The sun disappeared behind the horizon in its timeless orbit. Or is it the Earth that orbits? Who can truly say? Regardless, it was dusk and there were no street lights near enough to illuminate the game. John took his ball, said his goodbyes then walked the march of the triumphant. His side had three touchdowns, the others two, when the game broke.
He crunched across leaves that lay in haphazard piles left by natural forces. Beside the empty lot where the miniature athletes gathered was a clump of trees sometimes called “The Woods”. John navigated them without fear. There was still some natural light and in his ears the sound of his peers returning home to reflect on feats of bravado. He emerged from the vegetation and found Fathom Street.
John was alone as he walked the sidewalk. Modern homes lined the darkening corridor along his street. All of them were new, except one. He stopped in the road outside his house. His house was only ten years old and held no promise of lore for a thirteen year old mind. He turned to study the one exception and remembered his father’s description of the subdivision. It was once cornfields ringed with woods and low lying marsh. Only the empty shadowed house standing before him existed back then, and the fact that it was built before his parents were born gave it a strange allure.
It was not dilapidated, but it was worn down by some unseen element. Grass grew wildly until its length was held in check by the withering clout of the coming winter. It was completely different from the other houses in both design and psychic residue. Something had changed though. There was a For-Sale sign yesterday he remembered.
It was a shame, thought John. He wanted to experience the visceral range of the seemingly ancient house from within. Soon it would be inhabited, or worse, torn down and rebuilt into something modern and soulless. John advanced toward the door of the old house and hesitated. He reached out a hand and felt the cold metal of the doorknob. He did not expect it to turn, but he wanted to impress his own ego with the idea that he had at least made an attempt to explore the beckoning husk. He twisted and the doorknob gave. John dropped the football and stood stunned by the development.
It was not pitch black inside. The sun still clung to the sky somewhere, but it would eventually move on to leave Fathom Street in the darkness of night. John didn’t think himself a coward. Stairs presented themselves at the back of the first room. He could make a quick run upstairs and then down to escape across the street. It would be daring and no one would know, but he could not move. This was wrong. This was one week of grounding. He felt a sudden burst of energy and he ran for the stairs.
The place was devoid of furniture and all the other trappings of domesticated life. He stopped at the top of the stairs and peered down a dark corridor. He saw light creeping from under a door and felt apprehension. As his eyes witnessed the faint light his ears became hyper tuned for the sounds of movement. For a long moment he watched the light from under the door and could discern no sound to accompany it. He formulated an explanation and it came easily. The real estate lady had been here the other day. Of course she had forgotten to turn off one of the lights. John relaxed to the point of confidence. He went to the door with the light and pushed it open.
John froze. He had not expected an old man with a faint smile sitting in a rocking chair. “S-sorry. Uh, I . . .” said John.
John stepped back and his mind flooded with ad hoc plans for escape.
“Hello,” said the old man. “It’s alright. You can come in. Aren’t you my neighbor?”
John still frozen by his audacity and contemplating a viable excuse for the intrusion said nothing. He studied the room carefully and silently.
“Please come in and sit. Aren’t you the Smith Boy?” asked the old man.
Beside the man was a table, and upon its surface was an old timey oil lamp. Its light barely extended to the corners of the room.
“Smythe,” said John meekly.
“What’s that?” asked the old man.
“It’s Smythe not Smith. John Smythe” said John then inched closer inside the shadowed room.
Surrounding the old man were books that lied on the wood floor as if waiting for an officious decree. The old man motioned to another chair. “I was just reading and thinking. I saw you outside and wondered if you would have the courage to come in,” said the old man pointing to the window facing Fathom Street.
John was put at ease by the old man’s voice. He crept across the floor careful not to disturb the books with their seemingly mystic titles. He sat and fixed his gaze on a book at his feet. It was titled Flatland.
“Do you live here? I thought it was empty. I wasn’t gonna tear up the place. I just wanted to see inside,” said John. He felt like he was pleading, but he was just trying to explain.
“It’s quite alright, John. I was curious when I was young too,” said the old man. “Would you like a glass of water? I don’t have anything else right now,” said the old man then took a pitcher of water and a glass from the table to pour John a drink.
John took a polite sip then returned the glass. “What are you doing up her in the dark?” asked John.
“I was reading about my two favorite subjects,” said the old man then smiled cryptically.
“What are your favorite subjects?” asked John.
“Math and Magic,” said the old man. His words came out like a solemn proclamation. The old man waited for dramatic effect then asked, “Do you like math, John? You have time for mathematics at your school?”
