Professor Oliver Smith was consumed with numbers. They had always fascinated him. From an early age he had been drawn to them, learning to make their shapes and appreciate their values long before he had settled with the intricacies of language. While other children busied themselves with games and sunshine he would visit the library to read impossibly thick volumes on theorems and equations. He was especially drawn to the work of Isaac Newton, as he had a special respect for a man who had gone to his grave with the feeling that he had put the universe in its proper order.
One night, twenty years into a respectably unfulfilling teaching career, he awoke from a fever dream to find his mind filled with numbers chasing each other in circular orbits. This was hardly unusual for Oliver, but there was something different about these numbers. They were insistent, and each time they arose in his mind he had a strange prickly feeling in the back of his brain. They seemed to be forming a theorem—one that Oliver thought may explain the very foundations of the universe itself. This was confirmation of certain fantasies (which he had entertained in his most grandiose moments) that he had been chosen to uncover some great, hidden truth, but the numbers proved harder to corral than he had anticipated. Each time that he was sure he had devised the correct sequence he found inconsistencies he'd failed to account for. The pattern that had seemed to hold such an elegant simplicity in his dream had been lost. The universe, expressed through the fog of his failed equations, was as random as ever. He began to spend long hours in his classroom, using the floor-to-ceiling whiteboard as a giant canvas for his elusive masterpiece.
On one of these late nights, some months after his dream, Oliver began to wonder if he was approaching these numbers from the wrong direction. He had assumed that when correctly combined they would form a theory that proved the way that existence worked. Suppose, Oliver wondered in frustration, that it didn't? What if the numbers were trying to prove the very opposite?
The numbers and symbols began to arrange themselves differently in his mind. It could work, he realized with excitement. He erased a small section of the board and began his new calculations. It only took two minutes, but he had succeeded—he had created a solid theorem proving that all of material existence was not only unlikely, but impossible.
He stepped back from the board, wearing a lopsided grin of relief. It was all so simple. Mankind's search for meaning had ended here, in meaninglessness. He checked his watch to record the time of his discovery for posterity, but found that it was gone, along with the rest of his clothing. As he scanned his naked body in disbelief, he saw that the floor beneath his feet had disappeared as well, as had his desk, the black board, and the entire world. He was standing—floating—in white, empty space.
He screamed and covered his nakedness from habit, though no one remained to consider his aged, pendulous privates. He whirled his head around in desperation, searching for signs of other life, but there was nothing. The only thing around him, for indeterminable miles, was blank whiteness. He couldn't tell if he was small in a giant space for huge in a small one. The absence of relativity forced a scream up through Oliver's mouth, a scream that was swallowed by the white vacuum.
Then Oliver spotted a gray dot. It approached from a horizon point that was impossible to determine. As the dot grew it revealed itself to be the bipedal form of a human figure with dull, gray skin. Once the creature was next to him, Oliver could see that it was massive, over eight feet tall by Oliver's quick, fearful reckoning, with a smooth, blank face and only a thin slit for a mouth. Its genitals were a confusing jumble, which appeared to be composed of male and female organs. As it reached Oliver the creature put both hands on its hips in a universally acknowledged sign of disgust, and said in a calm, steady voice, "Good job, dingus."
"P-pardon?" Oliver managed to answer.
"I said good job. Disproving existence and all of that. Way to go. I appreciate that. I was getting so tired of it."
"Um," Oliver said.
"I am being sarcastic," the strange being added, in a questioning tone that searched for Oliver's acknowledgement.
"Oh," Oliver said. "I can tell?"
"Really?" The creature said, its mouth spreading into a grin. "Oh, wonderful. Sarcasm is my very favorite human invention. I wasn't sure if I was doing it justice."
An absurd thought then occurred to Oliver, but realizing that little else could be more absurd than the situation he now found himself in he asked the creature, haltingly, "Are you God?"
"God? I don't know. I'm something, anyway, which is more than can be said for the rest of creation right now."
"I don't understand," Oliver said, looking at the infinite white space that surrounded them, "What happened to everything? Where has it all gone?"
