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I’M NOT EXACTLY SURE WHEN I first started seeing the numbers. My earliest memories are filled with snatches of familiar and unfamiliar faces, each with a set of small black digits floating like shadows just above their foreheads. The clearest first memory I have of seeing them comes from a muggy summer morning when Dad was sitting across the table from me, already dressed for his mid-morning shift. I remember the blue of his shirt perfectly matching the color of his eyes. That morning the city traffic was loud, streaming in through windows fully open to allow for even the faintest breeze. I was probably three or four—four, I think—and he was showing me on a piece of paper how to draw numbers and what to call them.
I already knew my shapes—circle, square, triangle—so I picked up on the lesson really fast, and I thought Dad was finally revealing the secret. The secret of why those odd little figures kept hovering right above everyone’s foreheads.
He taught me one, two, and three; I was so excited. But the elusive number was nine. We went through so many others to get to it, and finally it had a name. I remember repeating it out loud—the last piece of the puzzle in place—and I pointed to him triumphantly and shouted, “Nine-two-three-two-circle-circle-four!”
Then I laughed and laughed, and I remember thinking he’d be so proud of me for saying his numbers back to him. But when I’d settled down, I saw that he had the most puzzled look on his face. He was smiling with me, but also confused.
The memory is bittersweet. I can still see his face so clearly in my mind, the blue of his eyes, the black of his hair, the crook to his nose, and those numbers permanently etched onto his forehead. Small black gravestones against a pale white landscape.
It took us a couple of years to figure out what they meant. Actually, it took two years and one day too many.
Ma was the first one to put it together. I remember it was a Tuesday, because in my first-grade class we had show-and-tell on Tuesdays. Jenny Beaumont (10-14-2074) had brought her collection of Beanie Babies for us to pass around the circle, and I’d fallen in love with a little chipmunk. I’d been holding it greedily when Mrs. Lucas (2-12-2041) had to leave the circle to answer the classroom phone and, almost before she’d turned to stare back at me with wide eyes, I’d known something bad was happening at home.
She rushed me into my coat and told me to go with my Uncle Donny (9-30-2062), who was waiting for me in the principal’s office. I hurried down the hall to him, and the moment he saw me he scooped me up into his arms and ran to his car.
He’d driven so fast down the streets, and I could feel the whole car vibrating with fear. We came through the door of the apartment to find Ma, pale and trembling as she sat on the edge of the couch and dialed Dad’s cell over and over and over. On the coffee table in front of her was a crayon sketch I’d made in kindergarten the year before of Ma, Dad, and me. I’d drawn in all of our numbers, and Ma had proudly tacked it up on the fridge, where it’d gotten buried under other artwork, coupons, and love notes from Dad.
But that day, Ma had pulled the drawing down, circled the figure of my dad with a pencil, and while the TV broadcasted images of a standoff between a gang of drug dealers and the Brooklyn PD, she’d kept dialing and dialing and dialing.
Donny sat down on the couch and pulled me into his arms, but all of his attention had been on that broadcast. I remember so vividly the images from a helicopter circling above a huge warehouse, the chopper sending shaky images of men that looked like ants crawling over the rooftop while small sparks of gunfire flashed repetitively from the muzzles of their weapons The news reporter kept saying there were multiple officers down, and even at six years old, I knew that scene meant terrible things for us.
We learned later that Dad had left his cell in his patrol car. He’d gone into that warehouse to back up his buddies in blue, and he’d never come out. I’ve since been haunted by the feeling that Ma wasn’t the only one who’d put it together as she dialed and dialed and dialed. What if it’d finally clicked for Dad when he’d entered the building and that hail of gunfire had erupted all around him? And more important…why hadn’t it clicked for me in time to save him?
That’s another question I can’t seem to answer.
How come I can see the exact date that someone will die, but nothing else about the how, where, or even why? What good does it do to know the when, if you can’t know at least one of the other three?
Also, why am I seemingly the only person on earth who can see these numbers? Why did fate choose me for such a cruel gift?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times, and I’m still looking for the answer. I think there may not be one, because knowing when someone will die has never changed anything. I’ve never saved anybody or given them more time. I’m just the messenger.
That’s what Ma says to me all the time when one of my clients doesn’t take the news so well. Knowing that there’s nothing I can do to help them get more time still doesn’t take the sting out of it, though.
I started reading for strangers a few years ago after Ma lost her part-time job. I knew she was really worried about money, so I didn’t argue with her when she proposed charging people for telling them their deathdates. After a slow start, we now get about a dozen new customers a month.
