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Stress Test Ch. 19

Prime Numbers

By Alan GoldPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 8 min read
Photo by Black Ice from Pexels

Prime numbers always fascinated Sandy. They were the simplest numbers, those which could be divided only by one and themselves—two, three, five, seven, eleven—and on up to infinity. Stable as bricks, the foundation of the universe.

They helped her make it through the sleepless nights of her sixteenth spring. That was the year the ghosts came when her head thrashed the pillow. She ran through conversations she should have had with Jennifer or Mama Gore. She even rehearsed what she would say to the little girl who sat on the swing—pumping the air with her legs—who was Sandy's memory of herself. She wondered why she'd been swindled out of so many precious things before she even knew she had them.

She tried a variation on counting sheep. With a pot of warm milk beside her at the kitchen table, she saw how many prime numbers she could pin down before dozing off. She verified each one systematically, without inspiration, the way a computer would. "Can seventeen thousand thirteen hundred thirteen be divided by twenty-seven?" she would ask herself. "By twenty-nine? By thirty-one . . ."

It helped her take her mind off the way her father's forgiveness could be extended or withdrawn at any time without notice.

Every night of Sandy's life, Jack Gore demanded penance over some little crime of omission. Repetition of the charges made the tiniest things significant. He zeroed in on two or three offenses at a time, rolling the list ever so slowly, dropping one off as he introduced a new one. Years passed before Sandy realized she hadn't been hearing about some particular incident; how she left the mayo out to decompose that Friday afternoon, how she went to see a brainless romantic comedy and left every light in her bedroom blazing, how she forgot to give him such an important phone message.

When her father bounced in and out of town, Sandy carefully watched every step. She could almost see herself as a model daughter. Sixteen and sinless.

"How are you?" Gore's voice crackled over the line while she tried to remember which coast he was on. With the distortion, she could almost imagine him as a polite stranger, so she didn't feel the usual urge to throw down the phone in disgust. "How's your mother?" he asked before she could answer the first question.

Sandy was in the kitchen doing her primes one rainy night in the middle of the week when Gore missed his connection and flew home late. The driveway ran closer to the kitchen than the front door, so he pulled the car around to the back porch for the short sprint through the downpour. He had a cat's aversion to water, but he never carried an umbrella. "Too old-schoolish," he always said.

The sound of the engine and the glow of headlights against the curtain didn't break Sandy's concentration on her numbers. Those distractions registered at a lower level so she could reconstruct the scene later, without having been aware of it at the time.

Suddenly, Sandy picked up on the clomp of widely spaced steps coming up the back porch, the rattle of the door. Then the man barreled in on the storm. With one hand shoving the door knob out of his way and the other swinging the shatterproof suitcase, he emitted only one prehistoric syllable before the wind washed him in.

His first step on the linoleum brought its own slick puddle with it. His foot arced to the ceiling, his back to the tile, the case to his solar plexus.

Sandy shot backwards from her chair in horror. The motion cleared the table, splashing warm milk over the red-faced man who gasped and clawed the floor. It took the sound of his voice to identify him as her father.

"Look what you've done, girl," he bellowed. "Didn't you hear me come in?"

"I saw you." Her half-clenched fist dropped a few inches from her mouth.

"Couldn't you get off your butt a minute to help me?"

"Help? I didn't—"

"What did you do to the floor?"


"Was it grease? Soap?"


Gore heaved the suitcase against the wall and pulled himself up against the counter. "You want to kill me, don't you?" he shouted, closing in on her so she could smell the airline liquor on his breath. "Just like you killed your sister."


People blab to strangers secrets they would never dream of confiding to friends. That's how Stephen X learned all about Jack and Mrs. Gore a few years later. In the first months they dated, Sandy used him as a sounding board for all the wrong reasons.

One day she would look back and see that the comforting anonymity she felt with Stephen X grew out of the way he hid the most important parts of himself from her. She'd mistaken his apathy for empathy. She would see that his patience had been that of a spider resting in a fresh web.

One day she would look back and see that he could listen without hearing.

"Don't be so hard on the old man," he said over hot chocolate at Burger Castle on the three-month anniversary of the day they met there. "He can't be all bad if he made you."

She raised her eyes from her hands to his face. "You've got a glob of marshmallow on your lip," she said. "We were accidents. He wanted boys. He got Jennifer a baseball bat on her birthday."

"He doesn't seem so bad," Stephen X protested. "Besides, all women go through that with their fathers. It's just a natural thing."

"Do all women get treated like shit by their fathers? Do we all get ignored when we need attention? Do we all get pulled out of bed to do tricks for strangers? Is that just natural?"

He scooted around to her side of the booth and put his arm around her. "Hey now, Sandy," he said in his deepest, most soothing voice. "You've always got me right here."

She buried her head in his chest and somehow she wasn't even ashamed to be crying in a burger joint. He could handle problems so much better than she could if only she would let her trust flow into him.

She felt safe with Stephen X, but she still couldn't confess the worst parts to him, so she didn't really expect him to understand. Telling anyone the whole truth would let slip her fragile hope that somehow it was all a horrible dream. She thought of how she herself had misunderstood when Mama Gore told the cautionary tale about her own husband.

When Sandy and Suzanne Nicols were in the seventh grade, Suzanne's mother wound up in the hospital after her father threw her down the stairs.

"She's got a punctured lung," Sandy told her parents at the dinner table, struggling for composure as she repeated Suzanne's graphic account. Still, a part of her wondered where the air goes when you puncture a lung.

"Oh, my," Mrs. Gore said. "What did she do to him?"

"She probably tripped," Jack Gore said, setting his glass down hard enough to make little waves in the water's surface. "She drinks, you know."

Sandy thought her parents had somehow misunderstood the situation. It took years for her to see the pattern: whenever a woman told the truth in public, so many excuses surrounded it, like vultures about a carcass.

As they sat in the booth at Burger Castle, Sandy watched Stephen X smear the marshmallow from his lip. He looked back at her, the way boys did, intently, but focused somewhere a little shy of her eyes. She longed to tell someone—even Stephen X—about things her father had done, about what had happened to Jennifer. At the same time, she was afraid to find out the full range of the conspiracy. By keeping quiet, she could nurse the illusion that someone would understand if she broke her silence.

Her thoughts spun as she tried to control them.

"What's the matter?" Stephen X had finally focused on her eyes.

"Nothing," she said too quickly. "Why?"

"You look funny."

"I burned my tongue," she said, holding out the cup.

"You need ice cream. I'll get us a banana split."

The red flags should have gone up when she saw how quickly her father had come to accept Stephen X. She tried to keep them apart, expecting Gore to leap to the worst conclusions if he remained ignorant. Maybe he would fancy Stephen X as a drug-crazed, free-loading Sodomite if he never met him. That would gall him.

But one evening the Mustang pulled into the driveway early, while she was still in her bra and panties. She heard the door slam a moment before the bells chimed. She couldn't remember what she'd planned to wear, where they were going, what she'd been doing an instant before.

She threw some clothes on, thinking, "Hurry, hurry up. It doesn't matter what you wear." The zipper jammed. A button fell before the mad rush of her fingers. She switched to her green blouse, but by the time she got it on she realized it was too dressy for her faded jeans.

Beneath the urgency, she knew that something in her life was about to change forever. She wanted to be ready for the pivotal moment, so that nothing could take her by surprise.

" . . . when the Fed decides to bring down the prime rate," Stephen X's voice said as she took the stairs in threes.

"Here she is now," Jack Gore said, turning half way when she bounded into the room. "We've been waiting for you, Sandy."


Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.

Read the next chapter.


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About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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