“458, 3701, 3, 2, 1.”
Stella joined Rocky in his walk as he counted his numbers.
“Morning, Rocky.” She adjusted her backpack on her shoulders and kicked a stone on the crumbled sidewalk.
“5, 5, 5.” He looked at an imaginary point straight ahead and gripped the straps to his pack a little tighter. His gaze never slid to his feet and he never looked anyone in the eye.
Stella had always found it curious that he didn’t trip or fall.
“Ready for that test in Pre-Algebra?” she said.
The two crossed 36th and Main. Stella had to shield her eyes from the early morning sun that fell through the cracks of the tall buildings.
“38, 921, 2023.”
Rocky’s jaw was tight and his gut swayed as they walked around a street vendor who sold fresh coffee and day-old donuts. No one in eighth grade ever spoke to Rocky, except for Stella, of course. He’d always been a bit odd, but he’d been her neighbor ever since she could remember. There had to be something behind those numbers and the way he ignored the world around him. She just had to stick around long enough to figure out what.
“Cheer assembly is tomorrow. Think you’ll wear something funky for Crazy Hat Day?” She smiled and waved at the nice lady who ran the fish market.
“971, 636, 259.”
Stella threw an arm across Rocky’s chest to stop him from stepping in front of the car that just ran a stop light. “Hey! Watch it!” They stepped off the curb and continued their walk. “You okay?”
“1, 1, 1.”
She sighed and they walked in silence. Cars squealed past, parked along the street, waited bumper to bumper for the stoplights to change. They crossed 37th Street.
“So you think Mr. Hopper will count that project for double like he said…”
Her brow pulled together as they passed the shoe repair shop, address number 3701. A guy at the next shop over stood outside yelling, “3 days left for this amazing sale! 2 deals for the price of 1!” Where had she heard those numbers before?
The bum along the wall of the building grunted and jumped as a pigeon above pooped along the sleeve of his jacket. Stella pressed an inch closer to Rocky and they swerved out of the way.
“5 bucks is all it takes! Just 5 to try your luck! Who’s got 5?”
A street magician shuffled a deck of cards between his hands, like liquid that poured from a faucet. Stella blinked.
She grabbed Rocky’s arm. “Come on. We need to get to school.”
They crossed 38th, walked half a block, then the crunch of metal stopped them short. A three car pile up sat just feet from the curb. The lead car–a BMW that looked brand new–was crumpled like a piece of paper, its license plate twisted in half. Only the 971 part of the tag was still visible.
“Wait.” Stella’s heart raced.
“60, 59, 58.”
“You said that number, didn’t you? The one on the license plate?” She narrowed her eyes at the boy but he still wouldn’t look in her direction.
“And you’ve been counting each street we cross minutes before we even cross it, haven’t you?” Stella was right. She knew this in her soul. How had she never seen the connection between the numbers before?
“10.7, 10.8, 53.”
“Rocky, what do the numbers mean? Why do you repeat numbers all the time? Why did we see them just after you said those exact numbers?”
“Rocky, how can you do this? What does it mean?”
He shifted on his feet, his fingers at work on the straps of his pack. “41, 40.”
A man and woman stormed past as their voices echoed through the streets. “1 good reason! Just give me 1, Nancy! 1 reason why I should stick around this time!”
Stella’s heart sank to her knees. “Rocky. How do you know? Tell me how you know.”
For the first time she could ever remember, Rocky turned and looked Stella directly in the eyes.
“19, 18, 17.”
“Rocky?” Her lip quivered and her voice was small.
“I’m sorry, Stella. 10.9, 3, 2.”
She glanced at the clock in the square. 7:35 exactly.
The ground rumbled then it sank below their feet.
©Laura L. Zimmerman 2016
Photo credit Unsplash Loic Djim