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The Number Six This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

The crisp page crackled a bit as I turned it, flooding the air with the aroma of a new book. The constant static from the TV scratched my ears. Although the volume was low, it was just loud enough to distract me from the comfort of reading.

I got up to adjust the volume, only to be distracted by my husband struggling to push through our side door, both arms clasping an overflowing grocery bag. The flimsy paper had started to rip at the creases.

“Margaret!” Thomas yelled.

“I see you. I'm coming.” My bare feet stuck to the tiles of the kitchen floor as I headed for the door. It was one of those summers. Hot and humid.

I fiddled the handle back and forth a few times before it finally opened, loosening the makeshift tape patches Thomas had used to cover the holes in the screen.

“Better than sleeping with the skeeters,” he'd always say. I guess he was right.

The door slammed behind him, echoing through the kitchen and rattling in place before completely settling, as he headed to the kitchen table. Groceries were practically spilling out of the bag, and even that short 10-foot lug looked exhausting.

“When are you gonna get that AC fixed?” he said, wiping the beads of sweat and turning his Orioles cap backwards. I tried not to laugh at the few curls poking through the front.

The AC had been out for a while, and it didn't really help that the nights weren't cool like normal, or that the fan I had just bought seemed only to recirculate the hot air, making the room feel muggier than it already was, so instead of listening to everyone gripe, I just turned it off.

Normally I enjoy the summer. A two-month break from work is a sweet reward after ten months of plugging away eight hours a day in the classroom. But this summer was miserable. My son was miserable. And my husband was miserable. And my neighbors were miserable. And the whole town was miserable. Everyone went out of his or her way making everyone else miserable by talking about how miserable they were. But I guess that's the price you pay living in a small town – you gotta listen to everyone fuss when there's nothing else to talk about.

“Maggie, I bought us a lottery ticket at the mart today.”

“What? Are you, crazy?” I shook my head, incensed that he'd waste money on something dumb like that again. Especially when times were so tight.

“Well, I don't know. They're announcing the winner on Channel 6 News tonight. I thought it might be worth a shot.”

Laughing to myself, I sat back down and opened my book. The television was still making that static noise, and I wondered if it'd ever stop, but I didn't mind it anymore.

I still couldn't seem to concentrate on my book. Every time I'd try to read a page, I'd get sidetracked by my thoughts. It would be really nice to have a whole lot of extra cash. Really nice. Maybe we'd finally be able to ­repair the car engine so Thomas wouldn't have to walk to the grocery store every weekend and Junior would have something to practice on when his time came along. There's one less thing to listen to him complain about. And then maybe the AC could get fixed, and I could truly relax in my living room, instead of sweltering. But there's no use in getting my hopes up; stuff like that just doesn't happen to people like me. Well, not just me, but people in general. Nothing ever works how you want it to.

“Mom! Mom!” Junior busted through the door.

“Watch the sla-”

But it was too late, the door slammed and bounced in its frame a bit. But Junior didn't seem to mind, his eyes wide and his attitude urgent.

“What is it?” For some reason my heart started racing.

“Mrs. Taylor was watching Channel 6 News and her lottery ticket has the first number called! Do you think she'll win, Ma?”

“Probably not,” I felt bad watching the excitement drain from his face, but I couldn't lie to him.

Well now that the house was loud again, trying to read was useless. Junior turned the channel to 6 and we watched the revealing of the numbers too. They'd only announced one so far. I guess they do that to build suspense or something.

Pretty senseless to get all jazzed up over it, I thought. Thomas grabbed our ticket and sat on the couch next to Junior.

The number showed up: a big black 22 in a white circle. Next to it were five more empty circles, which I assumed meant there were five more numbers.

“Would ya look at that!” Thomas said, scratching off the metallic film concealing his numbers.

Well, two twos peeked through the scrapings, and the more he scraped off the more certain it was.

Coincidence, I thought as I looked up at the TV.

The announcer was rolling a ton of ping-pong balls with black numbers in a bingo cage that had certainly seen better days. It's really weird to think that just a few numbers could change someone's life.

Another ball rolled through the slot and he picked it up, squinting a bit to read the small print.

“Thirty-seven,” he called. You could hear people in the audience hooting and others letting out a sigh. Only I couldn't really hear – I could just tell by their faces – because Junior was screaming with joy. He jumped up and down and I just smiled at how great it was to see him happy.

That's how old I am, 37. I guess at this point, I'm about halfway through my life. A scary thought, to be honest. Even scarier because I don't really remember all the details of my first 37 years; time has just flown by. Well, of course, I remember the real important things and all, but I don't recall the little, seemingly insignificant, details. It's weird to think that a person only selectively remembers stuff, not on purpose or anything. Maybe ten years from now I won't remember this miserable summer.

“And the number is …” he said, pulling out another ball.

Thomas and Junior patted their thighs, making a drum roll. They were hitting so hard I could see the imprint of their fingers start to rise a bit on their legs, peeking under the bottoms of their shorts and touching their knees.

“Eight!”

Eight weeks is about two months. And that's how long ago Thomas lost his job. Ever since then, things had been real tight. More tight than they had ever been before, actually. Sure, we'd had times when we could only afford treats for Sunday supper, but now we're a strictly bean and peanut butter family, and that often comes from the food pantry, though I don't tell Thomas that.

