Story inspired by  the following prompt: You have a secret. You have always seen a translucent number floating above everyones head. Most have a 0, few 1, but your girlfriend has a 37. You witness a murder on the way to propose to your girlfriend. As the assailant pulls the trigger, you watch the number above his head go from 1, to 0.

I never knew what the numbers meant before that day. I assumed they were inconsequential, a figment of my imagination. But now I know.

Each number stands for taking a life.

The 37 above Mary’s head had never bothered me. But now it was all I could see, and cast a shadow over her figure that made it hard for me to look at her.

I reasoned that maybe she would become a police officer. Or a vigilante. That maybe each person with one of her numbers deserved to have their life taken away from them.

But Mary was a teacher.

“How many children do you have in your class?” I asked that night, my arm around her on the sofa as we watched CSI, her favorite show. Now I wondered if she used it for tips.

“Ugh,” she responded, blowing her golden bangs upward in frustration, “thirty seven. We’re so understaffed, and the school board doesn’t seem to care. Makes me so angry.”

She shifted, and my arm around her shoulder crawled. How angry?, I wanted to ask.

But instead, I followed her the next morning. And I watched her class through the window from the parking lot, trying my best not to look like someone with “sex offender” written in capital letters on my record.

I had never seen Mary’s class before, bu I had heard her speak of them. They were inner city kids, all young, at the point in their life when they were most malleable. Their parents ranged from during dealers to convicted felons, and their raggy clothes reeked of poverty.

Mary was at the board, struggling to gain the attention of the entire class. And that’s when it happened.

The fight broke out in the back of the class, one larger bully shoving another kid much smaller than he to the ground. He swung his leg backward, preparing a kick, but Mary stopped him before the foot could gain momentum.

I tensed, seeing the anger in her eyes, then watched it soften to tenderness.

She took the bully aside, whispering in his ear. Even from my distance, I could see the words were not scolding, but kind. An attempt by her to reroute what he had been taught, to remove the violence in him as tears fell from his face, to change his hopeless future.

As his face turned to regret, the thirty seven hanged to a thirty six. And somehow I knew that kid wanted to be better, wanted to stop being the bully, wanted to change paths.

She had taken a life that day, but left behind a new one.

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