"Back to wherever it came from, I guess," the gray being said. The creature sighed and sat down, crossing his legs and slumping his shoulders forward, placing his faceless head between his palms. "Now it's like before," he said.
"Before you. Before Earth. Before everything. It's just like when I first woke up. Nothing for miles and miles but cold, echoing whiteness. I walked for eons, hoping to find another living being. After awhile I got scared, and then that passed. I felt like I just wanted someone around—another me I could spend time with. I got really sad, so I lay down to sleep, but my gut kept churning. Then, before I could stop it, all of this garbage just started pouring out of my mouth—matter and dust and planets and stuff. I had no idea I could do that until I did it."
"And then history. And then dinosaurs, and then humans, and cats and llamas and Catholics and Republicans. Sure, it's been a mixed bag, but it's been something to look at. Until now."
"Well, I'm very sorry," Oliver said. "I'll certainly miss everything. I just couldn't prove why everything came together, so I thought—"
"You were doing what now?"
"Trying to prove where everything came from."
"Why would you waste your time with that?"
Oliver sighed and looked down at the place that the ground should have been. "I don't know. I found it comforting to think that the bounds of reality were quantifiable. I had hoped that there was meaning and order to creation. Can't you understand that urge to know?"
"Don't look at me, pal, I puked a universe."
"But it just has to make some kind of sense, even if it's illogical. How can it all just have happened?"
"I used to wonder about that a lot when I was walking through empty space. Then you guys came along and, I don't know, I just got caught up watching you. I never knew what you idiots were going to do. It was great."
Oliver smiled as he thought of the world that had been, perfect in its imperfections, each life unfolding through an interconnected, random pattern of cause and effect which then split apart into random chaos at the quantum level.
"Wait a minute," Oliver said, as fresh patterns began to form in his mind. He closed his eyes and saw numbers connected to each other, floating before him as if lit by neon. "The randomness isn't the obstacle. The randomness is the act of creation itself—billions of jumping off points, each unique decision the beginning of its own series of events, like an endlessly generating series of random numbers—"
And then he had it.
"We can remake it," he told the creature. "We can reimagine it."
"What do you mean?" the creature asked, standing on its legs, waggling its confusing junk in Oliver's face.
"It's not an equation, it's a symbol. One symbol. If only I had a board, I could write it."
"You do," the creature said, and pointed to its own flat face. Its fingertip left an indentation in the gray blankness.
The giant being knelt in front of Oliver. As he touched the creature's face, he found that its skin was yielding and smooth as clay. Oliver traced a circle, beginning and ending at the top of the creature's forehead, just above its thin mouth. He stood back as the symbol began to glow with a brilliant green light, which diffused throughout the blank space. Instantly, the outlines of forms and objects began to appear. Ground appeared under Oliver's feet, quaking with energy and heat.
"Oh!" the creature said, "It's all coming back." The giant smiled, but only for a moment. "I guess I'll be seeing you later," he said.
Oliver's stomach sank as he thought of the poor beast, alone for billions of years, alone again for the rest of eternity.
"What's your name?" Oliver asked the creature, as the green light began to steal the edge of his figure.
"I don't know. I always liked the name Waldo. Do people still use that one?"
"Not really," Oliver said. The green light became brighter. He lifted a hand to shield his face. As the light enveloped him he heard Waldo say "If you see Moses, tell him I'm sorry. That joke got way out of hand."
When Oliver lowered his arm he found himself back in his classroom, surrounded by his desk, his notes, and staggered towers of books. Outside a red sun was rising. He opened the window to the sound of anxious birds. He smiled, not because they were beautiful, but because they were there.
There was a half-eaten cheese Danish on the corner of his desk. Oliver picked it up and bit into the flaky crust. The filling had congealed in the hours since he had warmed it in the microwave. The flavor was not heightened by Oliver's brush with oblivion. It remained as sugary and disappointing as ever. He was grateful for that.
On the blackboard he noticed a circle, like the one he had drawn on Waldo's face. There was something comforting about it. He could erase it anytime he wanted to.
BIO: Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys, and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Harrison and Lennon. He is working on his first novel.