Inspired by sammy42004
He hadn't left his house in five days. The curtains were drawn over his windows, and the most recent copy of the Neopian Times lurked on his doorstep. I hesitated before knocking. One time, William had stayed immersed in his research for three days straight. But there was never anything like this.
I knocked again. This time he came to the door. I was shocked at his degree of disarray. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, and the sickly scent of stress emanated from his body. "Make it quick," he grunted at me. "This can't take too long."
"William... look at yourself." My voice seemed to inspire at least some self-awareness in him. "You haven't groomed your feathers in days... I'll bet you haven't slept either."
The corner of his beak twitched – a tic I was used to seeing when Lennies were under pressure. "But Kyrugg," he whispered, "I can't solve it."
His words hit me harder than you might expect. Never in my three years of being acquainted with him have I known him to say those words.
Head drooping, he stepped out of the doorway. The interior of his house smelled like a pigsty. A thin layer of dust coated all surfaces. As he led me past the kitchen, I tried not to notice the looming pile of dirty dishes. None of this prepared me for the state of his study – a tornado had thrown books and scattered papers across the room. I looked over to my friend, his form eerily illuminated by a flickering fluorescent light bulb. "Is this what happens when you can't..." I trailed off.
His shoulders heaved, and he exhaled an enormous sigh of despair. I watched him walk over to the chalkboard where he had a single query written with thick, bold letters. Underlined several times was the question:
WHAT IS AMMONIA METHOD?
He sank into his desk chair and studied the piles of paper he had filled with writing for a moment. He buried his face in his hands. Raising his gaze to meet my eyes, he said, hopelessly, "I'll tell you, for all it's worth.
"I prepared for this moment for months. I studied past problems, I read books on every subject imaginable, I devoted my life to this contest. The Lenny Conundrum is the only reason for my existence. But I can't solve this puzzle. They've finally done it – they stumped me. There's no way around it. The question makes no sense.
"Every hundredth Lenny Conundrum is designed to be difficult. The prizes are made incredibly difficult, and the honor of answering one is worth the hours of work. Neopians have gone insane over the questions. I'm afraid that is what I'll have to resort to.
"Five days ago, the five hundredth Lenny Conundrum was released at exactly 3:43:17 NST. I was first in line of a thousand other Neopets to get into the building. When the doors slid open, painfully slowly, I leapt into the foyer. Displayed on a massive billboard was the Lenny Conundrum for that week. My eyes greedily took in the puzzle; my brain sorted through its libraries of information. But instead of the usual thrill of discovery, I felt a different emotion. I was confused. Normally I would have known the answer already.
"Instead of euphoria there was only the pang of disappointment."
He stopped talking. A single tear of frustration rolled across his beak.
"What was the question?" I asked breathlessly.
He wordlessly flipped the chalkboard to the other side. There he had scrawled the question in jagged letters.
"Mathematicians in Altador have recently devised a new way to denote numbers," read the board, "called Ammonia Method. Thinking along those lines, another group of mathematicians created Bleach Method. The mathematicians, wanting to merge methods, now come to you with this query. If 27 in Ammonia Method and 34 in Bleach Method are added, what will the sum be in the entirely revolutionary Baking Soda Method?"
I didn't give it a second thought.
William's deterioration had started a year ago. His slight interest in the Lenny Conundrum had grown to an obsession as he climbed up the ranks. Sometimes his only point of conversation was that he was second on the Lenny Conundrum high score table. "I've met the person who was first," he used to grumble. "She's not even that smart."
His life revolved around the weekly puzzle. I have only known him to be at his house or the library. Everyone has to get their sense of purpose somewhere, I supposed. If there was anything I learned from my friendship with William, it was to refrain at all costs from calling the Conundrum "just a game." To him, that was like calling Dr. Sloth "just a grumpy guy."
I sighed. This wasn't going to be taken well. "Listen, William," I said, "I realize that the Lenny Conundrum means a lot to you..."
He snorted derisively. "I know your argument. I've heard it a hundred times before. You're just going to tell me that I shouldn't find validation from the Lenny Conundrum, that I should just give it up. It is just a game after all. But you don't understand. Nobody can.
"Even if the Lenny Conundrum does give me a sense of purpose – so what? Why does it matter? I have to find it somewhere. I know; the Lenny Conundrum is a frivolous game meant to make Neopians feel that they're smarter than each other. I can't help that. It's all I have."
He was sobbing now. As his gasps slowed, I ventured another sentiment. "If you want to stop doing the Lenny Conundrum... then you actually have to stop. You have to make a conscious decision to stop. There's no way around it."
Immediately, he began to talk in a panicked, upset tone. "I tried everything... substitution ciphers, alternate definitions... You have no idea how many books I've read about bases in the last five days."
I stood up. "You have to decide now," I said to my friend. "You can't keep living like this."
His face brightened, and for an instant I thought he was going to see the issue from my point of view. But only for an instant. "They're all bases..." he whispered. "Bases. Base. Number systems."
I left him there, babbling nonsensically. For all I know, he remained there for hours, with nothing but a pencil and a thousand papers.
I came back the next day, with an incredibly convincing argument prepared. His beliefs wouldn't have stood a chance if I had my way about it.
The first thing I noticed about his house was the front window. The curtains were pulled back; light was shining through. I stopped for a moment and wondered if my perfectly composed argument would not be needed after all. Then my mind jumped to a more logical resolution.
"He... solved it?" I stammered. "Now that just defeats the purpose."
I knocked on the door. This time, William was at the door at once, with a smile and a welcoming personality. The contrast was baffling. The house was spotless: clear of clutter, sterilized. His feathers were neatly combed, and his beak was almost reflective. "Let me make you a sandwich," he offered.
Who knew that a Lenny could make a perfect cheese sandwich? Especially a Lenny as disorganized as this one.
"Did you..." I began.
He nodded. "And all thanks to you."
I didn't know whether to be thrilled or heartbroken. My flawless argument was out the window. It was like he burnt a painting I had worked on for years.
He was explaining something about pH and base 12 number systems. By now, I was an expert at tuning out his long-winded explanations.
His lack of appreciation for the situation was devastating.
If you're looking for a moral, I have no idea what to tell you. Maybe that talent isn't always appropriately used. Or that even a beautiful argument isn't enough to keep anyone away from the Lenny Conundrum.