There are three cracks in the plaster of her bedroom ceiling, each thinner and more twisted than the next. She has three pillows in her bed, which he thinks is odd, and sleeps with two blankets. None of this bothers him. The Bad Numbers don’t exist in the appropriately shabby confines of her dorm room and he counts more out of habit than necessity.
Chad Dempsey wasn’t sure when his obsession with numbers started. Now that it had, however, he couldn’t remember what life was like without it. Quieter anyway, but he had grown almost… fond of the constant clutter in his head. He sure as hell wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere if it stopped.
If he really thought about it, the appearance of his unusual fixations and compulsions might have coincided with his father’s less than classy departure from Chad and his mother. Chad’s hometown was small, built on oil and hockey hopefuls, and a scandal like that did not make it easy to bear the last name Dempsey, especially when everyone knew the way in which his father had left. No one, let alone Eric Dempsey’s son, liked hearing things like “only a matter of time” whispered when people thought they wouldn’t be overheard.
Perhaps his obsessions started with that; perhaps they continued because his mother was too preoccupied with her own pain to notice his. Was it because his friends pulled away or because he pulled away from them? He knew it came because he’d had to have something.
Maybe that was all wrong. Maybe one day his numerical obsession just came of its own accord.
Whatever. Chad didn’t particularly care. Inconsequential. Irrelevant. The point was it was here now and he had better things to do than waste his time trying to ponder what caused it.
Things like counting.
At first, it hadn’t been that bad. He just counted little things and avoided the number three. Nothing he couldn’t live with. If he felt really frazzled by it all, he could fix it by tapping his toes inside of his shoes to the beat of the Hockey Night in Canada theme song, five times through the parts he could remember. Chad was good on the ice, happiest there really, and thinking about that chased away the unnamable fear the Bad Numbers presented.
He was not sure he noticed it when it began but, thinking back on it, maybe he liked it. Organizing things. Fixing them into neat little groups.
At first, Chad craved the control.
When she enters her room and sees him on her bed with his gaze fixed on her ceiling, she wrinkles her brow into two perfect creases. The bed tilts as she lowers herself down beside him and he sits up enough so that he can trace her forehead with his fingers. She smiles and he looks for laugh lines, kissing her once, twice, three times fast when they appear. He wants her in hundreds of ways- too many to count and that’s a first- and the incredible thing, really, is that she wants him back in just as many.
Nobody noticed and Chad was so damned good at hiding his new habits that he didn’t think anybody ever would. Didn’t matter if he had mentally exhausted himself by simply observing everything or that his toes ached from the constant tapping. He was a Dempsey and, before that name was mired in shame, that meant something to people. He would happily let the worst of the gossips taunt him endlessly in front of, say, a whole high school assembly before telling a soul what it had done to him. It helped that there wasn’t a single soul to tell but whatever. He wasn’t going to dwell on that.
Chad didn’t need friends anyway, especially friends who had the nerve to look down on him now that everything in his life wasn’t golden, now that all of his family secrets were revealed. Fuck them all, he thought, gazing superciliously around the cafeteria of his high school. He hated the cheerleaders, his hockey team, and everyone else who was probably laughing at him like crazy on the inside. Trying to control his breathing, he clenched his fingers around the edges of his tray and vowed to ignore every one of them.
After picking out a sandwich from the selection and helping himself to an apple, Chad grabbed hold of a carton of chocolate milk; had it halfway to his tray before noting what he had done. Chocolate milk was his favourite drink but he had broken the cardinal rule. He had grabbed it third. It didn’t make sense that the third item had to be grabbed at exactly the same time as the second or the fourth but he had been so busy focusing on what everyone thought of him that he had forgotten.
Exhaling hard, he shoved the milk back into its place and tried to be casual about adjusting the weight of his tray, even as his toes were furiously tapping. The problem was that this was starting to be not quite enough and still he felt fidgety. Chad fought the urge to drop the tray in order to stomp out the only relief he knew. Rather desperately, he dropped a hand to his thigh and began drumming his fingers, a steady onetwothreefourfiveonetwothreefourfiveonetwothreefourfive.
