand it. When I became a math professor here at NYU, I had his work published to honor his memory and to share his insights. He’s now considered one of the leading minds in number theory.”

Horatio said, “I heard he was also completely nuts.”

Frowning, Jenna said, “Well, that’s how he’s portrayed in the documentary about his life, ‘Pi’ by Darren Aronofsky. But, he was still a pioneer and an inspiration, regardless of his personal demons.”

Jenna sat on a park bench next to a large oak tree with leaves of various colors. Overcast skies created an atmosphere of sullen gloominess. An errant wind gust made her shudder.

She reached into her pocket and took out a burned piece of paper, of which there remained only the corner. Written on it in thick, heavy pen strokes were the digits “941,” then an indiscernible line on the charred edge.

“I remember the game we played when I was a kid, Max,” she said to herself. “You’d be sitting right where I am now. I’d give you the most complex math problems I could think of, and you’d solve them in your head in an instant. You were always right, always… until that last day…”

A tear rolled down her cheek and she choked up.

“I remember the day I found your body. You’d left your door open and I went into your apartment even though I knew I shouldn’t. I saw you there on the floor with this burned piece of paper laying next to you. I had no idea what it was then. I still don’t.”

She looked down and stared at the digits.

“I know you were hiding this, Max. I know it scared you. But whatever it is, the world needs to know about it. I’m going to find out what it means.”

Jenna flipped the light switch on in her apartment’s living room. Metal shelves filled with computers, meters, cords, tubes, and wires lined the walls. A wooden desk with a computer monitor, a keyboard, and a small chalkboard with a piece of chalk sat next to the window. She walked over and stroked the top of the monitor, saying, “Hello Proclus, my old friend.”

She sat down at the desk and wrote the numbers “941” on her chalkboard, then pressed a big green button next to the monitor. The screen lit up, as did several small blinking lights on the hardware surrounding her. The room came alive with an electric hum and a high-pitched whine. Jenna began punching the keys on the keyboard at a rapid-fire pace. Equations and formulas flashed across the screen.

She became so absorbed in her work that she didn’t notice as a hand reached out from behind her. When it tapped her on the shoulder, she jumped and cried out in alarm. She looked and saw a short, grey-haired old woman standing there, smiling.

“Mom, you scared me! What are you doing here?

Her mother, Suki, said, “I tried calling, but you didn’t answer. Nobody opened the door when I knocked, either. I heard someone inside, clacking away at the keyboard, so I used the key you gave me to let myself in.”

“Mom, you can’t just come into my apartment whenever you want.”

“I know, sweetie, but I worry about you. You haven’t returned my calls in days.”

Jenna sighed and hung her head. “I’m sorry. I’ve been so caught up in my work that I haven’t had time for anything else,” she said.

Suki glanced around the room and said, “It certainly appears that way. Have you been eating? You look so skinny.”

“Mom, I really need to get back to work. I’ll call you this weekend, I promise.”

With a look of doubt, Suki shrugged and said, “Alright.”

Jenna listened as Suki left her apartment, then returned to her work.

She continued working as the sunlight coming through the window faded into darkness, then returned as the light of dawn. Finally, she picked up the piece of chalk once more. Her hand shaking, she added two more digits at the end of the number. It now read “94143.”

A peculiar odor like burning metal caught her attention. She looked up with surprise and dismay as she saw smoke pouring out of Proclus’s hard drive.

Before she could react, she felt a sharp pain behind her right eye as if someone had stabbed her brain with an icepick. She cried out and doubled over as the vein on her right temple swelled and throbbed. She whimpered for a moment and then lost consciousness.

Jenna sat on the exam table in the cold doctor’s office. Bright fluorescent lights scorched her eyes. A doctor in a white coat sat across from her in a swivel chair.

“What you’re describing sounds like a cluster headache,” said the doctor. “I’ll prescribe you some sumatriptan. It’ll relieve the painful symptoms, but it won’t get you high.”