There’s a little room at the back of the house, where Ma likes to seat them. The room is dim and gloomy. I never go in there unless I’ve got a client.
When I do a reading I have to focus on the forehead of the subject in question, and the numbers themselves are always the same: kinda small, less than a half an inch in size. They’re black and thin but perfectly etched, like you’d see printed in an obituary. They hover over the foreheads of everyone I see—even in a photograph or video, they’re visible to me. It’s why I don’t like going to the movies or watching a lot of TV. I know when every star in Hollywood will fall.
Because the numbers themselves are small and thin, I need to be within four or five feet of a person to clearly see their numbers, but if someone wears a hat, or has bangs or very dark skin, I need to be even closer. Beyond five feet, the dates get fuzzy and start to look like wispy dots—unsightly smudges on otherwise unmarred faces. When I walk the halls of my high school those smudges are a constant reminder that death is a mere squint away.
I try not to think about the people who don’t have a lot of years left. But it’s really hard. I’ll pass them in the halls at school, or see them around town, and I want to wince when they go by; their numbers flashing over and over again in my mind like strobe lights at a traffic accident, daring me to walk past them and forget what I’ve seen.
It can be pretty hard to deal with, so, a few years ago I started a notebook where I’d write down all the deathdates for everyone I know or meet. I add about ten to fifteen names a month—all my clients get listed, and it helps me cope.
When I first started seeing the numbers—these deathdates—they ran together as one long stream, but now my mind puts in the dashes.
6-28-2021. That’s Ma’s. I grew up knowing I’d be twenty-three when she died. Twenty-three is too young to be an orphan.
Still, it’s not like Ma takes care of herself. She smokes, she drinks, but mostly she doesn’t care. Not since Dad died.
A year after we lost him and moved from Brooklyn an hour and forty minutes north to Poplar Hollow, I began telling everybody I met what their deathdate was. I was a little seven-year-old on a mission to save anybody I could. Not surprisingly, I didn’t save a soul. Instead, I got sent home with a note from my new second-grade teacher, Mrs. Gilbert (7-18-2006). She had cancer and died the following summer, but she didn’t care to know that it was coming, and a few of the kids’ parents had complained. After that, Ma told me never to tell anybody their numbers unless she said it was okay.
My neighbor, Mrs. Duncan—her number’s coming up really soon. 2-28-2015. She doesn’t know it yet, either, but I’m tempted to tell her. She’s a sweet old lady who likes to redecorate her house every other month just for something to do and someone to talk to. I think she’d like to know that her time is almost up. I wouldn’t even charge her, which might not make Ma happy if she found out, but business has been pretty good lately, and Ma said she’s thinking of upping the price for a reading from fifty bucks to seventy-five.
With Ma and me on our own with only the money from my dad’s wrongful-death settlement to pay the bills, most of what I bring in goes to cover extras like repairs to the house or food or booze for Ma.
She’s been drinking a lot lately, which is why I’m hoping that business slows down. But that’s not likely. There are plenty of people out there who’re curious or desperate or they simply want to prepare. Lots of my clients come to me with a list and a stack of photos, and they’ll ask about everyone in their family except themselves.
Others ask only about themselves. Most people want to know if they can change the date, if they can get more time. I tell them I don’t know. And that’s what kills me. It’d be easier if I knew that the dates couldn’t be changed, that they’re set in stone as solid as the gravestone they’ll be printed on. If I knew for sure that a deathdate couldn’t be changed, I think I’d feel less guilty about my dad.
Then I look at my mom, and I see her leaving me in only six years, and a weight settles onto my chest that makes it hard to breathe.
So I wait and hope for a day when a client sits down in front of me, and I tell them their date, and then a miracle happens: I’ll see the date change. Simply by the act of revealing their deathdate I’ll get to witness them getting more time. Then I’ll have solid proof that there’s hope for anyone whose date is too soon. And I’ll finally be more than just the messenger.
FROM MY BEDROOM WINDOW, I saw the mercedes pull up next to our house and realized we were about to have company. Not many Mercedes found their way to our side of town.
“Maddie?” Ma called from downstairs. “I think we have a client.”
I closed my Algebra II textbook with a sigh and lay back on the bed where I’d been plodding through equations for the past hour. Mr. Chavez (8-9-2039) had given us a ton of homework and, ironically, I really struggle with math.
“Maddie?” Ma called again. “Honey, are you up there?”
I rolled off the bed and took a minute to pull my hair back and shrug out of my sweatshirt, trading it for a sweater.
