The Birth of Zero

Hannah was four when she found the McAllen's Guide to Beginning Calculus.

She spent two hours reading it, dangling her feet from a tree trunk that crossed the creek. To Hannah, it was more mysterious than cuneiform tablets. She pronounced the words aloud syllable by syllable, relishing words like inverse, permutation, and her favorite, logarithm.

When she reached page three hundred and forty-two, she found true love. It was a section on limitations, finally, a subject that Hannah understood. Her father had lectured her on the subject of limitations just after Hannah had decided to spend the night in the woods. Apparently she had tested the limits of her parent's patience, and now her privileges were severely limited. Hannah had no love for limits.

Infinity, a word that sounded like a drummer's flourish, was without limits. It didn't begin, it didn't end, it just was.

As her mind digested this amazing concept, Hannah pronounced the word again and again. She was a believer in the power of words. It had been impressed on her during the many mandatory church visits. "Hannah" was from the bible, but she hated the name, and all the pink and polka-dots it brought to mind.

Well, Hannah was no more. She would change her name, and from that point on, Hannah would not be limited.

In the first weeks of spring, Infinity's father brought her to the hospital to "meet" her baby brother. Infinity had her reservations since, in her experience, there was never much to meet. Babies had no personality. They were tiny and crumpled up, like a blow up dolls that had yet to be inflated. Until then, they would howl and defecate whatever had managed to find its way in.

When her father went into the delivery room, Infinity stayed in the hallway and scowled at her reflection in the glass. If this baby demanded the sacrifice of his parents' lives, he was welcome to it, as long as he didn't think to hinder Infinity's in any way. In fact, she would be happy to have her parent's attention diverted. Whenever it landed too squarely upon her, it had the unfortunate effect of making her life even more restricted.

Her father was on the other side of the glass, stroking her mother's hand reassuringly. Laura Joyce was worriedly combing back her hair with her fingers, trying to regain the composure that she'd lost in the course of the thirteen-hour labor. The nurse returned with the baby, and Infinity's father made a beckoning gesture Grudgingly, Infinity entered the little room.

"Please be pleasant!" he told her, matching her scowl. "Hold your brother."

The nurse placed the blanketed lump in her small arms. He was heavier than she would have expected. She peeled back a fold of the blanket to reveal a puffy face. It looked like a goblin.

"His name is Zebediah," her mother told her with a little smile that didn't meet her eyes. "Aren't you happy to have a little brother?"

"Did you hear that?" Infinity murmured to the little bundle. Her mother looked on approvingly. "Your name is Zero."

At the time of her brother's birth, Infinity had become very used to her new name. The birth of Zero had disrupted this security for unclear reasons. She insisted on calling him Zero as adamantly as she insisted on being called Infinity. Her parents predictably refused to comply, so Infinity took matters into her own hands. She took her tattoo sharpie and carefully drew a large zero on her brother's forehead. Her mother walked into the kitchen, saw Zero, and promptly fainted. Zero giggled. Infinity's bottom had been sore from the spanking she got for the next three days, but the tattoo lasted for a week, so she had considered it worth it.

Mama, pronounced Mah-maw, had visited the week after the birth. She had pinched Infinity's cheeks and moved into her room to spend valuable time with Mama's "little muffin." Mama was a puzzle to Infinity. She could never figure out how so little polyester could contain so much person, and so much talk. Infinity didn't listen to a word Mama said, but she did watch her move with wary fascination. Mama's arms jiggled from side to side like dead skin. Though Laura worked hard to keep Infinity presentable that week, Infinity worked just as hard to stay dirty so Mama would not reel her in for a suffocating bear hug. Instead Mama would clap her hand to her nose, waving her flabby arm in the air, and cry "Laura, what kind of muskrat are you raising?" Infinity didn't know what a muskrat was, but she thought she preferred it to a muffin.

The first time Mama set eyes on Zero she'd shrieked so much that Laura had one of her migraines. Infinity stayed in the room, interested to see the goblin's reaction to the overwhelming presence of Mama. Perhaps she'd smother him. And sure enough, Mama did clasp the infant to her chest as though he was a flight risk. Infinity had the humorous idea that Zero would be popped from his blankets like a banana from its peel. Instead, Zero turned rather green and spit up all over Mama's favorite blouse. She dropped him back into the bassinet, somewhat less enamored, and waddled off to repair the damage.

Infinity approached the cradle and saw that Zero was giggling like mad. Infinity began to laugh too, until her eyes teared. For the first time, she thought she could grow to love the little goblin.

In Infinity's early years, her parents had opted for a hands-off approach. They rationalized it as being a matter of necessity when they thought of it at all. Laura was a delicate woman. Though she had never actually fainted, she had long ago mastered the most graceful of swoons. She was beautiful in her way, and certainly a true lady, but could not relate to offspring. The doctors said that disinterest was not unusual, but Infinity had always known that her mother was one of those mysterious people that draw love to them and simply reflect a dim glow. Her father certainly adored his wife, hiring the best doctors to treat her interminable migraines. He moved them out of the city into suburbia. He worked from dawn to dusk to pay for medications, eking every penny from his government job.

Infinity's grandparents on her father's side were grim, quiet people that she rarely saw, but always sent her a crisp twenty dollars in a Christmas card with a bible verse. Her mother's mother was the grotesquely fascinating Mamaw, who traveled all the way from Kentucky. The houses in her development were empty most of the day, homes to commuting divorcees. There were children, but Infinity generally preferred her own company. When they had lived in the city, she had grown used to entertaining herself quietly, so as not to disturb her mother. Without that early exposure to others her age, she always felt as though there was some big joke she wasn't in on. She simply dismissed them as being an aspect of the environment, like a distantly related species.

It was this feeling of disassociation that influenced Infinity's development the most. Later she would come to resent her parents' absence in her life, but during her childhood, it simply came to stand as just another proof that Infinity was different. Some children in her position might wonder if they had been adopted, but Infinity never occupied herself with that dilemma, because she often had trouble believing she was human at all. In those treks through the woods, the silent games, she became as comfortable with herself as only the independent can be. She would climb the tallest trees, wade in the muddiest, buggiest parts of the creek, and carefully hoard her treasure.

The birth of Zero came as belated effort on her parents' part. It was as though they had realized that Infinity was a cuckoo in the nest, and her eccentricities could only be balanced by another addition. In her father's mind at least, she was a lost cause. Whenever he tried to talk to her, she would just nod and nod until he moved on, clearly not paying attention to a word he said. Punishments could rarely be enforced, instructions were in one ear and out the other.

While the addition of Zero did not have expected effect, the little goblin would have a profound effect upon Infinity. Almost as soon as the babe could crawl, it stuck to its older sister like a burr. At first Infinity purposefully barricaded herself away, but gradually she became used to his presence. He was a lovely child, strangers would say. His face was completely open, each emotion projected by grey eyes and lips that frequently opened to reveal patchwork teeth. It was a face that would never be able to dissemble, but could charm its way out of a murder conviction.

Gradually, Infinity learned not to blame little Zero for the constant comments on cherubs and lambs. And, though she would never admit it, she had come to love her little brother. Without conscious thought, she modified her brother's nickname to a simple Zip. It was the beginning of the strongest relationship that either would ever know.