One Digit Off

She reached out for the ringing phone. For a moment, her stiff fingers fumbled over the buttons, and she cursed the arthritis that stiffened her joints. She managed to hit the green button, and lifted the handset up to her ear.


“Hello – I, uh, I just needed to talk to someone. I don’t think I can keep going any longer.”

Another one of them. No matter how many calls she took, there always seemed to be more of them, each with their little problems, so convinced that no one else in the world had ever experienced what they were now going through. Her eyes drifted over to the two piles of stationary on her windowsill.

“Well, you can talk to me, although you best make it quick – I’m 92, so who knows how much time I’ve got left.” She settled back into her chair, trying to find a more comfortable position for the phone against her ear.

“92? Um, is… is this the suicide hotline?”

Ah, one of the faster ones. He’d caught on more quickly than some of the callers. “Afraid not, dear,” she replied. “You’re off by a number.”

“Oh. Er, shit.”

“Happens more often than you’d think.” She looked around her little bedroom, at the cards on her windowsill, the little bed, the faded pictures. “But you’ve got me up, now, so you might as well talk to me. Otherwise, you’ll have roused an old woman from her nap for nothing, and you won’t want to die with that hanging over you, would you?”

“Um, no, of course not! I’m so sorry, miss-”

“Cleo.” She tried propping one arm up on the side of the chair.

“Your name is Miss Cleo?”

“Are you sassing me, young man?” she snapped, her frail voice suddenly surprisingly sharp.

“No, no, of course not. Um, sorry, Mi- sorry, Cleo. But I haven’t been able to find work for three months, and I’m about to be homeless, and I guess that I was just thinking about ending-”

“You know, you sound a little like my husband,” she said dreamily. “He always had such a soft voice, sounded so vulnerable. When he met me in person for the first time, I couldn’t believe that it was the same man. But he was going through troubles, too.”

“Oh. What troubles?”

“The usual – he’d fallen hard for me, but he didn’t have a job or a dollar to his name, and he was certain that I wouldn’t look twice at him.” She smiled a little to herself. “He was an idiot, of course. Didn’t ever give himself credit.”

“How did he turn things around? Um, if you don’t mind me asking, of course.”

“Oh, young man, I’m just happy to be talking to someone. He nearly didn’t turn things around, but I snapped at him, told him that he was a little shit if he expected things to fall into his lap without effort. Oh, you should have seen his voice – I don’t think anyone had ever raised their voice to him, much less a dainty little gal like me!” She laughed, and the voice on the phone laughed with her.

“And he turned things around, then? Made something of himself?”

“It took some time,” she reflected. With a grunt, she pulled herself up out of her chair, walking over to the windowsill of her little room. “He went through plenty of failures. But he loved me, and he hated coming home to a tongue lashing from me, so he kept on trying!”

“Wow.” A pause. “I don’t have anyone in my life like that, I guess.”

“Well, I don’t have my husband any longer, so that makes us even,” she snapped at him. The windowsill was littered with cards. On one side, the cards stood propped up, a display of bright colors, all clashing against each other. On the other side, the cards were plain white, sorted into a neat stack. “But it wasn’t just me – it was the way he looked at things after I set him straight.”

“What was that, then?”

She picked up one of the bright cards, smiling as she read the kind words hand-written inside. “He thought that he should quit before things got worse. But I pointed out to him that it’s not whether we fall or rise, but where we’re at when we check out. I pointed at him, and said, ‘do you want to walk up to them pearly gates and admit that you didn’t make every attempt you could to better yourself?'”

“Yes, but I don’t know what else I can-”

“Oh, you sound so like him,” she interrupted, setting the bright card down. She liked re-reading those bright cards. “Always hoping for the lazy way out.”

“I’m not lazy, Cleo-”

“Of course not, but only a lazy man refuses to see a job through to its very end,” she countered him. “And years later, my husband returned home every night, happy with his hard work, showing me a lesson by telling me of how he’d fought for every success.” She ran her finger over another bright card. “He never caught on that this was my plan all along, that lovable man.”


She waited. Her eyes drifted to the plain white cards, but she didn’t want to jinx anything.

“If I managed to succeed at something, could I come tell you about it?”

There it was. She smiled, happily taking her eyes off of the plain white cards. “Well, of course you could, dear. You sound like a very nice young man. I’ll give you my nursing home address, but you’d best work hard – I don’t know how much longer I have.”

“I’m sure you’ll be around for plenty longer, Cleo, with that sharp mind.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, young man,” she replied, but smiled as she said it. “Now, what’s your name?”

“Uh, it’s John.”

“Well, I expect a card from you, John,” she told him. “Something nice, with a real comment from you written inside. Nothing silly or inappropriate, mind you.”

“You got it, Cleo. I’ll send you one. I promise.”

“Then I’ll let you go, John. Have a good rest of your day now, you hear?” She smiled, glaring triumphantly at the pile of white cards. Not today, she thought.

“You too, Cleo. And thank you.”

She lowered the phone, carefully putting it back in the cradle to charge. Hopefully, another bright card would come soon. John sounded like a nice man, she thought to herself. He could get better.

And with his card, she’d have forty-eight bright cards, to the twenty-four white cards. Double.

She didn’t know if it would be enough, if it would ever be enough. She picked up one of those white cards, her fingers trembling slightly as she traced the ornate script.

“We are saddened to invite you to the funeral of…” she read, before she had to put the card down.

Twenty-four failures. Each one weighed at her, dragging her down. Twenty-four callers for whom she’d been too late.

But John sounded promising. She looked forward to his card.

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