The Central Tendency
By Daniel Kaysen
21 July 2003
First the rain woke me up, loud rain on the window. And then the doorbell woke me up too. I was supposed to be asleep, but when the doorbell rang I crept to the top of the stairs and watched.
Amanda Carpenter, my babysitter, opened the door. Outside, it was two rain-wet police wearing big black waterproofs, like sea-lions. They came and stood on the doormat, out of the darkness.
I listened. I was little. No one saw me.
I knew what drunks were and I knew what drivers were and so when they said it was a drunk driver I saw in my mind a wobbly swearing man in driving gloves. He had hit my parents, the policewoman said. I saw him, not for real but in my head, and he was punching them. An angry man in driving gloves, punch, punch, punch. Why would he do that? I didn't understand.
And I didn't understand why my parents were dead, either, but I knew they were.
The policewoman carried me in her waterproof arms to the Carpenters' house, next door. Amanda Carpenter, 15 and very old, cried.
Mrs. Carpenter gave me hot milk I didn't want. Then she and the policewoman talked above me. They had a blue tablecloth I didn't really like.
"She has precious little kin," said Mrs. Carpenter.
They were talking about me: precious and little.
Night there at the Carpenters, in a different bedroom with the door in a different place and the bed and it was strange like holiday or being sick.
In the dark I asked Jesus. I didn't really like God because he was hard to understand and gruff but Jesus had a kind face sometimes so I asked him.
Please send me an angel. I had seen angels in books.
I thought of wings and niceness, like the pictures, and said Please send me an angel and I knew one would come.
I know things, sometimes.
Breakfast was strange again. Strange like holiday or being sick. The wrong type of cornflakes, with milk from the wrong colour box. Mr. Carpenter was reading the newspaper and ruffling the pages. Mrs. Carpenter was talking about the fun we were going to have today. She looked out of the window instead of looking at me. She looked scared. Amanda was still asleep.
And I was thinking about numbers. Three times twelve is thirty six. Then the doorbell went and Mr. Carpenter said "Who?" at his wife but without making a noise. She went into the hall. I followed her because I didn't like my milk. And when the front door opened my angel was there. She looked fun and clever.
"Hi, kid," she said to me. "I'm Karen's Aunt Lallie," said the angel to Mrs. Carpenter who had white hair.
Mrs. Carpenter picked up the yellow telephone and looked glad.
When Mrs. Carpenter was talking on the telephone my Aunt Lallie took me into the kitchen, closed the kitchen door, unbolted the back door, and calmly walked me down the garden and out of the gate. All the time she talked about my parents, like a fairy tale, and how much they had loved me and how my father sang opera in the shower when he was happy. Did I remember that? She sang a little and I did.
We walked down the road and into her car. Me and this woman I was not sure if I'd met before.
Lallie got a flat in a faraway town by the sea, and we made up a careful story of who I was and why we had moved. Lallie became my mother and chose our surname, Jones, but let me choose my new first name. I became Daisy. Daisy Jones.
That's what happens if you let a child choose.
Time stretched then.
Lallie stayed Lallie, and I chose my curtains with daisies on and got a dog called Max and never went to school.
Instead there was walking and talking and the sea and the two of us and Max the dog was three.
And there was learning as well, because Lallie said I had to. We mostly did maths. Lallie had studied it at Cambridge. "I had a shining future once," she said. I saw the future like the lights they had at the circus once, too bright. "But this is more fun," she said, drinking coffee from her favourite mug. It was red.
Maths was Lallie's favourite subject and it was my favourite subject too. I loved the watching as the sums unfurled through their certain stages, to the truth, with no surprises. I had grown not to like surprises.
All summer and winter and spring and when the leaves were falling we did maths, day after day, with Max under the table and papers on the table, papers of maths.
I was entranced and in love and under its spell, all at once. Sometimes I forgot what time it was, what day it was, because I was lost in numbers and how they all have different faces, depending on how you look at them. Sixteen is twice eight, or two to the power of four, or a ninth of twelve squared.
