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“So, hey, what about Saturday?”
“The Lounge?” Stupid traffic. Glowering at the taxis, buses, and cars that sped haphazardly through the crosswalk, the man shifted his cell phone to his other hand, shoving his frozen hand into the deep pocket of his black wool coat. The sounds of heels on pavement, jackhammers boring new holes into the asphalt, and the caterwauls of law enforcement vehicles racing towards disaster were so familiar he didn’t hear them anymore. “Clara isn’t going to be there is she?”
There was a pause on the other end. “No. Er, are you still on no-talking terms…?”
An opening. A small one, but if he ran fast enough he might be able to make it. How come the crosswalk signs seemed to only last for ten seconds? Weren’t the makers aware that pedestrians needed more than a heartbeat to make it to the other side of the road without getting squished by a chain-smoking cab driver? Setting his jaw, the trench coat-clad man launched himself purposefully off the curb, intent on crossing even if the light was green.
Before his leather loafers could connect with warm blacktop, someone grabbed the back collar of his coat and yanked him unceremoniously backwards.
Hoooooonk. A Porsche, zooming through the space he had previously occupied without a single backward glance from the driver. Dirty gray water splashed over his toes, but the shock of having just avoided a fatal collision rendered him breathless.
He finally managed a few expletives. Vaguely, he heard his friend from the other end asking bemusedly, “Ty? Tyler? Hello? Hey man, you still there?”
Crushing the red “end call” button with his thumb and whirling around, the man searched the teeming crowd, a profuse thanks lurking on his lips. A few people stepped back to avoid getting smacked by his spinning arm, but no one was facing him and saying, “Watch it. Almost lost you” or patting him reassuringly on the shoulder.
Running a hand through his dirty blond hair and sucking in a deep breath, he stumbled away from the edge of the sidewalk and searched the anonymous faces of his fellow New Yorkers. No one claimed to have saved him. Nothing even suggested that someone had even yanked him back, not a gap in the crowds and nothing but glassy-eyed stares. But I felt it, Tyler thought anxiously, slipping his Blackberry into his pocket and gazing imploringly at the emotionless faces swarming around his still frame.
Then, he noticed it.
At first he thought he was imagining it. A trick of the light. Perhaps some billboard or advertisement projecting itself all weirdly. Swallowing and passing a hand over his hazel eyes, he gratefully sank onto a black metal bench in front of a Rolex shop. Elbows on his knees, gulping breaths rattling, he shut his eyes and rubbed at them furiously. He attacked them until purple and red spots danced across the field of black.
Tyler felt someone plop down next to him. He smelled a distinctly feminine perfume, something like roses and that cheap foaming soap public restrooms used. The rustling noise of her rummaging through her purse made him look up.
What the he** is that? It hadn’t gone away. Frowning, he leaned uncomfortably close to the businesswoman, reaching out and waving a hand over her perfectly coiffed hair.
Understandably, she recoiled and jumped to her feet with a look of repugnance. Muttering about mental issues and crazy street people, she stalked off, hurrying underneath the protection of the storefront awnings as the rain began to fall faster, cold drops splashing the gray sidewalk a light black.
Tyler blinked hard. Looking around at the other cosmopolitans working their way up and down the street, he saw the same thing hovering inches above their heads, visible even underneath umbrellas and pulsing powerfully over hoods. They weren’t all the same for everyone, but the layout was.
There were bright orange numbers, counting down with startling ferocity as they hovered over everyone’s head, a twisted, ubiquitous halo. None of the numbers were the exact same, but each one burned like fire and reflected in the shop windows as if it were solid.
Getting back to his feet, Tyler stumbled down the street, his mouth open and eyes wide, like a baby taking in all the sights and sounds of a brand-new world. Occasionally he’d reach out to wave a hand over someone’s head. The puzzled person would either smile soothingly at him, or jerk away in disgust, yelling nasty things that held no meaning the captivated man. It must be their lives, he realized with a start, stopping in front of building, made to look gilded, and watching portly bankers in expensive suits slip in and out of the revolving doors. Counting down. But what did it mean to him? He didn’t know any of these people, why did matter if he could see their lives literally ticking before them?
Gritting his teeth, Tyler continued on his way, stomping aimlessly through the streets of Manhattan, flashing, blinking numbers glowing out of his peripherals. He came to a halt in front of a small crowd of people surrounding an ambulance, frowning as he gazed into the spinning red lights. Shuffling forward, he was almost knocked into by the paramedics rushing an old woman on a stretcher into the emergency vehicle. The numbers above her head were ticking down so fast, down so low, that Tyler could make out about ten seconds left.
More out of curiosity than concern, Tyler sidestepped the few people, probably apartment neighbors who’d known the elderly woman, and peered around at the back of the ambulance. The orange numbers had turned a bright red, flashing so brightly they burned themselves into his eyelids. Staring at them in horror, Tyler’s gaze flickered downward to the wrinkled, agonized face below them, a face that slowly relaxed as her eyes shut and the numbers reached zero. The red turned a stark white, the color of fresh snow, before fading away like smoke being swept away from a chimney top.
“Nothing you could do,” a gruff paramedic muttered, noticing the young man standing there, so close to the ambulance. He and his partner slammed the doors shut, their shoulders drooping and faces grim. “It was her time.”
