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Since birth you could see a counter above people’s heads. It doesn’t count down to their death. It goes up and down randomly. You’re desperate to find out what it means.
You learn that other people can’t see the counter when you’re around five, and ask your mother what it means because hers just dropped suddenly to three and you don’t know why.
She looks confused, the number slowly ticking up and down, and asks what game you’re playing. She seems distracted, and now you’re confused too, because you’ve been telling people their numbers for years.
You can’t see your own, not even in a mirror, and the fact that everyone gave you different answers wasn’t all that odd since you couldn’t see a pattern in how their numbers changed.
It does explain why you sometimes got answers in the millions though, when you never saw anyone else with a number higher than a few hundred. And here you’d thought you were special.
You’re more circumspect when asking if other people see them after that year, because while your mom was nice, the kids on the playground weren’t. You had to pretend it was a game, and they were stupid for not playing along.
You reach your teen years, get really into all those romantic ideas about a countdown to death, and it makes you scared of watching the counters drop for a few years.
But you comfort yourself that it’s clearly not a countdown, every time a friend hits one, or zero. It goes up and down, by jumps and starts, and seems so random.
Of course you become obsessed with math. You watch your one friend, a girl with yellow hair whose number jumps more and faster than anyone you’ve ever met. You track the numbers, log them for days and weeks, and try to find an equation to explain them.
There’s nothing, of course. Even when you think you see a pattern, it breaks in a matter of hours.
You look for the slowest changer instead, factor in the time between switches, and it’s still no good. You’re an irredeemable nerd now, but you need to know.
You get yourself a scholarship, pursue calculus and theoretical math, and your fellow students are almost as passionate as you. But none of them can see the numbers, none of them have the mystery you’ve never solved.
The scholarship doesn’t fully cover the cost of textbooks, so you take a job as a barista nearby. That’s interesting, because you see so many people all at once and can do more little studies of the numbers.
The answer definitely isn’t “time since last meal”, or “last cup of coffee”.
The presence of such a large and diverse sample lets you spot new things you hadn’t considered before too; you always knew most peoples’ counters changed at different speeds, but you’ve never seen anyone consistent before.
There’s a kid with green hair and piercings all up both ears and brows, and their number is never lower than twenty. They’re never rude, but they’re loud in spite of themselves, and you find yourself liking to see them.
A control for your experiments, a regular and reliable face.
There’s an old man who sits in the back whose number never changes and who never speaks. He hands you a napkin with a coffee order every time, and some of your coworkers are scared touching the napkins will make you sick.
You aren’t. The old man might be homeless or might not be; none of you actually know. He sits bundled in coats all through the summer, always has the same red scarf, always has the same seven sat above his head.
You’ve never seen him sat or napping in the street, but he’s never pulled out a key and you haven’t followed him to see if he goes to a home.
Whether he’s unhoused or not, you’re not about to treat him like a plague rat. He’s just quiet, and for all you know he’s fully mute.
You talk slowly and clearly back, making sure your mouth is easy to follow because you can’t be sure he can hear you in the first place. He watches your lips instead of your eyes, never replies, but always pays in exact change, and then puts the exact same tip in the jar.
One day, on a whim, you join a sign language club at university. It takes some practice to get the signs down, and you have to ask for some specific phrases, but a week later you try wishing him a good day in ASL.
His eyes light up, a tremulous smile half hidden in the scarf. He doesn’t sign back, but you know the secret now. He just doesn’t have much to say, but he was happy you made the effort.
His number is eight now.
You wondered if it might have been changing all along and you just didn’t notice, but it doesn’t go back down. Or up any further.
You have the strongest feeling you are that number eight, but you can’t prove it. It didn’t change while you were watching, or while he was in the store.
You take statistics class, get permission from your manager to run out a few projects at work. Things like two tip jars, each with a different sign and a note behind them explaining the project.
That gets much more results than a single tip jar, as you expected, people are firm in their opinions and pick sides quickly.
