The Biggest Number in the World
Sixty-two. Sixty-three. Martin lay on his back and breathed deeply, slowly, calmly. His lips moved, barely, and the slightest of whispers slipped away into the dark. His parents were talking downstairs. Their voices were muffled, but if he tried, Martin thought he might be able to make out a word or two. He didn't try. He knew they were talking about him, their only child. He knew that they didn't know what to do with him.
Sixty-eight. Neither did his school. He had always been a quiet student, and if he had been quieter than usual over the last week, well, at least he never caused trouble. Until today. A child had asked Mrs. McGregor a question, and the fourth-grade teacher had laughed. Numbers go on forever, she had said. There is no such thing as a 'biggest number'. And then Martin had stood; startled, everyone looked at him. Liar! he had screamed. Liar! Liar!
Seventy-two. Because maybe there was no such thing as a 'biggest number', but there was the biggest number that mattered, and it was this: the number of breaths one took in a lifetime. Beyond that, who cared?
Seventy-sev. . . Martin rubbed his eyes, exhausted. He hadn't slept well in days.
He imagined numbers streaming out into space, growing darker and darker as they stretched out into infinity. He imagined himself clutching and clawing at them, flailing as they grew slick and lost shape. He imagined himself slipping, falling, down and down into. . . what?
That was the question he feared, the one that suffocated his nights like a dull gray fog. The answer was obvious, inevitable, and to live the rest of his life with that knowledge? Unthinkable.
No, Martin thought. That won't happen, not to me. One more breath. Always, just one more. His face smoothed. It was easy.
Seventy-seven. Seventy-eight. He felt warm, as if the numbers embraced him, as if they pulsed in time with his heart, his blood. Seventy-nine. He smiled. He felt strong. He felt like he could go on forever.
In some odd paradoxical way, I've always associated infinity with death. Perhaps it's because infinity means that there'll always be a bigger number, one that you'll never know (in fact, since infinity is not a number, this means that there's a number beyond which no creature in this universe will ever conceive). And really, that's the troubling thing about death, isn't it? Not just that you'll be gone, but that the rest of the world will continue on?
As a kid, I was terrified of death, of the emptiness and blankness and the thought that your consciousness can simply be erased. I lay awake at night pondering this idea, and although I didn't tie the concept together with infinity back then, it seems strangely logical now.