He's still mad about losing his job the way he did. The factory fired a lot of people that day. I never really got the full story through his screams, but after talking to other wives, I guess there was some mistake on the belt. And they all just got fired. And they weren't even given a second chance or a chance to explain. Nope, the boss just fired them all.

Thomas looked at our ticket. And for the first time in the last eight weeks, I saw him laugh. Not like he was laughing at a joke, though; he let out one of those laughs solely driven from disbelief. It started as a kind of cross between a whoa and a hurray, but quickly turned into a full-barrel belly laugh. I couldn't help but laugh at him laughing. And for the first time in a really long time, we were all laughing. Junior was jumping up and down and doing some weird dance move he must have learned from the older boys at the park. But the laughing didn't stop. And it came to a point where I wasn't really sure why I was laughing anymore, and I don't think Thomas knew either. But, man, was it fun.

My stomach began to ache a little and my laugh fell silent. But I was still laughing a bit inside.

A commercial played featuring a new Red Wagon bicycle. It had removable training wheels that you could take off when you didn't need them anymore. Good way to save money, I thought. Two bikes for the price of one. But the cost of just that one was out of our reach. Junior asked if he could get one.

“Maybe if we win the lottery,” I joked. Only I wasn't really joking. I was praying.

Channel 6 News came back on, and over the commercial break they'd announced another ­number: 90.

He was pulling out another ball, so there wasn't much time to be excited about the fact that 90 was the fourth number on our ticket.

“Fifty-four!” his voice echoed through the stands. And at this point most people were just sitting back in the comfort of their seats, bored. You could hear a few sighs, but no one there had much hope anymore anyways.

Except it was very different in my hot and stuffy living room. Which was now really loud as well.

My heart was racing so fast, and I began to feel dizzy. But it wasn't because of the weather. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. And my palms were getting real sweaty. I think my face was too, because Junior ran to the kitchen to get me water. I could hear the water running, hitting the sink. But I couldn't see much. It was a really weird feeling. I think my adrenaline was running, because I was racing a mile a minute on the inside, but I was too anxious to react on the outside.

The glass trembled a bit in my hand, but I managed to take a few sips without spilling. I took a deep breath in, and let a deeper breath out, trying to collect myself.

Nineteen fifty-four was the year Thomas and I got married. Man, did that seem like ages ago. The day we got married wasn't much different from today – hot and muggy. It seemed perfect to me, but I'm sure it wasn't the most pleasant day to get married. I remember walking down the aisle of the church barefoot – shoes made me taller than Thomas and my dress was long enough to hide my feet. I could feel the unevenness of the wood against the soles of my feet, the same unevenness that I felt walking across the kitchen earlier. That's when you know it's really humid, when the floorboards swell so much that they barely seem to fit in place anymore. I remember Thomas choked up a little saying his vows, and it made me feel really warm inside, and I remember the way his hands trembled as he pushed the ring past the knuckle of my finger. He was nervous. But not a bad nervous, a good nervous. Good nervous, just like me.

And I guess that peculiar nervousness, that's not bad but actually really good, isn't so different from what I'm feeling now.

“One more number, ladies and gentlemen. Only 99 more chances to win this summer's Beat the Heat Scratch Lottery! And your winning number is … after the break.”

Thomas was tapping his leg faster than a jackhammer and Junior ran off to use the bathroom. Only I appeared calm. Which is pretty out of character for me.

The last number on our ticket was 16. A number that didn't really have much significance in my life.

The commercial went static – the same static that filled the screen when I was trying to read my book.

“We gotta go!” Thomas screamed. He didn't have the patience to wait for the screen to go back to normal. And I didn't either.

We both popped out of our seats and darted for the door, busting through the screen door and down the two concrete stairs.

“C'mon, Maggie!” he screamed as I stopped for a moment to brace myself for the slam of the door and then kept running across the sidewalk. My bare feet killed, but I didn't care.

We frantically knocked on Mrs. Taylor's door and rushed right in before she even had the chance to welcome us. Her TV was tuned to Channel 6. And the winning number had already been announced.

Six.

My heart sank a little. And I could hear Junior's cries, and it sank a little more. And I could see the disappointment Thomas was trying to hide, and it sank even more.

I walked right out of Mrs. Taylor's house, not even saying a word, and it felt like my heart would never stop sinking.

Six is how old Junior is, but it's just another number, nothing more than that. I guess that's what they all are. Just numbers. And somehow I managed to make each number meaningful, or if I were lucky, something else would have made them meaningful for me. It's really weird to think that just a few numbers could change someone's life.

The air was humid and the grass was sticky and my feet hurt from sprinting across the sidewalk and bugs kept flying into my face and in my ears and I didn't even have the energy to shoo them way.

I was wrong. Ten years from now, I'll remember this miserable summer.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the November 2012 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.




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jettabugThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Nov. 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm:
WOW. I am speechless. This is an amazing piece! I have to say, at first, I thought the couple was going to be elderly, and then you said Margaret was 37. Wow, surprise. And at the end, we all thought they were going to win the lottery, but they didn't, so the lesson appears to be don't overexpect things. This is amazing. Congratulations on having it appear in the magazine!
 
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