Num8ers - By Rachel Ward


There are places where kids like me go. Sad kids, bad kids, bored kids, and lonely kids, kids that are different. Any day of the week, if you know where to look, you’ll find us: behind the shops, in back lanes, under bridges by canals and rivers, ’round garages, in sheds, on vacant lots. There are thousands of us. If you choose to find us, that is — most people don’t. If they do see us, they look away, pretend we’re not there. It’s easier that way. Don’t believe all that crap about giving everyone a chance — when they see us, they’re glad we’re not in school with their kids, disrupting their lessons, making their lives a misery. The teachers, too. Do you think they’re disappointed when we don’t turn up for registration? Give me a break. They’re laughing — they don’t want kids like us in their classrooms, and we don’t want to be there.

Most hang about in small groups, twos or threes, whiling away the hours. Me, I like to be on my own. I like to find the places where nobody is — where I don’t have to look at anyone, where I don’t have to see their numbers.

That’s why I was pissed off when I got to my favorite haunt down by the canal and found someone had got there before me. If it had just been a stranger, some old dosser or junkie, I’d have gone somewhere else, easy, but, just my luck, it was one of the other kids from Mr. McNulty’s “special” class: the restless, gangly, mouthy one they call Spider.

He laughed when he saw me, came right up to me and wagged a finger in my face. “Naughty, naughty! What you doing here, girl?”

I shrugged, looked down at the ground.

He carried on for me. “Couldn’t face another day of the Nutter? Don’t blame you, Jem — he’s a psycho. Shouldn’t be allowed out, that one, should he?”

He’s big, Spider, tall. One of those people who stand too close to you, doesn’t know when to back off. Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school. He’s in your face all the time, you can smell him. Even if you twist and turn away, he’s still there — doesn’t read the signs at all, never takes the hint. My view of him was blocked by the edge of my hood, but as he loomed up to me and I moved my head instinctively away from him, our eyes met for a moment and it was there. His number. 12152010. That was the other reason why he made me feel uncomfortable. Poor sod — he doesn’t stand a chance, does he, with a number like that?

Everyone’s got one, but I think I’m the only one that sees them. Well, I don’t exactly “see” them, like something hanging in the air; they kind of appear in my head. I feel them, somewhere behind my eyes. But they’re real. I don’t care if you don’t believe me — suit yourself, I know they’re real. And I know what they mean. The light went on the day my mum went.

I’d always seen the numbers, for as long as I could remember. I thought everyone did. Walking down the street, if my eyes met someone else’s, there it would be, their number. I used to tell my mum people’s numbers as she pushed me along in my buggy. I thought she’d be pleased. She’d think I was clever. Yeah, right.

We were making our way rapidly along the High Street, on the way to the Department of Social Security to pick up her weekly money. Thursday was normally a good day. Soon, very soon, she would be able to buy that stuff from the boarded-up house down our street, and she would be happy for a few hours. Every taut muscle in her body would relax, she’d talk to me, even read to me sometimes. I called out people’s numbers cheerily as we hurtled along. “Nothing, two, one, four, two, nothing, one, nine!” “Nothing, seven, nothing, two, two, nothing, four, six!”

Suddenly, Mum jerked the stroller to a halt and swung it ’round to face her. She crouched down and held both sides of the frame with her hands, making a cage with her body, clutching so tightly I could see the cords in her arms standing out, the bruises and pinpricks more vivid than ever. She looked me straight in the eye, the fury clear on her face.