A chipper young boy with a comfortingly high number dribbled a soccer ball through the aisles, weaving in between all of the tens of thousands and thousands and hundreds. His mother was one of the luckier shoppers, sporting an enviable number of 15,342 for someone of her age. A permanent crease had formed in the center of her forehead as she badgered her reckless child for almost causing a cluster of red apples to collapse.
I wondered why she worried when her child was undoubtedly safe from the unshakeable hands of time. The boy beamed at me with an ever-endearing toothless grin. When my own son once shared that same smile, the number above his head was much lower. The sinking feeling gnawing at my chest deepened.
“Let him play while he still wants to,” I said to the mother. I was envious of her. She had time. So did her son.
She whipped her head in my direction, wondering how a stranger could have the audacity to give her parenting advice, until her eyes met the glowing number above my head. Low numbers secured respect. Her appalled expression instantly faded into a meek smile. “Thank you.”
The boy’s mother let him carry on with his dribbling, and so he did. His laughter held a pureness only associated with those who perceive numbers as mere lines above heads. Such laughter isn’t possible when the numbers take on meaning.
I followed the boy to the next aisle, where he darted and dashed without a care, oblivious to the other shoppers. A rugged man nearly tripped over the ball and as he cursed, I noted his number. 23,735, reassuring for a man carrying a newborn daughter like a football, clearly unsure about his new role as a parent as he analyzed various forms of formula with tired eyes. The little girl, swaddled in a rose-colored blanket, was at 4,615.
I wondered what his reaction had been when his daughter emerged from the womb sporting a number that restricted her from experiencing the wedding she would obsessively plan throughout her childhood. It would restrict her from experiencing anything, really. Would he still teach her when there was no reason to be taught?
I reached for a pack of formula and handed it to the new father. “This was my son’s favorite growing up.”
The man, failing to make eye contact with me, mumbled a half-hearted “thanks” before stuffing the cardboard box into his basket and wandering off.
I made my way to the flower section and picked out a pair of sunflowers. Too sunny for the occasion, I knew. But buying flowers seemed to be the only thing to do, the only way I could shed some light on the situation I was walking into.
I made my way to the checkout line. A slouched over 712 clutched onto his wife. She was at 31.
“Dear, could I grab one more thing?”
“Anything you want, Marilyn.” He smiled at his wife. Water seeped from the brim of his saggy eyelids as he looked into her eyes. I wondered if he had told her, or if he’d chosen to wait. I longed to ask him for advice but knew I couldn’t. Not in front of her. No, that was an act of unspeakable hatred. We were all doomed with a secret upon our birth, the knowledge to know the difference between the long-lived and the short-lived. Such secrets were supposed to remain whispers.
I reached the cashier. 17,885 smacked her thick lips together as she scanned my items.
“Nice flowers. Who they for?” she asked in a high-pitched voice.
“Oh.” She paused as she noticed my number. My number had the power to shock, a quality I wasn’t keen on celebrating. “Do you need anything else, sir?”
“No, thank you,” I smiled at her as I grabbed the bouquet of sunflowers from the counter. “You have a nice day.”
“You too, sir,” she said, and her voice broke. Voices rarely stayed strong when faced with a single-digit number.
The sun shone brightly as I walked to my car. My brand-new Mercedes waited in the disabled parking spot. It was an idiotic purchase driven by the desire to appear more successful than I actually was. A purchase I immediately regretted after my company let me go; low numbers were undesirable in any business scenario (it wasn’t personal).
Although, by some miracle, my son’s company hadn’t let him go. I suppose, given his circumstances, firing him would be heartless and no amount of money was worth such evil. I placed the flowers in the passenger seat and drove towards my son’s new house.
It was in a mediocre neighborhood where unkempt lawns and barbed-wire fences plagued the properties. My son’s home was better off than most, I supposed, but the bricks were fading and the windows resembled those of my first house, clouded and dull. Each aspect desperately needed to be renovated. I should’ve poured the money I spent on the Mercedes into my son’s home, but I stupidly thought I had more time. People always assume they have more time.
