Just a Number: A Short Story

Seven was usually an adorable kid. Usually, but not today.

The boy had been prattling on without pausing longer than necessary to draw a breath. This would have been fine if his rambling hadn’t made a sizable dent in the hour that they had. Still, Forty-Seven tried to cut him some slack: it was the kid’s first time sitting with them.  

Seven faltered for the first time. “I don’t, um. None of my classmates like me. They, uh, never ask me to play soccer at recess. Or to share snacks at lunch.” With that, his entire body sagged, as if bearing the weight of the world on his little shoulders.

Twenty-Two, who was sitting next to Seven, rubbed the boy’s back as the rest of the table considered carefully. The problem itself didn’t have to be difficult to resolve—what mattered was how well they got across to whichever person required help. Luckily, they all knew the drill: they had been doing this since they had been Seven. 

Every year on his—their—birthday, for exactly one hour, past and future selves alike were teleported out of their everyday lives to The Conference Room. Nope, they hadn’t come up with a more creative name for the place, because for the most part, that was all it was. An unremarkable room with an unremarkable rectangular conference table and some mostly unremarkable chairs, other than the more ergonomic seats set out for the older folks. The Conference Room was considerate of its visitors in that fashion. A small cubby adjoined the room: a play area stocked with toys for the younger ones. 

They had figured out pretty quickly that the best way to use their limited time was to equip each other with advice. The details of their futures, most of the conversations in The Conference Room really, dissipated once they were restored to their normal lives, yet somehow the advice stuck around as a sort of subconscious instinct. So here they sat, around the conference table. Picking the minds of their wiser selves, giving back to the younger ones seeking guidance.   

Was it still Seven’s turn? Forty-Seven contemplated speaking up with his own viewpoint. Then again, it had been a while since he had been in school, fretting over what his classmates were doing and saying. Thirty-Seven jumped in before Forty-Seven could come to a decision.

The next several turns went much the same, with someone else tackling a given problem before Forty-Seven could. This was probably for the best. Forty-Seven couldn’t relate to the younger ones like the Twenties, and didn’t have the abundant wisdom of the Sixties.  

A wail interrupted Twenty-Seven’s turn. Sixty-Seven was struggling to calm Two down in the play area. Forty-Seven scrambled to his feet and went over. Might as well be useful somewhere. 

Two’s tantrum abated with the retrieval of a toy out of his reach, and Forty-Seven sent Sixty-Seven back to the table to avoid painful small talk. Perhaps Sixty-Seven had great suggestions for Forty-Seven’s own life struggles, but it was someone else’s turn now.

In any case, it wasn’t long before he was up. Seventy-Two took over toddler supervision. All eyes were on Forty-Seven as he settled back in his seat. He thought he had known what he was going to say, but now that the spotlight was his, the words were gone. He eyed the projector mounted to the ceiling. Nobody had needed it yet today, but he knew what he wanted to show them.

The first images hit the wall as soon as he stood on a chair and placed his hand on the metal box. Then Forty-Seven stepped down and closed his eyes. The memory that was playing was of his and Lindsey’s fight to end all fights, the one that had resulted in Lindsey tearfully packing a bag to spend the weekend at her parents’ place. Except one weekend became several months. He could still hear the shouting. “I can’t love a man who chooses the next promotion over his wife, every single time!” A loud, shuddering sob. “Missed meals. Volunteering for extra projects when you know we’re due for vacation. And now, jetting off on business trips without bothering to tell me?” The memory that cast Forty-Seven in the most unfavourable light, and there it was, unfolding in front of the others.

It was over in no time at all, Forty-Seven noted, due to that wonderful magic of memory: condensing those worst moments into tiny tidbits for ease of reliving, over and over. The room was silent. The younger ones were shocked, and the older ones surely had not revisited the scene in such vivid detail for a while. 

“I need to know how I can fix this.” Forty-Seven started with some resolve, but it evaporated almost instantly. “I can fix it, right?” To his relief, his elders were nodding.

Fifty-Two cleared his throat. “I know it seems bad right now. I promise it gets better. Linds changes her mind about serving you with papers. Eventually she moves back in, your marriage recovers, everyone is happier.”

Forty-Seven struggled to contain his frustration with the non-answer. “That’s great, except once I leave this room, I’ll still believe that I’m facing impending divorce. I just want the solution that my subconscious can latch onto.”

Sixty-Two said, “Trust in the love you share. It’s not blind faith, because all of us would vouch for you and Linds. You know that.”

Forty-Seven sighed. “Was anyone watching what happened? If there’s still love there, it’s buried under resentment and loathing.”

“I don’t think you can really hate someone you still love,” piped up Twelve.

Forty-Seven considered arguing the point, but he didn’t have the patience to disillusion his younger self. “Okay, fine. But you can hate someone you used to love.” His heart cracked a little just saying the words.

Twenty-Two shook his head. “You don’t actually believe that? She wouldn’t be so upset if she didn’t still love you.” He gestured at the image still on the wall. “Without love, there would be nothing tying her to you. She wouldn’t have waited so long to move out.” 

“If you say so.”

