Counting to Nothing


Alicia Menendez loved the number zero ever since she saw the Zero the Hero episode of Sesame Street. She didn’t really know what it was to be interested in something until that moment. It didn’t take her long to realize that, as great as the number zero was in that episode, it was woefully under-represented.

She started out by finding and identifying zeros wherever she went. Her aunt and uncle thought it was adorable. This quickly became frustrating. There we so many numbers, and not nearly enough of them were zero. Why did you need all those threes and fours and eights anyway? What good were they really doing? You needed zero, of course. And one, because you had to represent something. But did you need anything else?

That’s how Alicia Menendez rederived the binary numerary system. Soon, she was converting everything to binary. She rewrote all of the numbers in all of her books. She filled yellow-lined paper pads and stacks of graph paper with binary conversations of all of the numbers everyone said on TV or out loud. Before long, it occurred to her that the zeroes in those contexts weren’t real zeroes. They did not, themselves, represent the quantity of zero. Zero was just a way of saying there wasn’t a 2 in that numerical representation, or a 4, or an 8. Alicia wanted a real zero. She wanted to count to zero.

She started with her abacus. It took her several days to figure out how to get her abacus to count to zero, but she did it. She showed it to her aunt, who laughed and told her she was good girl. That was the first time Alicia realized that maybe, sometimes, adults just don’t understand some things.

Then she showed it to her uncle, whose jaw dropped open. He was a mathematical engineer, and so it made sense he understood numbers. He made her repeat the process over and over and over. He looked at it from different angles, and under different lighting. He took pictures with his digital camera, and started at them from different angles. Over and over again, he whispered the word “impossible.” He asked Alicia to explain it. She did her best, but from the puzzled look that seemed likely to settle permanently on his mustached face, she didn’t think she did a very good job.

Finally, she shrugged his shoulders, and said he had to get to work. “I’m going to choose to be thelemic about this,” he said, “before my brain splits open.” Alicia didn’t know what this meant, but it didn’t really matter. She went back to counting.

Counting to zero without the physical medium of the abacus turned out to be much more difficult. Alicia tried for days, and just couldn’t crack it. So she asked her aunt to take her to the library, and walked over to the mathematical section. She read Aristotle. She read Pascal. She read Bertrand Russel’s Principle’s of Mathematics, but only the parts about zero.

It helped, but it wasn’t enough. She came back to the library as often as she could, after that. She sought out everything she could on zero, on void, and on nothingness. She read Buddhist texts. She read Sartre. She read Kaplan. All of them had part of the answer. But not all of it. To get all of it, she’d have to go further. She kept reading. This was all training. She’d get there.

Then, one day when she finally felt ready, she told her aunt and uncle she was going to her room to think about zero.

“Have fun, dearie,” said her aunt. “When you’re done, I’ve got lasagna in the oven.”

Alicia Menendez went up to her room and turned out all the lights. She lit several different scented candles that, when their volatile scents mixed, had no aroma at all. Then she sat on her bed and began to count.

It didn’t take long. No time at all, really. Before she even knew it, Alicia successfully counted to, and conceptualized, the number zero. And she completely and utterly ceased to exist.

Downstairs, her aunt made lasagna, and wondered what was taking their niece so long. She told her husband to go check on her, but he seemed reluctant. So she yelled at him, and he yelled right back. It worked up into what could have turned into a really good fight, but it was cut short when Alicia walked through the door and proclaimed that she was hungry.

“How did it go thinking about zero?” her aunt asked.

“It was neat,” said Alicia, “but kind of scary. I didn’t exist for a little bit. But it’s okay. Once I stopped thinking about zero I started to exist again.”

Her uncle looked at her as if his eyes wanted to pop out and drown themselves in the lasagna.

“That’s great, dear,” said Alicia’s aunt.

“Yeah,” said Alicia. “But I don’t know if I want to do that again. I think I’m going to think about seven for a while. Seven sounds much safer.”


4 thoughts on “Counting to Nothing

  1. mimulux says:

    love it 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! This kind of writing is actually the most self-indulgent for me. Just the pure, fun exploration of some abstract, ridiculous premise. I’d do it more often except I feel like it lacks a bit in storytelling. Plus it’s hard to do in long form.

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