Chapter 1 - Counting
Elsa nearly stumbled out of the couch, not expecting that a voice would be coming from the kitchen, not at this hour, at least.
"Christ, dad...you scared the hell out of me. Why are you even up at this time?" Not that she was even sure herself what time it was.
Elsa blinked at her father, still stunned from his sudden appearance, her eyes narrowing suspiciously at the whatever-it-was her father was hiding behind his back.
"Just wanted to check up on you, that's all. And..." He brought his hand out to reveal...a paper bag? "I brought you this."
"Dad..." It was a bottle of champagne. Elsa smiled at her father, not needing to express her gratitude explicitly for him to understand.
"Happy birthday, kiddo." He smiled back.
In the kitchen, her father refused the glass she had offered him. She took a big gulp of the one she'd poured for herself.
"Twenty-five. Can't believe it. My eldest daughter is twenty-five. That makes me..."
"Ancient, positively ancient," she chuckled.
At first, she had chalked it up to the natural tiredness that every student goes through at the end of a semester, the bone-weary exhaustion borne from late nights plugging through problem set after problem set.
But by the thirty-third day of waking well past the hour normal people arose for the day, sometimes even as late as 4 in the afternoon, she knew something was off.
"..some days you don't even get up, you don't get out of bed."
That her father, her father of all people, had become concerned enough to confront her one late afternoon about it as they ate a much delayed lunch...that was the signal to her that something was definitely off.
"How many days have you lost?" he narrowed his eyes at her.
"I don't know, dad, a couple?" she responded, flatly, shrugging as she poured spaghetti into his plate.
"Bullshit, Elsa. Tell me--tell me exactly how many have you lost?"
"Okay, fine...a month, maybe. Jesus." She shook her head.
"Be precise, goddamnit," he growled.
"Thirty-three. Thirty-three days. Maybe thirty-three and a quarter days since I only slept till noon today."
She sighed, silently reproaching herself for thinking that at least it wasn't waking groggily at 4:30 in the afternoon this time.
"And if every day you lost were a year, then that'd be.." he nodded for her to continue.
"Ugh dad...fine. That makes...One thousand seven hundred twenty-nine weeks. Can we stop now?"
"You see, even your depression is mathematical. It's a sign, Elsa."
She rolled her eyes.
"It's just a number, dad. And a depressing one at that, losing 1729 weeks to my 'depression' or whatever you call it."
"Just a number? You know very well that 1729 is an interesting fucking number." He glared at her disapprovingly.
"Oh, Christ, dad..I know, I know..it's the Hardy–Ramanujan number. Smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes expressed in two different ways. Now can we please stop with the math stuff? It's ruining my appetite."
"Elsa", he let out a soft sigh, "you used to love talking about math. Even when you were just a little girl, you'd come to my study, and we'd talk about prime numbers. And this was before you were 5."
"Well, I don't 'love' it anymore. The past is in the past."
He left his mouth open, as though he'd been about to say something, then closed it.
Elsa let out a breath, hoping at last that her father would understand.
But the air, thick with silence, rumbled again with her father's serious tone.
"I'm just worried about you, kiddo. You spend all day at home, watching TV, not really paying attention to what's on."
"Dad, please. I'm supposed to be taking care of you. Don't worry about me."
She gave him with a weak smile, then let her mouth relax into what now seemed to be its natural mold, a frown, her eyebrows furrowing in the process.
"And anyway, those are the good days, when I don't get up..." her voice faded as she tried to avoid his intense gaze.
"Don't mope around so much, Elsa. You've so much talent. Don't put it to waste."
It was easy for him to say. He'd only won a Fields medal, changed several fields of mathematics, his brilliant insights even spreading over into theoretical physics, by the time he was 22. And he'd done even more until...he'd gotten sick.
"I've seen you reading trashy magazines when you could be learning something on your own time, something worthwhile."
She left the university in a sort of daze, days blending into each other as she hurried back to Chicago, frantically trying to tie up loose ends where she'd lived three hours from home.
"Elsa, I know it's been a rough couple of months for you. But you're only 21. This is only the beginning."
"Please, dad, just...just shut it. I just want to eat lunch or dinner or whatever, alright? And there's nothing wrong with those trashy magazines." She glared at him, almost teasingly.
As she turned to look back at the limp, overcooked spaghetti on her plate, she could feel her eyes start to water.
"You know what, I'm really not that hungry..." The chair scraped against the floor as she hurried out, the plate and fork clattering in the frenzy of her movements.
Upstairs, a door slammed shut.
"Come on, kiddo, you should be out celebrating your twenty-fifth birthday with your friends, not moping around with your old man."
"I think," Elsa stared at him in a mock-serious face, "that you generally need to have friends in order to celebrate with friends."
"Don't be silly, now, Elsa. You have friends."
"Anna doesn't count, Dad. She's my sister. And she's in New York and anyway... she hates me now."
In spite of her father's well-meant reassurances that "No, she doesn't hate you, Elsa" and "she's coming in to visit, you know, tomorrow", she knew that it had been true. It was her own fault, really.
She had quietly resented that her younger sister was able to continue her college education, that she had been able to live out her life away from all this.
No, Elsa shook her head gently. Don't blame her for this, for what happened. It isn't Anna's fault you're a goddamn fuck-up. You were the one who chose to drop out and stay at home to take care of dad.
Yet she knew that this resentment, this grim knowledge of her patheticness as a person, seeped into how she interacted with Anna.
Curt replies at Anna's earnest, pleading questions of "Are you alright?" and "Are you sure you're okay?" and "You know you can talk to me about anything, right?".
Cold, indifferent responses to everything else, what little else, they talked about.
Dearest Anna, ever patient and forgiving...even she had limits. Even she couldn't possibly put up with her mental, screw-up of a sister.
"What's the matter, kiddo?"
"Dad, when did you get, you know...when did you get sick?" she gulped, then wrung her hands anxiously.
"I was twenty-five...Oh, don't tell me you're worried about that. It's not strictly hereditary, they know that now."
"But how do I know, dad? How do I know for sure that I'm not crazy?" Her eyes glistened.
"The fact that you're asking is a sign that you're not."
"What do you mean?"
"Crazy people don't ask if they're crazy. Don't have time to ask, they've got better things to do. Just look at me, I'm crazy, and I don't walk around asking my father if I'm crazy."
"Huh.." Elsa considered what her father had said.
"Now, kiddo, stop worrying about it. See what I mean? Anyway, if you're not going to go out with friends, let's call it a night."
"Dad, I don't have friends, remember? And it doesn't work," she furrowed her eyebrows.
"What you said, that crazy people don't ask if they're crazy. You just admitted to me, right now, that you're crazy. And you said that crazy people would never ask that, which implies that they'd never admit to it."
"Sure, kiddo, but...ah," he sighed, "I see what you mean."
"So then how can you admit that you're crazy if, uh, if what you said made any sense?"
"Well," he took in a breath, "maybe because I'm also dead."
Elsa sat down, the thoughts racing and colliding in her mind as she tried to process what had just happened.
Her father, giving her advice. Her dead father, reassuring her that she wasn't crazy.
"You've been dead a week now. Seven days and 18 hours." She sighed. "That I'm seeing and hearing you, even though you're dead, that's a-a..."
"..bad sign, kiddo. A very bad sign."