I know. Swallowing, Tyler slipped back onto the street, his heart pounding. He broke into a run, the cool raindrops sliding down his burning face. People parted like the Red Sea for him, and gasping for air, he ground to a stop in front of a drugstore. He shuffled up to its reflective window front, pressing his palms against the glass, focusing on his familiar face that was faint against the shelves of cough syrup and aspirin. Cold shock washed over him as he turned his head side to side, frowning when he waved a hand over his head.
I don’t have any. I don’t have any numbers. Where are they? Pushing himself away from the glass, Tyler took a shaky step back and leaned up against a lamppost, pressing a hand to his neck. His pulse, frenzied and heavy, answered back. He couldn’t be dead, he wasn’t.
Tyler ran a hand over his eyes, stifling a scream of frustration, confusion, and fear. Mostly fear. He was going crazy wasn’t he? This just had to be a nightmare. Or he was just seeing things. Wake up. Focus.
“Excuse me, sir?” A soft, sweet voice, tinged with a bit of a halting accent. “Are you alright?”
Dropping his hand, Tyler looked to his left. A small Chinese woman stood there, wrapped in an enormous red coat and clutching a sticky bun. Everything about her was delicate and petite, except for the corpulent bulge around her middle. A succession of orange numbers glowed above her, ticking down. Green numbers, increasing instead of decreasing, hovered at her stomach.
He’d just seen death, now he was literally seeing life. Life being created.
The man cleared his dry throat. “Boy or girl?” Tyler, who usually never cared to ask personal questions, suddenly felt the need to know.
Tipping her head and giving the young man a slow, uncertain smile, the woman said, “Um, girl.”
The green numbers were so high, and yet still growing. “She’s going to live long.” Glancing up at the orange numbers, Tyler added softly, “So are you.”
He was already walking away, her reaction frivolous compared to the pulsating lifetimes all around. Bowing his head and keeping his white-knuckled fists buried in his pockets, Tyler wandered the streets for about an hour, ignoring the cold starting to burn at the tips of his ears and at the end of his nose. He was staring at the orange numbers all around him, stopping sporadically to check his reflection in a storefront window and wondering why he didn’t have any. Maybe you just couldn’t see your own life end.
With a start, Tyler realized he’d wandered into the residential district, right in front of apartments that he’d gone in countless times. Biting his lower lip, he looked away from the orange numbers and began scanning faces. Slowly, he began walking towards the girl he saw and knew, a tall, athletic brunette striding towards her blue Prius. Tyler could practically smell the organic lavender deodorant on her smooth skin. It had been about a week since he’d last seen her, and it’d been a terrible last meeting. Sure, it had been kind of his fault that things had ended so badly, but that didn’t mean he was going to wallow in the guilt she wanted him to. A “rolling stone” was what many called him, and it was a title he relished.
An awkward greeting was beginning to formulate in his head as he approached her, but he stopped and gasped when he saw the red numbers blinking rapidly over her beanie-clad head. Studying her features closely, Tyler couldn’t see anything remotely ill about her. Her cheeks were pink from the wet and cold, and she was mouthing along to the song that was blasting through her bulky headphones. Knowing Clara, it was probably some Ellie Goulding song. Or maybe a Mumford & Sons ballad.
Thirty seconds left. How could she be so whole and healthy? Looking up past her horrible red numbers, Tyler suddenly noticed the crane above her, two workmen loading a piano through someone’s apartment window. One was in control of the elephantine contraption, the other standing on an open balcony, coaxing the piano towards the apartments. Of course, it wouldn’t fit into the elevator, and climbing thirty flights of narrow stairs was out of the question.
The crane made an ominous groaning noise. A person standing at the window where the piano would be inserted in waved their arms frenetically, yelling a warning that no one seemed to hear. The ropes keeping the piano suspended above the ground seemed ready to fray apart. Below them, Clara was oblivious to the panic, unlocking her Prius and flipping through her iPod’s stash of songs. Her time was running out.
Tyler was the only person who seemed to notice, or care. He lunged forward, wrapping his arms around Clara and pulling her away from her car. A yelp of surprise left her lips as she tried to wriggle out of his grip, unaware of who was practically tackling her. Well, if she knew she’d probably punch me, Tyler thought grimly, shutting his eyes tightly and bracing for the inevitable sound.
The ropes. Tyler could hear them straining, and despite not hearing the snap, knew that they had. However, loud and clear was the piano smashing down on the Prius with a resounding crash that rang in his ears and rippled in his veins.
The Prius Clara was seconds from sliding into.
Releasing her and opening his eyes, Tyler discovered the tenths of a second, seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years ticking down over everyone’s heads had blessedly vanished. As Clara shuffled forward in a dismayed haze, witnesses murmuring their shock and admiring the extent of the accident, the man looked around. A grin stretched across his features as he stared. Not a single orange, red, or even green number visible.
Tyler looked to Clara. She trembled amidst the carnage of glass, splintered wood, crumpled metal, and decimated ivory keys; a neighbor had come from the apartment foyer to comfort her. The woman pointed to Tyler.
Faster than Clara could turn to see, he slipped into the crowd. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone. As Tyler lifted it to his ear, waiting for his friend to pick up on the other end and demand why he had suddenly hung up, he could hear Clara gasping. Smirking ruefully, he understood that the initial surprise of having a grand piano demolish your car had been replaced with a different kind of shock. He knew, knew, that she was seeing what he had.
He just hoped she’d know what to do.