The TIME WATCHER by Pengi
This is sort of a revision of the story I started to write entitled How to Save a Life, except with a twist that I've been working on since the last update of that story.
The warnings will be altered accordingly with each updated chapter, as I don't know for certain where this is going to go... but I have selected warning tags that I know for certain will be involved, and preemptively rated this story "R" for language and possibly other elements.
As of Chapter 33, there's a sexual content label for a reason.
1. The Sun, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
2. Sunset by Pengi
3. Shower by Pengi
4. Flashback : Daniel, 1969-70 by Pengi
5. You Are, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
6. The Yacht Party by Pengi
7. Flashback : Claire, 1958 by Pengi
8. Inquisition by Pengi
9. I Didn't Think So by Pengi
10. Flashback: The Impossible, 1958 by Pengi
11. Thugs by Pengi
12. Something Impossible, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
13. Brian by Pengi
14. Plane by Pengi
15. The Article by Pengi
16. Flashback: Superman, 1959 by Pengi
17. Explanation by Pengi
18. Calling Amie by Pengi
19. Grocery Store by Pengi
20. Flashback: The Accident, 1960 by Pengi
21. Flashback: Connected, 1961 by Pengi
22. The Journey, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
23. History by Pengi
24. Learning the Truth by Pengi
25. Flashback: Audition, 1993 by Pengi
26. Pizza and Beer by Pengi
27. Derailed by Pengi
28. Dimitri Pyre by Pengi
29. Disturbing by Pengi
30. Flashback: Failure, 1964 by Pengi
31. Recording Studio by Pengi
32. Confrontation by Pengi
33. Flashback: Heat Wave, 1967 by Pengi
34. Destina-Looping by Pengi
35. Realized by Pengi
36. Flashback: Can't Stay, 1968 by Pengi
37. The First Rescue Since by Pengi
38. High School Band by Pengi
39. Flashback: The Lost and Found, 1970 by Pengi
40. Alliance by Pengi
41. Flashback: July 8, 2001 by Pengi
42. Flashback: Whole, 1970-1975 by Pengi
43. Waiting by Pengi
44. Flashback: Greg Brunner, 1975-76 by Pengi
45. The Call-In by Pengi
46. Keeping Her by Pengi
47. Dimitre's Return by Pengi
The Sun, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
He plays across the horizon, ever present, ever going
Leaving his love behind, cold and broken, unintentionally
Death comes like night but her cold hands cannot touch him
A thousand January and Decembers, and he has watched them all
O sunlight, o love
You have released us all
If I could but bottle you and keep you as my own I would
However impossible taming you might be
Still I love you, though I know you will leave me
I shall set sails across the ocean of death alone
And leave you alive and brilliantly free
Like the sun, you belong to the universe, not to any heart
Not even to mine
O sunlight, o love
You have captured us all
(Not every chapter will be this angsty/dramatic! It will pick up!)
Claire was still alive when I found her. But only just.
I touched her arm and her eyes blinked open slowly, sluggishly. A smile spread across her face, warming her features, the way whisky warms the blood. Her green eyes were paled, which shattered my heart - I'd been looking forward to seeing them one last time. But then again, nothing was quite the same about her, none of her features were those of the Claire that I adored so. This was an older, more faint Claire, one who I'd never spent time with or gotten to touch.
"Nick," she whispered. Her hand reached gingerly for me. "Oh Nick, I prayed you would come back." Her knuckles were knobby, the skin strangely loose around the bony shape of her fingers. I slid my hand into hers. "You feel exactly as I remember you," she said.
I felt guilty, returning to her so late. "I'm sorry," I whispered back.
"You did what you had to," she reminded me. "I understand."
"But I should have stayed," I answered. "I should've been everything you needed."
"You couldn't. Don't blame yourself."
I gnawed my lip, and my eyes travelled the length of her, across her breasts and stomach, to her toes. Those were all things I had once considered my own, things I'd tasted and touched and held and adored. There were other things, too, things that no longer existed. Like the smooth space of her forehead, or her long, gloriously red hair. I kissed her scalp, bald and a little bit scratchy.
I spun the wedding band around her finger. "Is he-"
"Dead," she replied stiffly.
"A long time ago," she expanded. Her eyes flitted ever so slightly open. "I've missed him. And you."
"Him more, I assume," I said. But she didn't answer. I ran my hand along her arm, feeling her parched skin. "I wish I could save you."
Claire smiled weakly. "I don't."
"If I could save you and breathe my life into you, make you like me, I would," I whispered. "But only for selfish reasons. I would wish this on no one."
"You will one day find another," she said.
"I don't think so," I said, "I think I am the only one. And even if I am not, I haven't dared to tell anyone since I told you."
Claire was breathing shallower, and seemed to be fading right out of opacity in a strange way. I could almost see her soul falling out of her. I looked around the room, fearing the unseen.
"I saw you," she whispered, "On the Leno show the other day. You looked so happy, and handsome." She smiled weakly.
"I enjoy what I do," I answered quietly.
"I am glad you found some happiness."
"I was happy with you," I said. "I loved you desperately. But... I knew you deserved... and needed... more than I could give you."
Claire closed her eyes again. "I understand," she said."
"I wish it didn't have to be like that," I explained. I looked up.
Time was running out so quickly, I could scarcely comprehend it. I'd waited for years and years and years for the chance to hold her again, to hear her voice, to see her eyes, and I'd waited too long, too afraid for the pain I'd feel when I left.
"I would have come back sooner, if I knew," I whispered.
"I know," she answered.
"I love you," I told her, my voice breaking at the edges, tears threatening to fall. My face felt hot.
"And I, you," Claire whispered. She was scarcely moving her lips, the words riding out on the coattails of her breath, like a musical exhale.
"Are you afraid?" I asked.
"Not even a little bit," she said.
"I assume I am close, then?" she asked, "Since you're here?"
"Sort of," I admitted.
She hummed her response, her eyes slipping closed again and sinking into the pillows. This time I knew she would stay that way. "It's a relief," she confided.
"A lot of people have said that," I answered, "That death is a relief."
"It is," she said confidently. "I feel like I'm about to take a nap after a very, very long day."
I toyed with her hand, trying to submerge the mixed feelings of envy and loss. I would never know that feeling. I would never touch this hand or kiss this mouth, or hear this voice again. She would discover what comes beyond living, while I... well.
The seconds ticked off in my head, and I had to keep from counting down.
"Nick?" she asked, her voice weaker than it had yet been.
"My love?" I asked.
"Always," I promised.
She sighed, happily, and I watched as expression melted slowly from her face, my insides churning, my arms itching to do something - anything - to stop what I knew I could do nothing about.
I closed my eyes, a cold sensation hanging in the air. I leaned way, relinquishing my grip on her, and forcing thought to process.
Gone away, you've left me,
A land of ice, of lonely winter...
When I was certain she was gone, that my touch could not bind her, I lifted her hand gently, carefully, and laid the softest kiss on her skin.
I was still cold when I got back to the hotel later that evening. Being that close to time ending always made my spine turn to ice. The goosebumps were still smoothing themselves out, despite the hot August air, when I slid my key card into the hotel room door.
AJ was sitting on the sofa-bed, watching TV. A bowl of popcorn was balanced in the curve where his legs met his body. Pieces of it lay strewn about the bed, breaking and mashing into the cloth of the comforter and sheets. He was illuminated only by the blue-green glow from the TV and the red glow from time.
I stumbled by him, tripping over a pair of sneakers he'd left in the middle of the carpet. I needed time to process Claire's death before I dealt with AJ and the popcorn explosion.
"Hey, where the hell've you been?" he asked, dropping the remote onto his chest. "We were looking all over for you, and called your cell phone like twelve times." He sat up, adjusting the popcorn bowl so that it didn't tip over.
"I was busy," I answered, "I had some stuff to take care of. I'm sorry." I reached for the bathroom door handle.
"You okay dude? You sound weird."
I shrugged, "Yeah. I'm great."
AJ seemed to accept that. I knew Brian wouldn't have. That's why I'd opted to share rooms with AJ while we were in Chicago. I knew I'd need the privacy.
"Planet Earth is on the BBC," he muttered, "I know this is sort of your thing, I thought you might wanna watch it, too. It's actually pretty wicked," he said. He gestured toward the screen. "They were showing mating rituals on the savannah a minute ago," he grinned.
I forced a laugh, which came out more like I'd choked on spit. "Sweet," I said, throat pinched. "I'll be right out, I just gotta take a shower."
"Aiight, but if you miss the good stuff, don't say I didn't give ya a heads up."
Inside the bathroom, I faced myself in the mirror for the first time. My face was pale, and my eyes surrounded by red, swollen skin. I poked at it, leaving white dots where my fingers had applied pressure. I looked like shit. I was going to have to come up with an allergy or something to explain this away.
I stripped and threw a towel down across the floor before turning on the shower as hot as it could get. I wanted to boil my skin off, to scrape away the memories and the ache that penetrated me. When I stepped in the water pelted my back like fire. I bit my wrist to keep from yelling out in pain. Instinct told me to get the hell out of the shower, but desire to burn away the last few hours kept me rooted to the ground.
Once I'd scrubbed every surface of my body with soap, I turned the water off and stepped into the haze of the bathroom. The air tingled against my scorched skin. The tile was cold under my feet.
Feeling crazy, I laid down across the tile.
A knock came at the door.
"Yeah?" I called out.
"You hungry?" It was Brian.
"No," I answered honestly.
"You're gonna starve to death," he scolded.
"Order me food then," I said, "But I already ate."
Brian must've walked away because he didn't answer me.
After a few minutes I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror. Now every part of my body was scalded bright red, no longer my face alone. Perhaps by the time my skin had cooled enough to return to its normal temperature the emotion that made my face look like a red raccoon would fade and I'd look normal again.
By the time I'd dressed and stepped out into the hotel room, Brian had gotten AJ off the bed and was vacuuming the bits of broken popcorn from the sheets with a Dirt Devil.
"You emerged!" he said, his voice cheerful.
I mustered my courage, and fell into my part.
"Yeah I was all bleh from the city, you know," I said. I stepped around AJ's sneakers this time as I headed for the little kitchenette.
"So where were you all day?" he asked, curious.
"Exploring," I answered. I opened the cupboard and pulled out a styrofoam cup, which I stuck under the sink faucet and filled with water.
"You should use the water bottles in the fridge," Brian protested.
He shook his head, "Tap water is so bad for you..."
"I'm fine, Bri," I insisted. Like tap water would take me out, I felt like scoffing. I looked around and realized we were alone. "Where's AJ?"
I heard him struggling to fold up the sofa-bed in the other room. "AJ and Howie went to get the food," Brian answered. The Dirt Devil whirred to a stop. "We ordered you a steak and sweet potato fries from TGI Fridays, is that okay?"
I shrugged. "I'm really not hungry, so sure. Whatever."
"You're gonna disappear on us," he laughed.
"Not quite," I answered.
Brian came around the corner into the kitchenette and shoved the Dirt Devil under the sink before turning to look at me. "Good Lord, Nick, what happened? You try to live up to your life's ambition to become a lobster dinner?"
"Yeah, I think the water was too hot. It wasn't bad while I was in it," I said.
He eyed me. "You okay?"
"Course," I answered. When he didn't look convinced, I hastily added, "I didn't take my antidepressants today."
Brian frowned, "Why not? Nick, you know that makes you feel like crap. Not to mention it screws up the whole medicinal cycle."
I wasn't really even on antidepressants.
"I know," I muttered, "I just forgot. That's all." Instinctively, I reached to my wrist and flicked the rubber band that hung there against my skin.
"Sorry," he said, picking up on the rubber band thing. He turned and opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water for himself. "So what'd you explore today?"
"A couple parks," I said. Honestly, I had gone to several parks. After leaving Claire's bedside, I'd stumbled down the stairwell of the hospital (I don't trust elevators, after all I've seen of them they scare the bejesus out of me) and across the parking lot to a central square. I'd sat by a lagoon-looking pond in the center of it and hugged my knees for awhile, remembering Claire as I'd known her, before I'd broken her heart, before she'd married Greg Brunner, before she'd become sick, before she'd died.
"Anything good?" Brian asked. He twisted the cap off his water and spilled a little down his front.
I reached for the paper towels and handed him a couple sheets. "There were some ducks."
Brian laughed. "Ducks are always good. Hey, maybe tomorrow you and me could go play some ball before we take off. Did you see any courts?"
I hadn't. "Sure," I lied. I'd google it later. Even if I forgot, actually, it wouldn't be a shock. Everyone in the band thought I was horrible with directions. The truth is that half the time I just had never been where we were headed, or else the roads had been redone since I'd last travelled them.
Brian's smile was a little contagious and I tried to smile back.
"You're my best friend, Nick," Brian said. He probably thought he was indebted to cheer me up, or might even have been worried about me because of the lack of the nonexistent antidepressants. "I'm really thankful for you. I feel like we don't tell you that enough as a band at large."
"Thanks, Bri." A pang of guilt swept over me and I wished for a fleeting moment that I could tell Brian everything. But then I remembered the sad look in Claire's eyes when I had told her, and the burden that knowledge had placed on her, and I quickly gulped down my water.
Flashback : Daniel, 1969-70 by Pengi
- 6/17 , slightly revised for historical accuracy ;) -
In 1969, I was staying in New York. It was the height of the make-love-not-war revolution and I was doing my best to stay low. The drugs freaked me out and the sex was not as fun when you weren't on the drugs. Besides, by that point I'd already been in a number of serious life-altering relationships, and I didn't fancy a meaningless string of one-night-stands.
I'd gone out to get food to bring back to my apartment, which was just a little studio thing over a small bookstore in the student housing area near New York University. I was on my way home, carrying my bag, passing all the tipsy girls and guffawing guys when I heard a woman scream.
I turned around and saw her stagger out of an alley way a couple blocks back. She was dressed in a pair of farmer jeans with nothing underneath except a bra. She had on a pair of Ked trainers, but looked like the type that wouldn't normally wear shoes. She looked freaked out, but her numbers were okay.
"Help! Somebody!" she shouted. She spotted me looking back at her. "You! Help!"
"What is it?" I yelled back to her, turning and walking towards her. She was probably on something, I thought to myself, and this was a bad trip.
"He's dead!" she cried.
I moved quicker. "Who's dead?"
"This.. this bum," she squeaked.
I reached her side and she was pointing down the alley way."Oh God, I think he's dead."
I looked down the alley, my heart pounding in my chest so loudly I was surprised she couldn't hear it. Faintly, at the other end of the alley, I could just make out the red glow of numbers, but I couldn't read them.
I didn't bother asking her why she'd been down the alley way to begin with. It didn't have an outlet at the opposite end, and the dark hollow of it between the two buildings that created it was unnerving, even for me.
I began walking tentatively down the alley toward the man, who laid sprawled on the ground in the grime and mirth of the untouched parts of the city. I kicked syringes to the side, and they slid under dumpsters, sending rats scurrying away. "Shit," I whispered as a cat ran out from behind one of piles of rotting garbage, going after the rats. The cat streaked away down the alley.
I reached the guy after much trepidation and near falls, and knelt down at his head.
I reached for his hand and pretended to be feeling for a pulse, even though I already knew he was alive. "He's not dead," I called, a little too quickly - but the odds of her knowing that were slim. "Call an ambulance."
She turned and ran away from the mouth of the alley.
I bent over the man more, turning him over so that he was face-up. His neck rolled with the motion, jaw hanging slack, eyes unfocused and dry. My hand ran down his forearm and I could feel the pokes in his skin from the syringes.
"Hold on," I told him, "Help is coming."
There are times when being able to see the time helps, like this one, I knew we had time to stay still and wait for the ambulance, as opposed to me trying to move him.
He was bleeding at the corner of his mouth and I dug a napkin from my pocket and wiped it away. "You're in crappy shape," I told him. He probably has a disease of some sort, my head told me as I glanced uneasily at the syringes. Oh well, it's not like you can die, right?
I could tell the moment the ambulance was on its way because his time changed.
"You're just determined to die, aren't you?" I asked him.
When the ambulance got there, paramedics came running down the alley. The rats were thrown into a frenzy again as they shoved a gurney down the narrow passage towards us.
"This your friend?" the first EMT asked as he knelt down next to me.
"I don't know him," I answered. "I was on my way home and a girl had seen him like this and asked for help."
He nodded as a surge of yellow-jacketed guys came running down the alley to help.
The EMT noticed the blood stained napkin in my hand. "Woah there tiger, careful with those fluids." He reached a gloved hand for the napkin. "Dangerous handling things like that these days," he said warningly.
I relinquished hold on the napkin without hesitation.
"Any idea what his name is?"
"Not at clue," I replied.
They lifted the guy onto the gurney, and began wheeling him back toward the gaping mouth of the ambulance. A blue light pierced the air outside as the NYPD joined the ambulance at the curb. I followed the EMTs and the stretcher out of the dark, watching the man's numbers all the while.
A cop met me at the mouth of the alley. "Good evening son," he said cooly. He looked me over, "Were you here when the supposed overdose took place?" he asked.
I shook my head, "I was on my way home," I pointed in the general direction of the apartment I lived in, "And a girl came out of the alley here, screaming 'cos she thought he was dead."
He adjusted his blue hat while he considered me. "I'll need to bring you in for some questioning, if you don't mind..."
"Okay," I answered. "I don't know much, though, I'm afraid."
I followed the officer back towards his police car, stooping to pick up my grocery bag where I'd left it by a mailbox on the curb. The EMTs loaded the guy's gurney into the back of the ambulance, and I watched, concerned, as the seconds flickered away on the guy's time.
It turned out that his name was Daniel. He was 27 years old. The night that I'd rescued him from the alley he'd tried to kill himself. He was a artist who painted in abstract shapes and forms more than pictures. They were images that he swore were inspired by the colors he saw when he squeezed his eyes shut too tight. They were more likely the result of acid trips.
He called me up two days after the rescue from the hospital, explaining that they'd given him my number when he'd requested to thank the guy that had made it possible for him to keep breathing in and out. He exploded into a tirade about how he had visited heaven during his near death experience, and met Jesus Christ. "He's a blast, man," he told me enthusiastically. "You, like, got me a new lease on life - you know?"
But all I could remember was the dwindling numbers that had been floating over his head when they'd loaded him onto the ambulance.
Because I'd saved his life, he wanted to do lunch with me... to thank me in person. It turned out he wasn't at all a bum who lived in an alley way, but the son of an investment banker. "My dad wanted me to go into business and law school," Daniel explained to me, waving an orange mug full of coffee around in his hand, sloshing it about everywhere, "But I was like 'fuck that man', you know, man?"
The second time that Daniel's time was nearly up, I stuck by him, insisting that we hang out instead of letting him go home alone from the record store we'd been perusing all day. He came back to the apartment with me and I chided him into playing Monopoly. He never said anything, but about halfway through the night I'd obviously made him feel wanted enough that he changed his plans, and his numbers flipped from hours to a little over a year.
Having successfully saved Daniel twice, only once to his knowledge, I made it my challenge to save him a third time as well. Consequently, we forged a friendship that I came to depend on as much as Daniel did. I avoided smoking pot and drinking because of the crazy things that it did to time (I'd tried it once and woke up the next morning at 4am on the fountain in Washington Square Park with a migraine and no clothing on), but this complimented Daniel's lifestyle perfectly. Daniel was one of those people who didn't care what people thought of him. He wore dirty clothes and let his hair grow long and greasy. He enjoyed getting rowdy and working up a sweat dancing. He mourned the fact that he'd missed Woodstock. He loved the idea of the raves that were starting in California. Having me around was like having a built in designated driver.
The summer after I met Daniel, on a night when he had only 4 days and a few hours left, we'd gone to Cape Cod to surf. And by surf I mean carry boards around all day, talking about the waves and listening to the Beach Boys on the sound system of his orange VW van, trying to pick up chicks. None of the girls had been too impressed with Daniel, but he'd been pleased about the way I seemed to attract them, and we'd ended up playing volley ball and splashing around with a couple of nice girls that lived in Nantucket.
As the night closed in and the girls took off in their yacht, though, Daniel and I retired to the van. We opened the back doors up and laid down in the back with our heads resting on the bumper, looking up at the stars. Daniel had taken a shot of God-knows-what, and was in a mellow state, while I was wondering how, after a brilliant weekend like this, Daniel could possibly want to kill himself within the next four days.
"You know what I think?" Daniel asked me suddenly.
"What?" I asked him, coming out of my reverie.
"Time - it's weird," he said.
I twisted my neck to look at him, but he was staring at the stars and stroking the air beside him as though there were a dog there, even though there was nothing. I stared at the side of his head. "How so?" I asked.
"Like the way it moves and flows around us," he crooned, "The same way water does, you know man? Time is like -- it's fluid. Like love. Like art."
Daniel had often been a drug-philosopher, but this particular tirade wasn't of his usual style. Usually when his philosopher side kicked in, it was to bitch about the troops in Vietnam or to voice his opinions on his father and his slutty wife. This was the first time he'd delved into the topic of time - a matter, obviously, very dear to me.
"Yeah, time's pretty radical," I agreed.
Daniel was quiet a moment, evidently absorbing the concept. Then he said, "I think time works like dimensions."
"Dimensions?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "I saw this movie in 3D the other day, man, it was so real, you know, because the stuff's like right there at you like this..." he held a hand to his nose, momentarily stopping the patting of the air. "Like it could bite you and touch you." He resumed the patting.
"What movie was it?" I asked.
"I don't remember, man, I was with Shirley, you know?"
I laughed, "So you were reaching out and touching her, then," I said.
"Yeah," Daniel laughed manically, then stopped, too-abruptly. He looked at me. "You ever think about death, man?" he asked.
And here it was, I thought, he was about to confess to me why he wanted to die, why he wanted to kill himself.
