Fiction, Short Story

Four Digit Number

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

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All his life he had been able to see how old people were in years, the numbers loomed over them. Each year at the exact  second they were born the number changed with startling precision. He had learned to ignore them by now. But today was the first time he saw a four digit number.

For many years Myles had wondered what the purpose of his “power” was. It was certainly difficult to use it to fight crime, unless it some sort of age-based fraud. He had mused on the idea of becoming a nightclub bouncer; but other than the fool-proof ability to spot underage people with fake IDs, he had none of the prerequisite skills.

Although Myles ‘used’ his power every day – in the sense that it was always active – it had still taken him many years to puzzle out the fine details of how it worked. On the eve of his 16th birthday he had eagerly stayed up late looking in a mirror – his pale face and blue eyes bright with excitement – at the number over his own head. Midnight came and went, and the number stubbornly remained stuck on 15. He went to bed disappointed, wondering if his “power” was broken, wondering if he’d been celebrating the wrong birthday all these years. But the next morning sure enough there it was, a number ‘16’ floating above his short blonde hair. It wasn’t until 2am on the morning of his 18th birthday that he realised the digits changed at the literal moment of birth.

Myles had spent a lot of time looking at the numbers. It was hard not to. The weird thing about them was that the closer he stared and the more he concentrated on the numbers over someone’s head, the more indistinct they became. It was actually quite difficult to study them like this too often, as people tended to become unsettled or alarmed if Myles spent a lot of time staring intently at the space just above their head.

It was also hard to tell what the numbers were actually made of. There were a sort of bluish-green, and semi-transparent, like a hologram or an augmented reality display. Myles had wondered if they were literally there, or if it was just his brain interpreting some other stimulus like…like pheromones? Biological cell clocks? Was he detecting age via some other means and his brain was adding a visual interpretation to help him understand what he was sensing? Myles couldn’t see ages for people on television or in films, so this added weight to the idea he was sensing a physical stimulus. Plus when he looked at his reflection his own number showed up the correct way around – not mirrored – which again led him to believe the numbers were not a literally physical object with a real presence that only he could see.

Myles had seen his first three-digit number when he was a teenager, visiting his elderly Nan in a care home. One of the other care home residents had a ‘102’ floating over his head; a fascinating distraction that had led his mum to chastise him after they left for daydreaming and not paying more attention to his poor Nan during the visit.

He had seen his second three-digit number when he started University. He had met the person during Freshers Week; a student in his halls had a three-digit number floating over his head that both fascinated and horrified Myles…’018’.

That had been a moment of bitter and frightening revelation in a number of ways. He’d seen plenty of other numbers starting with a zero before – every child under ten that he could recall meeting had a zero before their single-digit age. But Myles realised that because he had seen it so much when he was young he had never questioned why it was one zero, and not two or three or more. Looking at this fellow student, he had a sickening realisation that was two-fold; firstly it was logical that people must only have a third digit if they were going to live to be at least one hundred years old. Secondly, Myles only had a two digit number over his own head…

It was a weirdly sickening thing, to know that, whatever happened, he would be dead before he reached his one hundredth birthday. Statistically, he knew that was pretty much a given anyway, but to be told it definitely in no uncertain terms…Myles found that oddly deflating.

That revelation had been five years ago, and now, with a ‘22’ over his own head, Myles had seen his first four-digit number. He had been sitting in a coffee shop on Saturday, just watching the world go by. At first he didn’t register it – well, he did, but it took a few seconds to digest it. A dark haired girl was walking past the shop window, minding her own business, with a ‘0021’ floating over her head, plain as day.

Myles gawped open-mouthed for a few long seconds, before she reached the end of the window and disappeared from view. He hurriedly took one last gulp of coffee and rushed out of the door, oblivious to the mutterings of people he pushed past in his haste. He easily spotted her again as soon as he reached the street. He began to run to catch up with her, and then slowed down. What would he say to her? What could he say to her? He settled for following her at a borderline-creepy distance, transfixed by the four-digits that wavered just above her long, straight, dark brown hair.

At last, was this it? Myles wondered to himself. Was this the point of his “power”; to find four-digit people? Perhaps he was supposed to protect her and ensure that she reached her thousandth year? Or was she some sort of near-immortal monster that he was supposed to fight? Was this advancing technology or creeping magic? Was she aware of the unimaginable lifetime ahead of her, or blissfully oblivious? What was special about her, and if he found out what it was, would it allow him to finally understand his own “power”?

Whatever the correct question, and whatever the mysterious answer might be, Myles didn’t really care. He just wanted to know what it was. He trailed behind her, hypnotised and desperate for any sort of an answer.