Rachel Evangeline Chiong

Short Story - NUMBERS


(2016) / published in “The uc review : Spring 2018

Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible and one that I butterfly under my thumb every time. I know that it was important at one point of history, but having to recreate those unit of measurements and years into some conceivable visual in my mind can be boring. My eyes glaze over figures in my textbook, stats mean nothing to me. Back in high school, during international business, we learned that charity NGO’s knew all of mankind experienced this sensation. So advertisers converted their cause into singular, personal stories from Khari, who became a mother the moment she was strong enough to carry her siblings to Li Wei, who starved as a child laborer in a factory to feed his family.

I think about that a lot now. When I sit on the subway, staring at a poster of an African girl, her eyes large and hollowed, paint tapered onto her forehead, I notice she’s not staring back at me, but somewhere behind me.

I have another reason why I hate numbers.

Under my right arm, nearest to my shoulder is a time stamp. At first my parents thought it was a birthmark. But once I met the person who became the love of my life, the birthmark started to shift. It turns out the mark dictated the next time I would see him again. The moment I put two and two together, I became obsessed. Counting down to the day became counting down to the seconds. Sometimes, I would try and trick it and purposely refuse to see him in order to force the prediction to fail. But no matter what, he’d either bump into me on the street, return a book I lent him, or attend the same party I was at, and it would always be at the exact second imprinted on my arm.

These days I hide it with a bandage. Because truth is, numbers mean everything to me.

But sometimes the bandage can get uncomfortable or clash with my outfit. Today, with it’s particular humidity and high of ‘stay-in-doors-or-die’, I was slipping on a white sundress. My phone went off, the screen displaying a text that said he was already on his way.
I glanced at myself in the mirror. Usually, the time stamp actually looked pretty cool, sort of like a tattoo and it had in more than one occasion elicited a compliment from a stranger. Raising my arm, I wondered if it looked punk next to my sundress or if I should go find a scarf to wrap around it. I discovered I didn’t need to find a scarf. I didn’t look punk either. It wasn’t there.

At first, I was confused. Maybe I was looking at the wrong arm? I gave myself too much credit sometimes. But it wasn’t on any arm. It was gone.

Now the panic hit my body, chilly torrents raining down my spine. My stomach began to hurt. Where was it. What did it mean. I looked stupidly down at my arm, hoping maybe the numbers would float back onto the surface of my skin. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized this was the first time in my life I had seen my arm clean.

My heart beat jumped into my throat and my head grew light. Where was he, was he safe? All of a sudden, scenes of car accidents, terrorist shootings like I had seen trending on the internet, all the painful and tragic ways of dying flooded into my mind. I grabbed for my phone, my sweaty fingers sticking onto the touch screen. I texted him in a frenzy and called him without waiting for a reply. It went straight to voicemail, the beeping thunderously echoing into my ear.

He said he was on his way. He must have left the bus a few minutes ago, so that would mean he’s walking over now. I needed to go intercept. Ironically, I found myself trying to trick the time stamp by running towards him, instead of away. The uncertainty made my feet light, my fear escalating with every scorched step on the pavement.

I didn’t notice the heatwave when it slapped my face. Blindly, my mind tried to grab for anything to keep me sane. I thought back to the girl on the poster, staring not quite at me. Did she live, my stupid brain asked. Or did she become a number in some stats that no one would ever care about. Would the love of my life become a fatality digit in a car crash or added in a textbook years from now under a chart of the most shootings per year.  The bus stop was across the street. Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, and I never read it because I didn’t care. The numbers on the crosswalk began counting down the seconds. But I was never one to pay attention.