When I got to the landing, Ma was at the bottom of the stairs waiting on me. “She’s in the back,” she said after I’d made my way down. Smoothing her hand over my ponytail she added, “She seems like a nice lady. She said she only needs one date, so I think this one will be easy. Also, I’m keeping your dinner warm in the oven.”
I could smell the pizza from the kitchen. I am so sick of pizza I could scream. Ma rarely cooks anymore, so all we ever seem to have are Hot Pockets, microwave pizza, chicken nuggets, or something else right out of the box. “I have to go to the store for some milk,” Ma said as I made my way toward the back of the house. “But I’ll wait until you’re through.”
Ma never left me alone in the house with a client, which was good, but I knew she was itching to go to the store. Milk was Ma’s code word for vodka.
Ma’s drinking had stopped burning a hole in my stomach a couple of years ago when I realized I was powerless to stop her. Deep down it still really bothered me, but I tried not to let it show.
When I walked into the back room, the first thing I noticed about the client was that she was really pretty, regal even, dressed in chocolate suede slacks and a cream silk blouse. A thick, luxurious fur coat was draped over the back of her chair. I knew right away that she was from Parkwick. They’ve got big bucks in Parkwick.
I moved to the chair opposite her and sat down. “Hello, Maddie,” she said with a warm smile.
“Hi,” I replied, pulling at my sweater. I felt a little self-conscious in her elegant presence.
“How are you this evening?”
I blinked. No one ever bothered to ask how I am. “Uh…fine.”
The lady smiled again. “I’m Patricia Tibbolt,” she told me, offering me her hand. I shook it, surprised by her easy, relaxed manner. “I’m so sorry to call on you during your dinner hour,” Mrs. Tibbolt continued, “but it was the only time I could get away from the hospital, and I barely managed to work up the courage to come see you tonight.”
I focused on her for a second. 7-21-2068. That made me relax. If she asked about herself, she’d probably like the answer. “It’s okay,” I told her, referring to the dinner hour. “We’re only having pizza again.”
Mrs. Tibbolt sat back and beamed her pretty smile at me. “I used to love pizza when I was your age. You must be fifteen or sixteen, right?”
“Sixteen,” I told her.
She continued to study me curiously. I noticed she had a whopper of a diamond on her left ring finger. I wondered if it was heavy. “You’re still so young to have such a gift and be able to share it with people.”
I smirked. “Yeah, I’m a regular Santa Claus.”
Mrs. Tibbolt’s eyebrows shot up, and I opened my mouth to apologize—it’d come out a little snarky—but she laughed and winked at me. It was like we’d just shared a secret. “Well, I don’t want to keep you too long,” she said next. “Your mother tells me that you need a picture to look at?”
I nodded and she took out her wallet. It was tan leather and looked soft as butter. Mrs. Tibbolt opened it and flipped to a row of pictures. She had three kids. After a slight hesitation, she tapped the top picture and said, “This is my CeeCee. Please tell me how long she has.”
I squinted at the photo. The little girl in the picture was maybe five or six, and she was bald. Her face was all puffy, but she wore a band with a little pink bow on her head and she had the hugest smile. The numbers floated up from right below her headband. “June seventeenth, twenty eighty-nine,” I said.
For a moment, Mrs. Tibbolt didn’t move or speak, but her eyes filled with tears. I was used to people getting emotional. I usually ignored it, but I liked this lady and I could feel a small lump forming in my own throat. I moved a box of Kleenex toward her that Ma had set on the table. She took a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. “My baby will really live that long?” she asked me in a choked whisper.
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Her deathday isn’t until June seventeenth, twenty eighty-nine.”
Mrs. Tibbolt swallowed hard and wiped demurely at her cheeks. “Thank you, Maddie,” she said. “You’ve helped me more than you could possibly know. CeeCee has leukemia, and she’s not doing so well right now. Her doctor wants her to participate in this experimental drug trial, but the side effects are awful, and I don’t want my little girl to go through that if there’s no hope.” Mrs. Tibbolt paused to stare down at the photo, smoothing her finger over the image of her daughter. It was a moment before she could speak again. “As a parent, you never want your children to suffer even though you can’t bear the thought of life without them. If there wasn’t a chance my baby would survive longer than the next six months, I was going to say no to the drug trial. You’ve given me hope, and I can’t thank you enough.”