The other baristas insist on keeping the two jar method even once you’ve gotten an A on your findings. They’re for competing sports teams on game days, music genres over the summer when the concerts come through, silly things like “cake or pie” when nothing more serious is going on.
There’s no correlation between the counters and how much people donate, or which side they choose.
You don’t realize that other people don’t have your memory for numbers and faces until you comment that your dear regular always donates to the jar on the left. Your coworker looks surprised and asks how you know.
Apparently other people don’t really keep numbers in their heads, but it’s second nature to you by now. You don’t always have time to grab the notepad you used to track them in.
University is interesting, and you find your way to chaos theory, which is fun in so many ways. One thing you do notice is that the numbers of your professors are almost always in motion, ticking up and down by tens at a time.
It doesn’t match the attendance sheets, you checked, with some excuses from your statistics class. You’re taking a seemingly random array of math specialties, but they all help each other.
The puzzle continues, all through your degrees (two full masters, and neither of them help). You learn to think of the world, of numbers, in a different way. You leave the cafe, move on to a couple of think tank positions.
You’ve never found anyone else who can see the numbers either. That’s okay though; you don’t want to just be given the answer anymore. This is a challenge now, a test of your worth, a constant companion.
Crunching numbers, applying analytics for work is good practice and keeps you sharp, but it isn’t your passion. Your passion is the mystery, but now you have access to the kinds of computers you can start running a broader analysis on.
You have decades of data now, and you feed it all in after work. Set the machines analyzing, using as much information about each person as you have, looking for variables.
It runs for months, but you’re not exactly surprised by the results; you need more data. No correlation detected.
It’s still a disappointment, and for a few days you feel down. You stop thinking about the counters. Just focus on your work, doing your job, making a play at socializing and reminding yourself you have a life outside your quest.
And then one day you’re in a coffee shop, grabbing a hit on your way to morning classes, and the cashier is a real sweet looking kid with earnest brown eyes and neatly tied back cornrows.
He looks conflicted as you make your order, you’ve been coming here since he started but you’ve never really talked. He takes your order, takes your money, and you move back.
You’re expecting someone else to bring you the drink, but he switches out and leans over the counter to give you the cup and cookie you definitely didn’t order. You’re confused; you didn’t pay for it, there’s no promotion.
He gives you a small empathetic smile.
“You look like you need it. Your…. Uh…. Your colour’s washed out,” he says in a hurry, clearly expecting you to think nothing of it, but your heart stops.
He doesn’t mean your face. You know that. If anything, your natural tan has gotten darker now that you spend more time outside. Just. Sitting in the park. Pretending you’re not thinking about the numbers.
But the way he says it, the furtive glances, the way you suddenly realize he’s been looking just a little above your face almost every time you see him.
You don’t grab his hand, even though you desperately want to. He’s already turning, rushing back to work, and you need to know.
“Wait,” you call as quietly as you can, and he stops. Glances back.
There’s something in those brown eyes now, a wariness and a kind of squashed down hope you know you’re showing too.
Wetting your lips you try and work out how to ask. What to say. It isn’t numbers, clearly. But you’ve never known your own number, always desperately wondered, and if there’s even a tiny chance…
“What… what colour was I?” You ask quietly, and he takes a quick glance around.
It’s not busy. You came after the rush, not wanting to be overwhelmed by counters you just can’t figure out.
He gives you a thoughtful look, from that spot on your forehead down to your eyes, still guarded but hoping.
“Blue,” he says softly, coming back to lean on the counter, “but it was very bright. Cyan, almost glowing. You’re… more grey now. Powder blue.”
You take a moment trying to think about the difference, then pull your phone up to look. He stifles a chuckle, then pulls himself up. Looks at you cautiously, hopefully.
“You don’t see them, do you?” He asks softly, watching you examine the two colours. It snaps you back and you look up, a small smile on your face.