Time has always been measured in numbers, each and every one of us judged by the number resting above our heads, universally dwindling with each passing day. Though, with the time I was given, I had come to learn no number comprehensively captures the concept of time. Such profound weight could only be captured by the memories, the belly laughs, the closed-eye whispers, the moments that tricked you into believing infinity existed. But most of all, time was a secret endowed to each of us with no set of rules. Tell someone they have forever to live; they’ll spend their days waiting for the right moment. Tell someone how much time they have left; ruin their last good day.
What does a day matter to a lifetime? Nothing. What does the last good day matter to a lifetime? Everything. To my wife, her last day was far from good.
In fact, it was very bad.
Ruining her last good day was my own fault. It was a secret I could’ve kept concealed, but I was so focused on the concept of honesty, I ignored the taboo surrounding revealing someone’s last good day. It never turned out well. Telling someone their number never worked. We all knew that. Yet, too often, we chose to ignore the warnings.
Except when my son approached me just a few days ago, eyes filling with tears as he revealed my number, I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid for him. With my old age, I had come to expect a low number. What I had not come to expect was that my son had a lower number.
I wondered how he’d go, hoped it wouldn’t hurt. I would know soon, surely.
I knocked on their bright red front door, rubbing the soles of my shoes against the scratchy Welcome Home mat greeting me with false jubilance. Such tiny details certainly put in place by my son’s wife in a desperate attempt to mask the truth. The stench of burning brownies escaped the moment Kenzie opened the door. Her curls were piled atop her head and her apron was covered in flour. 18,723 glowed above her head, a number I swore to never reveal. She didn’t smile as she said hello, and neither did I.
Instead, she hugged me, letting her head sink into my chest. When she pulled away, she studied the bouquet of sunflowers I’d brought. Liquid filled her eyes as she grabbed them. She started to mouth her thanks but stopped as her voice caught. Tears wouldn’t do, not today.
“Joe, come say hello to Grandpa.” She said in a brittle voice as she gently brushed the remnants of a tear from her cheek. Her eyes were red and puffy and from the looks of the smoke clogging up the kitchen, she was frazzled.
30,954 Joe sauntered out from the living room with his tiny hand clasped around his favorite army doll and brownie batter smudged across his cheeks. “Grandpa!”
“Hi there, G.I. Joe,” I picked him up with ease and held him close. “Where’s Charlie?”
“He went to pick up dinner a little while ago. He should be back soon.” Kenzie refused to look in my direction. I didn’t blame her. “He ordered your favorite. Wanted it to be a good meal.”
I didn’t say anything.
Joe grabbed my face with his sticky hands. “Grandpa, wanna play war?”
“I would like nothing more,” I said as I carried him into the living room and placed him amongst his scattered toys. He bashed plastic figures together, making shockingly accurate noises mimicking an explosion. I did my best to play along. Kenzie watched us attentively, chewing her fingernails and jumping at any sound coming from the direction of the front door. A single number was all either one of us could think about.
“How was your day?” I asked. It was a forced question, nervous chatter to fill the time with anything but the truth.
Kenzie stared at me for a moment and I could see it all cross her eyes. The pain. The fear. The regret. She had known what she was getting into when she married my son, had his child. But she chose to ignore it, just as I had. “It was fine, just fine.”
“Joe, how was your day?”
“Great.” His cheeks bulged as he smiled. I wondered if he knew what the number above my head meant. I wondered if he would understand after tomorrow. Or the day after that.
“How was your day?” Kenzie asked as she trimmed the sunflower stems and arranged them in a vase. Busy work tended to pass time more effectively, a rare blessing in a world so focused on dwindling time.
“Good,” I said. Kenzie was the only person I didn’t have to lie to, though still I found myself lying.