I smiled at her but suddenly felt shy, and I dropped my eyes to the table. My gaze landed on the billfold just as Mrs. Tibbolt was closing it up, and that’s when I saw something that made my breath catch. I reached out to put a hand on her arm. “Wait,” I said, squinting at the pictures. There were two other kids there. One was a boy a bit older than me, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with black hair, bright green eyes, and really good looking. The other was a kid a little younger than me—maybe thirteen or fourteen with lighter hair but the same eyes and the same beautiful face. The older kid’s numbers were similar to his sister’s, 11-19-2075, but the middle son was a completely different story.
“Is he sick, too?” I asked, pointing to his picture.
Mrs. Tibbolt looked quizzically at me and swiveled the billfold around. “Tevon?” she asked. “No, honey. He’s perfectly well.”
My heart started to pound. I’d never seen numbers that soon on someone so young and healthy before. For a minute I didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t asked about her youngest son, but how could I not tell her, when the kid’s deathdate was so close? I decided to tell her—maybe this time it would change things. Pointing to the picture again, I said, “Mrs. Tibbolt, his deathday isn’t like your other kids’. It’s much sooner.”
Mrs. Tibbolt’s eyes widened, but she kept her tone level. “Oh? How much sooner?”
“It’s next week.”
She gasped. Then she shook her head. “No,” she said to me. “No. That’s not possible. Tevon is fine. He’s perfectly healthy.”
I stared at the picture to make sure. Biting my lip, I looked up at her again. “I’m not wrong.”
She paled and leaned in. “How?”
And there it was. That question I can’t answer. I shook my head, feeling the weight of my dad’s death settle onto my shoulders. At the same time, Mrs. Tibbolt’s eyes narrowed.
I glanced again at Tevon’s picture. His numbers remained stubbornly fixed. I knew I had to try to convince her. “I don’t know how. An accident maybe? I’m not sure. But something bad is going to happen to him, and if you don’t do something, he’ll die next week.” It was my uncertainty and the vagueness of my answer that she keyed in on. She misread me for a liar. I saw it in her expression as she began to shake her head, and her gaze fell away from me as she closed up her wallet.
Desperate to have her believe me I said, “I can tell you the date—”
“Stop!” she commanded, cutting me off. With her mouth pressed into a thin line, she stood, picked up her designer purse, and pushed her billfold into it. “You and your mom must think you’re pretty clever,” she said, staring at me like she expected a full confession. When I didn’t say anything she added, “Oh, I knew this was a hoax!”
I felt my stomach burn. “It’s no hoax.”
“Really? Weren’t you about to tell me that my son has come under some sort of deadly curse and for an additional fee you’d be happy to remove it?”
I stared at her. She glared back at me with contempt. Then, I watched her eyes drift up to a spot above my right shoulder. Ma had put a sign there with big bold letters. ABSOLUTELY NO REFUNDS!
Mrs. Tibbolt made a dismissive, puffing sound. “Enjoy your pizza, Maddie.” Then she yanked her coat off the chair, causing it to fall over. She didn’t pick it up. Instead, she stalked out of the room without a backward glance.
I sat there for a good ten minutes staring at the tabletop. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Finally, Ma poked her head in. “Your dinner’s on the table.” Then she looked at the overturned chair. “She didn’t take it so well, huh?”
I shook my head.
“Oh, sweetie,” Ma said, coming over to squeeze my shoulder. “You have to remember that you’re just the messenger. You’re not responsible for the date or the way your clients take the news. And how that woman reacted in here is only her first reaction. Give her some time to get over her shock, and she’ll come to terms with it.”
I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to tell Ma what’d happened, because it might lead to an argument. So I simply muttered an “I know, Ma,” and followed her out of the room to dinner, but I did little more than pick at my pizza.
After dinner I headed out to meet Stubby, my best friend. Stubby’s real name is Arnold Schroder (8-16-2094), but he’s gone by the nickname he was given by some bullies on the playground in elementary school for as long as I can remember. It’s not flattering, but he says it’s better than Arnold.
Stubs and I have been hanging out together ever since third grade when, after Mrs. Gilbert died, none of the other kids wanted anything to do with me. Back then Stubby was a chubby little eight-year-old with bright white-blond hair and a permanent goofy smile. He wore a red cape to school and told everybody that he wanted to grow up to be Superman. He never lost the chubbiness, but the cape is long retired. Socially, he’s super awkward, but inside that pudgy chest beats the heart of a superhero for sure.
He’d texted earlier to meet him at the diner midway between our two houses. Stubs and I live about a half mile apart in a suburb filled with majestic poplar, maple, and oak trees. They line the streets so that some days you can barely see the sun. As I rode my bike to the diner, the wind picked up, sending the leaves above me clapping. It sounded like riding under a canopy of applause. Orange, yellow, and red leaves rained onto my hair and shoulders as I pedaled. They coated the street and caught in my spokes, where they clapped some more.