Jenna scoffed and said, “That’s fine, Dr. Stephens. I’m not some junkie looking for a fix.”

Stephens smirked and said, “Good.”

Then she opened a drawer next to her and took out a prescription pad and a pen. As she began to write, she said, “Has anyone in your family ever had migraines or cluster headaches?”

“No, but I did know someone who had them; my old math teacher and mentor, Max. His headaches were so bad that he had to inject himself with a painkiller whenever they started.”

“Max? Do you mean Max Cohen, the mathematician?”

“Yes, you knew him?”

“No, but I studied his work in statistics class when I was in college. I knew he was from here in New York. Some of his ideas were pretty weird.”

Jenna shrugged and said, “I suppose so.”

“It’s terrible what happened to him… his mental breakdown.”

Jenna furrowed her brow and said, “Yes, he was very troubled, but he was a good man. And brilliant.”

“I’d say ‘troubled’ is putting it mildly. I can’t imagine what would compel someone to take a power drill to their own head.”

Jenna hesitated for a moment, then said, “Can you just give me the prescription?”

Stephens looked surprised and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

She tore the piece of paper off the pad and held it out. As Jenna reached for it, a slimy, purple tentacle shot out from Stephens’s coat sleeve and wrapped around Jenna’s arm. She screamed and tried to pull away.

Stephens opened her mouth. It opened wider and wider until the tendons in her jaw snapped. Then, her teeth fell to the floor. Inch-long, needle-like mandibles pushed out through the sockets in her gums.

Jenna stared inside the creature’s gaping maw and saw an image of a starry nighttime sky. She screamed again, louder.

Jenna looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She had a harried expression and her hair was greasy and unkempt. Large purple bags hung under her eyes. Sighing, she turned the cold-water knob.

As the water flowed from the faucet, she reached into her pocket and took out two pill bottles. She placed one on the sink and held the other up to look at it. The label said, “Sumatriptan. 50mg. For migraine relief. Prescribed by Dr. Renee Stephens, general practitioner.”

She twisted the bottle open and poured a handful of the colorful capsules into her palm. She shoved them into her mouth, then scooped some water from the faucet into her mouth and swallowed them.

She picked up the other pill bottle and looked at its label. It said, “Promazine, 80 mg, Antipsychotic, Prescribed by Dr. Carla James, psychiatrist.”

Sighing once more, she twisted the bottle open and took out a single pill. She held the rectangular orange bar in front of her face and stared at it. After a moment of hesitation, she placed it on her tongue. Then she scooped some more water into her mouth and swallowed it as well.

Exiting the bathroom, she walked down a long hallway and stopped at a metal door. On the wall next to the door was a rectangular grey box with a small red light. She pressed her university employee badge against the box and the light turned from red to green. Then she turned the handle and slid inside without making a sound.

The room contained computer servers that extended all the way back to the far wall. It emanated a sense of sterile solemnity, and Jenna felt as if she was at the altar of some nameless machine god.

She bowed her head with reverence and hurried over to a nearby desk. Upon it sat a computer monitor and a keyboard as well as a pen and a pad of notepaper. Next to the notepad sat a small, gold-painted wooden abacus with an inscribed message on its base. It said, “The Professor Rebecca D. Katz Golden Abacus Award. Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.”

She took the pen and wrote “94143” on the notepad. Then she began typing on the keyboard with quiet urgency and let the hours pass, unnoticed.

She blinked and found herself floating in an oppressive dark void. Vast emptiness surrounded her. Utter silence encapsulated her.

Several round shapes came into view. Several small spinning spheres of various sizes and colors whirling around a large yellow ball. She realized she was looking at the solar system, and that she was flying closer and closer to it. To her horror, a giant, disembodied maw with long, sharp mandibles appeared nearby. It then began pursuing her through space. Panicking, she willed herself to fly away from it, and it chased her until she came too close to the sun. The heat burned her skin and she screamed in pain.