"All the time," I admitted, because it was true.
He looked back to the stars. "Think its scary?" he asked.
"A little," I answered, "But only because I don't know what's out there."
Daniel nodded. "Yeah, true. But I mean, dimensions, right? Like imagine like a cake. And the layers of the cake are years, and they just pile right up - up, up, up - to the sky..." he raised his arm as he said this, like he was going to grab at the stars.
I looked at his arm. Rows and rows of scars and cuts and little blisters where he'd taken drugs or tried to cut himself open. I frowned.
"There could be like, dead people, right here. Right amongst us." He waved his hand around the van's cavern. "But we don't know it, cos they're in another dimension. Trippy, huh?"
"Very," I replied.
We were quiet for a few minutes again, him processing the idea, me wondering where this was all coming from really. Away across the dunes some local kids were starting a bonfire, shouting loudly and singing.
He looked at me. "I'm dying, chief," he announced.
"What?" I asked, surprised by the sudden bluntness of his sentence.
"I'm dying." His voice was final.
"Eventually everyone does," I said. Except me.
Daniel rolled onto his side and sat up at an angle, his eyes focused for the first time all evening, and stared at me. "I really am, Nick."
"Why?" It sounded stupid, but it was all I could think to ask.
"The syringes," he said. He held one up he'd used.
Overdose. "Why would you want to do that?" I asked.
"I don't. Anymore. I did." He paused. "I have a disease. Or a virus. They don't know shit - doctors. But they think its the needles."
I remembered wondering if he did when I'd first found him in the alley, surrounded by all those syringes. Maybe I'd been right, even then. I couldn't think of anything to say, though, even though I'd suspected it.
"It's poetic, really," he declared, laying back down. "I'm dying like the poorest parts of the world."
I realized then that there was no way I could save him.
Daniel died exactly when he was 'scheduled' to, according to time. Five days after that night in the back of the VW van, I read in the paper about his death. It was an obituary listed by his father, and mentioned nothing about Daniel's love of art and music or his drug addictions, party habits and the disease that I later learned was AIDs. The article painted a picture of the perfect trust fund kid, who had tragically died for reasons unknown.
If there hadn't been a picture of him in the paper with the article, I never would've believed it was about Daniel at all.
I never told AJ, obviously, but the night I found out he was doing drugs and drinking Jack like water, I thought of Daniel. AJ reminds me, in many ways, of Daniel, except that, unlike him, AJ got the chance to start over again.
I wondered once if that's what had made me approach AJ to be friends with him at that audition years ago, in 1993 - the audition that started the whole Backstreet Boys thing. Every once in awhile, something he says or does makes me remember a particular Beach Boys song or the taste of Coca-Cola fresh from a heavy, green glass bottle.
You Are, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
By Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner
You are I
And I are you
One grammatically incorrect structure
Pieces of a puzzle not meant to fit
But shoved together
Two faces, two hearts
But our hands melt
Together as one
But always we are torn apart by Time
By Time, our Master
Time, our Keeper
Time, our Enemy
Some things are never meant to come true
And some words are best unsaid
But if you were normal
Or I supernatural
Would we bind?
Would we last?
Would you be mine to keep?
You are I
And I are you
It was a week after Claire had died and I could still scarcely breathe, despite my efforts to get over her. I'd tried everything. But somehow even the things that had helped when others I'd loved died did nothing to touch the pain I felt over losing Claire. The color was drained away - like a world without her could never be cheerful. Even though we'd spent so many years apart, I'd never forgotten her, never fully let her escape from me. I'd spied on her, and experienced her in many facets. She'd been a part of me somehow.
Everything reminded me of her.
The sound of a number two pencil hitting the tile in the kitchenette of our hotel room had sent chills down my spine.
The smell of vanilla.
The sound of "And I Love Her" by the Beatles.
That was the song I was listening to, on constant repeat, on my iPod. With each beat, I could feel her hand in mine, feel her hips beneath my palm, see my face reflected in her eyes. I could smell her hair, sweet like cinnamon candy.
I'd been going through the motions, dancing and singing on stage, laughing and joking at interviews, eating. I'd taken scalding hot showers everyday, like the one I'd taken the day she'd died, trying to wash her away from me, but it didn't matter. The guys could still see through it.
If I wasn't careful, I would end up in trouble.
Of course, there was less than a year left before....
And the stress of that... well, it didn't help.
I was laying on the bed, my iPod on, my eyes closed, when AJ suddenly turned on the overhead light, and yanked my earbuds away.
"That's it. We're going out tonight."
We'd been sitting, catatonic, for quite some time. I looked up at him. "We are?" I asked.
"Yes," he declared. "You've been moping around here all week, and I don't know what your problem is really, but I think it might help if you get laid."
I laughed, "Some people think duct tape is the fix-all, but AJ McLean is here to tell you it's not tape, it's actually sex."
AJ yanked open his trunk, which sat by the door. "No seriously," he said, pulling out a pair of jeans and the RUN DMC tshirt he'd worn to every concert on the Unbreakable tour so far. "You're being freaky. You've hardly talked, except on stage, for the last week." He went into the bathroom, leaving the door opened, and I could hear him changing his clothes. "You need to at least get out. So - we're going out." He came back around the corner and stood at the foot of my bed. "Up," he chirped.
I stared up at him.
"I don't feel like it," I protested.
"Is this the face of someone who gives a fuck if you feel like it?" AJ asked, pointing at his chin. "UP."
I got up reluctantly. "Where are we going?" I asked.
"I dunno," he answered. "A club."
"Do they have clubs in New Hampshire?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Probably honky-tonk ones."
"And how are we getting there?" I asked.
"Will you stop analyzing the plan and just get dressed?" he pointed at the bathroom. "Go. I'll figure out the finer details."
Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road that ran along a lake the venue we were playing was on, walking in the dark. AJ was carrying a flashlight that was shaped like an alligator that we'd taken out of Baylee's box of toys on the bus.
"Now isn't this invigorating?" AJ asked.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Who died and made you the cheerleading captain?" I asked. "Where are we going anyway, Mr. Pep-Rally?"
"Well, I looked in the book at the hotel, and there's jackshit around here for clubs. Basically unless we want to like 40 miles down the highway there's nothing but trees and inns and maple sugar factories."
"Fun," I said. "So we're walking 40 miles? In the dark?"
"We have a flashlight."
"Mr. A-light-a-gator hardly counts as a flashlight," I said.
"Well, a fan invited me to her yacht party during the soundcheck," he confessed.
"So we're crashing a fan's party," I said, "Now there's a well thought out plan."
AJ was trying so hard to cheer me up that I almost felt bad still being depressed.
As we wound our way down the street, lined on one side by the lake, and the other by rows of hotels and cars and RV parks, we came to a small marina. AJ closed the alligator's mouth, cutting the pool of light it had been casting. Before us was a small pier that stretched about ten feet into the lake, and at the end of it was anchored a relatively small yacht - though it was the largest in the marina that I could see. It was strung with little Chinese lanterns and candles and music was playing loudly over the hum of conversation. A sea of people crowded the deck, and over their heads floated a mish-mash of red numbers.
"And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen," AJ said, gesturing toward the boat. "A par-tay."
"You do know that if we go any where near that party that we're both gonna get mobbed to death, right?" I asked.
AJ smirked, "Unless I'm mistaken, getting attacked by hot women was precisely the point." He wiggled his eyebrows, then marched resolutely towards the pier.
I sighed and followed him. He'd never handled being on boats very well - he was easily seasick - and all I could envision was having to get him out of the crowd before he hurled on a $9k oriental carpet or something.
AJ reached the yacht before I did, and called out, "Good evening lovely ladies!" The girls on the boat turned, saw who was talking, and promptly let out squeals and shouts of excitement as they helped him on board. He sauntered on and into the midst of them joyfully; it reminded me of one thing: You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.
"And look who's right behind me," AJ said gesturing toward me.
I waved stupidly, hating AJ more with every step I took toward the boat. Climbing on board behind him, I looked around me at the numbers, so packed and crowded that I could hardly distinguish one from another. This was the beauty that I gleaned from crowds precisely, though: they made it possible, if for merely a moment, for me to feel normal, to not know everyone's future, to ignore the numbers.
A bushy-haired teen that I remembered seeing at the soundcheck party earlier pushed her way towards us, separating the crowd like Moses with the Red Sea. She stood before us, her jaw dropped, eyes aglow. "I didn't think you'd come. I never dreamt you'd come."
AJ smiled, "What can I say?" he said, in his most charming voice, "New Hampshire is a boring-ass place."
Despite the negative incantations the sentence held, the fan took it with glee and squealed delightfully, snatching AJ's hand in her own.
It took quite awhile for the novelty of our presence on the boat to begin to wear down. After an hour or two, though, we were able to wind our way to a cushioned bench that ran along the starboard stern, where we sat, our feet crowded by girls that were rapid-firing compliments, questions, and giddy-stories at us. AJ was doing better at paying them attention than I was. My mind was still on Claire.
It was then that I felt eyes on me. Piercing me. Attempting to look into me.
I glanced around and for the slightest fraction of a second, my eyes met hers.
She was standing by the cabin with a small group of girls that were older than the ones fawning over us - closer to my own age. Well, presumed age. She was stunning, but that wasn't at all what attracted me to her. It was the numbers that hung over her head. Or, rather, the lack of them.
Above her head the night air hung; delightfully empty.
Chills went down my spine.
She'd turned away before I could register that our eyes had met.
I stared at her, or rather at the negative space above her, and felt my insides churn with a desire to find out more about her. Why, my mind raced, How?
I nudged AJ. "I'll be right back," I whispered.
AJ, who'd evidently seen me staring, said nothing, but smirked, in a knowing manner.
I stood and poked my way apologetically through the gaggle at our feet, excusing myself, and made my way across the boat toward this mysterious woman. As I approached, one of her friends nodded toward me, alerting her of my arrival. She turned, in a manner that was clearly intended to be brief, and gave me a careless once-over, from my sneakers up, her mojito clutched in her limp-wristed hand. When she reached my face, she did a double-take, the way people often do when they recognize me as a Backstreet Boy, and turned the rest of the way, gazing intently in a curious, yet confused manner.
Probably wondering what the hell I'm doing here, I thought. And who could blame her? A part of me had been wondering that very question all night.
I stepped up to her little posse. "Hey," I said lamely. I'd come over with the intention to get to know her, but I wasn't entirely sure how to go about it. I felt stupid and awkward in a way that I hadn't since I was 13. Any of the times I'd been 13.
"Hello," she said. Her voice was velvet.
"I couldn't help but notice you," I said.
"Of all the girls fawning over you, you notice me?" she scoffed. I frowned. "Do you have a complex, for seeking things that don't want you?" she chided.
"You seem -- different," I replied.
"Because I'm not swooning at your attention," she answered. Yet even as she threw sarcasm at me, even as she made fun of me, her eyes were reading me like a book, perusing my face, scanning me, questioning me.
"Maybe," I answered.
She took a sip of the cocktail. "Well?" she asked. "What do you want?" I noticed she had on chipped purple nail polish and found this endearing in a quirky way.
"I was hoping we could talk," I said.
She glanced at her friend, the one that had warned her of my approach. The girl nodded ever so slightly, widening her eyes in a way that plainly said 'duh'. She handed off her mojito to her. "Here. Watch the bar for me."
I followed her lead mutely, waiting for the numbers to show up, but they didn't. She led me across the boat and down onto the pier. We were standing there, surrounded by dark water. Basically we were alone. A couple girls had opted to go swimming, but they were splashing and making a ruckus down the end of the pier and therefore wouldn't be able to overhear us at all, too involved in their own fun to pay any attention, even to me.
"So?" she asked, leaning back-to the water against the rail of the pier. She stretched her arms out along the top rung of the railing, gnawing on the right side of her lower lip. "Nick... right?" she asked.
"Sorry. I'm not really a-- Backstreet Boys, is it? --fan," she said. "That's Abigail's department."
"My... sister." The pause was unintentional, but strong. "I'm sort of an undercover chaperone for this shindig," she waved at the yacht.
"It's nice to meet you, Abigail's.....sister." I inserted the pause in the same deliberate manner she had.
A breath escaped her that signified humor - it couldn't be called a scoff or a laugh, just an amused exhale - and she smiled on one side of her mouth, the other staying level. "Amie. I-E, not Y."
"Pretty," I said.
Her eyes fixed on me, searching me. I stared at the negative space above her head. We stood there like that for a moment. It would have been awkward with anyone else, but with Amie... well, silence was okay.
"Do you drink coffee?" she suddenly asked.
"Not really," I answered. She started to look a bit shut down, but then I added, "It's more like I mainline the stuff, really; inhale it with oxygen on the side, you know?"
The amused exhale escaped her again. It was kind of a sexy sound, actually.
"Well I've got some back at my RV," she said, "We could talk there."
"Okay," I agreed. I glanced back at the yacht. "You sure you're okay leaving your charge unattended?" I asked.
"They're fine. My friend's watching the bar. I'm sure Abby can refrain from blowing up the yacht for ten minutes. Anyways, they're all fixated on your buddy there. Tattoo-Jones, or whatever," she said.
"AJ," I supplied.
I didn't think twice. When she started walking away, I followed, staring at the delightfully empty air where the numbers should've been, feeling as though I were human... for the first time in an extremely long, long time.
Flashback : Claire, 1958 by Pengi
In the Fall of 1958, when I met Claire, I was fourteen.
We were both students at the George Washington Middle School in a small town in Massachusetts. It was a hot September, and the windows were open all along the far wall of the classroom from where I sat. Outside, the sun was shining, turning the air a brilliant gold as it shone through the green leaves. I was staring out the windows, dreaming of playing baseball, when it happened.
A pencil hit the tiled floor beside me.
I turned and saw the girl that always sat next to me absently twirling her red hair around her finger. Claire Lawson.
I bent down and picked up the number two pencil from the tile and put it on her desk by her elbow.
She looked at me.
Her eyes were so green that it would've made the grass envious.
"Wow," I breathed.
In that instant, I wanted nothing else in the entire world more than to be with Claire Lawson forever.
"Hi," she whispered.
In the front of the classroom, Mrs. Reynolds lumbered on.
"I'm Claire." She sounded like doves cooing.
"I'm Nick," I answered.
"I knew, too," I said.
She smiled and picked the pencil up from the edge of her desk and looked it over. "Thank you," she said.
"You're welcome," I answered.
"And what city, Nick, was our first president on his way to ambush when he made his historic crossing of the Delaware River?" Mrs. Reynold's piggy voice was sharp, challenging. She knew I'd been distracted.
Luckily, I knew this one.
I looked up at Mrs. Reynolds confidently.
"Trenton," I said quickly, then, for good measure, added, "Ma'am."
She looked surprised, but turned and continued with the lesson just the same. Claire, too, looked impressed. She smiled, and I turned back in my seat to face forward.
I was sitting with my adoptive family on the sand of the beach two days later. My mother, a kind woman named Laura, was unpacking a basket she'd filled with bologna sandwiches and Zarex. My sisters, Wendy and Madeline, were being lathered with sunscreen by my father, a man named Dennis.
Their numbers, all long, were my constant vigilance. I loved my family. I've loved all my families. But for once, I was distracted from them and the numbers that they bore, ever changing as they made choices and decisions that effected the future and the amount of time that they would live.
I was usually extra cautious on days when danger could arise at any moment, like at the beach - especially with Wendy and Madeline.
But across the beach, Claire was laying on a towel with a friend, clad in a polka dotted bathing suit and flipping through a school textbook, chatting. She had her hair pulled back into a pony tail. I couldn't keep my eyes away from her.
"Are you hungry?" Laura asked, holding a sandwich out to me.
"No thank you," I answered, waving it away.
Laura followed my gaze across the water to Claire. "Is she a friend of yours?"
"I picked up her pencil," I answered.
I watched Claire while I helped Wendy and Madeline make a sand castle, and while we were splashing around in knee-deep ocean water. She finished her assigned reading and had played in the water, too, and volleyball. But she never said a word to me, despite several stolen glances in my direction.
In the afternoon, while my family was sitting together eating the last of the bologna sandwiches, when Claire's brother, an upperclassman with large, muscular arms, came running across the sand toward the water. Claire was following several paces behind, laughing, pretending to chase him. Richie, Claire's brother, was a football player, and destined to have great things happen to him.
I watched as they ran, laughing, through the sand. At first the numbers were okay. He'd had forty some-odd years, which sounds low until you consider that he was sixteen already, putting him nearly into his 60s before he was scheduled to die. But then, suddenly, as he bolted toward the water, they changed.
I stood without thinking, spilling Zarex on the blanket. Laura jumped back only just in time before some of the bright red juice got on her blouse. The girls yelled out in protest, and Dennis scolded, "Nick, be careful --" as he reached for the napkins to sop up the red mess.
Richie reached the water, Claire right behind him.
"Come back here," she cried, laughing so hard she was scarcely breathing.
"Come get me," he shouted, teasingly.
My feet began trotting toward the water's edge.
"Nick?" Laura called after me, "Nick?"
Richie was about waist deep now.
A wave washed behind him, covering him for a split second. He jumped out of the waves, shaking water from his hair, laughing boisterously.
"Come on Claire, are you afraid of the water?"
Claire was to her knees and seemed to be hesitating going any further, despite her brother's taunts. I looked at her numbers.
Of course she'd go after him, to try to save him, I thought.
Laura was now on her feet behind me. "Nick, get back here."
"Richie, come on, you're too far," called Claire.
Another wave broke on his back and he laughed, backing further away.
"Richie, I'm serious," she cried, a bit of panic beginning to rise in her voice. She was waist-deep now, and he was getting further away. The water was to his chest.
My feet reached the water's edge as the wave hit Richie squarely in the back, sending him forward into the water.
"Richie!" she yelled, scoldingly.
But this time no fearless laughter followed.
"Richie!" panic was yanking at the edges of her cry now.
I dashed past her.
"Nick?" she asked in surprise.
People were standing up all along the shore now, watching, gathering closer to the edge.
Richie had not yet resurfaced.
Time was running out. I could feel the cold, creeping sensations surrounding me, chills that had nothing to do with the frigid water.
"RICHIE!" Claire's scream was piercing. It shattered me. I could not bear the thought that she could feel the ache of loss that I had felt so many times before.
It was the sound of her panic, her pleading cry, that propelled me.
I dove beneath the waves and forced my eyes open, despite the sting of the ocean water against them. The roar under water, deafening as a thunderous waterfall, filled my senses for a moment. The rocking of the tide throwing off my perception. I felt disoriented, dizzy, uncertain which direction was up. I was mildly aware that, even considering my height for fourteen year old, I would never be able to 'touch' here. I was over my head.
The water darkened the deeper it got, turning shades of indigo that I knew eventually would give way to black in its very depth. Sunlight filtered in from above, but only barely, even as close to the shore as we were. The tide's current was strong, and the term I'd read on the information board on the way in echoed in my mind: riptide, a strong undercurrent.
Air burned in my lungs. Where was he? I could see him no where. I wanted to cry out for him, but opening my mouth would release the oxygen, fill my lungs with water, and ... well, I didn't know what would happen. But shouting would do no good. No matter how loud I cried out, there would be no way Richie would hear me over the thunder that struck with each rolling wave.
Then, I saw it.
The red numbers, glowing, in the distance, even further out than I had already dove.
Time was oblivious to the roar of the water, it was not sympathetic for the resistance that water pressure showed me. It did not slow, as everything else does underwater, but ticked steadily onward.
I pushed as hard as I could against the water with my legs. My chest felt ready to explode. My arms reached out desperately, grasping at the water, waiting to feel contact with something solid.
The water swelled suddenly, shoving me backwards, impeding my goal. Richie's body hung limply, probably five feet away from me, his feet just above the ocean floor.
Claire's scream echoed in my mind, like a haunting memory, scalding me. I thrust myself harder forward, my fingers wrapping into Richie's hair. I clung. The tide tried to rip us apart. I refused to allow the water to steal him from me.
I pulled myself closer to Richie, grabbing him by the wrists, pulling his arms around my neck and shoulders, backing into him so that he was slung over me. My strength was leaving, too, and I wondered what would happen to me if I did not get out. Would I be suspended in this place forever? Unable to die, yet unable to go on living, either? Like the wraith kings in the Lord of the Rings?
My feet felt the mush of earth beneath them, and I kicked desperately away from it, trying to keep my aim true for the ceiling of the water, for the expanse of oxygen and sky that I knew awaited us.
Richie seemed to become heavier. The water, colder.
"No!" I shouted into the water, the last of my air escaping from my mouth in great, warbling bubbles. I followed them. Kicking hard against the water, fighting, struggling. I cannot lose, I demanded of myself, pushing me onward, So.. close...
I wasn't going to make it. The sunlight was no closer, it seemed, than it had been from the floor of the ocean. I held Richie onto my back with one hand, my other stretched forward, searching for the water's surface.
And then I felt it. The water broke around my hand, the air cold against my wet skin. My elbow, my shoulder. Richie's arms, my head. I gasped in the air in great gulps as I felt Richie's head break the surface also.
On the shore, several guys, including Dennis, were barreling through the water towards Richie and I. I saw Dennis dive forward, swimming expertly towards us. Claire stood, her eyes covered with her hands, held by her mother, whose face was panic struck.
The water pushed me under again, but I held onto Richie's arms, trying to keep him above the wave that had submerged me.
Dennis reached us first.
He pulled me up by the back of my shirt, bringing Richie with me.
"Is he --" Dennis couldn't utter the word.
"I don't know," I answered honestly. I couldn't see the numbers from the angle I was at. My eyes were burning from the air after the salt water. Everything was blurry.
"Richie!" screamed Claire as Dennis dragged me and Richie toward the shore. "Oh Richie!" Mrs. Lawson and Claire both ran through the water to us. Dennis pulled us right to the sand before I let go of Richie's arms, allowing myself to be pulled from him.
