Paul Mann woke up to find a number on the inside of his forearm.
It hadn’t been there the night before but all the same it was somehow familiar, as if it had always been there, as if it belonged there.
Then he remembered the numbers on the arms of his parents’ friends who had survived the war.
A woman in the neighborhood who worked at Mother’s Bakery had such a number on her forearm which she seemed to wear proudly. She never wore long sleeves. Each time he went to buy a seeded rye sliced the number was there.
“Go wash it off,” his wife commanded. “You look like you just got out of the camps.”
He washed and scrubbed away, but the number would not budge. His arm became raw.
He tried shampoo, dish-washing liquid, and even solvents. Nothing worked. He sprayed it with WD40, but the number remained and his arm smelled like the garage.
His doctor prescribed what his doctor always prescribed. “Leave it alone and it will go away”. It didn’t. Unable to think of what to do, he remembered a tattoo parlor downtown.
He had passed it for years on his way to work. Now he lingered across the street before finally going in. A large man, not young, came out from behind the curtain, wiping his nose with a well-used handkerchief. He was a walking advertisement for, or against, tattoos. His shoulders and arms were immense, but the skin, covered in images of crouching boxers, and triumphant champions with their arms raised, was beginning to sag. Rocky Marciano, “Undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World (49 wins-0 losses)”, just looked droopy.
The man inspected the number for a long time. Eventually he said, not unhappily, “This might sting a bit.” He set about the forearm with a vibrating needle. It hurt like hell and bled a little. Then it bled some more. Each time the man paused he wiped it with his handkerchief. The number remained, unmoved. It’s stubbornness only encouraged the man to press harder.
Finally Paul pulled away. “Jesus!”
As time passed it became clear that Paul was not alone. Other people woke up to their own numbers. Each was different. Some were on their forearms, some on their upper arms, some just below the shoulder. A few were on the back of the neck. A young woman discovered hers on the inside of her ankle. It seemed to be an epidemic.
There were always 8 digits.
At first people panicked. They ran to their their doctors, consulted specialists, went back to church, and consumed the views of minor celebrities. The Kardashians claimed the numbers were a lottery from another world, heaven perhaps. The military scanned the skies for extra-terrestrial evidence.
“The Day The Earth Stood Still”, the original 1951 Robert Wise version, was re-released and played to big audiences. Fox news quickly set up a Psychics Hotline. The sale of Ouija boards took off. Right wing politicians called on people to pray and the government to do something. Pundits opined.
Eventually nothing happened. Life went on. People no longer went to the beach and the sale of short sleeved shirts and tops declined radically. But mostly people stopped worrying. The television stopped mentioning the numbers, even on the local news. Water cooler conversation turned back to football.
Then one day an older man with a number on his left bicep, was crossing a busy street. He looked carefully both ways for cars, saw none, stepped off the curb, and was wiped out by a cyclist powering away with his head down in what passed for a cycle lane.
The cyclist broke his collar bone. The man broke his existence.
The undertaker, taking a break from cleaning the corpse, sat smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper. Looking up, the number had started to fade. Soon it was gone, but not before he noticed the date in his newspaper.
In the natural course of things other deaths followed.
People died of cancers, heart disease, strokes. Most died at night, some on country roads a few miles from home, their alcohol-inspired brains surprised by the sudden appearance of a tree. Old people slipped on the ice and slipped away in hospital. Soldiers died in what were once called wars but were now called “conflicts”. Babies died in their cots and children died for no good reason.
Each time their 8 digits slowly disappeared.
Their time was up.