The room is brightly-lit and smells of warm air, lavender and tea tree. As I wait I stare at my left hand, opening my fingers as I have done so many times before and turning my palm awkwardly so that I can see the stretch of skin that runs from the tip of my thumb down to my palm.
There, marked in brown-black, are the numbers. They’re familiar, in a way. And yet, in another, not. Because they change every day. Today they say 257. At one second past midnight, the last digit will change, and the number will become 256.
They call it clockthumb.
I’ve always been this way, although the number was bigger once, of course. Others have it, too. No one knows why, or exactly what it means.
For many, the numbers end when they do.
I am ten years old, and it’s the middle of summer. I’m excited and curious. My thumb reads 10,000. Will there be a zero at the front tomorrow? Will the first digit just fade away, forever? I’m desperate to stay up to see it change. Mum says no. We argue about it, but she’s Mum – she wins.
I stay awake anyway, pinching the skin inside my elbow to stop myself falling asleep. I’ve hidden a torch under my pillow and I use its light to stare at my thumb until my eyes water.
At midnight the number 10,000 completely disappears. My skin is unmarked. For a moment I hold my breath, wondering if it will stay that way. And what it will mean if it does. But then dark dots reappear. Like ink spreading on blotting paper, lines grow and curl until the same area of skin is marked as before, each new digit just a little wider and fatter than the old ones.
I’m so excited that I roll out of bed and run out of the room. The light is still on downstairs and I head for the landing, the carpet bristly beneath my bare feet.
I stop at the top of the stairs, though, because I can hear my mum, and she’s crying.
“Janie,” says Granny’s muffled voice, surprising me. I hadn’t known she was in the house. “It’s still twenty-seven years. That’s a long time. And it may not mean what you’re worried it means.”
“It’s hardly any time,” said Mum, her voice cracking and gasping, like there isn’t enough air for the words. “What if it is that, and I outlive my own daughter?”
The numbers switch from 1000 to 999 a few weeks after my thirty-fifth birthday. Now we have the internet, and I spend ages trawling forums, reading posts. Some people do die when their clockthumb runs down, I learn. But for others it seems to mark some other significant event.
One woman, I discover, arranged her wedding for day 1. Everyone else was terribly paranoid, wondering if the brakes might fail on the bridal car, or if she might choke on a canape. But I’m still here, she writes, posting a picture of her unblemished thumb. The numbers ticked down, and disappeared, and never came back.
I wonder if it’s true, or if she’s made the whole thing up for likes. How would you ever know?
Either way, not all the stories are so happy. One man decided to amputate his own thumb at the age of twenty-seven with a 6 on his clock. The numbers on the amputated thumb did stop changing, but he died of sepsis five days later.
It’s my wedding day and my thumb says 481. Not a big number, anymore. In the bridal suite that evening Ethan touches my thumb and says it doesn’t matter.
“We’ll face whatever it is together,” he whispers.
He’s said it many times. I think he’s trying to convince himself more than me.
The numbers swim in front of my eyes and I blink. The extractor fan is whirring loudly above my head. The toilet seat is hard, and my buttocks are starting to go numb. I take a deep breath.
I have never been able to believe that it means what I know Mum and Ethan fear it means. Perhaps I’m in denial.
I pick up the long rectangle of white plastic I left on the sink and stare at it. Not that I need to, really. I knew what it was going to show me.
Eight months, twelve days.
It can’t be a coincidence.
Of course, things could go wrong. But I have a feeling that they won’t.
I’m going to plan for day zero.
This story was written in response to a prompt which involved a random combination of two nouns. Something about the word “clockthumb” just appealed to me.