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Chasing Dragons

by Mackenzie Betrone-Harpst

Screeeeech! The angry cry of a buzz saw explodes into the air like a sprinter from the starting blocks. Engulfing the room instantly, it shoves its way into every nook and cranny, nearly depleting the air of oxygen with its sheer force – and in a moment, it is gone. So gone that one actually questions if the eruption ever really occurred while sheepishly (but cautiously, so cautiously) removing two shaking hands from their clapped position over ringing ears. 

I, however, am in the zone, completely unaware of any screeches or explosions coming from the building next door. These noises do nothing to frighten me; they are the soundtrack of my childhood. Sounds that succeed my parents’ outbidding anyone else at a sheriff’s auction for another crumbling structure that can hardly be called a building. Sounds that mean delivered pizza replacing dinner for the next six months as my parents work into the wee hours of the morning, ripping, hacking, and gutting in seemingly futile attempts to make the dilapidated property livable. Sounds of my parents overtaking my tiny hometown as though it were a Monopoly board, snatching property up left and right, building a real estate empire that I will always instinctively hate.

This time, the purchase is three decrepit buildings – a curse because this will undoubtedly be their lengthiest endeavor yet, but a interim blessing in my five-year-old eyes because they are focusing on merely one building at a time, giving my little sister Ali and me the most fantastic playhouse two girls could imagine. And fantastic it is, filled to the brim with bribes from my parents, compensation for the long hours we’ve spent entertaining ourselves – over-accessorized Barbies, geometric wooden blocks, and a tiny Fisher Price kitchen in which we prepare three-course meals, a large plastic rotisserie chicken always served as the main dish.

But it’s only Ali in the kitchen today. I have more important mountains to climb. Today, a day which will start me down a life-long road, my dad has bestowed upon me a stack of math workbooks. “For my little genius,” he said with a grin earlier that morning, and, led by a heart swollen with pride, I set off on my crusade. Eraser-capped sword in hand, I had annihilated addition, slain subtraction, wrestled a bit with multiplication before massacring it, and now stared, undaunted, at page one of Division for Beginners. I pushed my pigtails behind my ears and waited for the gears in my brain to start churning.

…and an eternity later, I continued to stare, now daunted, and at that same page. The number “one” goaded me from the bottom right-hand corner, and suddenly I realized with exceeding clarity that I was never going to understand this. Ever. I had just turned five, for goodness’s sake, and it was obviously not possible to get more intelligent than a kindergartener. (I was already smarter than my teacher, but I hadn’t told her yet – I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.) So I sat, overwhelmed, at the tiny wooden table, certain that my blue plastic chair wouldn’t hold up under the weight of this imminent failure that now hovered inches above my shoulders, waiting for me to surrender to the numbers. Eight divided by four, eight divided by four…what does that even mean?! The tip of my pink, sparkly pencil dug harder and harder into the page as though I could bully an answer into jumping out from within the paper. My pigtails fell forward again; I shoved them back impatiently with my left hand, the right one still clutching my Excalibur, the only weapon that would help me slay this dragon called division. Anxiety welled within me, sweat beaded on my palms, the lead dug deeper into the workbook – and suddenly the pencil tip snapped off and scuttled across the table, my pigtails fell again into my eyes, and the number one danced with renewed joy in the corner of the page, confident that it would never have to succumb to any other digit.

“Hey, Tiger.” I jumped, startled – the buzz saw had stopped, and I hadn’t even noticed. “How’s it going?” I quickly blinked back tears of frustration as the heavy thuds of steel-toed boots approached, and I wrestled with how to handle this situation. My brain leapt for joy knowing that if anyone could make sense of this mathematical nonsense, it would be my dad, but my heart sank with the idea of telling him that I couldn’t do it on my own. He was my “number one fan,” and I his “smartest girl in the world.” Would admitting defeat cost me this title? Who would be crowned the new queen? Ali? Mommy? A swirl of fear and indignation welled up in my chest, my brain lost the battle, and I quickly turned a chunk of pages.

“Good! It’s going good. I’m good.” Page twenty seven? Holy moly, I was way over my head. And when did the numbers get so big? 380 divided by 12? I nearly swooned thinking about how long it would take just to count to such colossal figures.

My dad sank down into the tiny blue chair beside me, his knees nearly reaching his shoulders. “Oh, long division? Man, that was tough. Took me a long time to figure out how to work remainders. Mind if I try this one? See if I can still do it?” I gratefully slid the book in his direction as he pulled a tattered yellow pencil out from his pocket and slowly began working the problem, talking through every step out loud. I tried to hide my smile, thoroughly impressed by my cunning – Daddy was unwittingly going to tackle my monster for me! I nodded and encouraged him, praising work that I didn’t understand in the slightest.

“Yep.” Ooh, I had to line up the digits…

“Good job.” …and then subtract the product from the divisor…

“Nice work, Dad!” …well duh! I could do that!

He slowly appraised his work and smiled. Climbing out of the chair, he pressed the yellow pencil into my hand and his lips to my forehead. “Thanks for letting me play, Punkin. I gotta go hit the saw again.”

I barely glanced up from the numbers in front of me. “M-kay, Daddy. Love you.”

“You, too.”

As soon as his back was turned, I bent over the original problem and the digits scratched in a bold, jagged print. Grinning, I started on the equation right next to the completed one, confidence fully restored by a new pencil and a new problem.

In years to come, planes will collide with buildings and human life, knocking the entire world off its axis in a single morning, but the algebra problem I’d left sitting on the countertop overnight will grant me a tiny piece of comfort by remaining unchanged. My boyfriend and I will break up after a year, and instead of disintegrating, I will find a chapter of double integrals and work them out until the world makes sense again. A classmate will die unexpectedly, and I, lost in my grief, will struggle with a trigonometric equation until my failure to solve it finally reduces me to tears, allowing me to sob for a reason that I can grasp.

Every problem is different, but to me, one aspect will always stay the same: a steady rhythm, thump, thump, thump, as the numbers fall evenly into place. A rhythm that will forever signify two things in my life: my own footfalls, reiterating an ability to find my way through any situation, and those of my dad, quiet yet unwavering, falling right behind me – just in case I ever need a knight in shining armor.