By the 15,033,600th embrace he had already seen 9,171,005 or so people that had frozen him in different bodily regions and for different reasons, so that he felt a little sick with himself, and partly them, but mostly himself. Nevertheless he blamed them ever so slightly for those results.

It had taken him 521 days to get that far. A lot of numbers. A whale of statistics; each person formed like a fishy number. This was part of his problem. He wasn’t sure how to make head or tail of it.

There was the first one that he noticed, when he was about half a day in (it doesn’t take long); one that he thought he could fall in love with, live in their arms and whatnot. Then by the end of the day there were roughly 82 more that he thought he could live with, or at least kiss with some sort of meaning/passion/tongue/delight, etc. But if he was being honest with himself, there could have been one in the first 20 hugs. After all, it doesn’t take long, as we already know, due to my stating it.

By the 365th day, which would make a normal year for most, he had fallen ‘in’ and ‘out’ and ‘in’ love with too many to keep track of. If it wasn’t for the adjudicator standing beside him with a ticker-counter, he wouldn’t even know how far he had gotten and how much feeling he had spilt.

In between, there was a little sleep here and there, on a bed with springs, in dreams where his arms ached and were constantly outstretched in an embrace either pleasing or displeasing, rarely both simultaneously but sometimes so. An objective observer would note he was hugging the air in his sleep, no smile.

The work: they were not all women and some of them were, indeed, actual tramps. Though not a great many of them were both at the same time. For some reason he only remembers the very dirty ones or the very clean ones. All that came in between gave him no feeling whatsoever. They were the chores, and the ones that probably populated his dreams most persistently. These classifications were formed in frustration.

All of the faces began melding into one, a super-face that was a dastardly thing to behold, as you can imagine if you take the time to picture a giant super-face. He could no longer tell them apart, in reality or in dreams, and the two conditions slipped and tricked each other as quick as his arms around their backs. First round the necks, the head to the right, as was the system, then over the shoulders and into a familiar position; what the adjudicator would call a ‘successful embrace’ and blow his whistle at.

There weren’t many unsuccessful embraces; if there were, the adjudicator would mark it down and penalise him. Of course, no whistle would sound. He would have to go back and do all of these over at the end. The statistics, the fishy figures, weren’t happy about this, as they’d have to return to the end of the line, at the arse end of humanity, just when they thought their duty had been completed.

How many people are there in the world? He didn’t know and, by the 522nd day, he no longer felt it worthwhile to ponder my inane question. He was too busy with other business. All the while, predictably, he cursed his eyes for what they saw and what they thought they saw in sleep.

Then the moment slapped him, cheeks-wise. Day 522: Hug 15,061,604. He gave it all up. His arms had given in; they tied roughly at the back of the girl he was holding, like strings of arms they knotted and only tightened. She didn’t seem too pleased. So he apologised:

“Sorry about this. My arms don’t seem to be able to, erm, to move.”

She looked at the adjudicator, who smiled as he clicked the ticker-counter and blew the whistle for what he knew to be the last time. Her eyes were still on him. There was no noticeable echo, as they were outside in the open. Her eyes flicked to the crowd.

The queue behind the locked-in pair appeared now to be getting restless. Should they leave? Or should they stay? Nothing was clear anymore, it had all been smudged.

Over the current girl’s shoulders he saw a long line of beauties and uglies and in-betweens that he wouldn’t have minded, had he only made the choice himself. But his arms had done the choosing for him and he no longer particularly liked them. He wasn’t glad about what they had done, to be sure. For the uglies could have been the beauties, and vice versa, and so on (meaninglessly), depending on how he felt, which changed without viscidity.

The matter: He couldn’t really see her face. The girl in his arms had pleasant smelling hair but a wheezing cough. She didn’t sound especially healthy through the ears of his weary head.

They stood there, arms caparisoned by arms but not holding one another. He laid his head against hers.

As eye contact over the shoulders gave way to a desert of nobodies, they were left alone. The adjudicator ambled off through the sand and caught a bus back to town.

They waited. Is this what love is? Could they make a go of it? If he could get his arms off from around her, she would not only be free to breathe again but would be able to see his face—and he hers, more importantly. But no, the arms were like rusted somethings, I don’t know what, a metal, hard and there around her body for good. He was forced to ponder my inane questions.

They both sighed to themselves, letting the other hear that neither was happy with the current lacuna in their heart-places. They stood there, readjusting now and then, trying to walk together, trying to make it work in the dry dusty summer. And as clocks would have it, they grew old and shrank, incidentally never seeing the other’s face. But they learnt a thing or two, most likely. As it would be hard not to.

After a while, and further residual minutes, she squeezed him back. Kind of accepting her fate, I’m supposing. Their cheeks touched. At this he got an erection and sighed once more. She also sighed at this. And they stood there. He poking her. It was sad. Then he said, as the blood coursed his vein:

“Love is free…” He waited before delivering it: “But hate is cheaper.”

Somehow he expected a laugh, but there was only silence.

It was a weird moment and no one really knew what he meant when he said it.