Mrs. Lawson dropped to her knees beside her son, and Claire stood a foot behind, horror struck. I noticed her numbers had returned to normal.
I struggled to a sitting position, Dennis standing beside me. A guy I recognized as a doctor from the hospital came running across the sand. I looked at Richie, afraid of what I might see.
I fell back against the sand, feeling it mat into my hair, oxygen coming in great, unsteady breaths.
Amie’s RV was smaller than the yacht. She'd gotten those temporary garden fences and put it up around the perimeter of the lot. A plastic groundhog, squinting up at the sky, was positioned at the corner of the steps leading inside. I followed Amie inside, knowing it was probably crazy to just follow a random stranger home from a party, but strangely magnetized to her.
I didn't want her the way I wanted Claire; nor was I drawn to her sexually. There was something else - something different - that had me gravitating to Amie. But I couldn't figure out what.
She threw her keys onto a TV dinner stand set up beside the entry. They clattered against a glass pot, containing geraniums. "Mi casa es su casa," she declared, waving her hand around the room.
I sat down at a little booth, resting my hands on the table and watching Amie as she pulled open cupboards and plugged in her percolator.
"So you enjoy RVing?" I asked her.
"My parents do," she said.
"Ah," I nodded.
Amie was scooping coffee out of a bag now. "Do you? RV, I mean."
"Nah," I answered. "Not 'cos I wouldn't like it, but more because - well, it's not much different than touring, really, because we use tour buses, you know? So that's basically an RV. Just a big one."
She filled the percolator with water. "That must be weird. Do you ever get to go home?" she asked.
"Sometimes," I answered.
"And where is home?"
"I live in Florida. And LA." I'd always used the term 'I live in...' because it had been decades since I felt a real connection anymore to any place except wherever Claire was. My true home would always be beside her. I am homeless now, the thought flashed through my mind, disconcerting and horrible.
Amie flipped the switch on the percolator and turned to look at me. She nodded. "Do you like it there?"
"I like the ocean," I said. It was true, I'd always loved the ocean. No matter when it was that I was near it.
She sat down at the booth and stared at me. Her eyes were hazel, I noticed now for the first time. Her hair long, blonde and softly wavy. She had a long face and the lightest smattering of freckles ever. They probably weren't even visible at all when she wasn't tanned.
"So, where are you from?" he asked, "The lovely granite state?"
"No," she answered. "I hate it here actually."
"How could you? Its a state nicknamed after a countertop surface," I joked.
She smiled. "There aren't enough people."
I thought of the sparse crowd at the show in comparison to larger state venues that we'd played. We'd tried the Gilford pavilion more out of a desire to be centralized and fair to the fans in Vermont and Maine, as well as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, than anything else. But it had been extremely sparse. AJ and I had joked that half the crowd couldn't find the place. Even with the GPS system on the bus Chris, our driver, had difficulty navigating the way there.
"How long have you lived in Florida?" she asked, changing the subject back, "And LA?"
"Florida, since I was 13. LA's more recent."
"Where were you before that?"
Living a completely different life, I thought.
"Upstate New York," I said, going with the story I'd always told the public.
"Do you have a family?"
It felt like an inquisition.
"What is this? An interview?" I laughed and leaned back. "Yes. I do. Where are you from? You never answered me."
"New York," she said flatly.
"Well see, then, we have something in common."
"Mmm." She stood up and took a sponge out of the sink, swiping the counter with it, cleaning invisible dirt away.
I suddenly wished I hadn't come. Despite her lack of numbers, despite the strange attraction I felt. It was so disjointed, this talking, this feeling like neither of us was telling the other everything. I glanced at the window. The silver moonlight had lit up row after row of RVs in the park, some cramped much closer together than Amie's was to the next one. The park was still, though, as the early hours of the morning stole by.
The percolator gurgled, signifying the coffee was ready, and Amie opened a cupboard door and withdrew two heavy white mugs. She poured the coffee and placed a sugar bowl on the table. "Do you want cream?"
"I drink it black," I answered.
"So do I." She put the sugar back on the counter before she sat down across from me again. She ran her fingers across the smooth glass of the mug. I gulped coffee into my mouth, burning my tongue and making it go all fuzzy feeling. Amie seemed to hesitate. "I'm sorry," she said finally.
"Sthorry?" My tongue was still fuzzy.
"Burn your mouth?" she asked. I nodded. She smiled.
"Wud ah you sthorry for?" I asked, holding the tip of my tongue between my forefinger and thumb.
"I'm being kind of a jerk to you," she admitted. "I just..." her eyes met mine and searched them. "I find you... interesting."
"Indarestink?" I asked.
"Yeah," she nodded. "Interesting."
"Wud for?" I asked.
She scrutinized me a moment, considering, then said, leaning in, "You're not what I expected you to be, all the times Abigail talked about you. I mean I've seen you on TV and stuff, but it's different than in person."
"Ah you come-bing ober to the dahk sthide?" I asked, smirking around my tongue.
She shook her head and leaned back again. "Your music still sucks, sorry."
I didn't answer. I couldn't really apologize, or accept the comment gracefully. I mean she'd just dissed something I worked extraordinarily hard on - something I'd poured myself into in a way that I never had prior in my 'other lives'.
I released my tongue.
"So what's your family like?" she asked.
"Crazy," I answered, finally able to talk normal. "The fellas are my real family."
The question made me stumble. "I-" I thought of Jane and Robert, the two people who I called, publically at least, my parents. Robert, I could easily discard, easily say that he was just another man, forget what little we’d shared. But Jane… worse than any abandoned child, I ached for Jane to love me. But she hadn’t wanted me. She didn’t know…why would she want me?
Amie was waiting for an answer, her head tilted ever so slightly to one side.
"I have a brother and three sisters," I said finally. Aaron, BJ, Leslie and Angel were the only good parts that had come out of the relationship with Robert and Jane. It was just strange how much like me Aaron was. As he aged more, though, he became more and more like Robert. I'd been afraid for him more often than the other three. More than once I'd had to save Aaron. Especially recently. The drug bust in Texas was a scary time - I was in Japan and when I heard about it, all I could wonder was what his numbers were like.
"Are you close?" Amie asked.
I hadn't seen any of them in almost six months. We'd done the House of Carter's reality show - something I'd done just to be closer to them, to watch over them - and since then I'd only heard from them a couple times. "I was," I answered. "We've sort of drifted apart."
That was probably the way it should be anyway. I thought painstakingly of what the fellas were going to go through...
Amie nodded. "And your parents?"
I looked at her squarely. "Are named Jane and Robert."
"You don't get along?"
"What's with the interrogation?"
"I'm sorry, too much?" she asked. She sipped her coffee innocently.
Our banter continued on like this, each of us trying to soak information out of the other, trying to solve that question that was lingering just below the surface, the one neither of us wanted to ask.
Somehow around 11pm, our talk became the exchange of war stories - battle wounds inflicted by our respective careers. I told her about crazy fans with rabid eyes and enough desperation to do things like climb barbed wire fences. She, meanwhile, detailed the humorous happenings of working at a retail store in Manhattan. "I only work to stay busy," she confessed, "I don't have to work."
"Not into relaxing much?" I asked.
"Not into wasting time," she replied, looking at me meaningfully.
By 1:30, we'd made the coffee Irish. For once, I was okay with it. I didn't feel the odd sense of control slipping away with Amie because I had no control to begin with. My being unable to see her numbers freed me from responsibility, and so we drank a bottle of Bailey's and about twelve cups of coffee apiece and talked.
As the hours got smaller, I felt guilt for having abandoned AJ at the yacht with nothing but the knowledge that I'd gone to see about a girl and an a-light-a-gator to get home with. But it had been a long time since I'd felt free from time like this that I didn't even consider going back to check on him.
"So, besides being a Backstreet Boy," she said, "What do you do?"
Save lives, I thought.
"I travel," I answered outloud, "You know? See new places, try new things." With so much time, why the hell not? "What do you do? Besides sell marked down merchandise to rude customers for a company of pricks, I mean?"
"I read," she said. "Do you read?"
Now, many people - Backstreet fans in particular - think I'm not much of one for reading. And the fact is that in this particular life I am not. I would much rather play a video game than read a book, it's true, but there is a reason for that. Playstation was not around all the other times I've been through this whole life thing. It's still new and novel to me. Books, however, well. I have read, over time, every single book worth reading. The only books I haven't read, I would dare to venture, are new releases, which I attempt to keep up with, just because it is an impressive accomplishment. One that, although I am the only one beside Claire who knows of it, I am still quite proud of.
"I have," I finally answered Amie.
"What's your favorite book?" she asked.
It was probably the Bailey's in the coffee that made the words spring from my mouth. "A book of poetry by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner," I told her. Once the sentence was out of me, I blinked, stunned by how easily the truth had slipped out and how smoothly Claire's name had rolled from my tongue, like honey.
"I've never heard of her," Amie said, her voice slow. "Is the book new?"
"I own the only copy," I admitted.
"Girlfriend?" Amie ventured a guess.
"She's dead," I said blankly.
Amie's response was slow coming. I watched as her eyes glazed over and focused away from me, on a ficus in the corner. She was gnawing her lip the way she had on the pier hours before. Finally, after a pause that had me snapping the rubber band against my wrist, she said, "Were you close?"
"Very," I answered, my voice tightening in my throat.
"I'm sorry," Amie said, her voice remorseful.
She reached out her hand and laid it gently around mine, squeezing it. Or intending to, anyway, I'm sure. However, the moment that our fingers touched, a strange surge travelled throughout my body, a cold that crept through the layers of tissue to my bones. Amie looked up at me, our eyes met, and a look of comprehension crossed Amie's face.
Impossible, I thought, It's impossible.
I'd only felt that surge once before, but I knew it. I could feel it, recognize it.
"Lately I've really liked science fiction," I said, pulling my hand out from under hers and returning to the last safe topic we'd been on. "Not like the cheap crap kind but the stuff that makes you think."
"I've never understood the glory of sci-fi myself," Amie said, also leaning away from me. She was staring at the place on the table where our hands had touched. I chanced a glance, feeling almost certain there would be a mark on the table top, but there was nothing there.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because it expects you to believe in something that will never be true," she said, "It asks you to believe with blind faith in the impossible."
"How do you know it's impossible."
She paused, clearly trying to figure out how to cross this bridge without offending me, the sci-fi reader. "Well, somethings," she said, "Just ARE impossible...Aren't they?"
I knew right then.
I don't know how I knew, nor if I full comprehended. But I knew. And I knew Amie knew I knew. But I didn't know if she knew I knew she knew or not, so I kept my mouth shut. My blood was making my brain throb inside my head, like it was growing, expanding right to the scalp. I had never felt so strange in my entire existence.
"We're a lot alike," she whispered, "Us." She paused, reading me. "Aren't we?"
Some part of me refused to tell Amie, even though I was sure she didn't need telling. Claire was the only person I had ever told, the only one that I had forged that bond with. Telling another person felt like a violation of the only thing that still connected me to her so strongly.
So, instead of replying to Amie's question, I looked at the clock. "I need to get back to AJ," I said.
She nodded. "I need to get back to Abigail."
We sat still, staring at each other.
I Didn't Think So by Pengi
"Where the hell have you been?"
Brian's voice was a mixture of relief and anger when AJ and I walked through the door at 8:30 in the morning. He was wearing his University of Kentucky sweatpants and a white tshirt, bright yellow duck-shaped slippers on his feet. Howie was sitting on an uncomfortable looking chair a couple feet beyond him. His head had snapped up to look at us when we'd come in, and his face had melted out of an expression of panic as he realized it was us.
"We just went out," AJ answered, "That's all."
"Well, Jesus, thanks for leaving us a note," Brian snapped irritably. He turned and stormed away, going into the conjoined hotel room that belonged to him. AJ, childishly, stuck his tongue out as Brian slammed the door behind him.
"What the hell is up his ass?" AJ asked.
Howie stood up and approached us. "He was just really worried." He shot a glance at me. "Are you two okay?"
I nodded, but AJ announced, "Fine? Fine? More than fine - right Nicky?" He punched my arm. I turned red. AJ had just assumed that my absence had meant I'd scored.
"Nick?" Howie looked at me, raising an eyebrow.
"Nah, nothing happened," I said.
"That's what he keeps insisting, but dude, D, this woman was fine!" He dragged out the "i" in fine to emphasize the point.
Howie looked at me, "Do you like her?"
"Howie, Howie," AJ shook his head, "What are we? Middle school girls?" He mimicked Howie's question with sarcasm, making his voice high pitched. "Do you, like, like her Nick? Oh do you?!"
"I did not say it like that," Howie defended himself.
Realizing this battering of each other would go on for a very, very long time, I snuck away as AJ began mimicking Howie more and Howie started shouting at him to stop. I knocked on Brian's hotel room door.
His voice was stoic, hard, and a bit muffled.
"Can I come in?" I asked him.
"Whatever," he answered.
I pushed my way into the room and closed the door behind me, blocking out the sound of AJ and Howie bickering. Brian was sitting on the bed, a pillow hugged to his chest, the TV on. He watched as I crossed the room and tossed myself onto the bed next to him.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I'm sorry we didn't leave a note or something," I said.
He considered me for a moment, then said, finally, "Its not your fault." He sighed.
"I didn't even wanna go."
"Where'd you go?" he asked, pushing the pillow aside.
"A fan's yacht." Brian made a face that clearly showed he didn't think the yacht sounded like fun. "It was pretty lame. But... I did meet this girl."
"Yeah?" Now he looked interested.
"Her name is Amie."
"You picked this woman up at the fan boat?" he asked, "She isn't a fa--"
"No," I answered, "She thinks we suck."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Brian smirked. "So, c'mon.. Tell me about her. You know you're busting to."
"Well, she's different than most girls are," I said cautiously.
He smiled, "You always pick those obscure ones. What makes her different?"
"I'm not entirely sure," I said truthfully.
I stared at Brian, wondering what he would think if he knew what I thought I knew about Amie. I imagined, first, what he'd say if he knew about me.
"Ohmigawsh," he'd say.
"I know," I'd answer.
"That's so cool," he'd exclaim. Then, after thinking about it, "So wait, you can never die?"
"Not that I'm aware of," I'd explain. "But," I'd add, "I don't think I'm alone anymore."
“What’s she like?” he asked in reality.
“She’s … nice,” I answered. Outside of what I thought I knew, I didn’t know how to describe her. Amie had, after all, not exactly been the most pleasant person the entire time we’d talked. She’d been downright rude at times.
Brian chewed on his lip, I could tell he wasn’t sure how to take my hesitant/lame responses.
“Do you ever read scifi books?” I asked him randomly.
Brian looked surprised by the question. As far as he knew, this question was far out in left field. He thought about his answer a moment, then answered, “No. Not really.”
I nodded, “Okay.”
“I don’t like it because I always wonder how much of it is real,” he said with a laugh. “Like aliens and stuff.” He looked at me carefully. “Look, Nick, I know there’s something you aren’t telling me, but whatever it is –“ he paused, “Well, whatever it is I’ll be your best friend no matter what.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I told him.
I knocked on the door of the RV seven hours later, glancing over my shoulder at the bus. Chris had parked at the entrance to the RV park, to give me a chance to talk to Amie. Nobody had understood why it was so imperative that I speak to her in person before I left NH to continue the tour, but somehow asking a person if they can see time is something that shouldn’t be done on the telephone.
Amie opened the door, dressed in a raggy old bathrobe and a pair of fuzzy pink slippers. Her hair was down, messy compared to the perfection it’d been the night before, and clutching a glass of orange juice. “Nick?” she asked. She looked confused. She glanced around, then spotted the tour bus, where our security guards were standing sentinels at the door, waiting for me to motion for them to come bail me out, should there be any trouble. “What’s going on?”
“Can I talk to you?” I asked. Her eyes flitted between my face and the guards. “Inside,” I added, “Alone.”
“Yeah, sure,” she stepped back, holding the door with an extended arm until I’d caught hold of it. Amie moved deeper into the RV and leaned against the counter while I took the steps two at a time.
I looked her over. She looked normal enough, except for the expression of confusion and dismay as she looked at me. Her eyes moved from my eyes to the space over my head, a space that I was willing to bet was as blatantly blank to her as the space over her head was blank to me. I cleared my throat. “I have a question for you,” I said, “And if I’m wrong about you, it’s going to sound crazy. But... I don’t think I’m wrong about you.”
Amie eyed me carefully.
“Do you know what I am about to ask you?”
“Should I ask you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No.”
“So I am right?”
“But you don’t want to tell me?”
I nodded. I could respect that. “Okay.” I turned to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“To finish the tour,” I answered, gesturing to the door, and, beyond, the bus.
Amie nodded. “Okay.”
I paused, one hand clutching the latch to the door, and looked at Amie carefully. “Do you think you will tell me in the future?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she answered. “Eventually.”
“I’ve never found…another,” I answered quietly, “And…I have questions.”
Amie nodded. “Okay.”
“I’ll be back,” I assured her. “I’ll call.”
“I’ll be around,” she replied. “Somewhere.”
Walking across the grass, I was halfway to the tour bus before I heard her call out, “Can you see mine?”
I turned to look at her from where I stood. She was standing on the top step of the entry way, clutching the bathrobe around her ample chest. “No,” I called back, “I don’t think we have any.”
Amie shook her head, “Impossible. I can see yours.”
My heart thumped in my chest. “What?” I took a few steps closer to her RV. “Mine?”
Amie nodded. “I- I’ve never…” she paused. “I’ve never seen them on one of us before,” she said. “But… they’re… yours are different.”
“Different?” I asked.
“I knew you were special,” Amie clarified, “Not…human…because the numbers are different.”
“But we can’t die. I can’t die,” I said. I was feet away from her now, standing by the bottom step. My words breathed from within my chest, like whispers and afterthoughts. “Can I?”
Amie gnawed her lower lip. “I didn’t think so,” she said.
Flashback: The Impossible, 1958 by Pengi
“You were awfully brave,” Claire said to me, “To save him.”
We were sitting in a large drain pipe that ran beneath a hill in the playground behind the school. We were laying on our backs, our feet braced high on the side of the pipe, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that her mother had packed for her. It was pleasant, being with Claire alone. Her numbers were long and I didn’t feel as though I had to be ready to rescue her, she felt less delicate, more real.
“It was nothing,” I answered.
She’d been yamming on and on about me saving her brother the week before, unable to stop telling me how brave I’d been. But, and I’d tried to explain this to her without revealing my secret, it wasn’t really bravery. After all, as they say, it’s not brave if you aren’t scared, and I wasn’t really scared that day. After all, I couldn’t have died, so there was nothing to be scared of, was there?
“It wasn’t nothing, Nick,” she whispered. Claire rolled to her side and sat up, the pipe barely large enough to keep her from bumping her head. “You saved his life.”
“It sounds better when you say it like that,” I said, shrugging.
She sighed. “Why won’t you take credit for it?”
“There’s nothing to take credit for.”
Claire leaned against the drain pipe, facing me this time instead of alongside me, and stared at me, considering me. “There’s something different about you,” she said, “Different from all the other boys in our school.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, thinking. “Something. You seem…older, more mature, or something, maybe.”
“More mature?” I laughed. Only that afternoon I’d been given a warning from a teacher in lunch for making a potato catapult. “So I suppose the pink slip I’ve got in my bag for my ma is nothing?”
“Not nothing,” she answered, “But you were just having fun. I mean you are childish sometimes, but I feel like you know more.”
“I just barely pass my classes,” I reminded her.
Claire shook her head, “Not like that. Like…” she sighed. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say, I guess.” She hung her head, her chin touching her chest and studied her fingernails. “I’m probably just crazy.”
I sat up and reached for her hand. “You aren’t.”
She looked up into my eyes and I saw tears filling hers. “Are you sure?”
Claire swiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “My dad was,” she whispered.
“Was what?” I asked.
“Crazy,” she answered.
“Was he?” I asked, my mouth felt dry and hot.
Claire nodded. “They put him away. I’m not supposed to talk about it. My mom tells everyone that he’s dead, killed in the war, but that’s not so. He did fight, but he was crazy.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I touched her arm. It felt smooth. I swallowed hard. “It doesn’t mean you are, though, Claire.”
She looked into my eyes and nodded, “I know. I just can’t help but think sometimes that maybe I am a little bit. Like maybe I inherited something from him, and I can’t help it but be a little crazy. You know?”
“You aren’t,” I answered.
“I just…part of me doesn’t even want to listen to fairy tales or to see the cinemas because I don’t like being lost in make-believe,” she said, “Then sometimes I wonder if my dad was as crazy as they all made him out to be. Like maybe there is no such thing as make believe, but only truth, and levels of truth, and maybe anything is possible, even things that most people think are impossible, you know?”
“Yes,” I whispered. My palms felt sweaty.
“Do you believe impossible things?” she asked.
“Everyday,” I told her.
Claire smiled, “So it’s normal?” she asked, “To want to believe impossible things?”
“Of course,” I said.
She shifted in the pipe and leaned against the wall beside me. “Do you believe in love, Nick?” she asked.
My throat felt swollen. “Sometimes,” I answered.
She kissed my cheek. Her lips felt hot and soft on my face. I closed my eyes as she pressed them on my skin. She held them there a long moment, then leaned away, her breath coming out in short, nervous puffs. “I do,” she said.
I looked at her and gave her a shy smile. “I could easily be convinced.”
I hadn’t heard from Amie in weeks. I’d given her my cell phone number, my email address, my itinerary, and open-ended backstage passes, so that if she wanted to come to talk in person nobody, not even security, could stand in her way. She, in effect, had full access to me. But she hadn’t used it. She hadn’t texted, emailed, written, called, or any other form of communication since the morning on her RV step.
