Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Number 47

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

“NUMBER 47.”

Noah almost flinches as he’s given his bib numbers. He stares at them, his thumb not quite chasing the sly dip of the seven. What are the odds?

“Is there a problem?” the race official raises her eyebrow at him and looks pointedly over his shoulder at the people queuing up behind him.

“No,” Noah mumbles and walks off, his numbers clenched so tightly in his fist that they crumple.

Later, he finds himself in the middle of a throng of people. Surrounded by walls of flesh, he is enveloped in scents of freshly applied deodorant and body odour. All of them wear pink.

Noah fumbles at his shirt, cursing when he can’t find the pin. “Here you go.” A man holds out a pink ribbon pin. His skin is so fair that it’s already burning in the sun.  “Girlfriend had to work, so I had a spare.” Noah nods his thanks but can’t think of anything else to say. God, he’d be the same age as Em if she – “So, why you running?”

Noah doesn’t want to answer. It’s so private it would be a betrayal. But he feels like he owes this kid something. A quid pro quo – kindness for a bitter truth.

“Daughter,” Noah grunts.

The young man’s face falls and Noah can tell he’s made a mistake. Honesty is too much for some people. He should have offered a kindness back and lied.

“Oh man, I’m so sorry dude. Is she? I mean, is she …” Noah doesn’t answer. He can’t. An awkward silence issues. Noah finds that’s all right as he’s learned to grow comfortable with silences that linger. 

BANG! The race begins.

Both the stranger and Noah breathe a sigh of relief. They run and Noah loses sight of him in a sea of bumping bodies.  Elbows dig into his sides and a shoe catches the back of his foot. He stumbles and nearly falls, but arms catch him.

Noah shakes them off and runs faster. He wants to break away from the pack. He pulls ahead and smiles. The hard slap of concrete against his feet feels great. A seagull squawks and in the distance he can make out the faint outline of Nobbys lighthouse. But it’s the smell of salt in the air, the way the morning chill stings in his lungs and how his legs strain as they pump that give him a feeling he’s missed for so long. Peace. And quiet.

It’s in this place of not-quite-thinking, of just feeling the push and pull of his limbs that he realises what he’s actually doing. What an idiot I am. Running for a disease that does nothing but take and take. This demon called Breast Cancer.

He sprints and ignores the burn. He can run as fast and as hard as he likes but there are some things that Noah can’t run away from.

“Go 47!”

W-who? Is that –?

Noah tries to spot the caller, but his fellow runners begin to blur into a pink incandescent haze. The cheers and claps of the spectators dissolve into a screaming static. Every breath becomes a starburst, a jolting pain that’s sick of being silent.

A streak of sky-coloured hair caught in the corner of his eye is enough to commit him to the fall.

It can’t be …

He trips. The world spins. No zealous hands catch him this time. There is only the plunge into gravity’s inevitable clutch.

And hard concrete.

************************* 

“DAD, don’t go.”

Noah hates being here. Hates it. It’s the ghost haunting him.

“Don’t you worry, I’ll be back lickety-split.”

The smile is weak, but it’s there. It’s still there.

“Dad,” Emily laughs but it ends in a cough. “Nobody talks like that. Even people in your generation aren’t that old.”

“There goes my street cred,” he says.

He expects another smile, another joke about how out-of-date he is. Instead …

“Please, stay.”

Maybe this time he’ll choose something different. Maybe this time Noah will be brave enough to face the wheeze in her breath, the way her skin clings to her bones, the crumpled-up tissue Emily has in her fist. Maybe he’ll stay and be a goddamn father for once.

But memories aren’t dreams.

“Em, it’s just a half-day. On my way back I’ll swing by the storage place and dig out your jersey.” Noah turns away from her too-thin face. “You’ve got to have your lucky numbers.” There’s a tug on his fingers. It reminds him of when she was young and desperate to hold Daddy’s hand. It feels exactly the same.

“I don’t want the stupid jersey. Just you.”

Noah stands up and her fingers slip away far too easily. “I’ll be back before you know it, Em.”

He leaves the room and doesn’t look back. Why didn’t I look back?

He shuts the door and leans his head against it. The door is a faded pink. He never got around to painting it new. Something a more-grown-up Emily would like. There was supposed be more time.

“Noah, maybe you should ...”

“I’ll be back soon,” he passes his wife and goes to work. By the time he gets home, Emily is dead.

************************* 

“NEED a hand?” Noah opens his eyes and sees the same young man from earlier. His face redder than ever but somehow his bright smile complements it. “You want to finish, don’t you?”

Noah shakes his head. What’s the point?

The stranger isn’t put-off, “ What would your daughter want?” She wanted me to stay. “What would she say to you right now?”

Noah thinks of Emily and everything she was; full-of-life, determined and boundless.

“Stop acting old and go do the thing that needs doing.”

“How about you do as the lady says.”

Noah nods, grabs the stranger’s hand and feels himself lifted up. He hears a spectator cheer, “Yes! Go, 47!”

His daughter’s lucky numbers – maybe they can be his too.

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