When he was almost satisfied, Chad noticed that Eleanor Ross was watching him from her table clear across the cafeteria. His friends had called her countless things behind her back and to her face all throughout junior high and elementary school. He couldn’t remember the justification behind that now but he was mostly certain it had something to do with her non-existent fashion sense, her holier-than-thou attitude, and a report card that didn’t have a single mark below an A. He had never hated her exactly but he was certain that she probably disliked him and his old friends quite a bit. He was about to drop his gaze out of guilt when he noticed the expression on her face.
Ellie Ross looked curious and, for the life of him, he couldn’t fathom why. So she had clearly seen his panicked chocolate milk induced jig, so what? She didn’t know him and therefore did not know that chocolate milk was his favourite. He could be lactose intolerant, for all she knew, but Ellie had a horrible meddling look on her face, as if he was some complex problem for her overly large brain to mull. In defensive response, Chad shot her his best snigger and glare combo, the one that had always worked so well when he was the high school’s leading star and she was nothing but a nerd he’d never bothered with. Clearly, being caught came as a surprise. Ellie looked away so fast that he wondered if she’d feel a strain on her neck later.
Palms sweating, he sent the top of her down turned head one final glare before moving to pay for his lunch.
She is his one friend and the one person he can tell anything to. She has called him her boyfriend forty five times in public and he thinks he’ll never tire of hearing it. She smartly calls him her boyfriend now as his hand slips underneath the back of sweater in order to caress the smooth skin hidden just above her jeans. She’s always liked being touched and he’ll do it thousands of times before he tires of the soft texture of her skin. It’s too perfect to count and so he closes his eyes and simply feels.
It took Chad sixty-six steps to walk from his Calculus class to fourth period English, which would have been fine if six hadn’t recently joined three on his ever-growing list of Bad Numbers. He was in a foul mood, made worse when Ellie Ross hurried by him in the hallway. Undoubtedly, she saw his lips moving as he counted each carefully placed footfall but she only arched an inquisitive eyebrow at him. He snapped at her, an ugly insult made up but apparently not forgotten in junior high, so that she would scurry on past him. It bothered him later that she hadn’t look insulted. He didn’t even need to know anything about how much she enjoyed a puzzle to know that Ellie was merely intrigued, as if all the temper tantrums in the world would only help her figure out what his problem was. Perhaps he hadn’t put enough snap behind it, lonely and as isolated as he was now. He made a mental note to work on that later, maybe in front of a mirror.
It was easier to ignore his lack of snap when he remembered that it was because she’d interrupted him and he swore to himself as he walked, wondering what exactly he would have to do to counteract the offense of being caught. Count out sixty-six things that annoyed him about Ellie Ross perhaps but he was too distracted to see any sort of petty fun in that. Had to fight the urge to start his walk all over and recount everything.
In the end, he was late for class. Mr. Joethe looked at him questionably but did not reprimand him. That wasn’t abnormal exactly but Chad thought privately that even his teacher could tell that he was on thin ice since his father had run off, a fact that stung his pride a little. Gritting his teeth, he acted as if he didn’t care and slouched down in his usual seat- fifth one in on the fourth row.
It happened so gradually that Chad wasn’t sure when he stopped paying attention to the lecture and started staring at Ellie. She, of course, was oblivious to him now that there was learning to be done. Instead, she was avidly taking notes and probably waiting for the opportune time to shoot her hand up in the air. He smirked to himself fondly thinking about what a know-it-all she was.
Idly, he wondered what it was that she had managed to figure out about him. He knew he was a good actor but when he was alone, there was no need for it. It was a chilling thought to wonder if he might have been too caught up with counting to actually notice anybody else. Had she seen him counting before today? Did she think he was crazy? He was beginning to think he was.
Abruptly, he noted that she had used three clips in her hair today and cringed in anticipation of the all too familiar rush of nerves. In his shoes, he raised his toes, ready to start tapping out the theme song… only nothing. The Bad Number had been counteracted somehow, leaving him overwhelmingly confused. Surely, Ellie was not immune. Surely she didn’t have some sort of magical kiss-your-troubles-goodbye solution that he wasn’t aware of.