Amie, I’m going crazy. I have so many questions, and
It was frustrating. I had so many questions for her, not the least of which was what my time was like, but I couldn’t contact her. She had given me nothing to go by to find her again, no phone number, no address. The only thing I had for her was an email address, which I’d religiously written letters to each day since we’d left NH.
The most desperate of which I was in the process of typing.
absolutely no answers. I know you didn’t want to talk about
this whole thing, and I’m not trying to force you to talk about it, but
please understand where I’m coming from. Meeting you on the
yacht that night is the closest I’ve ever come to knowing anything
about who – or what – I am. I know I am not human, as you said, I
know I am something different, but I don’t understand it or
how it works. I just want to talk to someone about it, and the only one
who knows about it is you. Please, Amie, write me back, okay? I am
waiting, hoping to hear from you soon. Please.
AJ came up behind me suddenly. “Yo.” He grabbed the chair next to me and spun it around, sitting in it backwards. His chin rested on the back support. “Sup?” he asked.
I closed the laptop lid hurriedly, not wanting him to see my letter to Amie. “Not a lot,” I answered, turning to look at him.
He smirked, “Were you looking at porn?”
“No,” I stammered.
“You shut that thing at, like, Olympic speed,” he laughed.
I shook my head, “I was working on something – something private,” I said. “Something that isn’t your business,” I added.
“Journal?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. He laughed, then said in a sing-song voice, “Dear diary, the fans love me sooo much, I get boners every time I’m on stage, diary…”
I laughed, “You are such a prick.”
“I know,” he grinned. “Anyways, Brian wanted to know if you were hungry, we’re going out.”
“Yeah I could go for a bite,” I said.
“Sweet,” AJ nodded. He stood up and rotated the chair back to its original place. “Hurry up, then, with your private stuff, so we can make like a banana and split, will ya?”
I laughed. “Go away and I will.”
“I still say you’re looking at porn,” he said as he ducked out of the compartment, back toward the bunks of the bus.
“Idiot,” I mumbled under my breath. I opened the screen once more and clicked the send button. The computer jingled its obedience and I sighed.
On the cab ride to the restaurant that Brian, AJ and Howie had picked out for us to go to that night, I stared out the window at the passing city. The buildings loomed over the street, reaching into the sky. The general feeling of being in a forest filled the city with the towering buildings, like being lost deep amongst the trees. I watched pedestrians standing on the sidewalks, their numbers zooming by my eyes so quickly I could scarcely see them.
“You’re quiet,” Brian said, nudging me as we rode. “You hear from that girl in New Hampshire yet?” he asked. I shook my head. “Sorry,” Brian said, frowning for me.
“It’s all good,” I answered. “I know I will sometime.”
“Maybe you should let it go,” he said.
“No,” I answered, “I don’t think so. She’s…” I shrugged. “Different.”
“Yeah but what good is different if different doesn’t contact you?”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes with her.”
Brian winced. “This much devotion over one night, Nick?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to make Brian understand. I wasn’t waiting for romantic purposes, or out of devotion or loyalty or anything committal like that. I still didn’t feel anything remotely close to adoration or love for Amie, only the desire to know, to have things explained to me finally, at long last. But there was no way to communicate that, not without telling the truth – the whole truth.
“I’m okay, Brian,” I reassured him, “Really.”
“Okay,” he leaned away.
AJ and Howie were arguing about a game they’d watched the night before, which I’d sat on the sofa and stared at, but not comprehended. I shuffled my feet, hoping they didn’t try to include me now that Brian had broken my reverie, but luckily we came to a stop outside of the restaurant and we all piled out of the cab onto the sidewalk.
Brian led the way inside and we followed, and were soon seated at a table in a corner by the windows, looking out onto the street. The waiter took our orders for drinks – AJ and I had both chosen Pepsi, while Brian and Howie opted for something harder – and we were sipping on them when AJ finally started the conversation. “So who’s planning what after tour?” he asked.
I’d forgotten about the end of the tour approaching – or maybe pushed it out of my mind. We’d done a ton of promo and concerts, though, so it was really about time. If I hadn’t been preoccupied, I would’ve been looking forward to going home and hiding out from the world for a few days before returning to my down-time habit of seeking people who needed help.
“Leighanne and I were thinking about bringing Baylee to Disney,” Brian said. “We were trying to figure out what would be good for his birthday this year.”
“Leigh and I are going to Cabo,” Howie smirked.
“Sex on the beach?” AJ asked, winking.
Howie turned red and laughed. “Hoping so.”
“Me, I’m gonna record some,” AJ announced. “I’d like to get that damn solo project done once and for all, you know? Maybe with some work during our down time I can seal that deal.”
“How about you, Nick?” Howie asked me.
I shrugged, “I’m tired, I wanna get some sleep.”
AJ snorted into his Pepsi, “Sleep? Really?”
I shrugged again and drank the Pepsi. “I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep lately. Plus, I’m hoping Amie will call me or something during the break. I’d like to get some writing done, too, you know? Catch up on some new video game scores and music I haven’t heard yet… Just veg.”
Brian looked concerned, but said nothing because a waiter approached us before he could to ask us for our dinner orders. I ordered a steak because I hadn’t really looked at the menu very well. As soon as the waiter left, Brian asked, “Do you want to come stay with us?”
I shook my head. The idea of being able to guard Brian, Leighanne and Baylee over the next couple months was great, but at the same time I didn’t want to bond over that time. That would only make it worse when I had to leave.
I hadn’t thought about the impending departure in a long while. My heart felt like it had crawled into my throat, and caught my breath up for a moment. I hid the awkward moment by taking a pretend mouthful of soda and hiding myself behind my glass.
“You okay?” Howie asked.
I nodded, “Yeah. I’m fine.”
“You sure?” Brian’s voice was nervous.
“Ever since you met that chick you’ve been acting really fucky,” AJ stated.
“I’ve been acting fucky before that,” I reminded him.
“Yeah,” Brian agreed. “What’s going on? Is there something you aren’t telling us?”
Three pairs of eyes locked on me. I felt cornered. I looked away from them, out the window to the street. A gang of guys were gathered around the entrance to a bar across the way, laughing, all clad in black leather jackets and skullcaps, shoving each other around in a somewhat joking manner. My eyes swooped over their times instinctively. They all seemed fine.
I looked back at AJ, Howie and Brian, “Nothing’s going on,” I lied.
AJ shrugged, and quickly changed the subject, but I could still feel that Brian was uneasy beside me. Ever since Claire had died, I’d been unable to conceal myself from him and I knew he was picking up on the nervous vibes I was throwing out there. I avoided meeting eyes with him, knowing he’d be able to read a world of knowledge in my eyes. I watched the gang across the street because I didn’t dare to turn toward the table.
They were goofing off, pushing each other off the curb between parked cars, and shouting, laughing. The corners of their eyes were scrunched with the laughter, but even from across the street I could tell it was an unhealthy kind of horseplay. The feeling I had reminded me of a mother who knows her children too well. “Stop it before someone gets hurt,” she’d call, “I can tell by the laughter it’s getting too rough,” she’d warn.
“Spinach is like mother nature’s fuck you,” AJ was saying to Howie.
“I like spinach,” Howie protested.
“Eat your salad, Nick,” Brian urged.
But my eyes were glued to the guys.
“Nick?” AJ flicked something small and wet at my face and laughed.
“Don’t play with your food, AJ. Christ, how old are you?” Brian snapped, “I don’t even yell at Baylee for that anymore…”
I ran a hand across my face where the whatever-it-was had hit me. It was wet. I smelled my hand. Olive.
“Cut it out,” Howie hissed.
“Nick?” Brian reached out for my elbow.
Another guy had stepped out of the bar, a scrawny guy. The gang had turned to look at him. I felt my stomach contract. It was about to get too rough.
“I- I need-“ I paused, searching my head for an excuse. “Bathroom.”
I didn’t wait for the guys to react or to give me permission. I bolted. My feet carried me between the tables, towards the door, dodging waiters carrying heavy trays of food. The restaurant seemed endless, and when I finally burst through the door onto the city street, I was momentarily disoriented, trying to remember which way the window had been through which I’d seen the bar and the gang.
Turning right, I trotted down the sidewalk for a few moments before I spotted the fluorescent sign that marked the bar’s entrance. I could hear the jeers from where I was, hear the scrawny guy pleading.
“Nice tie, business guy,” one of the thugs was saying, his voice leering.
I crossed the street in a couple strides.
I could see their numbers over the roofs of cars parked along side the street, only two or three of the guys were still standing in a cluster on the sidewalk ahead of me. I felt my feet speed up, carrying me closer.
“Come with us,” another voice said. They began moving down the street toward an alley a bit further down.
“Please,” the scrawny guy said.
I was passing the bar, a pool of light on the sidewalk, as they pulled him into the alley. He was struggling, but I caught side of his numbers for the briefest of seconds.
“Hey!” I shouted, but they all ignored me, and pulled him into the alley. I broke into a run as the last of them disappeared from view. “Hey!” I shouted louder. A girl across the street – wearing a tight skirt and tall heels – glanced at me curiously.
I chanced a glance at the restaurant window, where Howie, AJ and Brian were seated. Howie was pointing in my direction, AJ was gape-mouthed and Brian was in the process of turning around. I dove behind a parked car and rushed, hunched down, trying to avoid being seen, toward the alley.
“You looking for some company?” called the girl across the street. “Hello?”
The alley loomed ahead of me and I could hear voices, but couldn’t distinguish what they were saying any more. They alley was evidently quite long.
I stepped around the corner onto it, and found myself looking into a dark space between two buildings. It reminded me of saving Daniel, yet this alley was more sinister than the one I’d found Daniel in.
“I don’t have any money,” the scrawny guy was pleading, “Please. Look in my wallet, you’ll see, there’s nothing.”
Scuffling feet echoed down the passage.
I walked cautiously forward, unable to see anything ahead of me, except, far away down the tunnel like space, a small orange street lamp, glowing, illuminating an old, overflowing dumpster.
“I think you’re full of shit,” snapped a deep voice.
“Please,” the guy begged.
I could see his numbers.
His breathing was ragged. “I have a wife, and kids,” he pleaded.
“And you were spending the night at a bar instead of with them?” sneered a voice.
“I was laid off today,” the guy explained. “Please, let me go.”
“I think you have money,” a thug said, “Poor guys don’t wear fancy ties.”
“Its in the bank,” the guy explained, “I don’t carry cash. Please. Bring me to an ATM, you can have it all.”
“I think you have cash.”
Skin on skin, rough and hard, a punch landed well on its target. I heard a sickening crack and knew that the guys nose was broken. He let out a wail, and laughter coursed among the thugs.
I propelled myself forward.
“Hey!” I yelled.
The laughter ceased. They turned to face me, surprised looks on their faces.
“Oh look, company,” one guy said.
“What are you? A cop?” snorted the deep-voiced man.
“Maybe,” I answered.
One of them reached behind him and drew a gun out from behind his back, presumably it had been tucked in the waistband of his pants. “Leave,” he said, his voice a warning tone. He aimed the gun at me.
“You don’t scare me,” I said.
“No? I should,” he said, aiming the gun at me.
“No,” I replied, “You see… I can’t die. So, really, waving that thing around, it doesn’t do much.”
I was ready for it. He pulled the trigger and I dropped to the ground, the bullet sailed over my head and struck a trash can a few yards away. If I’d stayed standing it would’ve passed through me. What then?
”I can’t die. Can I?”
“I didn’t think so.”
For the first time, I didn’t feel invincible.
“Did you get him?”
“Help me, please help me!” the man cried out.
“Shut the fuck up.” Another sickening crunch and a scuffle, and the sound of struggling stopped at the end of the alley. The guy was on the ground. His numbers still flickering.
“Did you get the cop?”
“I hit that trash bin,” snarled the irate gunholder. He aimed for me on the floor of the alley and pulled the trigger.
I rolled, and, again, if I hadn’t moved the bullet would’ve struck me. This guy’s aim was dead-on. I was mere feet from the spot where it ricocheted off the cement. My back hit the dingy alley wall and I coughed as wet dirt caught in my nose from the force I’d hit the wall.
“This asshole was telling the truth,” called a voice, “His wallet’s empty.”
“Fucking A,” cried another voice. “Take the wallet anyway. We’ll use the cards.”
“Nice wife,” jeered the first.
“Yeah, she’s got great tits,” sneered the second, evidently looking over the first’s shoulder at a picture in the wallet.
I crawled closer, ducking behind some wooden pallets that were leaning against the wall. The gunman aimed at the place where I’d hit the wall and I heard the bullet clink against a drain pipe that had been inches from my face.
“Where did he go?” he asked, aggravation climbing in his voice.
“You missed again? What the hell?”
I leaned against the cold brick of the wall. Moss was growing all over it. I clutched a handful of it and threw it across the alley, hitting a paint bucket. The gunman whipped around and shot, sending a spray of off-white paint around the alley like the blowhole of a whale.
”I can’t die. Can I?”
He aimed the gun towards me, hidden behind the pallets, and shot, narrowly missing me. The bullet struck the wall about an inch above my left shoulder. I held my breath. Brick shattered and pieces hit my cheek. I closed my eyes. He walked closer. “Where the fuck is he?”
”I didn’t think so.”
Amie’s words were echoing in my head. I wanted them to stop, to go away. They were making me afraid to move, scared to save this guy. I’d never felt weak and vulnerable like this before. I’d always been confident when I saved people, only afraid that I’d be too late, or that I’d somehow make things worse. But this time the fear that coursed through my veins wasn’t entirely about him, but also about me and my own safety.
Cowering behind the wooden pallets, I didn’t feel like a super hero. I felt like a coward.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” sang the gunman, inching along the alley in the wrong direction. One of the other guys was standing behind him, clutching his own gun. Together, they moved toward the street.
I looked down the alley to see if there was any hope of escaping that way, but the dark beyond the orange glow of the street lamp held mysteries only. The green dump bin blocked most of my view to even make a guess where the alley led. Something told me, though, that these guys knew everything there was to know about this alley.
I looked at the scrawny guy.
It was now or never.
Summoning every ounce of courage I had, I crawled out from behind the pallets and, quietly as I could, snuck up behind the guy still crouched beside the victim. He looked up, just before I landed a blow to the side of his face with my foot. He fell over sideways, making only a soft thud against the cement, a bit of blood at his ear and nose. He wasn’t dead, wasn’t even dying. I felt no remorse. I half wondered if I would’ve, even if I’d killed him.
I ran my hand along the guy’s waistband and found the bulge at his hip. Extracting the gun, it felt heavy and cold in my hand.
The scrawny guy was still unconscious. I reached for his arm and pulled him up. He was heavy, for being so scrawny. I grabbed the wallet out of the thug’s hand and replaced it in the guy’s pocket as he fell onto my back.
“You okay back there, Digs?” called one of the two trying to find me. He didn’t turn to look.
“Yeah,” I grunted, leveling the gun. “Doing good, actually.”
The unarmed guy turned around. “Reggie,” he snapped.
The guy with the gun turned. “There you are.” He pulled the trigger, but the range we were at now seemed to be less than perfect for him, because he missed without me even having to move. The bullet blasted the orange lamp and extinguished the only light in the alley. In the pitch black, none of us knew where the others were.
“What the fuck, Reggie!” shouted the unarmed guy.
“Dammit,” Reggie swore. “Where the fuck are they?”
I moved forward, pulling the scrawny guy along, hunched over on my back. His numbers glowed over my head, and gave me the slightest bit of light in which to move forward. I kept the gun leveled, my finger on the trigger, ready to pull.
“We’re leaving,” I announced to the two thugs. “Don’t mess with me. I have a gun, too.”
I heard the click of Reggie’s gun, even though I couldn’t see him pull the trigger. But it wasn’t’ followed by a fire. He’d run out of ammunition.
“God damn it!” shouted the rough voice of Reggie.
Relief washed over me, and I didn’t hesitate. I ran for the mouth of the alley, carrying the nameless scrawny guy along. We stepped onto the sidewalk. It was drizzling ever so slightly, just enough to make the sidewalk wet. I wasn’t sure if I was being followed. In some sense, it felt stupid to think that the now unarmed thugs would follow, yet in another why wouldn’t they? I plowed down the street from the alley.
The scantily clad woman who’d called out to me before was halfway across the street on her cell phone. She’d evidently heard the gunshots. She looked petrified.
I dragged the scrawny guy across the street, past her, to the sidewalk furthest from the alley way, in the shadow of a parked car.
“Call the cops,” I told the girl as she trotted towards us from the street. “Tell them there’s some guys down the alley. They beat him up. Tried to take his wallet.” I lowered him to the sidewalk. I knew he’d be okay. Now I needed to get out before I was recognized.
“Why don’t you tell them?” she asked. She squinted at me, and I knew the only reason she hadn’t already recognized me was because of the grime that had attached itself to my face.
I looked away from her, “I can’t.”
I ran down the street, back toward the restaurant.
“Come back!” she called, but I ignored her, just praying I could get out of there before anything could stop me or force me to go back.
A commotion was going on out front of the restaurant as I turned the corner. Fans were clambering around the guys. Evidently someone had spotted us, or them, and had gotten the word out where we were. My hand flew to my face and I rubbed at the grit on my cheek, trying to rid myself of evidence before they noticed me as I came trotting up behind them.
Brian’s voice rang over the din the fans were making. His arm stuck straight up amidst the girls and I saw him trying to peer over their heads at me, his face puckered with nerves.
I waved at him, as the cluster of fans turned to face me.
Here on the main street, it was so easy to pretend that everything was normal, that it was all okay. Even when the flashing blue lights of the police officer’s car rounded the corner I was able to push the thought from my mind.
I moved toward Brian. He grabbed my elbow. “AJ and Howie are finishing up,” he said. He stared at me, “But you –“ he glanced at the fans around us, and evidently changed his mind from saying what he’d been about to say. “We need to talk. Come on.” He pulled me away from the fans toward the curb, where a cab was waiting, and climbed inside.
Something Impossible, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
By Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner
There is something, though what I cannot place
About the lines and understanding on your face
From somewhere else, perhaps sometime before
Something about you tells me there is something more
Than what you reveal to me willingly day by day
Something hanging in your mind you’ve yet to say
I am waiting, patiently as I can, to find out your mystery
But I wonder, will you ever tell me?
Tell me what it is that fuels your brave acts of rescue
That causes you to risk your life the way you do
Like you cannot die, or seek not to live
Tell me what it is that makes you so eager to give
I can tell it is not chivalry alone, for this would be too dull
Written plainly in your eyes, is something impossible…
I sat in the cab beside Brian, feeling like a child. The grime stuck to my face was itchy, and I rubbed it with the back of my hand absently, staring at my sneakers. I could feel Brian's eyes on me, but he didn't speak, and I didn't look up. The cab carried us through the noisy city streets, the only sound the honking, shouts, sirens, and din from outside, muffled by the thick windows of the cab.
When the car pulled up in front of our hotel, Brian reached through the little window and deposited a fifty dollar bill in the driver's palm before opening the door and dragging me out. It was a hearty tip, but Brian didn't wait for the change. His hand was wrapped around the waist of my shirt as he tugged me across the lobby to the elevator, as though I'd bolt away if he let go of me for even an instant.
My mind was reeling from the events of the past couple hours.
I'd never been afraid like that before. The sudden revelation that I could, maybe die that Amie had given me was terrifying. The idea was something I'd never considered. I'd just been in so many freak positions and gotten out that I'd assumed I was invincible, impossible to kill. I'd never given in to the idea that perhaps, despite the crazy recycles of my life, I was just as mortal as any one of the people whose lives I tried to save.
We reached the hotel room and Brian closed the door behind us, while I moved to the couch and sat down, knowing what was coming.
"I saw you," Brian said. He came into the living room and seated himself on the coffee table, looking into my face with a serious expression. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but ... I saw it, and now I want answers."
I looked up at him. "About what?"
"Nick, you took off after those thugs. You ran down that alley. There were gun shots, and then you came out, carrying that guy. What the hell happened? What got into you?"
"I- I didn't think. I just-" I stammered, searching for an answer.
"Why didn't you call the cops? Why did you go after them yourself? You could've been killed."
"Brian... I-" How could I tell him? I felt suddenly cold, and reached for the rubber band around my wrist and began snapping it loudly against the inside of my wrist, where the veins showed.
Brian reached for my hand and stopped the motion. The pain of the band cracking my skin subsided slowly. Brian's eyes bore into my own, and I knew he was searching for the sign that I was hiding something. I knew it was written all over my face.
"Please tell me the truth, Nick," he said. "Something's been bothering you and I want to help you. You're my best friend." He paused. "Did you know that guy?"
I shook my head.
"Then why did you risk your life instead of calling the police?" he asked.
"There... I... They..." I closed my eyes, my forehead screwing up. "There wasn't enough time."
"But they could've killed you," Brian said.
"No," I answered, "I mean, well, maybe. But - no, I don't know. They were going to kill him, and- I'm- I don't know if I can die, but I never thought I could until a couple weeks ago, and- well, I just... I couldn't turn a blind eye. Not knowing."
Brian looked confused. "What? Of course they could've killed you. They had guns, Nick."
"Guns have yet to kill me," I whispered.
"You've been shot at before?" he asked.
I nodded. "Yeah. Its kind of something you... tend to encounter... when you... save lives."
Brian leaned back. He'd been leaning closer and closer with each word, and like he'd suddenly realized he was too close, he pulled away. He seemed to be contemplating these words. Finally, he looked up at my face. "I'm going to be sorry for asking this, because I have a feeling it's gonna open a whole big can of worms, but... Nick, what do you mean saving lives?"
"Like... saving lives. You know, keeping people from being killed."
Brian nodded slowly. "But... how."
"I-" Here it was, the moment of truth. "I- Brian... I can... I can see time."