She opened her eyes and looked around, disoriented. Bright orange flames engulfed the servers around her, and smoke filled the room. Random numbers flickered across the monitor screen, and the keyboard had melted. The smell of burning metal hung heavy in the air. She coughed and gagged.

She looked down at the notepad and saw that there were two more digits at the end of the figure, though she didn’t remember writing them. The number was now, “9414324.” Ink covered her hand and the pen lay snapped in half next to the notepad. She grabbed the gold-painted abacus, then escaped through the door.

Suki wiped tears away from her eyes as she walked down the hallway toward Jenna’s apartment. In front of her were two police officers and the building manager.

“How long did you say it had been since your daughter last contacted you?” asked Officer Smith.

“Four weeks,” Suki said, her lip quivering. “I’ve been by several times. Each time I opened the door with my key, but the chain lock was always on so I couldn’t get in. I called out Jenna’s name, but no one ever responded.”

“Any idea why she would she disappear like that?” asked Officer Jones.

“I… I don’t know.”

They stopped in front of a door with the numbers “2332” painted on it.

“Here we are,” said the apartment manager, Ralph.

Smith pounded on the door and said, “This is the police. We’re performing a wellness check on the occupant of this apartment. Please open the door.”

Suki said, “Jenna? Jenna, it’s your mom. I’m here with the police. I’m so worried about you. Please open the door!”

Several moments passed with no response. Jones nodded at Ralph, who then took a ring of keys out of his pocket. He used one to unlock the deadbolt and pushed against the door, but it didn’t budge. He shrugged at the officers and said, “Something’s blocking it.”

The officers took turns slamming their shoulders against the door until it gave way. When the door opened, they saw that someone had propped a bookshelf full of books up against it. The bookshelf now lay toppled over with several books scattered all over the ground. Laying among them was “Elements” by Euclid.

Shuffling into the apartment, they looked around in horrified awe. Chalk-written numbers, equations, and formulas covered every surface. All the walls, floors, and ceilings as well as cabinetry and furniture. Used up chalk numbs littered the ground. Suki gasped and starting crying. Ralph’s jaw dropped. The officers looked at each other and unholstered their guns.

“This is the police!” said Smith. “We’re performing a wellness check. Please respond.”


Smith edged down the hallway, looking into each of the rooms in the apartment as she went. She went through the doorway to the living room at the end of the hall and disappeared from view. After a moment, she called out and said, “Jones, get in here. You need to see this.”

Jones tiptoed down the hall into the living room and found it filled with heaps of broken machinery. Piles of metallic junk covered the floor. On top of the mess lay a broken, gold-painted abacus with its beads scattered everywhere.

Smith stood in the center of the room. She held a small chalkboard and stared at it with confusion. Then she held it up to for Jones to see. Written on it in chalk was a long string of numbers:


Suki looked into the room from the doorway and let out a dull moan. Before anyone could react, she grabbed the chalkboard out of Smith’s hands. Then she rubbed her arm over the numbers in a frenzy, obliterating them as she said, “My baby’s not crazy. My baby’s not crazy. My baby’s not crazy.”

They heard a clanking sound as Jenna stepped out from behind a pile of metal wreckage in the corner, naked. Her ribs jutted out through her veiny, translucent skin, and her scalp was shaved. Her cheeks and eyes were so sunken in that her head resembled a skull with eyeballs. The area around her right eye was swollen and red, and a gigantic purple vein pulsated on her right temple.

They stared in shock as she opened her mouth to an impossible size. The tendons and ligaments in her jaw snapped apart. Her teeth clattered to the floor, pushed out by inch-long mandibles. An image of a starry nighttime sky showed in the space inside her mouth. The sight made Ralph scream in terror.

Jenna let out a horrific shriek and charged at them with her arms outstretched. The police officers pointed their guns with panic on their faces and opened fire. Suki fell to her knees in despair.

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