“Not colours. I see counters. Not like, death counters,” you add quickly when he looks suddenly alarmed, wondering how to make it seem reassuring. “They go up and down and I’ve spent my whole life trying to work out what they’re for, but it’s definitely not that.”
You pause for a moment, looking at him with a slight frown on your face. His isn’t especially high or low, and he did tell you what he saw.
“Yours is forty-six,” you tell him softly, and stifle a laugh when it promptly changes. “Fifty-two.”
It seems to settle him a little, his eyes tracking your face, noting where you’re looking. You meet his eyes again.
“Do you know what the colours mean?” You ask softly, and he gives an awkward shrug.
“Not really. Just… never seems to be a good thing when they’re fading. Most people stay in one colour but change hue and saturation.”
They’re not terms you’re super familiar with, you’re not an artist, but you know in your heart that this is it. Your big break. A second data point.
All you have to do is not scare him away.
“I finally finished running a full computer analysis on all the counters I’ve seen,” you admit softly, gaze slipping down to the free cookie. “It didn’t find anything.”
He makes a soft, sympathetic noise, and the first smile you’ve actually felt since tugs at your lips. You give him a hopeful look.
“If you wouldn’t mind… you could email me the colours you see, and I could add them to the dataset? No names or anything, just…” and suddenly you realize that this project is creepy as hell, and super invasive, and he looks surprised and you should definitely leave.
This time he calls you back, glancing around the mostly empty store. And he quietly tells you the colours he sees above each head, and you note that along with their counters.
You’re already thinking of possible connections, maybe something in the precise wavelength of light, it’s wonderful that he’s so specific and knows so many colour names.
He’s an art student. Of course he is. And he agrees to help, if you come in at the end of the day he can finish out his shift and tell you all the colours he sees of the people still there.
Finally, finally, you have some help. Someone who understands, even if they don’t see what you do. And sure, you’ve got about fifteen years of life over him, but you always wanted a little brother.
He gawks at your work laptop when you bring it in; it’s big enough that it looks a century out of date, but that’s because you built it yourself to run like a supercomputer. Its fans roar like engines when you boot it up, and you have a whole gaggle of fascinated baristas by the time closing comes.
It can’t handle the full scope of the data set, but it connects on a private VPN to the big computer at work and can handle chunks at a time.
And convert video to 3D, but that was just to see if you could.
Your friend’s name is Dillan, and you give him yours because it’s not his fault you don’t wear a name tag. He’s got a good head for data analysis, and you know if his art doesn’t pan out he’ll do well anyway.
His art is wonderful though; reminiscent of time-lapses of cityscapes lit in blurred headlights and neon, but you know each soft line of colour is a person. He does smaller spaces too, a room, a corner of the park.
Portraits sometimes, peoples faces painted in the shades of their colour as it changes. It’s almost perfectly photorealistic, and you know he’s a prodigy in the same way you are.
You hope he can make the art he loves forever, even when he’s frustrated that a piece isn’t coming out quite right.
There isn’t an easy answer, even with his help and your new data sets. It takes years, with monthly meetings first in his coffee shop, and then at the library when he moves on.
You help with any homework that involves math, and once with a sympathetic shoulder and gentle advice when a TA is trying to drive his grades down. You know first hand how unforgiving the education system is to kids of colour, but you also remember how older students protected you.
There’s channels to report, if you know for sure they won’t take the TA’s side. There’s evidence gathering, witnesses, making sure you aren’t alone with them.
His family is far away, his parents unable to stand in his corner, so you pose as a distant cousin when he decides to make the complaint. Having an adult there, especially one with your qualifications, cuts the whole process off at the knees.
Seeing the TA’s eyes widen as you walk in in your best suit sends a little thrill through the kid in you who once sat in Dillan’s seat. Their counter jumps three times during the meeting, and this time you’re certain it’s not a good sign for them.
With the evidence Dillan and his friends have collected, the TA loses their position and gets a month of mandatory bias training. It might not change them, but you don’t care.
