How you’ll die is written on your forearm. Don’t look now; you can’t see it; but it’s there. I can see it. It’s horizontal. Big and bold. Always black. Oh, and how old you’ll be. I call it your “death stamp”.
I was eight; looking at the arm of my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Brown, as she watered her roses.
“What does ‘stroke’ mean?” I asked my mom when I came in for dinner.
“You know how you move your arms back and forth while you swim?”
“Those are strokes. Or when you pet a cat all nicely.”
“You can stroke sixty-two cats?”
“….I guess so? Go wash your hands and come sit down. You ask such strange questions.”
Maybe Ms. Brown liked to swim so much that she wrote it on her arm. Or cats. Grownups were funny that way. That Tuesday, the ambulance came and took Ms. Brown away. Her kids had a big yard sale after a few weeks. I couldn’t find any swimming goggles or swimming suits, but I bought a little China cat with pink paws and a black tail for two quarters. My mom was right. Mrs. Brown sure liked cats.
My boss marches over to my desk, dropping a fat file with a thud next to my keyboard.
“I want this cataloged by the end of the day,” and off he goes to bother the receptionist.
I hate that guy. But that’s okay because I know how he goes. I’d turned up the thermostat in the office to eighty degrees when no one was looking. He’d peeled off his suit coat and rolled up the sleeves just enough for me to make out “Liver failure. 41.”
He made a big deal out of decorating the office for his 40th birthday the week before. Things will be just fine here within the year.
My mom is leaving me in twenty years. My dad leaves in five. Appendicitis and heart failure respectively. Neither one of them knows that I can see it.
I was nine and had written “Shark Attack. 50.” on my arm during class, just for fun. Sarah Cray’s said “Fall from ladder. 30.” Cody Anderson’s read “Drowning. 17.” Ms. Liston asked me what the sharpie on my arm meant.
“I just thought that it sounded cooler than everyone else’s.”
“Everyone else’s what?”
“The writing on everyone else’s arms.”
“Nobody else has writing on their arms.”
“Yes, they do. Yours says ‘Kidney cancer. 48.”
“What did you say?”
When I returned from the principal’s office, Ms. Liston was wiping away tears at her desk. Cody told me that he couldn’t play with me anymore after he’d told his mom what I said about his arm. A few more parents complained that I was telling their kids scary grownup things, and I was grounded from watching TV. I learned to just not say anything.
No, I can’t see my own. That would be cheating. Maybe someday I’ll meet someone who can read it, and we’ll die old and happy together.
Most people’s stamps are boring; strokes, heart attacks. I see the occasional gang shooting if I’m in the shady side of town. Maybe you’re wondering how old it starts. I checked my baby sister’s arm when she came home from the hospital. I was nine and recently grounded. I didn’t want to get in trouble for telling my mom that the baby had writing on her arm too.
The burly man at the meat counter hands me my weekly two pounds of bacon. I’ve seen his stamp for a while. Diabetes. 56. He’s probably got another twenty years to go.
The nightly grocery clerk has “Overdose. 37.” on his arm, and I have to pretend like I don’t notice the needle scars.
“Have a nice day,” he says, handing me my receipt.
“You too,” and I mean it.
A teenager on his skateboard glides by me as I’m leaving, shirt billowing in the night air. Car accident. 58.
I carried my groceries across the parking lot to my car. The lanky blonde girl loading the car beside mine drops a bag of apples, sending them rolling in all directions. I gather a few and walk to hand them back to her.
I blink a few times. She thanks me profusely, shoving the apples into the bag. My eyes widen as she pulls the trunk shut.
“If…you don’t mind me asking; h-how old are you?” my eyes are glued to her arm.
She stops, eyebrows drawing together.
“Twenty-two?” and shuts the trunk with a loud thud.
I’m left standing behind the car, hands shaking. Her brake lights turn on, and only the sound of a “honk” reminds me to move out of the way. She drives by, glaring out the window. My heart pounds. I sprint to my car, throwing the single bag into the passenger seat.
Do I follow her? Do I have enough time to warn her? I’ve never tried to change the stamp. Maybe her birthday isn’t for another year, and she’ll be okay until then. Maybe she has time. Maybe it’ll change.
I think of Halloween and decide to follow. Just in case.