Edgily, Chad thought how Ellie knew about things. She was smart; she had read countless books. If anyone knew what could help him, it was probably she.
They are sitting on her couch eating hamburgers and drinking beer when the most amazing thing happens. The furnace outside of her dorm room hums and he can hear her chewing. The radio on her bedside table is on. Mundane noises, all of them, because for the first time in months, he is dangerously close to thinking absolutely nothing.
A week after he saw Ellie with three clips in her hair, he tried a new route to English and was pleased to make it there in eighty four steps, never mind that one was an embarrassing little hop skip so as not to make it eighty three. Giddy with success, he felt like shouting it from the rooftops. He almost laughed aloud and only managed to contain it by reminding himself rather firmly that he was trying to appear sane. Bad enough to have Ellie Ross catch him counting. He most certainly didn’t need to be caught cackling to himself as well.
Of course, Chad was also disgustingly late, later than he’d ever been, and that was a sobering thought. He wasn’t sure how long his teacher was going to let his behavior slide but today he was once again blissfully lucky… or so he thought until he tried to sit down.
Some masochistic asshole had stolen his seat. Blinded by panic induced fury, Chad didn’t even recognize who it was. Could be anybody and it didn’t matter because the only seat left was the seat beside Ellie, the third seat in on the third row.
Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it.
Mr. Joethe wanted to know, “Is there a problem, Mr. Dempsey?”
Chad wanted to shout, “Yes, there fucking is!” He’d storm right out of the classroom too, only that would draw too much attention and then people other than Ellie might start watching him and they couldn’t watch because then they’d notice too and being neurotic about numbers was a much worse thing than everything they already knew about him and Chad just couldn’t stand one more thing that was worse and-
- His fingers were tapping his thigh again because everything abruptly was too much for some stupid hockey anthem to cure. His feet were moving to that cursed seat that he could not sit in. He didn’t know what would happen if he did- yes, he did and it was absolutely nothing- but what if… and…
Ellie Ross stood up abruptly. Met his wild gaze calmly. She didn’t smile; she wasn’t looking at him anymore at all. Hands on her hips, she glanced down at Devon Turner, who was sitting directly in front of her.
“I can’t see over Devon," she announced to no one in particular.
Then, with a great huff, she plopped herself back down on the seat that Chad could not sit in, much to the bewilderment of everyone. The Numbers did not touch her. She seemed completely unfazed. Without looking up, she pulled her books in her direction and acted as if she didn’t hear Mr. Joethe’s reprimand.
Chad could not believe it. Almost warily, he took her abandoned seat and gawked at her with complete confusion. She knew. He was not such an idiot that he wasn’t completely sure of that. Ellie must have been watching more than he thought. She’d probably made him her pet puzzle, her mystery of the day.
Chad wished he was even a little offended but all he felt was an overwhelmingly massive relief. Someone saw and it had been a horribly long time since anyone had looked at him genuinely.
Suddenly, Ellie was quite literally looking at him. Her eyes were kind and understanding, which was amazing given everything.
“Stop staring at me,” she ordered.
And he smiled. Forgot to tap his toes as he turned to the third chapter in the novel they were studying as he answered quietly, “Don’t even pretend you don’t like it. Bet you sit around all day thinking about me.”
So long since he had teased anyone. He was so very damned relieved not to be in that chair and to have somehow avoided her mocking him that he even wiggled his eyebrows in a friendly manner.
“Don’t think I don’t remember junior high, you jerk. Sit around thinking nice things about you? Disgusting.”
He thought she might have wanted to smile a little bit. As it was, she smashed her lips hard together.
“Sticks and stones,” he whispered back, nudging her with his elbow quite intentionally as he opened his notebook. And then, on impulse, “What are you doing at lunch tomorrow?”
Ellie Ross blinked at him four times fast before ducking her head back down, shrugging for an answer. The smile wanted to come again, he could tell. Shaking his head, he sent one of his own her way before turning to his notes.
Months later and he is surrounded by nothing but bliss and Ellie and the most amazing silence he has ever been allowed to hear.
This was the winner in Edmonton Voices 2007, and appears in various forms on my social media accounts.