The front door burst open and the only thing I saw was the number 1 floating above my son’s head. He rushed towards Kenzie, dropped the takeout on the floor and kissed her. Her body sank into him as she let him. You would think he knew his number after seeing the way he kissed her, but this was the way their love was, the way Charlie had always been. Numbers never mattered to him, only moments.
The moment he broke away from Kenzie, Charlie turned towards me and I knew all he was seeing was the number 2 floating above my head. I stood just in time to allow my son to hug me, a new concept for the two of us. Before he revealed my number, we restricted ourselves to handshakes and the occasional pat on the back. Things were different now. Knowing changes things.
Charlie picked Joe up and held him close. Joe nuzzled his head in his father’s chest. It was strange to see the contrasting numbers. 30,954 and 1. Joe would be the most shocked when his father wasn’t there to tuck him in tomorrow night. Even after we told him, he still wouldn’t understand.
And then it would be my turn.
His world was about to crumble, but for now the only thing that could possibly matter was the war between his two favorite dolls, and who would come out on top. Such a simple world that would be shattered the moment our numbers just stopped.
“How do you feel, Dad?” Charlie asked, waking me from my daydream, returning me to the reality I so desperately wanted to avoid.
“Much better today.” Though my lungs ached like I was breathing bursts of fire, I had other things to worry about than my own health. “Practically good as new.”
“Doc said if you need any more prescriptions, all we need to do is call.”
“Charlie, I promise I am okay.” For the first time today, my voice was no longer strong. I hoped he would stop talking; I didn’t need words anymore, and neither did he.
“I just want to make sure that you are okay…I mean, of course you’re not, but that’s not the point. You’ve been looking after me my whole life. The least you can do is let me take care of you for a few more days.” His voice shook as he said the last part. “I only have you for a few more days. Let me be a good son. Please.”
Kenzie broke into tears. Charlie grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. “I know it’s hard to say goodbye. Heck, the last thing I want to do is say goodbye to my father. But we’ve at least gotta make sure his last few days are some of the best.”
This only made Kenzie sob harder as her body shook. I wanted to say he would never have to worry about saying goodbye to me, because I would be saying goodbye to him first. But I wouldn’t. One’s last good day was sacred; I wouldn’t ruin his.
“We’ve known how much time we had with him,” he said to Kenzie. “We shouldn’t dwell on the fact that it’s goodbye. It’s not goodbye, not really. Just a see you later.”
“It’s not goodbye,” Kenzie repeated, her expression defeated as she looked to her husband. He placed his hand on her bulging belly and nodded, trying to reassure her. He did just the opposite.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much ahead of us.” Charlie turned to me. “I wish you could be here for it all, but goodbye means nothing. The only stuff that matters in this world is the stuff in between hello and goodbye. And it was a hell of a time, Dad.”
“One hell of a time, son.” I pressed my lips together as tears fell down my face and said nothing more. I didn’t trust the words threatening to spill from my mouth, so I simply stared at my son as he stared at me, blissfully unaware he was spending his last good day worried about mine.
“Why’s everyone so sad?” Joe asked, shattering the silence in the room.
Like shards of broken glass, ours lies were fragile in their attempt to fill the room.
“Just lost in my thoughts, dear boy,” I said.
“I’m just tired,” Kenzie croaked. With shaking fingers, she covered her mouth, as if the truth would spill out if she didn’t block it.
“Just grateful for all we have,” Charlie said, and then our silence was permanent. There was nothing left to be said, nothing more to hope for. Numbers told us everything, you see, but numbers also tell us nothing. I just prayed he went peacefully.
Mary Maeve McGeorge was named a prizewinner in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition, the 2017 Canterbury Scholar at Santa Clara University, where she graduated with a degree in English, specializing in Creative Writing. Most of all, she is a young, unpublished author who believes this is only the beginning. Visit her on twitter: @marymaevemcg