Ryan November woke up on his eleventh birthday and knew he’d be able to see the future by breakfast. He rolled over. His clock said 6:56, so he couldn’t get up for four more minutes. That was all right. He didn’t mind waiting.
Not until he saw the string.
The string was made of liquid silver and lay piled in the exact center of a perfect square of May sunshine on his bedroom floor. It gleamed where the sunlight struck it. Ryan stared. He had never seen it before. The messy string looked out of place in the perfectly neat room. In Ryan’s room, every piece of clothing hung in the closet or lay folded in a dresser drawer. Every book sat in alphabetical order on the shelf. Every toy and video game stood arranged in rows more orderly than troops of soldiers. The squiggle of silver string on the floor made Ryan’s head itch on the inside, where he couldn’t scratch. He wanted to pick the string up and put it away.
The clock stopped him. The little red numbers read 6:57 now — three more minutes to go, even though he wanted to examine the string very badly.
Maybe he could find a way around the problem. Automatically, Ryan ran a flowchart in his mind. If he had written it down, it would have looked like this:
[See Figure 1.]
The chart put him at “Stay in bed,” so he lay there, trying not to scratch his head or squirm with suspense, until at last the numbers flicked to 8:00. Ryan pushed the blankets aside and hurried over to pick up the string, still squiggled across the floor. The moment he touched it, the string moved on its own. It jumped into his hand like a little snake. He felt a cold, tingly sensation, and the string was gone. Instead, there was a perfect circle of raised skin around the palm of his left hand.
“Wow,” Ryan said.
Ryan liked circles. He liked their symmetry, the way you couldn’t tell where they started or ended, the way every part was like every other part. He traced the circle with his finger and smiled. He could have a circle with him wherever he went. Then, because Saturday was a brown day, he put on brown cargo pants, a brown shirt, and brown socks before pulling on his shoes and heading for the stairs. Ryan had red-blond hair that he tried to keep combed but always got away from him, a thin sprinkling of freckles that thickened in the summer, and somber eyes that his best friend Alison always described as “blue pools of inexactitude,” which bugged Ryan because he didn’t know what it meant. At the last second, Ryan remembered to grab his cell phone from his dresser. The circle had almost made him forget. There were already two text messages on the screen:
Happy Shared B-Day, R!!
Happy day kiddo!
He texted back, his thumbs jumping across the keypad like precise, tiny frogs:
Happy Shared Birthday to you, too, Alison!
Ryan never felt quite right abbreviating, so he didn’t. Then he traced the circle on his hand one more time and tromped downstairs.
There were fourteen wooden steps leading down to the kitchen. Each one had nine wooden pegs pounded in a straight line across the front edge, and Ryan automatically counted them all at a glance. 126 pegs, just like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. He liked the number 126. The digits added up to nine, which was also the number of pegs in each step. The number 126 was a good number to start the day with. He jumped over step number twelve. Ryan didn’t like the number twelve. It was divisible by too many other numbers — itself, six, four, three, two, and one. That was half the numbers between one and twelve. Ryan always felt like twelve would keep dividing itself until it vanished entirely, and he didn’t want to step on a stair that might disappear.
Ryan rounded the turn in the staircase and emerged in the kitchen. It was big and airy, and right now it smelled like butter and hot batter. Aunt Zara was on breakfast duty this morning, and today she had settled on pancakes, Ryan’s favorite. Ryan quietly took his usual place on the bench that ran down the long wooden table. Everything in the Cottage was wood — walls, floor, cupboards, ceiling. Wood hinges held the doors on, and wood latches held them shut. Raw exposed beams ran up to support the roof, and the shingles were made of flat wood. The entire house was held together with wooden pegs. Ryan’s dad boasted that not one scrap of steel held the house together. Instead, the builders had used copper and plastic and ceramic. Ryan liked this. Metals like iron and steel felt heavy and harsh and made his stomach queasy.
“My, my. Happy birthday, Ryan,” Aunt Zara said, and put a plate of pancakes in front of him. Ryan tensed a little. Food you could count had to come in even numbers. Mom always remembered this when she cooked, but Aunt Zara sometimes forgot, and it could turn a simple meal into a disaster. Quickly he counted. Two pancakes, two pieces of sausage. Ryan sighed with relief. It would be bad to get the wrong number of pancakes on his birthday.