Then Lallie slowly showed me something better than numbers. She showed me tools and schemes. Matrices and transformations, laws, proofs, operations. Every number has a million faces, but the million faces all line up and you can cancel them all out and just be left with abstractions, blank-faced letters alone at the heart of everything.
Do not, ever, tell me there's no god.
Time stretched, some more.
When I turned twelve Lallie blinked and looked at me and said I needed a social life so I went to Nicola Davidson's thirteenth birthday party, because Lallie knew Nicola's mother a little.
I danced with Michael Falk four times, because he asked, though I was choking on his aftershave, and then he asked me if I would like to, uh, you know.
"Dance again?" I asked, wondering why he was going red.
"No, er, kiss," he said.
"Don't be so stupid," I said.
Lallie was watching TV when I got back early. I told her what happened. I told her children my age were weird.
"There's a school," said Lallie. "You could go."
I slumped on the sofa.
"What's it called?"
"St. Angela's," Lallie said.
"Gifted," said my mother. "In Cambridge."
I went. I discovered that though I was a prodigy, I was only in the middle of the prodigious distribution. So I worked hard at St. Angela's, to escape the central tendency.
There wasn't much apart from work. The boys in my class were prodigious rather than attractive, so my longings, such as they were, were reserved for the boy who did the gardening in our road, with his shirt off. I spent a whole vacation playing seven games of postal chess at once simply so I had the excuse of several walks to the mailbox -- and hence past the gardens -- a day. He never looked up.
Lallie didn't work. Instead she read books and she watched movies on video, endlessly. She said that she had missed out on a lot when she was my age, so she made up for it now.
I sat in my room with heavyweight maths, like Eve in Eden, eyes wide at the animals.
Lallie got a man. Kelvin -- dark and handsome, with a sense of humour and not much of a brain but a five times a week gym habit. The cupboards at home became healthy and my mother quit smoking.
That regime ended when he wanted to move in for good.
Lallie said she liked her own space.
Kelvin insisted, on the doorstep.
She said goodbye and and shut the door and lit a cigarette.
"Your turn, Daze," she said to me, exhaling. "Go bring a man home."
I couldn't, though. I felt like a shadow, compared to Lallie. I wore her old coat, to try to give me substance. My hair was like hers. We could have been twins or copies.
I was the carbon.
Now we were taught by the Cambridge University faculty, who forgot we were 16 and pushed us as hard as they could.
They had glints in their eyes and couldn't talk normally.
They had strange projects on the side.
They rarely saw sunlight.
They knew everything I didn't. They were wonderful.
They made house calls, sometimes, when classwork spilled over into a new discovery, a paper that should be written up quickly.
Professor Garde was trying to understand why he was wrong about one of his proofs. He couldn't see it. I was explaining it to him.
Lallie came in then.
Professor Garde looked up.
"Hi, I'm Lallie," she said.
"Hi," he said.
"We should go out for a drink sometime," said Lallie, stretching her neck a little.
"Okay," said the professor.
Professor Garde moved into our home on Tuesday. He became Paul. And my mother looked happier than she had done for years -- she had met her Mr. Right at last.
"You'll find someone, someday," she said to me. "I promise."
I pointed out to her that she couldn't promise anything of the sort.
"I'm your mother," she said. "I can promise anything I like."
"You're not my mother," I said. But she chose not to hear.
We all three went on picnics and trips on the river.
I wrote a major proof and published it. I was offered a research position.
I found the key to the universe.
"You okay, Daze?" said Lallie, over breakfast.
"I found the relation," I said. "The universal relation."
Paul's eyes widened.
"Gravity, relativity. Time, space, everything," I said. "I saw how worlds fall out of it. All of them. I--"
"I know," said Lallie.
But the room went hazy and gravity dragged me down to the floor.
I opened my eyes. I was back on my old road. Everything was the exactly the same as it had been before.
I was eighteen years old, back where I had lived when I was Karen, and nothing had changed.
It wasn't a dream. Dreams cheat, they skimp on detail. If you look closely at something in the background of a dream, it stays blurry. Like the visual background in a bad computer game.
Here, everything was in focus. Leaves, grass, brickwork, all crystal clear and sharp. Not a dream. Gravity had dragged me and dropped me here.