"See time?" He looked a little stunned by these strange words coming out of my mouth and he gave me a puzzled look. "What do you mean - you can see time? What does that mean?"
I looked at Brian's numbers, floating gracefully over his head and read them aloud: "Sixty-five, two, twenty-one, thirteen, fifty-eight...fifty-seven..."
"Your time," I said. "I can see your time."
Brian blinked absently into my eyes, then he laughed and stood up. "Jesus, Nick, you watch way too much Twilight Zone."
"Seeing time, huh? That's creative. So what? You can see how long people are gonna live or something?"
I nodded solemnly.
Brian laughed again and rubbed the back of his neck. He turned away and faced the wall, not looking at me. I let him process the concept a few moments before I spoke up. "I'm not joking Brian."
He turned to look at me, one eyebrow raised. "How long have you been able to do this?" he asked, concerned.
"Always," I answered.
"Since you were a child?"
"Well, since I was thirteen. I can't really remember anything before that."
He stared at me. "You're serious."
"Nick, we need to get you to a shrink," he said, shaking his head.
"No," I stood up, my muscles tense. "Look, Brian, I'm telling you this because I trust you not to tell anyone else. Not even AJ or Howie, okay? I know it's crazy, impossible, nuts, whatever adjective you wanna use, but I'm not making this up. I'm not crazy. I'm totally sane."
"Nick, you ran down a dark alley after a gang of thugs mugging some guy and bolted from the scene. You're trying to tell me you can see how long people have to live. You've been moping around here for weeks. I'm worried for you!"
"But you don't need to be," I said. "I'm not mental."
Brian's eyes were bright, afraid. "Nick--"
"I've been alive, as far as I can recall, since the 1800s, Brian. I've lived seventeen years of my life over and over and over and over again. I've seen a lot of shit, and I've only ever confided this into two people. Well, three, sort of."
Brian stared at me, his eyes wide.
"Brian, please. Let me explain it to you better." I motioned for Brian to sit down. He did, robotically, staring up at me, his face slowly paling. I sat down again, too. "I don't know why," I said, "But I can see numbers over peoples heads. The numbers show how long the person has left to live in years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. It counts down. Choices can change the numbers. Like if you genuinely decided to go jump off the balcony right now your numbers would change to reflect that. Therefore, I can save lives. If I see someone with low numbers and I can prevent them from meeting their appointment with death, I've altered the path and the numbers change and they live through their own death."
Brian looked perplexed, but he hadn't stood up, which encouraged me to continue talking.
"I've saved a lot of people. I have to bail the scene before I get credit for it, though, because... well, it would look weird if I was all over the place rescuing random people. wouldn't it?"
"So I do it silently, as anonymously as possible. I've saved fans and people I don't know, I've saved people I love and people I hate. There've been times when there's people I can do nothing to save, because of illnesses, like Howie's sister or AJ's grandmother. This is how I saved AJ, back in 2001," I added.
Brian looked like he was about to be sick.
"I've saved Leighanne and you before, too."
"Stopping you from leaving in the car, or boarding a plane, things like that."
Brian stared at his thumbs, twiddling in his lap.
"Do you believe me?" I asked, "Even just a little."
"Nick," he whispered, "You're asking me to believe something unbelievable."
"Yeah," I nodded, "Something impossible."
"Yeah," he said.
"But I need you to believe in me," I said.
Brian looked up at me, and was just about to say something, when the hotel room door opened and AJ, followed by Howie, came in. Howie was balancing four take-out styrofoam containers. "You missed a good meal, guys," AJ announced, patting his stomach. He beamed. Then, after the slightest pause, he glared at me. "What the fuck were you thinking doing that all back there?" he asked.
"I... wasn't," I said. I shrugged, "I just acted on impulse."
"That was frickin' sweet," AJ said, awed.
"I try," I answered.
Howie had pushed the fridge door open with his toe and was busy fitting the boxes into the fridge. "You're friggin' nuts," he announced, balancing the boxes and moving things around. He was silhouetted by the light of the fridge.
Brian was still sitting on the coffee table, looking stunned.
"Wasn't he insane, 'Rok?" AJ asked, slapping Brian on the back enthusiastically.
Brian nodded mechanically, "Yeah. Insane."
He stood up and walked away to the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
"What the hell is B-Rok's problem?" AJ questioned, looking at the door.
Howie came into the living room and followed AJ's gaze to the hotel room door, then looked back at me. "Did you have a fight?"
"No," I answered.
"Eh, ignore him," AJ said, waving a careless hand at the door Brian had just disappeared through, "He'll get over it. He's just got his panties in a bunch, you know?" He laughed.
"Yeah," I answered. "I guess so."
The next couple days we just weird.
Brian avoided being alone with me like I was diagnosed with the plague. I knew he needed time to process what I'd told him, but I was afraid I'd freaked him out too much. He was my best friend, possibly the best friend I'd ever had over all the cycles of my life, and now I'd scared the shit out of him. He would bolt off the bus in AJ and Howie's wake before I could snatch him aside, and he was always first out of the dressing rooms backstage at the shows. Even on stage he'd run down the other side of the platform before I could reach him. Fans were complaining about the limited Frick and Frack face time on the message boards online.
When the tour ended, and we were in the airport waiting to fly back to our respective destinations, Brian sat in the chair furthest from me in the waiting area. I didn't try to inch closer, even after AJ and Howie's flight had left, bound for Florida, leaving Brian and I alone. I could tell by his body language that he was afraid I'd strike up a conversation, even going so far as to pretend to be asleep when I got up to get a soda out of the vending machine.
I was the first to board the flight back to LA, I sat in my seat and stared out the window, ignoring the other passengers and even the stewardesses. The wing of the plane stretched out across the tarmac, pointing toward other planes in the distance. I wondered which one Brian was sitting on, ready to go to Kentucky, where Leighanne and Baylee waited for him. I wondered if he was gonna tell Leighanne about me, if she'd believe or if she would encourage him to have me looked at or even committed.
The seat beside me was suddenly occupied and I glanced over and found myself looking at a nervous thirty year old guy who hadn't shaved in awhile. His eyes darted around the plane.
Halfway through the flight?
My palms felt wet and dry at the same time and I rubbed them on my knees. "Hey," I said to him.
He jumped about a mile and looked at me, his eyes wild. "Hey."
He was clutching his carry-on bag.
"Need some help getting that into the overhead?" I asked, noticing that he was probably about Howie's height, I figured this was a legitimate question.
"No, no. I'm okay." He looked away.
I swallowed hard and glanced around the cabin. The numbers were alarming. Everyone's numbers were similar to this guys, except just a few. Survivors, I thought darkly.
A stewardess, whose numbers were short, stopped beside our row, a sweet smile on her face. She was blonde and reminded me of Gwenyth Paltrow in that one movie that nobody ever remembers where she was a stewardess. "Are you comfortable?" she asked us. I nodded and the guy beside me did, too. She motioned at his bag. "That needs to go into the overhead until we're in the air, okay, sir?" She smiled.
"Oh, okay. Okay." The guy nodded, but still clutched the bag.
"Would you like me to put it up for you?" she asked, her voice too-sweet now.
"No, no. No. I'll do it."
He stood up, clumsily and she stepped aside as he pushed open the overhead and shoved the army green bag into the full compartment roughly and slammed the tubular door. He sat back down and rebuckled the lap belt, his hands shaking.
The stewardess must not've noticed the oddity that was the guy's behavior because she just thanked him and walked away.
So much for heightened security on planes, I thought bitterly, Something's obviously up with this guy.
I wondered how I would clear off an entire plane full of passengers. Or at least get this guy off the plane. I wondered if I could get him to leave the plane if I could see the other passengers' times and figure out if this guy was some kind of terrorist, or if there was just something legitimately wrong with the plane itself. I furrowed my forehead, staring out the window, thinking. I could hear people boarding in the coach and knew I didn't have much time.
I'd talk to the stewardess. I didn't know how I would approach the topic, especially if it turned out my seat-mate wasn't the problem, but I had to do something. So, I reached for my buckle and undid it casually as I could. "I have to pee," I told the wild-eyed guy.
He stared at me, bewildered. "You're a Backstreet Boy," he stammered suddenly.
"I- uh- yeah," I said.
"Nick," he said. "Nick, right?"
He turned and faced the back of the seat in front of him. His numbers teetered between low and high, low and high. He was having second thoughts about something.
"Excuse me," I muttered. I stood up and climbed over his knees. He was rubbing them in a nervous manner. I glanced around the cabin. Everyone's times were flashing, like strobe lights. My stomach twisted and I felt motion sickness from the constantly changing numbers.
It's definitely him, I thought.
Carefully, I turned and started walking toward the latrine in the front of the cabin. A cluster of stewardesses were standing just beyond the velvet curtain where the latrine was. I could tell by watching the passengers around me as I walked that he still hadn't made up his mind. They were flashing varying times. High, low, high, low.
"Sir, you need to take a seat," one of the stewardesses called to me.
I kept walking toward her.
"Sir, a seat, please."
"I need to talk to you."
She raised an eyebrow. "We're about to prepare for take-off, you can talk to us after we're in the air."
"It's urgent." I hissed.
Surprise filled her eyes and she blinked at me rapidly. "Okay." I passed into their midst and pulled the curtain shut so that prying eyes wouldn't see I was giving them heads up. "What's going on, sir?" she asked.
"That guy... the one I'm sitting next to..." I nodded toward the curtain. "I don't know what, but there's something up with him."
The Gwenyth Paltrow stewardess suddenly bumbled in carrying a pillow. "Coach is seated, they're closing the doors." She looked at me curiously. "Are you all set?"
"What do you mean something up with him?" asked the first stewardess, who was much older than Gwenyth. She looked more like the mother on That 70's Show.
"I mean I think there's reason to- to suspect him," I mumbled.
Gwenyth's eyes widened and she looked from me to the other stewardess. "What's going on?"
"What makes you say that, sir?"
The other stewardesses were all acting nervous, too, now.
Because I can see time? I thought acidly. Why does everyone need proof for suspicions? Seriously...
"He's really uptight," I said, "And he didn't want to let go of his bag. And I just --- have a feeling. Okay? Please, just... do something."
"He was really strange when I asked to help with his carry-on," Gwenyth piped up.
The Debra-Jo Rupp stewardess frowned. "Young man, if we pull the passenger beside you on unfounded suspicions, the airline will end up in a lot of trouble..."
"If you don't get this guy off the plane, every passenger on it - including you," I said, glancing at her numbers, "Is going to die halfway through the flight."
We stood, facing each other awkwardly, for a long moment.
For the love of God, listen to me, I pleaded with her silently.
Finally, she tapped Gwenyth's arm. "Go tell the pilot to radio security." She looked at me. "Go back to your seat, act normal. We're taking care of the situation." She turned and bustled away. The other stewardesses stood in a nervous cluster, looking at each other, unsure what to do.
"It's gonna be okay," I told them in the most reassuring voice I could before I turned back to return to my seat.
As I walked down the aisle, I glanced at the numbers, waiting for them to change back to normal times, but nothing was altering. My eyes roved across the rows of people, talking and reading and poking around in the complimentary bag of stuff that was stuck in the pouch ahead of them. My eyes landed on a mother, cradling an infant.
"I'm back," I said, reaching my row. Again, I climbed over the guy's knees and sat down.
He nodded, still wild-eyed, but studying me.
"There was a line already," I explained lamely, "You'd think people would go before they got on the plane."
He'd made up his mind.
I cracked my knuckles, my mouth felt like I'd been chewing on cotton balls, and stared at his numbers, heart pounding in my chest so loud I was sure the guy could hear it.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"Nothing," I answered, not ripping my eyes from his numbers. "You- I think- Do I know you?" I asked, trying to make an excuse for my staring eyes.
"I- don't- I don't think so," he stammered, looking very uncomfortable.
Where the fuck are they? I wondered, Why the hell haven't they decided to come get this shit off the plane?
The sudden realization that this change of fate could have occurred on any of the planes that any of the guys had taken made me feel sick. What if this guy was one of many? What if Brian's flight had similar trouble, and I wasn't there to save him? Or any flight, for that matter? These numbers - they hadn't been like this in the lobby. They'd changed after getting on the plane.
I felt weak.
I had to be everywhere at once.
People were dying all around me, everyday, and there was nothing I could do because their times changed after I encountered them.
After I wasn't there to save them.
I realized I was still absently staring at the wild-eyed guy.
I leaned back, my mind panicked, trying to keep his numbers in my peripheral vision. Then, they changed.
Oh thank God.
Through the velvet curtain came two suited guys with those little Air Force One style ear pieces attached to their heads. One of them stood by the door, the other walked toward us.
Wild-eyed guy stiffened.
The security guy bent down and grasped his arm. "Sir, please come with me."
Other passengers were looking around at us, their faces expressions of curiosity, others of fear. The security guy pulled up my seat-mate and led him out the way he'd come. Wild-eyed guy glanced back at me, and I wondered if he knew I'd ratted him out.
I quickly took an inventory of the numbers over the other passengers heads. No change.
What the hell?
Then I remembered.
I jumped up and pulled open the overhead compartment, grabbed the guy's rucksack and hurried after the security guy. "Wait," I said. I held it out.
Security reached for the bag, giving me a once-over. "This is his," I explained.
He nodded, took the bag, and turned away.
When I turned back to look at the cabin, several things struck me at once. First, the numbers were higher, normal. No one would die on this flight. Second, I was recognized. Several wide-eyed faces stared at me in shock and surprise. A tingling sensation ran through my veins.
A stewardess stepped up behind me and lifted the overhead intercom microphone from the wall. "Attention passengers, due to a detected mechanical problem, we are asking passengers to please evacuate the plane in an orderly fashion. We will be postponing this flight and reboarding on a different vehicle."
The passengers in the cabin where I stood continued staring at me as the stewardess continued.
"There are flight attendants stationed at each exit door, ready to assist you in evacuation of the plane."
"Aren't you Nick Carter?" came a voice to my side. A guy.
I looked down at him, and nodded dumbly.
He extended a hand, "I can't help but notice what you just did," he said, beaming, "My name is Jason, I'm a reporter for the New York Times..."
"...and I'd love the opportunity to interview you and get a couple shots." He patted the camera.
People started liquidating out of their seats, a fluid motion to follow the attendants' pointing hands. It was a blur of color as Jason stood up and pulled out his press pass, showing it to me. I stared at it, his name and position and photo smiling up at me.
"I'd rather not get any recognition for this..." I said reluctantly.
"Oh I'll run a story either way," he said, "But I was hoping to get some quotes to spice it up."
"This young man did an amazing deed," the Debra Rupp stewardess said, laying a hand on my shoulder.
I felt dizzy.
Chapter End Notes:
I wasn't entirely sure how to write the evacuation. I couldn't find any websites that detailed what a flight evacuation would look/sound like. I wasn't even positive this was how the whole situation would've been taken care of. Like I said, I couldn't find anything to describe how it would actually go on the Internet. Please excuse any mistakes!
'Backstreet Boy' Nick Carter Saves Lives
New York Times, Jason Leeland
It could have been a much different story making headline news in the afternoon edition had it not been for pop-music star, Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys. An unlikely hero, you say? Indeed. The Backstreet Boys ended their Unbreakable tour last night, and were on their way home when Carter saved the lives of 284 passengers on board the Boeing 767, bound for Los Angeles this morning.
"It's not a big deal really," insists the humble hero, Carter, who reluctantly agreed to comment for this article.
Carter, 29, was on board the flight destined for his home-city, when he became suspicious of the passenger seated next to him, since identified as Rupert Cagglio, 37, of New York.
"He just seemed...nervous," said Carter, when asked why he had acted.
"He was certain," said Marble Winters, the 56 year old flight attendant Nick confided his concerns to. "And in these times, we can never be too cautious."
Upon questioning Cagglio, authorities discovered that the man was planning to hijack the plane during the six-hour flight to Los Angeles. Additionally, a bomb was found in his baggage. He is currently detained at a New York City prison, where further questioning may lead to more details about whether Cagglio was working alone.
"I can't believe Nick Carter saved my life," a 20 year old fan gushed in the lobby at LaGuardia airport. "It's...amazing. I've been a fan for ten years and I never dreamt this would happen to me."
"I really didn't save any lives," Carter insisted, when informed of his grateful fan. "I just stopped a bad thing from happening."
This encounter occurs after several months of slackened security, following a drop in hijacking incidents in the United States. Some passengers fear that the security measures have dropped since their peak following the September 11 incident and worry that we may be getting too comfortable once more. "I mean a Backstreet Boy picked up on suspicious behavior before security personnel or flight attendants? Shouldn't spotting suspicious behavior be part of the point of check points?" asked a nervous mother, whose 12 year old son was accompanying her on the flight.
Carter encourages readers to follow their instincts. "You never know who could be sitting next to you," he said, "I mean we're only given a certain amount of time and its important to use it well."
More on this story will be included in the morning edition, including a full-length interview with Carter.
Flashback: Superman, 1959 by Pengi
The first time that Claire saw me save a life after I rescued Richie, was in February of 1959. A girl two grades lower than ours was about to cross the street when a car skid on ice. I grabbed the girl by the elbow and pulled her back, out of harm's way. Claire's jaw had dropped in shock and surprise. Awe, too, I think. But I'd shrugged it off, claiming to have seen the car hydroplaning toward her.
The second time Claire saw me save a life was in March of '59. This time, it was a young guy at school, Christopher, who was notoriously bullied. I noticed one morning that his numbers were extraordinarily low, giving him less than a week. Suicide, I'd thought. I had made an effort to become Chris' friend. Claire never knew I was rescuing him from dire danger, but I told her my worry when she asked why I'd sudden taken to hanging out with the least popular kid in the entire school. After I'd made my suspicions known to her, she made an effort to become his friend as well, and Claire's popularity had changed Chris' status, and before the week was out, his time had shifted and Chris was going to be fine.
The third time Claire saw me save a life was in May of 1959.
The fourth, June.
July produced five and six.
And by August, when she witnessed the seventh time I'd saved a life in her presence, I knew she was beginning to wonder about me.
"You're always there," she said one night, while we were sitting on the porch at her house drinking ice tea she had made.
"I attract trouble," I said, shrugging.
"No. It's more like you stop it," she said, looking me over, "Like Superman or something."
I laughed, "Superman? No."
She shrugged. "That's what you remind me of."
By the time I got back to my apartment in Los Angeles the next day, I was exhausted. Every time I'd run into someone, they'd made a comment about my so-called heroics on the plane. This is why I keep this shit a secret, I reminded myself. I couldn't handle the celebrated feeling, not for this type stuff, anyway. I mean it's great when it's over music I've created, but this... this was stuff that I did because of the curse that I'd been born with, or whatever.
The red light was blinking on my answering machine. I'd turned my cell phone off after the fifth call I'd received from someone telling me how cool I was for what I'd done -- AJ had called twice in a forty-minute period. I couldn't help but feel hurt because the one person who I wanted to hear from most - Brian - hadn't called yet.
I hit the play button on the answering machine and started shifting through the mail I'd picked up at the post office as I half-heartedly listened to the messages, reaching up to erase them as soon as I realized they weren't important.
"This is Susan from Verizon Wireless, calling to confirm that the Blackberry World registered for account number ---" Beep.
"This message is for Nickolas. I'm calling from Lexus Motors about your recent purchase ---" Beep.
"Nick? It's Amie.
I looked up, almost dropping the mail.
"I saw the Times today. Um. I'm sorry I didn't call you before now. I'm not calling just because of the article. I've meant to call before now, I just haven't really known what to say. Look, um. I- I've done some research and stuff. I think I can answer some of your questions. At least a little bit. Um. So. Yeah. Give me a call. I'll be around. My cell number is---"
I scrambled for a pen and paper, reciting the numbers as she said them, but they got all disconbobulated in my head before I'd managed to fish a pen out of the junk drawer beside my the fridge. I hit the replay button on the machine and listened as her voice floated into the kitchen again.
"Nick? It's Amie. I saw the Times today..."
I wrote the number on my arm, like a tattoo, then stared at it. It was like a secret combination, a password, a key to answers.
I took a deep breath and reached for the phone, my finger poised over the numbers, shaking with excitement and nerves. My index finger hovered for a long minute that seemed like a century, and then I put the phone backdown on the cradle.
I stared at the number.
I was about to have all the answers I'd dreamt of having for decades and had never gotten, about to find out who - or what - I really was, and learn the secret behind the numbers that enabled me to experience life the way that I did.
It was odd.
Now that the opportunity was here to know, to be informed, I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to know.
Knowing that I wasn't invincible had made me afraid to act in that alley the other day, I reminded myself. Would knowing the secret behind my life cycles make me broken in some other way? I was already dreading my birthday and I still had months to go.
But maybe Amie knew a way to stop it, to give me more time.
Maybe she didn't.
I felt confused and torn in a million different directions. I wished I had someone to talk to about all of it, but Claire was dead, Brian didn't believe me, and Amie, well, she was what I wanted to talk about, wasn't she?
I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote the number down on it incase it smudged during the day and stuck it with a magnet to my fridge before laying down on my sofa and staring up at the ceiling.
I dangled the arm with Amie's number written on it across my face so I could stare at the ink marks on my arm.
I must've fallen asleep.
I woke up to the sound of banging on my door.
"I'm coming," I called, groaning and struggling to sit up. The banging continued. It was a frenzied, panicked banging. "Jesus, hold your horses, I'm coming." I got to my feet, a bit wobbly from the sleep that had taken its toll on my muscles, and walked to the door, grasping furniture to balance myself with. "Jesus Christ, what the hell--" I yanked the door opened and froze.
Brian was standing on the other side, a backpack slung over one shoulder, wide-eyed but determined. He stared at me. "Hi."
"Hey." I stepped aside to let him come in.
