The Number Room

The Ancient One nodded, and How bowed to him. I bowed also, in emulation. Then How and I exited. Back in the living room, I peppered my translator with practical questions:

“Should I close my eyes when I throw the dart?”

“Open or close—doesn’t matter. Just drink tea first.”

“Do you use every number you get?” I asked.

“Yes, always. Only time you don’t is when dart fall exactly between numbers.”

“Does that happen often?”

Not often, no. Once every eight months, the dart is between numbers.”

I asked How why the highest number was 59. “Sixty minutes in one hour,” he replied. “You should never break hour.”

How handed me two keys, connected by a scarlet thread. “Next time, you do yourself,” he said.

“When should I come?”

“Wednesday. Always Wednesday,” How instructed.

“Is there anything else I should know?”

“Never use number to help yourself. That very dangerous.”

A week later, I returned. Both keys turned their locks easily (to my surprise). The apartment was the same, though empty. The same ominous liquid sat in the same blue pot in the kitchen (though it tasted less foreign this time). In the Number Room, the sun-and-moon gown was neatly folded on the stool. On top of it lay the sacred rubber-tipped dart.

I donned the gown, licked the dart, closed my eyes and threw. It landed on a 7. “I am lucky!” I rejoiced. I threw the dart four more times, noted my numbers, and left.

Saturday, I stopped by the restaurant. How said: “Many people know we have new number-chooser.”

“They can tell just from the numbers?” I asked.

“Yes. Different style of numbers. They like your choosing.”

I ordered chow fun and a bowl of hot-and-sour soup. Three times I offered to pay, but How refused. Proudly, he offered me the first fortune cookie to which I had personally contributed. Inside were the five numbers I’d picked: 7, 28, 32, 37, 49. (The fortune was: “An honest man need not smile.”) My dream was realized! I felt like I’d won a Golden Globe award.

Every week, I would dress as a Chinese Emperor and throw my rubber-tipped dart. I began to appreciate pleasing arrangements of numbers: 3, 57, then 1, for example. Once I chose three 12’s in a row!

Each week, I would check in on How. Gradually it became clear that my payment for this “job” was a free weekly Chinese meal. Once How told me: “A woman won $18,000 in lottery, from your number!”

“I am prohibited from using any of the fortune cookie numbers for selfish gain—but suppose I throw extra numbers?” I thought one day. “Those are not forbidden.” The next day was Wednesday. After I chose my five numbers, I threw the dart three more times. 19, 51 and 4 were my new choices. I folded my robe, left the apartment, and played those numbers in the Lotto.

Next week, the apartment looked different—as if the walls had all moved two inches. The tea tasted strangely sweet. And when I threw my first dart, it landed exactly between a 57 and a 4. I threw again. The dart fell between 9 and 31. Over and over, I hurled the dart. Each time it fell exactly on a dividing line. I put down my clipboard and removed my gown for the last time.

At the restaurant, I handed the keys to How. “I have broken a promise,” I told him.

“I hope you learn something good,” How said, with kindness.

I won $50 in the Lotto.

The Number Room