Ryan glanced up at Aunt Zara. She favored blue blouses and long skirts that flowed together like waterfalls. She wore her blond hair loose around her shoulders except for two blue barrettes that kept her bangs out of her face. She had a long nose and a wide mouth. At the moment, she was smiling with her teeth showing. Her voice had an upbeat tone to it, and she moved like her body was relaxed. Ryan added these things up and decided Aunt Zara was happy. The appropriate response, Ryan had learned, was a smile. So he smiled. Then he remembered that she had just given him something — his breakfast. It meant he had to say something.
“Thank you,” he said slowly, and tensed slightly, wondering if he had gotten it wrong. It seemed like he got it wrong a lot.
“You’re welcome.” Aunt Zara tried to pat his shoulder, but Ryan ducked away. “Sorry, sweetie. I forget.”
Ryan didn’t like it when people touched him. It felt beyond weird to feel their skin sliding over his in ways he couldn’t control. And a hug felt like being suffocated in wet blankets. When he was little, he had screamed and hit. Now he ducked and dodged.
Aunt Zara headed back for the stove. Ryan was turning to his pancakes, silver fork poised, when his world flickered for a second. Everything grew brighter, as if someone had doubled the sunlight, and he heard a knock. A dark-haired girl poked her head through the screen door and said, “Is he still eating breakfast?” and her voice had a strange, ghostly quality to it. Then the extra light vanished and everything snapped back to normal. Ryan realized no time had passed at all.
A knock came, and a dark-haired girl poked her head through the screen door. “Is he still eating breakfast?” Ryan stopped eating to stare. He had just seen this happen twice.
“Come in, Alison,” Aunt Zara sang out. “You’re just in time for pancakes.”
Alison Ferrier stalked through the door and angled across the kitchen to the table, her skinny legs and sharp elbows flopping carelessly in all directions. Even her ponytail looked sharp. Ryan watched her, caught in an awful fascination. One day she was going to puncture something; he was sure of it. Alison was Ryan’s best — his only — friend, and she lived in a tiny trailer in the woods with three sisters and two brothers and one mother (making seven people total, and seven was a prime number). Like him, she was turning eleven today (another prime number, and if you added one and one, you got two). It took two people to be friends, and two was the only even prime number. Ryan liked that.
Alison folded herself onto the bench beside him. “Two pancakes, two sausages,” she said, looking at his plate. “Will it bug you if I have three and three?”
“No,” Ryan said. “That plate over there” — he pointed — “has one pancake on it, so that makes everything Fibonacci.” He said the word the Italian way: feeb-oh-NAH-chee.
“You know. Zero and one make one, then one and one make two, two and one make three.”
“Oh, right. Cool.”
“My, my. Doesn’t your family feed you?” Aunt Zara asked, setting a plate down in front of her.
“Nope,” Alison said, her mouth already full, and Ryan couldn’t tell if this was a lie or not. He thought about asking, then decided not to and ate more pancakes instead.
“Today is our birthday,” Ryan said. “May first.”
“Yep.” Alison grinned, showing a big mouthful of smooshed-up Fibonacci pancake. Ryan laughed. “Where’s everyone else?”
“I don’t know,” Ryan said.
“Your dad went down to the lake for some early fishing,” Aunt Zara said from the stove. “Aunt Ysabeth and your mother are wrapping birthday presents. So stay out of your mother’s bedroom, Ryan, if you don’t mind.”
There was another flick. The world brightened again, and this time Aunt Zara dropped a spatula. It clattered on the stove. Alison spilled her milk, creating a chaotic mess that rushed over the table and dripped into Ryan’s lap.
The world flicked back to normal. Aunt Zara dropped her spatula. It clattered on the stove. Alison reached for her milk glass. Ryan flinched at the upcoming mess. Chaos was the worst. It hurt his stomach and made his head feel like it was going to explode. So he reached out with his own hand and slapped hers down, pinning it to the table.