I lag behind a bit, memorizing the digits of her license plate as we shuffle through traffic. Meanwhile, my mind wanders to serial killers. Grisly. Gory. Left for dead in trunks of cars or ditches by highways. Pain. Always pain.
We pull into the parking lot behind the university dorms. I pass by as she parks, making sure to pull into an obscure spot at the end of the row. I sit in my car and watch in my rearview mirror. She gets out, grabs the two bags from the trunk, and walks to the building.
My heart pounds as I open the door. One. Breathe. Two. Breathe. Stop. I walk faster; matching my heartbeat.
The girl opens door 116, balancing one bag on her knee before turning the knob and stepping through. I stay hidden under the shadow of the stairs. I hear the door close and sink to the ground. I can’t tell her what’s coming. I can’t ask her name. I can’t even talk to her without it becoming obvious that I followed her. I can’t do anything.
I think of my sister laying in her hospital bed. I think of Ms. Brown in the ambulance. I think of Cody Anderson and the countless other people whose deaths I’d known. This girl was going to die soon. I couldn’t just stand there and let it happen like this. I could not leave her begging for mercy at the hands of a cold killer. No. I’m not going to let her suffer.
I walk back to my car, slide into the driver’s seat, and breathe heavily. I write down the number on the door.
What if she leaves town? What if she’s just visiting a friend? What if she is kidnapped first thing in the morning? What if….?
I drive towards home.
My stomach churns from the all-nighter. I call in sick to work, declaring food poisoning. The boss didn’t buy it, but he didn’t have to. The bastard lived to cause pain; he wouldn’t understand what I was feeling anyway. Besides, I had another job to do that would be much more important than organizing his damned calendar for the month.
I shade my eyes from the glare of sunrise as I walk out to my car. It’s a beautiful day.
The man stocking the shelf has a giant “Alcohol Poisoning. 32.” staring from beneath his sleeve. I step around him to grab the paper towels. The daytime clerk isn’t going to die of overdose like his nightly counterpart; he’ll beat the odds by living to ninety and dying in his sleep. He scans my listed items without interest. I throw a pack of gum onto the conveyor belt as well.
“That’ll be $99.97.”
Her car isn’t there when I pull into the lot. Is she in pain? Is she in class? Is the murderer at large? Where is she? Given that it’s a Tuesday, she’s probably in class. Or maybe she doesn’t have class today. Hopefully, she’ll be back by evening. I doze off occasionally, starting awake, terrified that I’ve missed seeing her come home. Each time I look over, her spot is empty. Sitting still and squinting into the sun warms me into exhaustion. My eyes close.
The time is 4:27 when I stir and panic. Did I miss it? Had she come home? I glance over. Her car is in its spot. I sigh with relief.
At least she made it home safely.
According to my late-night calculations, the sun is due to set at 6:28 PM. Maybe she’s doing homework or calling her boyfriend. Does she have a boyfriend? Has she ever been in love? Maybe she just started seeing someone and can’t get any homework done because she’s too busy smiling. Maybe she’ll call her mom today too. Has it been a while, or do they talk every day?
The sun falls down.
I see a blonde head emerge from beneath the stairway. She’s alone.
Stupid. So stupid to go out alone.
She walks slowly towards her car, looking down at her phone; smiling.
Open my door.
I intercept her as she stands by the trunk of her car, clutching the keys in her hands. She looks up from her phone and jumps.
“Wait. How do you know where I live?”
“I’m sorry…” I lift my hand at arm’s length in front of my face.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“What are you-“
She falls backwards, hitting asphalt, phone cracking. I rush to her side, gun clattering to the ground.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Tears stream down my face. My breaths come in gasps as I bury my face against her shoulder. The smell of coconuts and sunshine wafts into my nostrils. I scoop her body into my arms and stagger towards my car. I let her legs drop while I pull the door open and shove her body into the backseat. I retrieve the paper towels and white sheet from the trunk. A wet paper towel is pressed against the hole in her forehead. I can’t do anything about the blood on her shirt (or mine), but I press the layers against her forehead.
“I’m so sorry. So sorry. So so sorry.”
Her tan skin pales. Her brown eyes remain open, seeming staring upwards. I pull the corner of the fitted sheet over her head and tuck it around her body. The stamp on her arm is fading. I stare; the stamp has never gone away in front of my eyes before
My bleary eyes open to the burning sensation in my forearm. Black letters blazing.
Credit : M Johnson
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