Brian dropped the backpack by the door and walked into the apartment, looking around at the photos and paintings that I'd taken and drawn over the years. Images of places I'd been, things I'd seen. He glanced around the room, like he was seeing it for the first time. He turned to look at me, then pulled a copy of the Times - folded and smudged from use - out of the inside pocket of his jacket. He dropped it onto the counter next to where I was standing, but never peeled his eyes from me.
"I thought you were full of shit," he admitted. "I got mad because I thought God was taking away my best friend."
I wanted to say something cheesy like nothing could take me away from you but I resisted, letting him finish. Partially because I knew that wasn't true. Six months from now, I'd be gone.
"I don't understand it, I'm not even sure I believe it," he said.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled.
He took a deep breath. "I believe you, Nick."
I scratched my head.
"No, I do. I do."
Brian frowned, "You gotta understand where I'm coming from, don't you? How insane this all seems? But Nick, I know there's no way that you could just normally have saved that guy's life last week in the city AND do this if you weren't at least truly under the impression that what you told me was true. So, I may not believe IT, but I believe YOU."
"What does that mean, exactly?" I asked.
"It means I believe you think you see numbers."
"But you don't believe I DO see numbers?"
He hesitated. "I don't know what I believe."
Brian turned and walked into my living room, his head hung. I followed, rubbing my eyes with sleep and waiting for him to speak again. I didn't want to push him, and other than things like I'm telling the truth! I wasn't sure what else to say.
"There's stuff about this that doesn't add up, that doesn't make sense," he confessed, "And that's the stuff keeping me from letting go and believing you. God, I feel ridiculous even saying that."
"Like what?" I asked.
He dropped onto the sofa and pulled one of the end pillows onto his lap, hugging it into his stomach. "Like your age. You said you'd been alive since the 1800s. Nick, that's impossible. I knew you when you were thirteen."
I crossed the room and sat on the window ledge. I could feel the sun, hot on my back, and a slight breeze coming through the screen. Brian was staring at me, concerned.
"Yeah, I was thirteen when we met."
"Okay, so how does thirteen equal the 1800s?" he asked.
"Because I turned thirteen on January 28, 1993."
"But on January 27, 1993, I was 29."
Brian stared at me.
"You just... became... thirteen?" he stammered.
"I go to bed 29, and wake up 13. The same way I normally go to bed and wake up not 22 but 23, or not 27 but 28. Except something happens at midnight, and instead of waking up 30, I wake up 13."
Brian seemed to be processing this information. I knew what his mind was doing - the math - and I knew what was coming. I felt sick and cold and hot all at once. He looked up at me, his eyes frightened, and I knew he'd gotten there. "So on January 28," he said slowly, letting the question die in his mouth.
"On January 28, 2010, I'll wake up 13."
"No." Brian shook his head. "No, thats impossible." A breath escaped him that could've been mistaken as a laugh.
"It happens every time," I said, impossible or not.
Brian's face was pale. He jumped up and rushed into the bathroom, the door not quite closing behind him. I could hear him retching into the toilet and I frowned. I hadn't meant to make him sick. I looked at my feet while Brian continued throwing up in the bathroom, and rubbed the carpet with my toe.
It took a long time before Brian came back out, a damp face cloth pressed to his mouth. "Can't you stop it?" he asked.
"I dunno," I confessed.
Brian looked like he was still somewhere between fully believing me, and thinking I was a nutter. He sat back down on the couch, the cloth clutched in his hands, and stared at me.
"I dunno what to say, Bri," I confessed. "I don't know much more about it all than what I've already told you. That's why I'm waiting for Amie to call. Or, I was. She left a message on my machine after she saw the Times article."
Brian looked confused. "Amie? That girl you met in New Hampshire?"
"What's she got to do with this?" he asked.
"She can see time too," I answered. "But she seems to know others like us, or something. Which I don't. I've never found anyone who can see time before. Amie's the first."
"Is this why you've been down lately?" Brian asked suddenly.
A lump rose in my throat as a mental image of Claire danced inside me. I looked at Brian and felt the rims of my eyes burn just a little with threatened tears. "There was this girl..."
"No. Her name was Claire."
"Claire?" Brian's eyebrows were pinched together, trying to follow me.
"Claire was... special. I loved her, treasured her, even. I met her in 1958. I saved her brother from a riptide."
He looked faintly skeptical, but at this point I felt like I couldn't stop.
"We were in love. Passionately in love."
"For seventeen years?" Brian whispered.
"Sixteen. I was 14 when we met."
"She died a couple weeks ago. I went to see her at the hospital, because I knew she was close."
Brian's face crumpled ever so slightly. I knew what he was imagining. If it had been Leighanne... I turned away, looking out the window. Finally he asked, "Couldn't you have saved her?"
"No," I said. "She was sick. Cancer." I felt a tear escape my eye - one, single tear - and run across my cheek to the laugh lines at my lip. It sat there a moment until I swiped it away with the back of my palm. I was thankful to be back-to Brian, so he couldn't see the tears leaking out of me. I stared at a great white cloud that was hanging over the parking garage across the street. "I was there," I added, "As she died."
"I'm sorry, Nick," Brian whispered.
"She was the only other one I've ever told about -- this."
"She must've been special," he said. "I wish I could've met her."
"You did. You just didn't know it," I answered. "She came to a couple shows. She- she claimed to be my grandmother." I sucked in a great gulp of oxygen and rubbed the tears off my face before turning to look at Brian. "It sounds funny," I confessed, "But... it was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Pretending she was nothing more than that to me. It was always hard, when she took on new roles in my life."
It seemed ludicrous, that was the word, not hard, because I'd looked at her and still desired her, still wanted her with all of my heart, yet could not have her. Despite the years and the age and the wrinkles and the fading hair and eyes, she'd always been - forever - my Claire.
The next two weeks following Brian’s appearance at my door were filled with long hours, describing the past I’d experienced to Brian. He sat, spellbound and breathless as I wove long accounts of my life. He shed true tears of understanding when I described the pain and horror of leaving behind those who I treasured most either by their deaths or by the cycles of my life. Brian’s acceptance of my “condition”, as he referred to it, was complete now, and I felt freed somehow, able to confide fully in someone for the first time since the last time I’d truly been able to talk to Claire.
“I’ve always thanked God for you in my life,” Brian said suddenly one morning while he was staring into the depths of a bowl of Corn Flakes. I lowered the newspaper I’d been searching for the comics section to look at him. He poked the cereal with his spoon. “But somehow, now, knowing everywhere you’ve been and everything you’ve done, and all the time you’ve spent, I feel like - I don’t know – like I ought to thank Him all the more for you. I mean, He could’ve put you anywhere during these seventeen years, and He chose to put you in my life.”
“I thank Him for that, too, Brian,” I stammered, touched by the sentiment.
Brian smiled sadly. “I feel smaller, somehow.”
“How do you mean?”
“My life will last like, what, a hundred years at the max? – Don’t tell me,” he said, waving his hand as my mouth opened to answer the statement, “I don’t want to know, Nick. I’m just saying. At the very, absolute maximum, I’ll live like a hundred years, but you –“ He stared at me, puzzling, “You could live forever.”
“I don’t know that,” I answered, “Amie never told me what she saw for time.”
Brian nodded. I had told him about the peculiarity that Amie could see my numbers, but I could not see hers. “But she said it was different than others, right?” he asked, “Maybe they mean something else.”
“You should call her, Nick, and get some answers.”
I hadn’t dared to call Amie back yet. Honestly, part of me was frightened of what I’d learn, what she’d found out, of discovering more about my “condition”. I’d told myself for the past two weeks that not calling Amie back was of courtesy to Brian, so that I could focus my attention on making him understand before adding more elements to the confusion of my life. But now that Brian was finally okay with it – with me - I knew that I was just putting it off.
“You ought to call her tonight,” Brian said.
I nodded and glanced at the paper held fast to the fridge by my favorite magnet, bearing only the number I needed to call.
Later that evening, I was sitting on the couch, watching TV, when Brian came out from the kitchen and dropped the paper and the cordless phone onto my lap. He sat down next to me on the sofa, tucking his legs into a yoga-like fold, and raised his eyebrows at me meaningfully.
“Well, you said you’d call her.”
I frowned at the numbers on the paper, written in my shaky, nervous handwriting from the day Amie had called, and looked at Brian. “I’m scared,” I admitted.
Brian patted my knee reassuringly. “Nick, you need to know.”
“I know.” I sighed, “I just don’t want to know too much, either. I’ve always known too much, all my life, and it’s been beneficial at times – ‘cos at least this way I know when to make it count and when I can shoot at the wind – but, sometimes, it’s a burden.”
“Maybe there’s a way to stop it.”
“I don’t know.”
“But she might.” He pointed at Amie’s number.
I clicked the phone on and my thumb hit the numbers, hesitating only when I got to the last one. I looked at Brian. “Thank you for believing me,” I told him.
“Thank you for including me. Now hurry up, call her.”
I hit the last number and stared at the phone, my stomach doing acrobatic acts inside me as the hum of the ring came from the earpiece. Brian smiled reassuringly and pushed my hand, and the phone, to my ear. On the fifth ring, I was ready to hang up, sure she wasn’t going to answer – I took too long calling her back, I thought – but then ---
I nearly choked answering, “Hi, Amie? It’s – Nick.”
Silence. Then, “Nick, finally.” Now she was whispering.
“I’m sorry it took so long to call you back,” I said, “I’ve been kind of caught up in some – er – stuff, lately, and---“
“No, no,” still whispering. I could hear stuff moving around on the other end of the phone, and a door slammed shut and the wind across her mouth piece mingled with her breathing. “It’s okay. I understand.”
“Are you outside?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to wake up my husband,” she said.
She has a husband, I mouthed at Brian. His eyes widened, but then filled with a hopeful gleam.
“I’m glad you finally called me,” she said. “I was getting worried that you wouldn’t.”
“I was getting worried that I wouldn’t, too, actually,” I laughed.
“Nick, I researched the abnormality of your numbers and I think I have answers for you about why I can see them,” she said, point blank.
“How do you research this stuff?” I asked her.
“Through the ministry,” she answered, as though I should have known that.
“Mmm,” she hummed the confirmation. “Look, it’s a lot to explain over the phone, especially at ten o’clock at night. Can we meet up sometime this week?”
I looked at Brian, whose head was tilted slightly to one side. “Sure,” I answered, “My place or yours?”
“Meet me here in New York on Thursday,” she commanded, “At the Starbucks by Washington Square.”
“Okay. Starbucks, Washington Square. Got it.”
Amie’s voice carried a hint of sympathy as she said, “Okay. We’ll hash it all out over the weekend, so keep your schedule clear.”
“Can I bring a friend?” I asked. Brian’s eyes were searching mine, curiosity written all over his face.
Amie hesitated, “I don’t kn—“
“He already knows,” I told her, “And if he doesn’t come, I’m just going to tell him everything as soon as I see him next,” I added.
“Okay. We’ll see you Thursday.”
I hung up and handed the receiver to Brian, as though getting rid of it might lessen the constricting feeling in my chest. I bit my lower lip.
“Thursday, huh?” Brian asked.
“Thursday,” I confirmed, nodding.
Brian was rummaging through the cupboards the next morning when I got up. My hair was a mess, and I was sure I smelled like death warmed over. I all but crawled into the kitchen, my eyes felt glued together. "Coffee," I whimpered.
Brian was kneeling on the counter. "No can do," came his muffled reply from inside the cabinet. "You're out."
"Stop fucking with me," I moaned and rested my head on the table.
Brian's laugh was faded by the wooden door. He shuffled backwards on his knees and dropped nimbly to the floor from the counter, shutting the cupboard door on his way down. Turning to look at me, he smiled sadly. "Unfortunately, I am not - fucking with you." The word sounded funny coming out of him, but I was in no mood to find the humor.
I pressed my forehead onto the formica table top. "Nooo," I groaned, "No."
"You're actually getting low on pretty much everything," he said.
"That's what take-out is for," I murmured.
"Nick, we gotta get groceries."
"I hate groceries." My lips rubbed the table as I spoke and it felt neat, so I blew my cheeks out, making my lips touch the cold surface.
I could hear Brian moving around the kitchen, opening cupboard doors and the fridge several times. "There isn't even anything here for breakfast," he explained.
I stopped rubbing my mouth on the formica. "So we'll die of starvation."
"Or I will. You'll just..." he paused. "Can you starve?"
"I've never tried," I admitted.
"Weird," I could tell by the way he said it that he was shaking his head, dumbfounded once again by the oddity that was my life.
I raised an arm without lifting my head, "Try the cupboard over the stove, there's usually crap stuff up there, like oatmeal and shit."
I listened as Brian dragged one of the chairs to the stove and climbed up it. If I'd been more awake I would've gotten up and looked myself, since my height afforded me the ability to just reach up and open the cupboard, unlike Brian, whose balancing act was imperative probably to even seeing the cupboard, let alone opening it.
I peeked out of the corner of my eye to make sure his time was okay. I didn't need him breaking his neck in my kitchen.
Fair enough. I closed my eyes and resumed my table staring.
Brian opened the cupboard door and let out a yelp that made my head snap up. He was teetering on the chair, pointing into the cupboard. I jumped up and steadied him quickly, peering into the cupboard to see what had startled him.
Inside sat a large iguana, flaring, and beady eyes taking in Brian, angry for being intruded upon.
"That's just Jerome," I told him as he jumped down off the chair.
"You have a freaking snake in your cupboard and you're okay with that?" Brian's voice was pinched.
"He's not a snake," I said. I reached up and pulled Jerome out of the cupboard. "He's an iguana." I dropped Jerome onto the kitchen table and Brian backed away slightly, staring at it with a look of repulsion on his face.
"You let it, like, run free?" he asked, looking at me. "You let it on the table???"
Brian shook his head, "I feel like the more I find out about you, the weirder you are to me," he said, starting to laugh.
I lifted Jerome off the table and put him on the floor. He scurried away toward the bathroom, and I knew he was going to shut himself into the cabinet under the sink, where his treasure trove was. Jerome was forever stealing my shit - stuff like my keys and watches and USB ports and once, even, my wallet - and tucking it away in a nest he'd made behind the towels and plunger in the bathroom cabinet.
"He's cool," I told Brian, waving Jerome off.
Brian dropped into the chair opposite the side of the table I'd been sitting on and I pushed the chair he'd been climbing on back in. He was staring at the place Jerome had sat. "Tell me that you use an antibacterial cleaner your table?" he asked, "Please?"
I pointed at the sponge in the sink.
Brian's face paled. "Okay, so apparently diseases from lizards can't kill you, either." He snatched a pad of paper and a pen from the counter by the microwave and wrote down Lysol antibacterial wipes on the first line. "Just something to add to the list of stuff we need at the store, that's all."
I rolled my eyes and looked at the cupboard Jerome had come out of. There was a tipped over box of Quaker Oats, so I pulled it out and looked inside. Jerome had been snacking on the dry oatmeal packets, apparently. They were all shredded and loose flakes of oatmeal filled the bottom of the box, but only a couple. The majority of the oatmeal had been devoured.
"Okay, you're right," I admitted. "We need to go grocery shopping."
The air-conditioned store was packed when we got there, as I'd feared it would be. Weekend days were the worst to go shopping on, particularly Sunday late mornings, after church had let out. Brian snagged a cart on the way in, clutching the list he'd constructed. I glanced over his shoulder and my eyes darted down the list quickly. It was like he was stocking up to feed the goddamned Army/Navy.
"Dude, don't forget we're leaving Wednesday night," I sputtered.
"I know." Brian pushed the cart toward some oranges that were on sale just inside the door and started feeling them up.
I had a sudden flash of shopping with Claire in 1975...
"You like oranges, don't you Nicky?" she'd asked, picking one up.
Claire had picked up an orange and rubbed it in her palm before dropping it into a clear plastic baggie and sealing it with a twist-tie. She smiled and dropped it into the cart.
"Excuse me, son," a tall, lanky guy had pushed by me with a cart full of crates of oranges. He was probably 35 or so, with messy brown hair and sharp green eyes. He looked at Claire, with her long, red hair and form-fitting sun dress - and did a double take. I recognized a hungry expression in his eyes. "Can I help you, ma'm?" he asked.
Jealousy instantly flared up in me. Take your eyes off her, you bastard.
"No I'm okay, thank you, though," Claire replied. She started to push her cart around the guy, I followed in her footsteps.
"Cherries are in season," he said, stepping up alongside the cart. "Your son might like some of those. They're on sale this week." He smiled.
Claire looked at me, as though to remind herself that this produce guy was referring to me as your son. "Do you like cherries, Nicky?" she asked in a motherly tone.
We'll laugh about this later, I thought. And nodded.
"Where are the cherries?" Claire asked.
"I can show you," the produce guy abandoned his cart to lead the way toward a display of them, near the grapes, and waved his hand. "Maybe your husband would like some also?" he asked.
Claire blushed. "I'm not married."
"Oh," the produce guy was struggling not to smile, "I'm sorry, I thought --" he glanced at me.
"My husband's gone," Claire said flatly.
I'm right here, I thought, Not so far away...
"I'm sorry, ma'm," the produce guy frowned, legitimately this time. He looked at me. "Sorry, Tiger."
Go away, I thought, scathingly.
Claire shook her head, "It's been awhile, no harm done. Thank you for showing me to the cherries." She turned and started poking around through the bags.
The produce guy didn't leave. "This bag here will be especially juicy," he said, lifting a particular bag from the top of the pile. He handed it to her. "The color, you know? You can tell the flavor by the color."
"Thank you." Claire put the cherries in the cart and looked at me. My face must've been sour, because she quickly nodded her head and grabbed the cart's handle and started to walk away.
The produce guy just couldn't take a hint. "My name is Greg," he said, extending a hand. "Greg Brunner."
Claire only glanced at me a second before accepting his hand and shaking it. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Brunner," she said. "My son and I are running late," she added hastily, catching my eye. "I need to run."
"Anytime you need help," he said, waving his hand around the produce section, "My office is over there." He pointed to a counter in the corner, by a large display of apples. "I'm more than willing to answer any questions you have about fruits and vegetables."
She smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Brunner." I grabbed hold of the cart and yanked, pulling her away from produce. She trotted alongside me. My palms were sweating.
Why is this a surprise? I wondered, I knew it would happen, sooner or later...
"Nick?" Brian waved his hand in front of my face. "You okay?"
"Um... yeah. I'm fine." Back to reality, Carter. I looked around us. We were standing by the grapes and cherries.
"Do you wanna get some cherries?" Brian asked.
"I'm allergic to red dye 40," I stammered.
Brian looked surprised. "Um, okay. I didn't mean the bottled ones. These are fresh." He pointed at the display.
"No." I shook my head. "I hate cherries."
"Okay," Brian looked a little perplexed by the ferocity in my voice, but didn't ask any questions, simply leading the way further into the store. I followed alongside him, burdened by the memory I'd had.
Brian was scratching items off the list one by one as we walked through the store, picking up cheeses and meats at the deli, bulkie rolls, chips, ketchup, granola bars, frozen dinners, hamburger... The food was all a blur of color and packaging, though, and Brian's torrent of conversation only background noise as I zoned out, thinking about Claire. I murmured half-stupid responses to Brian the entire time.
It wasn't until we were at the checkout counter that I snapped out of my reverie. An elderly woman was sitting on a bench, her eyes clouded by time, a mute smile on her face. She had her hands folded in her lap.
I watched her, absent-mindedly helping Brian put the food on the conveyer belt for the cashier. Once the last item had been placed, I pulled out my wallet, handed Brian a hundred dollar bill, and murmured, "I'll be over there." I pointed toward the general direction of the bench.
"Okay." Brian smiled cheerfully as I squished by him and the cart and headed over to the woman.
I sat down next to her and I felt her shift her position to accommodate my presence. I glanced at her. "Good morning," I said.
Her head swiveled to look at me, and she smiled, her eyes obviously unfocused, probably only saw a shadow of me. "Good morning," she croaked out. Her voice was cracked, but somehow musical in the way it lilted and rolled out of her. I could tell she was sweet.
I studied her, noticing the lines in her face and the dark pupils that had gone milky, deciding they'd once been hazel. Strung through her long, braided white hair were ribbons and clips that probably belonged to either a grand-daughter, or perhaps even a great-grand-daughter. On her fingers were many rings - mostly costume jewelry - and around her neck several long strands of turquoise plastic beads. She was majestic with age and wisdom.
"You're beautiful," I whispered to her.
Her head bobbled slightly, a nerve or a tic, I wasn't sure which. Slowly, her hands unfurled from her lap and took hold of one of mind, cupping her hands around it. Her hands were icy cold and her veins showed through the nearly transparent skin on the back of them. She smiled sadly. "You remind me of my husband," she said faintly. "How I miss him." Her voice was tired.
"You'll see him again," I whispered. "Very soon."
These words made a euphoric glow cross her face and she smiled a feeble, weak smile. "I'm so tired," she whispered.
"I know," I replied. I lifted my hand and kissed her knuckle gently. "I know."
Her eyes seemed to clear for the slightest of seconds as she looked at me, then, and she murmured, "You're an angel."
I didn't answer. I didn't want to lie and say yes, but I knew she needed to believe - if only for eight more hours - that I was.
A young girl with dark brown hair pushed a cart towards us and I gently dropped her hands into her lap again, sensing that this girl was coming to collect the woman. "Are you okay, gramma?" she asked. A seven year old stood at her side - the culprit that had decorated the woman's hair.
"Yes," cooed the woman. "Yes, I am." She glanced at me ever so slightly as the girl helped her stand up, and pushed a walker into her hands. "Careful, gramma," she said, bracing the woman's arm with her own arm. "Let's go rest."
"Yes," the woman answered with a tired sigh of relief, "Rest would be lovely." I watched as the girl led the woman out of the store and into the parking lot.