The diner where Stubby and I meet isn’t big—not much more than a couple of booths and a short counter—but it’s cheap and we like to hang out there on Sunday nights because Rita (3-20-2022), the older waitress who works that shift, doesn’t glare at us when we take up a back booth and don’t tip her more than a buck fifty for a couple of Cokes and chocolate cream pies.
As I entered the diner, I noticed Cathy Hutchinson (1-19-2082). She’s a sophomore who moved in across the street from me the year before. She was there with her boyfriend, Mike Mendez (8-24-2078), who’s a junior. They were making out pretty hot and heavy in a booth diagonal from where Stubs was sitting.
He looked uncomfortable, and I could tell he was trying to avert his eyes while Mike groped Cathy. Stubs is a sweetie, raised by a single mom—and he’s sort of old-fashioned about how to treat a girl.
I nodded to him and rolled my eyes as I passed Mike and Cathy. He hid a smile with his hand. “Hey,” he said when I approached. “I already ordered for us.”
I sat down and glanced over my shoulder at the lovebirds. I turned back to Stubs and shook my head. “How long have they been here?”
“Long enough to annoy Rita,” Stubs said, motioning with his chin to the older woman across the diner currently taking another customer’s order.
I could only imagine the hard time Mike and Cathy had given the waitress. Mike’s got a mean streak in him, and Cathy’s not much better. I glanced behind me again, and this time I saw that Cathy had pushed Mike off her and was scowling in our direction.
Cathy’s not my biggest fan. In the summer of 2013, she, Stubby, and I had hung out together after she first moved in across the street from me, but the minute school started and she found out from the other kids what I could do, she turned on me quick. In the span of an afternoon she went from being my sweet friend to a backstabbing bitch, and I never could figure out what I’d done personally to her to get her to hate me so much.
I turned away from her back to Stubs, and as I did so I overheard Cathy sing, “Ding dong! The witch is dead.”
Cathy likes to tell everybody I’m a witch. I’ve overheard her say that my mom and I are part of a coven, and that we cast spells on the people who come to see me. Stubby once confessed that he heard Cathy tell all the people at her lunch table that she’d seen a guy come out of my house bleeding from the ears. It was ridiculous.
“Ding dong! The witch is dead,” Cathy sang again, and she and Mike both laughed.
I bristled, but Stubby gave me a subtle shake of his head. “They’re leaving,” he whispered.
I shifted my gaze to the large window behind Stubs, which gave a good reflection of the room behind me, and we both waited in silence until Mike and Cathy left the diner.
A minute later Rita appeared at our table with our pies and drinks. After she left, Stubs said, “So, you had a rough time with a client?”
I’d already texted him the basics, but I was eager to fill him in on the rest.
Stubs sat mouth agape through most of my story. “Her kid’s really gonna die next week, Mads?”
I nodded, picking at the pie with my fork. “I tried to get her to listen to me, but she thinks I’m a fake.”
Stubby shook his head. “If people don’t think you can do what you do, then why do they go to see you?”
“I have no clue,” I said moodily.
“So, what’re you gonna do?” Stubs asked next.
His question stumped me. “Do? What do you mean?”
“Well, if this kid isn’t sick or anything, then shouldn’t we do something to try to save him?”
I sighed. I hated knowing how close people were to losing a loved one, especially a young loved one. But I’d told Mrs. Tibbolt about her son’s deathdate, and it hadn’t changed anything. Those numbers had remained stubbornly fixed. “Stubs, there’s nothing I can do. I tried everything to get her to listen to me, and I checked the photo a couple of times. Her kid’s date didn’t change.”
Stubby was quiet for a moment and then he said, “Can the numbers change, Maddie?”
“I don’t know. I only know that I’ve never seen them change. Not even once.”
“So you think they’re fixed,” Stubs said.
I pressed my lips together and stared hard at the table. “Maybe. I honestly can’t be sure. Sometimes I’ll Google a client whose date has passed, and I’ll find an obit with the exact date I predicted. Warning people has never bought them more time.”
- "Laurie's debut for teens is quite an accomplishment...The character development is just as riveting as the plot in this well-constructed thriller."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The novel packs in plenty of fast-paced, nail-biting fun, perfect for fans of Barnes' The Naturals series."—Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books
- "This excellent book is a must-have for all libraries, especially where suspense and teen-life fiction is hot. This novel will provide crossover appeal to both older teens and adults."—VOYA
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers