By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Everyone has two numbers that are visible to others: the number of lies they’ve told and the number of people affected by the last lie. You’ve just encountered someone whose numbers are 1 and 1 billion.
As the ambassador waited in the outer study he pulled on the cuffs of his starched shirt, making sure they showed below the cuffs of his suit jacket. In his entire political career, he’d never encountered a monarch so loved. Often the television and internet news outlets would show video of the people under the prime minister listening with hands clasped in reverence. In hope.
“Mr. Ambassador? The prime minister will see you now.”
The ambassador stood and nodded at the aide. He’d negotiated some of the dirtiest deals in the world as well as some rightly legitimate ones, and he had no doubt that anyone looking for his numbers would find them well within the normal range for a career politician. He never told lies keeping his numbers in mind, but it didn’t hurt that his looked pretty good.
The numbers changed drastically depending on who he met. People in his normal life had numbers in the medium range. Senators and representatives had high numbers on both sides.
The president’s numbers changed so much that no one had been able to make a definitive assertion on what exactly they were.
He couldn’t help wondering as he entered the tastefully furnished inner study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves how this newly-elected prime minister would rule. How many lies could go with the least number of people affected. Whether she would balance the nuances of politics with the highly-acclaimed integrity from her campaign.
“Mr. Ambassador,” the diminutive prime minister said with an outstretched hand.
Her warm smile overcame him as he put out his own hand to shake hers. With big brown eyes as comforting as a bowl of hot oatmeal on a snowy morning and just enough grays on her head to herald the coming of a quiet, confident late middle age, she reminded the ambassador of his most favorite aunt who had died from a heart attack six months earlier.
Suddenly he wanted to share all his childhood secrets with her. He had the urge to tell her about the time, at the age of 12, he dared his best friend while they rode bikes to go as fast as possible over the speed bumps in their neighborhood and how his best friend fell off and broke a wrist. About how, even though all the adults absolved him of any wrongdoing, even to this day he carried a little bit of guilt with him about that day.
He opened his mouth to offer a greeting to match the temperature of her demeanor when their palms embraced and her numbers appeared.
The number 1—the total number of lies she’d told in her entire life—appeared over her right shoulder. The number 1 billion—the total number affected by that one lie—appeared over her left shoulder. Which also happened to be the total population of the prime minister’s country.
The ambassador flinched, unable to stop the instinct before it appeared. The prime minister’s expression changed from one of welcome to one of sorrow. She drew back her hand, gestured to a chair on one side of her desk, and sat across from him.
“So it’s true, then,” she said in a quiet voice. “What the scientists told me. About the pandemic. About how much damage it will do.”
The ambassador had come prepared to discuss this very matter, offering just even help to appear helpful while hedging against offering too much. The mysterious fever and its subsequent symptoms had appeared in the jungles of the prime minister’s country and raged across the rest of the land, leaving bodies in its wake. No form of antidote or medication eased either the symptoms or the illness. It just appeared in a person like a fever hot enough to bake cookies, then turned into angry red spots larger than chicken pox across the skin, and finally turned the victim’s entire body a flaming color an hour or so before she or he fainted and died on the spot.
Nothing could explain it. Nothing could treat it. No one had even come close to a cure. As he’d flown across the ocean and read the dossier, the ambassador had begun questioning his own body temperature. Was he feeling hot from the disease or because he still wore his jacket while a blanket remained tucked under his legs?
“Mr. Ambassador, I appreciate you coming all this way to show your support,” the prime minister said in that same quiet tone. “It means a great deal to my people and me that the most powerful nation in the world would offer us resources. But, as you’ve already seen, I have done my best to give my people reassurances. They may be false reassurances, but the people seem to trust that I have only their best interests at heart.”
“I…I understand, Madam Prime Minister,” the ambassador said, regaining his composure. “But—I mean, surely there’s something we could do to help. The information in the dossier you sent suggested we may be making some progress. There’s been a little bit of success with one or two victims surviving in the village where this all started, and—”
“The emphasis is on ‘little,’ Mr. Ambassador. Those two people eventually died.”
The ambassador opened and closed his mouth then began again. “The researchers at our top universities have assured me they’re close to breaking this wide open, and—”
“I’m afraid it won’t matter now,” the prime minister interrupted, her voice even softer. “You see, the disease has spread so rapidly that we no longer have the ability to track it. In fact…”
She rolled up one of her sleeves, the pure silk whispering as it somersaulted over itself up her right arm. But the ambassador didn’t notice the fine weave of her blouse. His gaze laser focused on the ferocious red blotches on her skin.
“As you can see, even I’m not immune,” she said. “So, while I sincerely do thank you for your appearance, I suggest you leave before you too become a victim to the only lie I’ve ever told.”
The ambassador stood up so fast the chair fell backward behind him. He could hear the rushing of the wind from that day, so long ago, on his bike. His heart began to race the same way it did that day as he saw the speed bumps ahead and wondered whether he would clear them and still be able to ride his bike on the other side or whether he would fly off, as his friend did, and break. He couldn’t risk it either way.
Without another word, he turned and ran out of the room.