Brian came over, arms loaded with bags. He handed some to me as I stood up. He looked me over. "Did you know her?" he asked, nodding at the bench.
"Nah," I replied.
Brian nodded awkwardly. "You saved her?"
"Sometimes saving isn't about extending a person's life," I said carefully. "Sometimes it's more about granting peace."
Flashback: The Accident, 1960 by Pengi
There's a whole host of "seemingly closest encounters to dying" stories I could list off for you - times when I should have died, but I didn't. Times that were what made me believe in the first place that I was invincible.
I've nearly drowned, and run into burning houses. I've stared down the barrel of a gun, heard the shot, and felt the bullet pierce my skin, so close to my heart that it baffled the doctors that examined me. I've had the living shit kicked out of me, been bruised beyond recognition, broken my limbs, my nose, even my jaw once. But I've lived through it all.
And most of the time, with barely any damage done. Like my body resists being broken.
Claire, however, didn't know that the first time she witnessed me live through something that should have killed me.
We were in Boston for the day, going to see the Red Sox play the Yankees. She was a Red Sox fan, I a Yankees fan, and if you know anything about baseball, you know that is a lethal combination. We were arguing the entire ride from our home to the city about the teams.
"They only win because of the pin stripes!" she shouted, "They're talentless!"
"They have pennants to prove that theory wrong. When was the last time your team won, huh?" I teased.
"Oohhh," Claire's face was red. "Someday, they're gonna win again."
"Someday pigs will fly, too, beautiful."
I'd just gotten my license two weeks before. It was the first time I'd gotten to drive the car alone with Claire. Dennis' keys jingled in the ignition at my knee. The radio was on and the Beatles were singing.
"You're such a jerk!" she cried, laughing, eyes fiery, "Such a jerk!"
"But you love me," I reminded her.
"I do love you," she admitted, her eyes softening just a bit.
"And I, you, my Love," I said, smiling at her in a carefree way.
She slapped my upper arm, "Don't change the subject! I'm mad at you."
I kissed her for an infinitesimal second. But in that second, that briefest moment when I went from keeping my eyes on the road to deciding to kiss her, something changed.
I whipped around to face the front, but too late.
In the instant that I had looked away, the unthinkable had happened.
An 18-wheeler coming from the opposite direction had crossed into our lane, and was feet from us.
The force of the crash was intense.
The sound of metal grinding and snapping and bending nearly deafened me.
Instinct alone made me do it.
I threw myself, hurtled across the seat, pushing my own body between the dashboard and Claire. Her scream echoed in my ear, loud and terrible.
My hand took hold of the door of the car and shoved it opened, and Claire shot out from inside, toward the grassy banking that ran alongside the two-lane highway.
The truck's force shoved the car away before I saw her land, but through the haze that was caused by the pain as the car beginning to fold around me, I was sure I saw the numbers changing, growing, as she fell, dreamlike, through the air.
"Claire," I yelled the name, not my safety but hers my greatest desire.
The dashboard slammed into my back, the seats into my front, my face pressed against the frame of the door. I felt myself tearing. The heat of blood seemed to cover me like a thick sweat.
I was only vaguely aware when the force of the accident stopped from making the car move. The horn of the truck was stuck, blaring loudly. The sound reminded me of a migraine. Certainly, this is dying? I thought. I heard sirens, as though they were in a distant dream, maybe even somebody else's dream. I could hear screaming, sobbing. Rugged voices. Breaking glass, cracking metal. Everything was a blur.
I heard the voices, as though they were miles away.
"There is no way this kid's going to live."
"We need to know that before we give up. Get in there."
Something shifted above me, pulling me with it. Pain seared all throughout me.
"Did you see the blood?"
"There's a lot of it."
"There's too much of it."
"I'm not giving up on him yet. He's still breathing."
"You're wasting your time."
My mouth was slow opening, but I forced it. "Claire," I barely breathed the name.
"God damn it, I'm not wasting my time! We were called here to save lives, not to abandon them."
“The jaws are ready at our signal.”
"Even if you get him out of this, he's lost too much blood!"
"Claire," I whispered it.
"So we'll give him blood!" Rough hands grasped my wrists, pulling me. “Flag them to go.”
More crashing metal. I felt as though my back were being torn apart from my body, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew, in some abstract way, that it was the dashboard being pulled back.
"Claire," I pleaded, my voice growing in strength.
"Is that--" the doubting voice asked.
"Son? Can you hear me son?"
"The girl," whispered the doubter, as the other answered me, "She's okay, son. She was thrown from the vehicle on impact, she suffered very minimal injury."
All I could see was the door frame and the cement below, stained red with blood. Even that was intensely blurry. "She's... Claire… is alive?"
“Yes, son. She’s gonna be okay.”
Relief washed over me… and with it, came darkness.
I woke up in the hospital.
The stink of hospitals – something that is borne in the very air inside them – makes my skin crawl. I’ve always detested hospitals. There is too much to see, too much to know, too little I can do there. It makes me feel helpless and hopeless and lonely.
But today, I was the one in the bed.
Claire’s head was heavy by my side where she’d rested it. She was seated in a chair, her arms folded to cushion her head. Her hair stood out starkly against the room – a bright, scarlet red against a backdrop of ivory and pale olive.
Every part of my body was sore. I could flex my fingers and my toes, though, which could only mean good things. Carefully, I laid my hand on Claire’s head and felt the softness of the hair in between my fingers.
She stirred, and her eyes shifted to look up at me. She smiled serenely. “Nick,” she mused, “You’re awake.”
“Yeah,” I breathed, still running my fingers through her hair.
Claire pulled herself up, away from my hand, and stared at me, her eyes searching me. “Nick,” she said, her voice soft and gentle, “We- We need to talk.”
“Talk?” I asked.
I frowned with discomfort at the choice of words. “What’s wrong?” I asked, my voice trembled.
“You should’ve died,” she whispered, “We both should’ve died.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I said.
Claire shook her head, “Nick, we were hit full-force by an 18-wheeler. You pushed me out of the car. That car folded like a card house. It folded around you. You looked like you were in a knot of metal. I didn’t even get a scratch, and other than losing blood all you got was a bunch of bruising.”
I looked into her eyes. “We were very, very lucky,” I said.
Claire shook her head. “No, we were not very, very lucky.”
“Yeah,” I insisted, “If we weren’t lucky then you’re right, we would’ve died.”
She shook her head again. “Nick, I’ve said it before, but I’m going to say it again. You’re like Superman or something. There’s something about you Nick, and you know it, and I want to know what it is.”
“Nick,” she said solemnly. She took my hand in hers, “Tell me the truth.”
And then I told her everything.
Except for one thing.
I kept to myself what would happen on January 28, 1975.
Flashback: Connected, 1961 by Pengi
Now that Claire knew my secret, we were intimately connected, in a way that I could never express in words. We were inseparable. She became my gravity, my focus. I concentrated forever on keeping her safe and protected from pain of all kind, watching out for the people she loved the most. We even visited her father.
Over the autumn of 1960 and the winter moving into ’61, we moved about like magnets, shifting with the other, only capable of the mildest of separations before we would snap back together. Missing pieces of one puzzle.
We made love the first time the night of my supposed birthday – January 28, 1961. I was seventeen.
Claire fell backwards onto her bed, her red hair landing before we did. I braced myself, extending my arms behind her, to keep from falling on her. She crawled backward, into the center of her bed, lining herself up with the pillow. I followed, the length of me stretching beyond the length of her. She pushed her hips forward, keeping our bodies fused at the pelvis, her eyes staring up into mine with hunger.
My hands clutched her hips.
She yanked her shirt off over her head and tossed it away. A small white bra with little pink rose buds all over it covered her breasts. My eyes drank them in. Her heavy breathing made them heave, making them more interesting to watch. I dropped my face to the space between them and breathed deeply the scent of her. She gasped and made a small noise. I kissed directly where my face had just been. “Oh God,” she whispered.
“Do you want to stop?” I asked.
“No. More,” she breathed.
I kissed her smooth skin again. She tasted slightly salty, musky. It was a wonderful flavor.
Her hands ran up my spine and I arched my back as she reached the collar of my shirt and touched my neck. She pressed her palms against either side of my throat, then trailed ever so softly with her fingertips, touching my skin. Her hand cupped against my Adam’s apple. She touched my chin, my mouth, my nose. She let her fingers linger on my face, both of us gasping for air.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“And I, you, my Love,” I answered, my voice husky.
“I want you, Nick,” she confessed, “Forever.”
I dropped my face to her neck. Kiss after kiss after kiss trailed along her throat and collarbone.
Her hands grasped the bottom of my shirt and dragged it over my head. I allowed my arms to be pulled free of it, and, freed from that which had separated our skin, I lowered myself so that our bare bodies touched, and continued kissing her neck, and collarbone.
“Don’t ever leave me,” she begged as my mouth found the soft expanse of her stomach. “Ever, ever.”
“Never,” I promised.
The Journey, by Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner by Pengi
By Claire Elizabeth Lawson-Brunner
You are my explorer
Equipped for all terrain
Rugged hands, gentle touch
The hottest breath
Like arid desert wind
Claim your land
Before you I lay
The journey you must take
So take me, explorer
Seek your treasure among my
Sheer rock faces
Oh you skilled explorer
Wonderful, beautiful, amazing
The journey you must take
I lay before you
Wrapped in sheets of cotton
Vulnerable and yours
Waiting to be journeyed
Waiting to be claimed
Take me, explorer
Wednesday morning I woke up to the smell of eggs, bacon and coffee for the fourth time since we'd gone shopping on Sunday. It was kind of nice having Brian around, I thought, as I stretched, cat-like, across the bed and reached to flip on the lamp by the bedside table.
Brian seemed to be settling into a routine at my place, too. And he'd stopped shouting in surprise every time the iguana made an appearance. In fact, now that he had the Lysol wipes to buffer him, he seemed to be making friends with Jerome.
I'd moved the iguana heating lamp into the living room so that he made more appearances. Normally, he sunbathed in my bedroom, and therefore other than under the lamp I only saw him once in a blue moon. He was forever scuttling into hiding places undetected. Brian had thought it was strange how many times he'd been to my house before without seeing Jerome before until, after knowing he was there, he saw how antisocial the iguana really was. But now that the lamp was in the living room, Jerome was forced to interact with us, usually being followed by Brian, who used his foot to drag a Lysol wipe along the floor right behind him.
This morning, though, Jerome was curled up on the end of the bed like a dog, waving his long tongue at me.
"Morning Jerome," I said when the lamp turned on and I caught sight of him. He continued to wag his tongue. I struggled to my feet and waddled into the kitchen.
Brian was standing at the stove flipping scrambled eggs around with a spatula. All he needed was an apron. "You've become quite the domestic goddess," I said teasingly.
Brian turned around, laughing, and grabbed a mug of steaming coffee, which he put before me, and pushed the newspaper, already folded to the funnies, in my direction. "Anything for my little shnookums," he said in a high, thickly southern voice.
I laughed and scanned the paper for Garfield while Brian finished making breakfast and doling it out onto two plates.
"So, I was thinking," Brian announced as he slid the plate in front of me and I refolded the paper.
"That's always dangerous," I joked.
Brian stuck his tongue out in a very childish manner, then pointed at me with his fork as he sat down, "You have literally seen every major historical event of the century unfold right before your eyes. Like every single one."
I shrugged. "Sort of. Not really, though. I mean a lot of it was so far off that I didn't hear about it until years afterward or only read about it in the paper. Living through the time it happened doesn't necessarily pose any edge than reading it in a history book did. Half the shit I've lived through they've found out more about since it happened, so the history books are more accurate than the papers and rumors were."
Brian thought about this a moment, then nodded, consenting to understand what I meant. But he pressed on, "Were you ever involved in anything, I dunno, crazy-famous before?"
"Other than the Backstreet Boys, you mean?" I asked, laughing.
"Yeah, other than BSB," Brian answered me seriously.
He'd been peppering me with similar questions all week, which made me feel good because the more Brian wanted to know, the more I believed that he believed me.
"Sure, I guess I have."
He shifted excitedly, "Like what? Like what?"
"I've fought in wars," I shrugged, "Like I was at Normandy... But all the action was over by the time I got there. It was just a bloodbath."
The beach and the ocean had literally been dyed red. Bodies strewn across the beach. We had all fallen silent, staring at the massacre. I was 18 at the time, in 1944, and it was... too much... War, I decided, was gross and fruitless. Repetitive. Awful. Meaningless.
"Is that when you got shot?" Brian asked, having already asked what the closest to dying I'd ever been was.
"Yeah," I answered, "By this French soldier guy."
Neither of us were innocent. Not the US, not France, not anyone.
Brian leaned in, shoveling eggs into his mouth.
"It was no big deal, I mean I was just doing what I do, you know? I was trying to stop people from dying."
"You must've been like freaking amazing over there!" Brian yelped suddenly, connecting my ability to the possibilities. "Dude, you probably saved a shitload of soldiers!"
I laughed and shook my head, looking down at the plate in front of me. "Nothing spectacular. Nothing like medal-winning or anything. I wasn't all Forrest Gump about it."
My buddy had actually been in the line of fire. Leo. I pushed him down and took it in the back. He'd dragged me off the beach, and we'd been rescued by a French woman, who had sympathy for us. She hid us, risked her life for us from the troops that searched the area for escapees.
Later in life, Leo married her and took her back to America. They lived in Queens. I'd seen them once, while I was with Claire. Leo recognized me, commented how much I looked like his army buddy, who had died on his birthday back in 1957. "He lived through Normandy, but died overnight in his sleep... and nobody ever knew why."
"I'm sorry," I'd said.
Claire had asked me in bed the story about Normandy, and I'd told her. She'd called me her G.I. Joe.
"That's intense," Brian leaned back in his chair. "Were you scared?"
I shrugged. "I thought I was invincible. I was scared to lose my best friends." Brian's eyes met mine. "I was just as scared as I would be if it'd been you or AJ or Howie or Kevin next to me."
"Was Claire waiting for you at home?" he asked.
I shook my head, "I didn't meet Claire until 1958," I reminded him.
"What else did you see firsthand?" he asked.
"I dunno, Bri," I answered, "Like I said for the most part I was just a normal guy, living normal lives. Lives that were interrupted every seventeen years. Then I'd float around, usually homeless, until I found someone to take me in, and build my life all over again. Some of them were easier to leave than others, the lives I mean. Others, I would've stayed in forever if I could've."
"What was your favorite cycle?" Brian asked.
I stared at him.
"If I could've kept Claire, it would've been this one." I said apologetically.
Brian nodded and looked down at the half eaten breakfast in front of him, poking at the eggs and bacon with his fork. "You've had a million friends, I bet, a lot of lovers, too, probably. What was so special about Claire?"
"She was my soulmate," I answered, without even a moment of hesitation.
Chapter End Notes:
The character of Leo and the story about the French girl was based on a true story that my grandfather actually lived. I used a lot of the comments in Nick's thoughts here that my grandfather used when he described Normandy to us. So, because of that, this fragment of Nick's memory is in memory of Leo J. Martin, who died in 1996.
Learning the Truth by Pengi
"What does she look like?" Brian asked, looking around at the barrage of people entering and exiting the Starbucks. It was a popular place to be - as would be expected of a coffee house next to a college, I guess - and the turnaround rate was ridiculously fast.
"I actually don't remember to describe her," I answered, frowning, trying to place Aimee's look to her name in my mind, but nothing came, other than the chipped purple nail-polish. Shows I had no real attraction to her, I thought. "I'll know her when I see her," I added.
Brian frowned, "Well how the hell am I supposed to help you look for her then?" he asked.
I shrugged, "I dunno."
We'd been sitting at the table for what seemed like forever. (Three hours, actually.) It hadn't been until I reached New York that I realized Aimee and I hadn't discussed an actual time to meet.
"Why don't you call her?" Brian suggested, for about the hundredth time.
"I don't wanna seem pushy," I said.
"Asking her what time she wanted to meet up isn't pushy, it's just curious."
But Brian had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when I saw her.
Aimee’s hair was blonde, pale platinum blonde. I remembered suddenly a fleeting thought that she’d looked like Nicole Kidman with Paris Hilton’s hair. The space above her head was still blissfully blank. She scanned the coffee shop, her eyes flitting from one number to the next, before landing on me.
“There she is,” I whispered, nudging Brian.
He turned to look. “Whoa.” Brian might be married, but he still appreciates a nice looking girl, I thought to myself with a laugh.
Aimee approached our table and pulled out a chair, sitting, staring at Brian the entire time.
“Hey,” I greeted her.
Aimee looked at me again. “Hey,” she said, a smile cracking her solemn face. “So, you made it to New York,” she said. “Been here long?”
“Three –“ Brian started, but I kicked him.
“Nah, just got here.”
Aimee looked at Brian with a raised eyebrow, then turned back to me. “So this is your friend?” she asked, “The one you told?” Apparently she was less than impressed with the idea that she had not one, but two Backstreet Boys sitting with her in a Starbucks. I was willing to bet she didn’t even recognize Brian without her sister, Abby, there to point him out.
“Yup,” I said, “Brian.”
“Halloooo,” Brian crooned, tilting his head and pulling a face that would’ve made fans react. Aimee forced a smile and turned away again.
Brian blinked in surprise. At the very least, he usually got a giggle for his silly faces.
Aimee’s eyes darted around the room. She leaned in closer to me, and I saw Brian did the same, so as not to be excluded. “The thing is, Nick, that as a general rule Time Watchers keep a really low profile,” she said quietly.
“Time Watchers?” I asked, the unfamiliar term rolling from my mouth.
“That’s what we are, Nick,” she said, “We’re Time Watchers.”
Brian let out a breath that sounded like a muted “ooooh” and Aimee glanced at him, annoyed. “Sorry,” he whispered. “It just sounds cool.”
“Cool?” Aimee sat up, her glare now pronounced.
Brian winced back.
“You think we’re cool?” she said the word like it was sour.
Brian shrugged, “I just, I mean—“
“Imagine for a second staying the same age, forever, watching everyone you love grow old and die around you.” Aimee’s voice was ice-cold, sharp, and each word pronounced carefully to make the point, yet quiet enough to not be overheard. Brian’s eyes widened. “Imagine for a second that you can never rest. You start feeling stretched thin.”
“Like butter over too much bread,” I intoned, quoting Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings.
Brian looked at me, surprised. “But- But Nick ages,” he stammered, clearly unsure how to make Aimee stop glaring at him.
“I know,” Aimee said. She snapped back to me, her annoyance with Brian forgotten. “I looked into what causes that, and it’s an abnormality.”
“Nick’s always been abnormal,” laughed Brian.
I kicked him under the table again as Aimee closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She definitely, definitely, did not like Brian. Or something.
“It’s called Looping,” she said, her voice lowering again. I leaned in to hear her. This time, Brian didn’t move. “It’s like being stuck on a broken record, or putting a song on repeat. It’s really rare that it happens... Most Time Watchers are frozen at one age, and never move beyond it. Like me.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s just the way it is.”
“But what causes the Looping, then?” I asked.
Aimee shrugged, “It’s likened to cancer in a human being. It’s a random abnormality, caused by an internal malfunction. That’s why I can see your time. It counts down to your next cycle.”
“Is it like post traumatic stress disorder?” Brian asked.
“What?” Aimee barely glanced at him.
“You know, like soldiers get from wars and stuff. When you relive the same experience over and over in your head?”
“This is not in our heads,” she said, her voice almost growling.
Despite Aimee’s attitude, Brian pressed on. “Can it kill him?” He was apparently too intrigued by this information to stay quiet.
Aimee directed the answer to me, as though I’d asked it. “It can’t kill you. It’s a pain in the ass, but it can’t kill you. There’s only one thing that can kill a Time Watcher, and its even more rare than your condition,” she said.
“What is it?” I asked.
She laughed, “It’s unspeakable.”
“It’s considered unlawful to inform another about how to destroy themselves,” she said, “Similar to assisting suicide.”
“But how can I avoid it if I don’t know what it is?” I asked, frustrated.
“It’s not something you need to avoid, exactly,” she said.
My fingers found the rubber band at my wrist, the idea of death intriguing me. Brian looked at me, nervously, and raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously, its nothing to worry about. If you don’t know about it, it’s that much harder to accidentally do it,” Aimee said.
“Okay so I’m a Time Watcher, I’ve got Looping,” I summed. “I don’t understand. How did this start? Where did I come from?” Who is my real family? I hadn’t even known I was wondering the question as fiercely as I was until the words ran through my mind and got caught halfway to my mouth.
“Time Watchers are either born or created,” Aimee explained. “They are usually born, but some are created.”
“Which was I?” I asked.
Aimee shrugged. “There’s no way to tell. Because you were unregistered with the ministry, there’s no record. But the simple fact that you are unregistered would make me think you were probably created. Being registered at the ministry is like having a birth certificate. It’s extremely unusual to be completely overlooked like you have been. Especially in such a high profile life as the one you’ve got now as a pop star.”
“So the ministry had no clue that I even existed?” I asked.
Aimee looked at him again, the ice returning to her voice. “What?”
Brian looked regretful for having drawn attention to himself again. “Just- shouldn’t the government or whatever the ‘ministry’ is have known about him? It just seems like they must not be very vigilant.”
“Do not insult the ministry.” Aimee drew herself up to her full posture and glared down at Brian with stony eyes.
“Whoa, hey,” I said, “Truce, okay?”
Aimee looked at me. “You should not tell anyone about yourself,” her voice was suddenly commanding. “It’s very, very dangerous to do so.”
“Why?” I asked, confused.
“Because that’s how Time Watchers are created.”
Brian blinked rapidly. “What? Wait a minute. I’m not gonna like burst into flames here or something, am I?”
Aimee turned to him, and snapped, “No.”