Surrounded by that clarity I realised why.
I pictured Lallie, as I'd seen her the first time.
I looked at my coat. It was hers. I touched my hair. It was the style she used to have, when we first met.
I had been sent here to be an angel, as she had been sent to be mine.
I realised there must be a Law of the Conservation of Angels. You cannot be sent an angel without later being one yourself. It is the price you always pay.
It is, I now saw, the universal relation.
Walk up the Carpenters' drive. Ring the doorbell.
Mrs. Carpenter opened the door.
"I'm sorry," she said. "So sorry. It's so terrible." She had been crying all night, by the look of her eyes.
She was ashen and shocked and lost to the grave already.
This wasn't how I remembered her.
"I'm her Aunt Lallie," I said.
Mrs. Carpenter looked at me. "Whose Aunt Lallie?" she said.
"Daisy's -- Karen's I mean," I said. "Karen Neill. I've come to take her."
"Karen Neill," I said.
"You've got the wrong house. They're next door," she said. "I'm sorry, this is a bad time for us. Our eldest died. Last night." She had that look of days disrupted, of sick holiday.
"Amanda?" I said. "Amanda died?"
She nodded. "Drunk driver hit her." Then the telephone rang. "I better get that."
"I'm so sorry to hear your news," I said. "Amanda was very kind."
Mrs. Carpenter looked blank and wrung empty. She went to answer the phone.
I walked down the drive, and went the few yards further on to see my old house.
It was smaller than I remembered it, and more ordinary. Not so storybook. Just another house in another road. But the curtains were familiar and the tree, and the family car.
The family car should have been at the wreckers, but it wasn't. It was all in one piece in the driveway.
"Oh," I said, when my mother opened the door, carrying a teary Karen. "I was looking for the Carpenters," I lied.
"Next door," she said. "Such terrible news. She used to babysit for Karen. Lovely girl."
We looked at each other, mother and daughter. She didn't recognise me.
My father emerged into the hall, and I smiled at him.
"Have we met?" he asked, because he recognised something in me.
"No," I said. "Sorry to have troubled you."
"Goodbye," I said, to me as a child. But Karen hid her face.
Then my heart started to beat again, too fast.
"Are you all right, dear?" said my mother.
Gravity grabbed me and pulled me down and things were different, once again.
I opened my eyes back in Cambridge, in the road outside our flat.
I was happy -- I was sorry for Mrs. Carpenter, I was sad for Amanda, but that was all so long ago.
For me, I was happy. Some fundamental thing in my world had mended itself.
I climbed the stairs to our flat, waiting to tell her.
I opened the door to silence.
Something was wrong.
Lallie sat on the couch and chain-smoked and stared out of the window. Bleak, like she'd never been, in all her time. A shadow, strange.
"You need a social life," I tried.
She shook her head. "It's in our family blood. Something black."
"Or maths, you like that."
"Can't see it, anymore. The equations fog over."
"Or Prozac maybe."
"I'm already on Prozac. It doesn't help," she said. "Nothing helps."
Lallie wasn't always right about everything. So I tried. To help. It was night when I entered the security code on the lab front door, and went down dim corridors till I found Paul's office. I knocked on the door and entered.
Paul sat alone at his desk, head in his hands, in despair.
I cleared my throat. "Professor Garde?"
"Yes?" he said, blinking. "Sorry, it's been a bad time." He gave a little bark of a laugh.
Then he looked at me properly.
"Do I teach you?"
"You did, once."
"I don't remember, sorry." Then he looked at his watch. "God it's late. Can it wait till tomorrow?"
"Not really," I said. "I've got a relation you need to see. A universal relation."
"Everyone's got something they're excited about," he said. "It's always been done before."
"Come on," I said.
We would go back to the flat. He would meet Lallie. Things would be good again.
But gravity grabbed us.
A large playing field, greying grass. A brown ill-looking building looms, with rooms and rooms, stacked like boxes. Endless numbers of young people seated, trapped, inside. A scatter of figures standing up or roaming. Teaching, or trying to.
