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Field of Six by Barbara Jacksha
"FIELD OF SIX"
copyright 2006 by BARBARA JACKSHA


The Days are Numbered

Who needs six tubes of lip balm? A half a dozen cans of tuna, on sale, okay; and buying six disposable razors, sure—he knew how fast those got used. That didn't explain the lip balm. Judd shuffled forward a few steps in the express lane. The woman with the six pink Lady Shick razors looked about fifty. Her lips seemed normal. It was a very dry city, but if someone goes through that much lip balm, they've got a problem.

Judd watched her lumber through the checkout chute and head to the glass doors. He thought he heard her mutter something before the doors slid open. The rubber track whirred and brought the six hot dog buns and eight smokies to the checker. She plucked them, scanned them, BEEEP, and told him his total, in one simultaneous moment.

"Six dollars and sixty-six cents."

"Excuse me?"

"Your total, six-sixty—"

"Oh, right." He didn't want her to say it again. "Sorry."

Outside the supermarket, he wondered why the checker didn't comment on the bill. It probably didn't register. All day, she reads numbers off her screen, like she's naming the shoppers. The thin woman, with the Häagen-Dazs and Diet Coke, she's 7.87; the old man, with the veal cutlets and French's mustard, he's 9.20; the kid with the shaggy hair and baggier pants, with the watermelon Hubba Bubba, he's .96; and on and on. So, she named him that number with the odd biblical, heavy metal connotation—so what? No big deal.

At his car, Judd still wondered about the lip balm. A gust blew through the parking lot and cooled the beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead and upper lip. As he pulled out, he said, "Six cans of tuna, six razors, and six tubes of Lypsol." Then he laughed. "Groceries of the beast."

After dinner, while typing an email to his friend in Rhode Island, he glanced at the time. 6:16. He stopped. He looked at the paragraph he had just finished. He went to the pull down menu and selected "word count." He let his finger off the mouse and a little gray box appeared: 50 words. He added the two numbers.

"You've got to be kidding," he said.

That's when he remembered the grocery bill.

And then he remembered his bill at Starbucks for half a pound of Italian roast; and the cost of dry cleaning his tan dress pants; and his change from the Tragically Hip CD. It was on sale. With the tax: 13.34. He'd glanced at the change from the twenty before he shoved it in his pocket. A five, a one, two quarters, a dime, a nickel and a penny—a cross section of currency, he had thought—now, he only thought of the total.

That night, he was still scattered inside, like one of those snow bulbs. He wondered about waking his wife. She had begun breathing deeply, not quite snoring, a soft, slower sound, like waves lapping at the shore. What would he tell her? Would he say that he kept seeing that number, the one from the Bible? He kept seeing it in ordinary places, where you wouldn't expect it. She'd brush it off as coincidence. She'd say, "You worry about the smallest things, Judd." She'd roll over and tell him to try and get some sleep.

Judd rolled over and over. Since coming back from the mall he'd been unable to shake the heaviness lodged in his stomach. He thought about going to the bathroom for another handful of Tums or a couple glugs of Pepto. Then, he felt like doing something he hadn't done since he was a kid. He felt like praying. He'd said the odd prayer at the lottery kiosk, or late in the fourth quarter when he had money on a game. But he knew those were just bits of wishful thinking not at all like the thoughtful petitions his mother had taught him as she sat at his bedside.

He began, mouthing the words without sound, "um, God?" Maybe something more formal. Judd mouthed, "Our Father, who art in Heaven." But he couldn't remember the rest. He thought of a phrase. And then he whispered it, checking to make sure he didn't wake his wife.

"Am I okay?"

He didn't remember going to sleep, or waking, or going downstairs. He sat in the Lazy-boy wearing the checkered flannel sweats that his wife had picked up at Value Village. Outside the living room window, the sky shifted from purple to indigo. It would be dawn in less than an hour.

He glanced at the bookshelf next to the TV. He got off the chair, knelt down and ran his thumb across the top row of books. He stopped in between the Joy of Cooking and KillShot. He plucked out the dark leather volume and moved to the couch.

Judd remembered reading Genesis when he was a kid. It had Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Tower of Babel—some good stories in there. As he flipped, he was reminded that he didn't go to church anymore, except for the odd wedding or funeral, maybe Christmas Eve. His wife thought that would be good for the kids.

He ruffled the pages. Where was the part about the number? He read about manna from heaven, a talking donkey, and a woman at a well story that he remembered from his childhood Sunday school. Maybe he should go to church this week. He wondered what his wife would think. She'd worry, ask him about his stress level and if he should go see a doctor and get some tests. She was always getting tests. He stopped asking what they were for. She looked fine to him.

And then, there it was. It had to be in the last book, he thought. Judd read the passages before it and after it. It didn't really make a lot of sense. He started at the beginning. Rev.1:1—that's how they'd say it. One colon one. When he got to the part about the number, he read it a few times and then moved on.

When he finished, he tucked the Bible back into its spot on the shelf and sunk back into the couch. The sun was up and he knew the kids would be tromping downstairs any minute. He was tired but the fluttery feeling was gone.

After breakfast, Judd drove the kids to school and his wife to work. He decided he'd go and grab a latte at Starbucks before he started his own work. After he paid, he walked through the supermarket and, as always, he remembered something he was supposed to pick up. They were out of half-and-half and fruit for the kid's lunches. He sipped the latte and stared at the shelf deciding between pineapple- and peach-flavoured applesauce. He decided on both, stock up—why not? He chuckled to himself. The sun shone through the tall windows and glinted off the metal checkouts.

Ahead of him, in express, a woman argued with the clerk.

"It's a six-pack. That counts as one item."

The clerk sighed and pushed the items through her scanner. He thought even the beeper sounded annoyed. The woman looked to be in her sixties. She had six bran muffins, a bag of apples and the six-pack of Coke she was defending. Not thinking, he counted the apples. There were five. He smiled and then she was out the chute.

When she turned to take the bag, he noticed a round bulge in her coat pocket. The clerk didn't notice it. She called out his total. He didn't hear the number—he was still staring at the woman as she walked away. He handed the clerk a five and a couple of bucks.

He knew he'd be in church on Sunday.

Copyright 2006 by Craig Terlson

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Craig TerlsonCraig writes:
I often find myself writing about obsessive characters—I can't help it. Judd is one of those who thinks a little too much and ponders that whisper-thin line between the visible world and the invisible. This story is based on a trip to the grocery store where that line got a bit blurry and, like Judd, I crossed into the obsessive territory of "what if?" The "number" represents that dance between coincidence, superstition, and the paranormal—plus it still gives me the willies.

Craig Terlson has been an illustrator, drawing for magazines and books for the past twenty years. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Psychology Today, Florida Trend, and many others. Out of a desire to tell stories more than a few panels long, he started an alternate career as a writer. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Bound Off, Thieves Jargon, Thirst for Fire, and other literary journals. He was finalist for the Glimmer Train 2005 New Writers Award. You can reach Craig via his art and fiction website at www.terlson.com or at craig@terlson.com.

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