John unconsciously wrinkled his face in disgust. “Math? That’s kinda boring isn’t it?” He hadn’t meant to insult the old man. His eyes went down and he saw white lines drawn across the wood floor. They seemed to come out of every nook and corner of the room and terminated somewhere behind him. He turned his head and saw that the lines converged at a point behind another door. A closet maybe? The lines were decorated with numbers and strange symbols. It was all math stuff. John had seen them before in a High School textbook. He turned back to the old man and realized the walls were marked with white lines too, all of them being pulled into the closet. A piece of chalk sat next to the lamp.
The old man smiled broadly exposing his teeth. “Math is a wondrous subject. It’s an exact science that plays with the undisputable truths of the universe.”
John nodded. “So you just do math problems. What about Magic? Can you do card tricks?”
The old man laughed softly. “Yes, I can do card tricks. But that’s all magic is. Tricks! I like magic because it gives the illusion of breaking the laws of science. When I was young I saw many magic shows and it pleased me to figure the mechanics behind the trick. That’s how I got interested in mathematics.”
The old man reached down and took one of the books. “This is a book about non-Euclidean geometry. Do you study geometry at your school?” asked the old man.
“Not yet,” said John.
“Let me ask you a question. What is the quickest way to your front door?” said the old man.
John wondered what he was getting at. He seemed like a harmless person, but one can never be sure.
“Uh, I guess I would take the stairs and go across the street, right?” said John. The question had confused him. Maybe it was a trick question.
“Well, yes and no. That’s the way you would go. But the shortest distance would be a straight shot from the window. Of course you don’t have wings, but that’s the shortest distance,” said the old man.
“Uh-huh,” said John blankly.
“Now what if I said you could go another way? You could go out the back door of this house and get home quicker than if you went out the front,” said the old man then waited for John response.
John paused thinking the old man strange. “Huh?” was all John could muster.
“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Have you ever heard that before?” asked the old man.
John’s face became animated. He had heard that before. “Yeah, my math teacher told me that at school.”
“So if you wanted to go from here to China or London or the Pyramids of Egypt you would take a straight line, correct?” said the old man.
“Oh I see. Is that what you’re doing up here? Geometry stuff?” asked John.
“Yes I’m doing geometry. But a straight line isn’t always the shortest distance,” said the old man.
“Are you talking about a magic trick?” asked John.
“No, I’ll show you,” said the old man then took the chalk and knelt to the floor. He drew a box with two points then said, “This is your house and this is China. What the shortest distance? Draw it.”
John took the chalk and drew a straight line between the lines. His teacher had done something similar at school. The old man took the chalk back then drew a circle. On one side he put a dot and on the opposite side he put another dot.
“This circle is Earth. This point is your house and this point is China. What’s the shortest route?” asked the old man then relinquished the chalk.
John drew a straight line through the circle connecting the dots then frowned. “This is a math trick, right?”
“No tricks, just math. Do you see the difference? Your straight line took you through the planet. I hope you are a strong digger. Both are straight lines, but their physical dimensions are measured differently,” said the old man then stood.
“OK,” said John then puzzled over the flat map drawn in chalk juxtaposed the contradictory round map.
“Actually I’ve been working on an astounding trick. But it really isn’t a trick. It’s all about perception and how physical space is measured. Would you like to see John?” asked the old man.
John nodded. “Yeah. I’d like to see a trick.”
The old man walked slowly across the room to the closet door. He opened it and John saw the place where all the chalk lines met. It was assaulted by myriad symbols and written in big bold letters beside it was: POINT A!
The old man nodded, stepped inside then closed the door.
John was left in silence. He waited for a long moment for something astounding to happen, but nothing was forthcoming. He stood and grew uneasy at the old man’s odd behavior. “Hello?” he called out.
There was no answer and John stepped toward the door only to be overcome by fear. “Hello?” he called again.
“It’s not funny,” said John.
John stood among books and chalk lines illuminated by the eerie light of an oil lamp. He did not like the silence coming from the closet. “I have to go,” said John then crept to the hallway.
Still nothing but silence permeated the house. John formulated a plan. He could run and scream if it came down to it. He was one of the fastest in his class. In fact he had scored the winning touchdown that afternoon. It was dark outside and John could see stars out the window.
He walked quickly to the closet and opened the door. No grinning old man was there, just chalk lines and enigmatic markings.
“Good trick! Where are you?” said John loudly. He went into the closet and felt the walls. He knelt and pushed on the floor. “Where are you!?”
Nothing was there but point A. John retreated to the hallway and called out, “Hey sir!? Where are you?”
John went downstairs and lingered for a long moment until he lost his nerve. It was getting late anyway. He went to the front yard, secured his football and returned home. From his bedroom window he watched the second floor of the old house. The light from the oil lamp was constant, but no indication of movement was visible. As he laid his head upon his pillow that night he thought about straight lines.
And when the house was torn down two weeks later he knew for sure the old man wasn’t coming back. It was a good trick, thought John. Or was it just application of math? Who can truly say?