A school desk in the middle of the grass, surreal in the emptiness, and a schoolgirl at the desk staring away from us.
She stares away into the distance but we both recognise her.
"That's you!" he says, taking it in.
I point to one of the schoolrooms, where a stooped man is weary in silhouette, besieging inattentive brains with the simplest of mathematical operations. It is a lengthy, endless campaign. "You," I say.
He gives that unhappy bark again.
"Your universal relation," he says, "has a bite in the tail."
"Is that English?" I ask him.
"I'm a working mathematician," he says. "We don't speak English."
"Not anymore, you're not," I say, pointing at the building.
"Nor are you."
We look at the girl, me, exiled with her desk to the middle of the field. It is a punishment I vaguely remember, from folklore or memory or something in between.
"Will I remember this?" he says.
"You won't remember anything else," I say.
When gravity drags it drags me alone, and as the daze begins I watch him walking back to the school.
"I'm serious," I say to her.
"Surely not," she says. "You're usually so lighthearted."
She is sitting on the couch, her permanent position now.
"You need a lover," I say. "It's been a long time since Kelvin. He wasn't so bad."
"Everything's bad," she says.
I am waiting this time for gravity to come, but it waits just out of reach.
I buy her a dog.
"It's called Max," I say. "Like the last one."
"What last one?" she says.
She used to like dogs, but her old fondness is just like legend or faint reminiscence, now. She looks at this one as if she does not know what to do with it.
"I'm tired, Karen," she says. Blank black eyes. "I can't take this tiredness much longer."
And I know then what she is going to do. Later, or sooner. Somewhere quiet and overlit, with a locked door. Blood, under cruel lighting, escaping.
I do not want to be there when she does it, when the police come, when they tell me the news.
I just want to fast forward, straight to her grave.
And for once gravity grants my wish.
Lallie's gravestone is new, the plot freshly dug; the numbers on the gravestone are unweathered. I wonder if the dates are prime, but I have forgotten the tests.
I should have brought flowers, to put on the bare plot, but it doesn't matter. She didn't like them, she said. She never liked things that withered. I don't either.
I should have brought speeches. I have none.
I am wearing Lallie's old coat. My hair is in the style she had when we first met, when she was the age that I am now.
It is hard to mourn the original, to feel loss, when the carbon has been saved.
I turn away, and then I see her, the woman.
She is older than me, by 10 years or so, and standing by a dual grave.
The plots are relatively recent, but the turf has settled and grown in. I read my father's name, and then my mother's. They died a year apart, in peace.
We look at each other, the woman and I, and recognise each other.
"They were very kind, your parents," Amanda Carpenter says. "For taking me in when . . ."
There was a drunken driver, I remember. He killed Amanda's parents, one rainy night. I can see the police, on the doormat, telling her. I had crept to the top of the stairs to watch.
She became like a sister, then, and stayed with our family, like sickness or on holiday. I remember the strangeness of there being four of us. Her toothbrush was pink.
And I had no need for an angel.
"Wait," I say.
I run back to Lallie's grave.
There are bunches of colourful flowers on the grave, now.
I read the name on the gravestone, and I read the florists' cards. Karen Neill died one rainy night, aged 18, the same age as I am now. A drunken driver hit her.
I should have brought colourful flowers. She liked them, apparently, and difficult poetry.
But not maths. The universal relation died with her.
"Goodbye, kid," I say.
I feel gravity's pull weaken on me, lighten, then rise off like a harness.
And, finally, I am freed.
The woman at the dual grave waits for me to come back, and together we walk through the cemetery gates.
She looks up at the sky. "It looks like rain," she says. "Do you need a lift anywhere?"
"No, I'm okay," I say. My coat is waterproof.
I watch the stranger's car as it drives off.
I stand at the gates, trying to choose which way to go. The road slopes slightly. Karen used to live downhill from here, but this time I don't need to go that way.
I hesitate and then set off, on the upward path to the town centre, at last against gravity.
Copyright © 2003 Daniel Kaysen
Daniel Kaysen lives in Brighton, England. He has sold short fiction in a range of genres from horror to romantic comedy, and back again. For more on his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.