Dillan bounces like he’s walking on the moon as you leave, his own counter ticking steadily higher in a way you’re just as sure can’t be bad. His counter ticks up and down for the next few days, seemingly at random, and while he doesn’t know his own colour any more than you can see your counter, something in your heart tells you he’s a bright sunshine yellow.
His parents are a little concerned, of course. You meet at Dillan’s graduation, especially since you’ve got him an intern position at your work to keep him on his feet while he looks for work he actually loves.
They’re grateful, a pair of large Black men whose whole stance is a challenge for you to comment. You’re half expecting a shovel talk of some kind, and ready for it, when Dillan leans in eagerly and whispers that you’re the one who sees the numbers.
His father’s eyes soften, though his dad is still wary. You tell them both their own numbers, the only way you can try and prove it.
His father’s younger sister saw the numbers, you learn, and your heart stops all over again.
Someone else. A third person.
But she died long ago, and you’re startled to learn that she saw decimals. You never thought about it, never really wondered, but your counters are always whole numbers.
Dillan’s father doesn’t know all of the details, but he seems to feel better speaking about her. She never knew what the numbers were either, and he doesn’t know if she ever recorded them, but it fills you with relief.
You’d stopped looking for anyone else.
Told yourself you didn’t want to just be given the answer.
Liked being the only one to solve the puzzle.
But now that it’s possible, that you really know there are other people, first one and now two and who knows how many more?
It settles around your shoulders like a blanket, and Dillan is grinning at you in a way that tells you something has happened to your colour. You’ll add it to the dataset later.
No one else in Dillan’s family really see anything, on either side, but that’s okay. You have a goal now, and Dillan finally convinces you to do the one thing you’ve always avoided.
His dad’s a web designer. You spend about a month together, the two of you and occasionally Dillan when he isn’t painting, working out how to pose the invitation. What to show, how to format the site, how to filter out the false replies that always kept you from trying before.
Dillan does a bunch of art for the site too, pictures of what he sees that you can hardly believe aren’t just photos of people with a small circle of colour just around the hairline.
Pictures of what you see, the plain white numbers floating just above their heads. Gifs that show the way they change, the number ticking up and down like those old fashioned flap cards they used to roll through at ballgames before LED screens replaced the analog.
It’s always been funny to you, how archaic your counters are. Outdated before you were born, and the only reason you know the flip cards existed is because your mother showed you when you tried to explain what you saw.
But the white numbers fold themselves in half to show the new number unfolding down just like that, and Dillan laughs about it with you while you make the gif.
You spend long minutes with Dillan and his dad once it’s all ready, just looking at the button that’ll send the whole thing live.
Are you ready?
There’s a new email address just for this, but you know it’ll keep all three of you busy if enough people find the site. There’ll be people making fun of you, just like when you were little, and people pretending to feel special.
But there might be someone else too, someone as lost and confused as you were. What else might others see? Shapes? Scribbly lines that get more and more jagged like your counter climbs?
You can’t even imagine it, and it steals the breath from your lungs.
Dillan steals the mouse and hits the button for you, then runs away with it so you can’t panic and undo it. His dad laughs until tears run down his cheeks as you do indeed panic, leaping up to chase your little brother.
But it’s done now, and you can breathe again.
You still don’t know the answer. You know that at the end of it all, Dillan’s colours may have nothing at all to do with your counters.
But you’re not alone.
You saw your shadow in this sweet, funny kid, reached out the way you wish someone had reached for you, and now you’ve both reached out to the whole world.
It’ll be a pain in the ass sorting it all out, but you have work friends who can make you a program to filter the openly aggressive messages.
Because somewhere in the world, there’s a five year old kid who was just told no one else sees the world the way they do, and they’ll be able to see that it’s not true. They’re not alone. Someone will help them solve the mystery.
You’re no closer to the answer than you were as a fresh graduate yourself, can’t imagine what it could be.
But it turns out you were wrong, back when you were the fresh graduate who wanted to solve the world all alone. Answers aren’t as important as not being alone.
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