Nobody spoke for a while, likely deterred by Forty-Seven’s increasingly abrasive tone. Then someone blurted, “Maybe I’m missing something here, but…”

It was Seventeen, who hadn’t spoken more than a couple words thus far. Faintly touched, Forty-Seven motioned for him to go ahead.

“She’s upset about the hours you work, right? Why can’t you cut back a little, or find a less demanding job?” 

Forty-Seven explained, “You know we weren’t—you haven’t exactly grown up rich. Money is always tight for us. I’m almost fifty, and our savings are… pitiful. I—we—just want Linds to live comfortably, and then there’s retirement to plan for.”

Seventeen slouched in his chair. “Right. Got it.”

Yet another naïve child. Forty-Seven was running out of patience. 

Forty-Two tried his hand. “Even if she still loves you, that isn’t to say your relationship couldn’t use some work. It’s all about the little things. Surprise her with a nice meal—”

Seven gasped, and eyes turned to him. “Surprise her with ice cream!” 

Forty-Two continued, “Or even just complimenting her more often.”

Seven nodded emphatically. “Daddy says you should tell her she looks pretty even when she doesn’t.” 

Forty-Seven smiled slightly, almost certain that his father had said nothing of the sort. Seven was just that age where everything was up for misinterpretation.

He addressed Forty-Two, “That would be great advice, if Linds and I were still on speaking terms. It’s a little late for small gestures.” He stood from his seat. “Thanks for your input, everyone. I guess I’m just beyond help this year.” He slunk back to the kids’ play area. He and Seventy-Two silently watched Two stack blocks into a crooked tower.

Then Forty-Seven felt a tug on his sleeve. Seven grinned up at him. The smile dimmed when he noticed Forty-Seven’s expression, and he went over to a small display of toy trucks. 

After a while, Seven looked up. “Uncle Forty? You said you love Lint?” 

“Lindsey. And yes, I really do.”

“Is Linsy more important than your job?” 

Not this again. Forty-Seven took his time forming his response. “It’s not that simple, buddy. I need that job so Lindsey and I can be happy.” 

Seven nodded, and gestured at the toy collection. “How many trucks can you buy?”

Forty-Seven stifled a laugh. “Trucks?”

“How many trucks can you buy with your money from your job?”

“Well, if I only bought trucks with my salary for a year? Tens of thousands.”

Seven’s eyes widened, and he said, “That’s a lot of trucks. That would make me very happy.” Forty-Seven agreed, and Seven went back to playing. Then he muttered something under his breath and looked up again. “But Uncle Forty, you don’t need so many trucks, do you?”

Forty-Seven laughed, “Of course not.” 

“I was fighting with Emilio—he’s my best friend in the whole world—over which truck was better, and we didn’t talk to each other for four whole days. Mommy told me that I was being silly, because a friend is worth more than a truck. Even the really cool ones. But your problem is big. How many trucks would you trade for Linsy?” 

“I…” Such a matter-of-fact question, and Forty-Seven was stunned.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to say all of them. That’s a lot of trucks.” Seven scrunched his face in deep thought. “But if you love her so much, you should prolly say at least two.” 

“Are you guys talking about trucks?” Twelve joined their little group, and the two boys chattered animatedly about their favourite obsession. Forty-Seven glanced back at Two, and to nobody’s surprise, he had his stubby fingers wrapped around a toy truck. How long had it taken him to grow out of the truck phase again?

“You should tell Uncle Forty, too.” 

Forty-Seven snapped his gaze back to the boys. “Hmm?”

Twelve shrugged and started talking. “I was saying that Emilio’s birthday was last month, and when I asked him what he wanted me to give him, he didn’t say a truck.” Seven clapped his hand over his mouth, looking so genuinely horrified that Twelve patted his shoulder sympathetically. “I know! So I asked my parents if we could buy him this really nice one that was like, limited edition. But when I gave it to him, he was disappointed! I told him to give it back, and I gave him one of the stupid toys on his list, and that made him happy. Well, that taught me.” 

Seven asked, “What did it teach you?”

“You hafta give people what they say they want instead of what you think they want.”

“And not everyone wants trucks,” Seven laughed. Their conversation moved on to compare their past birthday gifts, and Forty-Seven stared at the boys in wonder.

“Insightful, aren’t they?” 

Forty-Seven had forgotten that Seventy-Two was still around. “Do you think they understand what they said?”

Seventy-Two shrugged. “I find that kids are oblivious to their own little wisps of wisdom. And the rest of us are usually too close-minded to listen.” 

Two kids and one toddler carried on, unaware of the adults’ scrutiny. Toys littered the floor in organized chaos.

Seventy-Two nudged Forty-Seven gently. “Have you found the advice you were looking for?”

“You bet.” For the first time in months, Forty-Seven was walking on clouds, and not all of them were truck-shaped.

Why I Wrote This Piece

When prompted to write something “wholesome,” it seems that my first idea is a story about time travel and a midlife crisis. I decided to follow through with it because I believe that even the youngest kids have something valuable to say. I can only hope to have someone unjaded around whenever I need to re-evaluate my priorities.