“Wait!” I cried. A momentary silence in the coffee house, accompanied by some stares, told me I’d been louder than I’d meant to be. We paused the conversation until the prying eyes had turned away again before I continued, “How does telling someone about me make them become a Time Watcher?”
“Because if they know about us, when they die, they are given the option to become one of us,” Aimee said sternly.
Brian shook his head, “Oh hell no.”
“You say that now,” Aimee snapped, “But when the time comes and you’re offered the opportunity to return to a family that needs you, you’d take it, too.”
I knew Brian was imagining Leighanne and Baylee at this, and he fell silent.
“So, what, like you die and you’re like on the verge of Heaven and then God’s all up like, ‘you wanna be a Time Watcher, since you know about’em? Sweet, have fun!’?” I asked.
Aimee rolled her eyes, “Hardly. No, it’s a choice you’ve made before death, a desire to stay with something or somebody else who holds you to the earth, like gravity.”
If I hadn’t been a Time Watcher already, I thought, I would’ve been made one for Claire.
“So what happens?” I asked.
Aimee stared at me. “You don’t remember it yourself?”
“I know nothing from before I was thirteen in 1867,” I answered.
“That’s odd,” Aimee said.
“Do you remember?” I asked.
Aimee nodded, “I was created. My father was a very important man, and he had security guards. One of the guards that he had hired was a Time Watcher, Rodney, and he saved my life. As I grew older, and he remained the same age, we became friendly. It was not until twenty-years had passed that I realized I had grown up and he had never changed. I was a little slow.”
“Anyway, Rodney told me the secret because I persisted; he had no intentions of creating me. Because of his reluctance to grant me a reason to choose this life, we fell out of touch shortly after. I met a man and had a daughter, but died before she was even a year old. However, it was my daughter that I revolved around like gravity. I chose to be a Time Watcher because of her.”
“Did you ever see – Rodney? – the one that told you - again?” I asked.
“I’m married to him,” she replied.
“Is Abby your –“
“My granddaughter,” she replied. “Not my sister.”
“Does she know?”
Aimee shook her head. “Nobody knows about Rodney and I.”
Brian was picking at the edge of the table, a frown on his face, still deep in thought. I felt odd, sitting there, the intricate workings of a world that I was involved in, yet so far apart from, whirling about in my head. I took a sip of the cold coffee I’d bought when we first got to the Starbucks.
“Nick, I think the first thing we need to do is get you registered,” Aimee said.
“You haven’t really told him a lot about the ministry,” Brian pointed out.
Aimee gritted her teeth.
“Well you haven’t,” Brian persisted. “I mean, you can be angry I’m here all you want, but I’m just trying to help Nick out. I know he gets overwhelmed by a lot of information and we know he’s not the best at paying attention and knowing what to ask. So that’s why I’m here. I’m here to make sure he knows what he needs to know about everything.”
Aimee looked at Brian. “And I’m here to tell him what he needs to know.”
“So what is the ministry, then?”
“I told you, it’s like our government.”
“Is it democratic or republican?” I joked.
Both Brian and Aimee looked at me.
“Well, I thought it was an important question,” I mumbled.
“See, you say ministry,” Brian said, “And I think of the ministry of magic in the Harry Potter books. The ones that were always wrong about everything and messing up Harry’s life…”
Aimee steeled again. “The ministry does not ‘mess up’!“
“They didn’t even know Nick existed, how is that not messing up?” Brian retorted.
This question quieted Aimee and she sighed theatrically, and turned away from Brian to look at me again. “The ministry is governed by Elders, who act like judges more than as rulers. They simply keep track of the numbers of Time Watchers, and keep us from telling the entire world about us.”
“Why don’t they want the world to know?” I asked stupidly.
“Because then everyone could live forever,” she lowered her voice even deeper than before, “And for some – that is undesirable,” she added darkly.
I shrugged, “Okay, so how do I register?”
Brian stood up, almost knocking over his chair. “Nick, let’s go. You need to think about this more before you do anything.”
Aimee looked up at him.
“Bri, I wanna know about my past,” I said.
“You know about your past,” he answered. “I just… I’m sorry Nick, I just feel like there’s something kind of weird going on here. I mean I didn’t even do anything and this one here is acting like I’ve committed some horrible crime for being your friend.”
“You are not the one who’s committed the crime,” Aimee snapped at Brian. “You are an innocent bystander, and you shouldn’t have been subjected to our lives. None of this affects you.”
“It affects me in January when my best friend suddenly goes poof,” Brian retorted, a little louder than necessary.
Silence fell over the table for a long minute. During the stretch of time, Brian sat down and poked at the sugar packets in their little plastic bowl at his elbow, looking sheepish for exploding.
“Look, Nick, if you want to think or whatever before you register, that’s fine. Figure out what you want to do though.” She stood up, “Just keep in mind that if anyone could help you stop Looping, it’s going to be the ministry Elders. And at least if you can stop the Looping you’ll have a more normal experience as one of us.” She glanced at Brian coldly. “Don’t make any stupid mistakes, thinking we’re cool or whatever, Brian,” she said. “You won’t like the results.” Then she looked back at me. “You have my number.”
Aimee turned and walked out of the coffee house. I watched the door close behind her, then looked at Brian in dismay.
“She’s touchy,” he commented.
I nodded. “Yeah, she is.”
Flashback: Audition, 1993 by Pengi
"Hey - hey... Little guy... Little guy... Wake up."
A hand was shaking me, interrupting my dreams of Claire. I felt like I'd just fallen asleep. It had been a tremendously long, hard journey from Massachusetts to Florida, and I'd finally found an unlocked door on what had looked like an airplane hanger and now I was being woken up by this... voice.
"Little guy... wake up, little guy."
I blinked my eyes opened slowly and was greeted by an oblong head with a tall forehead, and dark brown cow-like eyes. I did not know this guy.
His numbers were oddly low, though, which perked my curiosity for a moment.
Only eight years?
Then I realized we were not alone.
I sat up quickly; the hanger was full of people, all talking loudly, the conversations echoing off the walls and ceilings of the dome in which we were all contained. Everyone in the hanger was a teenage guy. What the hell?
"Sorry," I muttered.
"Nah, it's cool," the offender said shrugging. "Just everyone's been cutting you for about three hours now and my Ma said to wake ya up." He nodded at a woman that stood behind him, fussing over a folder.
"Oh," I said.
"I can't believe you can sleep in here," he said, "I could never sleep in here. It's too freaking loud, you know?"
"Watch your mouth mister," the woman said automatically.
He rolled his eyes. "Anyways, my name's Alex. What's yours?"
"Nick, cool. Where's your 'rents Nick?" he asked, looking around.
"I... they... aren't here," I stuttered.
Alex's eyes raised and he looked back at the woman. "Maaaa, see? This kid's like ten and he's not chaperoned."
"I'm thirteen," I said defensively.
"I don't care what everyone else is doing Alex," muttered his mother, not even looking up from the folder. "If everyone else was jumping off the Empire State Building would you follow'em?"
Alex rolled his eyes again. "Ma, can I see the sheets?" he turned back to her, clearly done talking to me.
I took advantage of the opportunity to look around at the hanger. There were probably a thousand guys or more there... I clutched the straps of the duffle bag full of my thirteen year old clothes, saved from 1975, and pulled the bag a little closer to my side. Why are all these dudes standing around? Is this some kind of huge boy scouts meeting? A comic book convention?
Suddenly Alex was back in my face.
"What're you singing?" he asked.
"For the audition?" he said, as though I were stupid for not knowing. Which I probably was.
"Oh, for the audition," my mouth went dry. Yeah, go ahead, get out of this one, Nick. I racked my brain for a song I knew. "Uh I'll- I'll sing, uh..."
"You didn't prepare anything?" Alex asked, shocked.
"Ma, this kid didn't prepare crap!"
"Alex, really, watch your mouth." His mother looked at me for the first time and frowned, "I thought the audition was for fifteen and up?" she looked at a newspaper that was folded under her arm.
Seeing my opportunity, I said, "Oh damn, is it?"
"See? He swears too!" Alex whined.
His mother frowned, "Alex."
"I'm just sayin'... he's like ten..."
"I'm thirteen," I repeated.
"Hey, who's the short guy?" A latino guy, wearing way too many sequins suddenly appeared at Alex's mom's side, carrying two plastic cups.
Alex snatched one away from the latino and said, "That's Nick. He's badass."
"Alex, if I have to talk to you one more time about your language..."
"Yeah, yeah ma.. I know. Sorry." Alex downed the cup.
"Hey Nick, I'm Tony."
Alex snorted. "That's his stage name."
Tony glared at Alex. "Excuse me for wanting to maintain privacy after we're two fifths of the next New Kids on the Block. They get stalkers, you know."
Alex nodded eagerly, then winked at me. "Yeah... I know."
"You don't look fifteen, Nick," Tony said.
"I'm thirteen," I said.
"You're thirteen?" Alex asked, bewildered, "No f-" he stole a glance at his mom, who was reading, but decided not to chance it. "No way!" Apparently he hadn't heard me the first two times I'd said it.
"Well, I am..." I answered. Wish I wasn't, yet I am.
"D.. D.." Alex said, looking to Tony, "Get this... this kid... he didn't prepare anything to sing. He's like...wingin' it."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "You are? Is that smart?"
Considering I didn't have any intention of applying for this crap? Sure. I thought.
"I dunno," I answered.
Alex's eyes lit up suddenly. "Hey... Hey, D...D... yanno, the song, it's a harmony right? And since we don't got Jason..." he nodded at me.
Tony hesitated, "I dunno, we haven't even heard him..."
"Hey kid, sing us something," Alex said, turning to me.
"I... I dunno," I said. Claire had always liked it when I sang Beatles songs to her, but I had the distinct feeling that she might've been biased and only enjoyed that because it was me, and she was Claire, and the music was by her favorite band ever.
"Oh c'mon, what do you think, we're gonna steal your style?" Alex asked, "C'mon."
"Um.. okay..." I thought a moment, then sang the first thing that came to mind:
"I give her all my love, that's all I do
and if you saw my love, you'd love her too
and I love her...
She gives me everything, and tenderly
the kiss my lover brings, she brings to me
and I love her.
A love like ours could never die...
as long as I have her near me...
Bright are the stars that shine, dark is the sky
I know this love of mine will never die...
and I love her."
They were both staring at me. So was Alex's mom.
"Sorry," I muttered. "I should.. uh.. go."
"No, no," Alex jumped first, "Uh - hello? No."
"Nick, you gotta audition with us," Tony insisted.
"I love the Beatles," sighed Alex's mom.
"You thought I was good?" I asked, surprised.
Alex nodded enthusiastically, "Hell yeah!"
Tony pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket. "Here, look, do you know this song?" He handed the page to me.
I looked over the sheet. "Yeah, I know it pretty well," I answered. Claire used to sing it in the car.
"You should definitely sing that other thing you just did when you get in there for the solo bit, too," Alex coached, "That was rad."
I tried to imagine Claire's face if I ever told her about this scenario. Me, auditioning for a boy band with an overzealous hyperactive and a Mexican kid with a fake name. She'd laugh her head off and it would be our private joke for ages. "Audition for any boy bands lately?" she'd ask me at any given moment, making me choke and sputter every time. The notion made me nostalgic and sorry to have left her behind.
Why didn't I just let her tell Greg? I wondered bitterly.
"Dude, we are gonna be awesome," Alex announced. "Seriously. You're upping the game dude," he slapped my back. "Plus you've got the baby face. Chicks dig that."
"They like latin blood, too," Tony pointed out.
"Yeah, yeah... keep tellin' yourself that, man," Alex said, waving him off and beaming at me. "Shit, I think we got a chance at this now, with small fry here on our team."
"So... what are you going to do?"
Brian and I had been sitting up in the hotel room for hours. It was somewhere around three o'clock (I was telling time by the numbers changing over Brian's head so I wasn't sure how accurately I was keeping up with the earth's rotation). We'd ordered pizza and beer from the room service and had sat down on the couch, the box opened between us on the center cushion, and debated about the sketchiness of the whole situation.
"I dunno," I admitted. "I mean, like you said, it's weird that I'm not registered, and even weirder that Aimee won't talk about what the ministry is. Or does."
"Maybe they're elusive," Brian suggested. "Like some of the positions in our government."
"Well they're like passing laws and shit," I said, taking a pull off the beer.
"Yeah," Brian agreed, "But they aren't passing new laws everyday, are they? So what the hell do they do in their offices everyday?"
I shrugged, "I always hated politics."
He picked up one of the cold pieces of pizza and started pulling the pepperonis and cheese off of it. "I just think you ought to tread carefully with this whole registration thing. Find out what this ministry thing stands for and believes in, you know? Then, if you agree with the points, you can register without worrying about it."
I nodded. "But how do I find out? I mean, I can't just run down to the library and ask for literature on the Time Watchers Ministry, can I?"
Brian laughed, "Well you could but they might give you a straight jacket."
"That would totally clash with my hair," I answered, taking another swig of beer.
Brian tossed the naked slice of pizza back into the box, having taken all the good stuff off and sighed. "I guess you need to have Aimee tell you how to research this stuff," he suggested. "She said she'd researched the Looping thing, right? So obviously there's a way."
"The Looping thing is weird, too," I said. "I wonder what causes it?"
"She said it was random," he shrugged.
I pursed my lips, "Yeah, but -- I dunno. It feels too... routine, or reliable, I guess, to be random. I mean seventeen years? What is that about? If it was a random occurrence, shouldn't it make sense in some respect?"
Brian shrugged again. "Random does mean just that -- random."
"I guess I just feel like thirteen and thirty are really significant ages to be stuck between. She said that 'normal' Time Watchers are stuck on the age they were when they changed, right? So there's usually a rhyme or reason attached to the age thing in Time Watchers, then."
"I wonder what makes people who are born Time Watchers stop aging," Brian mused.
"Good question," I said. "I gotta ask Aimee that, for sure."
Brian kicked the pizza box toward me. "I'm stuffed. The rest is yours."
"I'm good, too," I answered. I closed the box's lid and put it on the coffee table in front of us.
Brian hugged his knees to his chest. "Do you think she'd answer you better if I wasn't there?" he asked.
"Why would she?"
"She definitely did not like me," he answered slowly, "And I got the idea that she kind of didn't really trust me to listen to your conversation."
"Yeah I noticed that, too. Every time she noticed you were listening she either insulted you or talked lower."
"I got the idea, too, that she doesn’t like… being a Time Watcher,” Brian added. “I mean I think that’s what got me off on the wrong foot to begin with – saying it was ‘cool’. Remember? Then she warned me against the choice like five times.”
“Yeah, I got that feeling, too,” I answered.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
Do I? I thought about everything I’d seen and been through, all the opportunities I’d had and the people I’d met. I thought, too, though, about the people I lost. But if I hadn’t been a Time Watcher, I reminded myself, I would’ve died in the1800s. I never would’ve met Brian, AJ, Howie or Kevin. Or Claire. I imagined having only one shot – like normal people – having one chance to get it right, to meet everyone you’re supposed to meet. Making choices that actually altered the rest of your life, and not getting do-overs every seventeen years. But getting to rest afterwards, I thought enviously, Wasn’t only having one shot worth getting to rest? If only I could have had Claire and the fellas in one lifetime… I would gladly trade eternity for one life then.
“Yeah, it’s all right.” I replied.
Brian smiled and reached down to the six pack we had sitting on the floor and grabbed another bottle of beer. He held it out to me, but I shook my head. Two was enough, my mind was already getting hazier than I liked it to be these days. Brian popped the lid off with the bottle opener. “You know,” he said, “If there’s one other person like you, that being Aimee, there must be more, right?”
“Yeah but Aimee’s the first I’ve ever met.”
“Well,” said Brian, “Have you ever looked for them?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, Aimee researched Looping, right? Here, in New York City.”
“So the place where you can research must be here somewhere,” Brian concluded. “What if we just walked around the city and looked for people without numbers?”
I blinked at him. The idea was so simple, so easy, so genius. “That could work,” I said. “But what if I find them?”
“Blend in,” Brian replied, “Just… go pretend you need to use the library. Find out about the ministry or whatever.” He shrugged. “Or, introduce yourself, explain your situation, see if someone else will give you better answers than Aimee will.”
“That wouldn’t be hard,” I answered.
Brian leaned back into the couch, holding the bottle at his side. “Did we finally come up with an idea of what to do?” he asked, closing his eyes.
“Yeah,” I answered. I rubbed my chin. “So, what, tomorrow we’re just gonna walk around at random and see what we see?” No answer. “Brian?” I looked down.
Brian’s mouth was gaping open and his eyes were closed. He was breathing deeply, asleep. I knew he’d been exhausted, he’d said so several times over the hours. I smiled and reached for the beer in his hand before it spilled, and put it on the coffee table before standing up and lifting Brian up carefully. He wasn’t heavy, it was just awkward trying not to touch anything that shouldn’t be touched, and carried him over to the bed. He was always cranky when he woke up with cricks in his neck, and since we were here alone I didn’t want to chance having cranky-Brian make an appearance the next day.
I crawled onto my own bed and curled up, staring out across the hotel room, at the half empty pizza box, and the empty beer bottles. I sat up and reached for my duffle bag at the end fo my bed and pulled out my old-school instant-print Polaroid camera. I took a picture of the box and the bottles and waited for it to develop. When it did, I stared at the picture for a long moment, a smile on my face. I reached into my bag again, pulled out a sharpie.
I labeled it, Evidence that I have a best friend.
I tossed the camera and the sharpie back into the bag, and stuck the Polaroid into a notebook that was poking out of the duffle bag, where it wouldn’t get damaged before I could put it into the dilapidated shoebox under my bed at home that contained all kinds of memories and trinkets from every one of my cycles.
Many who read the How to Save a Life story prior to its abandonment will find this chapter familiar. I felt the chapter was worth keeping in the new format of the story, though I had to rework it to fit the new storyboard.
Brian and I set out the next morning from the hotel in search of the numberless. Brian was looking around, though he couldn't tell if they had numbers or not, and pointing people out to me, asking random questions like "will they live to be 100?" and "who is the oldest person sitting on that wall?" He was testing my math skills, if nothing else.
It wasn't until we reached Times Square that I started noticing something. People with low numbers, spattered about the area, looking in shop windows and tugging children along on little kid leashes. All their numbers were similar, within minutes or some seconds, of each other.
I stopped walking short, watching a Indonesian woman carrying a baby in a sling on her back. The pudgy baby had dark skin and even darker eyes and looked at me with curiosity, sucking on his fist and riding along on his mother's back. Even he had short numbers, which made my stomach roll inside of me.
"What?" Brian followed my gaze to the woman. "She doesn't have numbers?" he asked.
"Not very good ones," I answered, frowning.
Brian's brow furrowed, "What do you mean?"
"She's got like eight minutes," I said. I looked around the Square. "Quite a few people around here only have about eight minutes, actually."
Brian looked concerned. "You don't think like a bomb or something--"
"No," I said, quenching Brian's panic before it could really start. "No, 'cos not everyone has low numbers, just some people." I looked at him. "Like you, you're fine."
"What do they have in common?" he asked. Brian squinted around the square, as though squeezing his eyes almost shut would make the numbers become visible to him, too. "Age? Ethnicity?"
I looked around at them all again. "No," I answered. "It's children, adults, Americans, Spanish, African, Indonesian..." I looked again at the smiling baby boy and felt a pang of desire to save him. "C'mon."
Brian followed as I set out at a trot after the Indonesian woman. The baby swayed behind her with every step, sucking his balled fist and glancing around at all the noisy things that filled colorful Times Square. Watching the wonder in his eyes, I remembered the first time I'd ever seen Times Square and how different it looked down -- much more amazing than it had been the first time I'd been there.
Amazing what electricity can do, I thought, looking at the lit up billboards and imagining the horses that had been there the first time I'd visited the City.
The danger didn't strike me until we were already in the tunnel for the subway, and the low numbers started becoming more and more populous. I turned to Brian, losing sight of the Indonesian woman in the sea of people swarming the tube stop, and felt panic rising inside my gut. "Brian... it's a train."
He stared at me, fear in his own eyes now. "What're you gonna do?" he asked.
I gaped at him. "I have no fucking idea."
"Well, let's go," he said bravely and started to charge towards the platform.
I grabbed the back of his shirt and stopped him. "What do you mean 'lets'?" I asked, shaking my head. "You can't come."
Brian frowned, "Nick... I can't let you go stop a train wreck."
"Brian... if you come I'll have to save your neck, too. Plus all theirs."
"Brian, it won't hurt me. It can't. Remember? The numbers over my head are because of the Looping. It's not when I'm going to die because there's only one way to kill a Time Watcher, she said so. Now wait here." I pointed to a locker room.
Brian frowned, "Nick..."
"Brian, I'm serious. Wait here."
He started to try to stare me down, but I rose to my full height and flared my nostrils in a way that indicated I meant business. He shook his head. "Fine." I watched him walk toward the locker room before turning toward the platforms once again, and hurrying to follow a group of businessmen baring the low numbers to their train.
What will do it? I wondered, my mind racing, following after them. What's going to be the way to save them? Do I evacuate the train? Do I try to locate someone with a bomb? What do I do? Panic filled me and my heart pounded in my chest.
The train was sitting patiently by the platform on a double-sided rail. Outbound was boarding and inbound was waiting for their train. I hurried to the doors and stepped inside the car closest to me, the furthest from the engine, where the businessmen had led me.
Looking around, I saw that everyone had the five minute range that the businessmen had, apart from a few who had full-length times, and one woman with thirty minutes, who sat in the corner with a bag of knitting at her feet.
I hurried down the aisle, stepping into the next car heading toward the engine, looking at what every person was doing as I ran, looking for something suspicious - anything.
I don't understand, I thought impatiently, Everything seems normal in here.
It wasn't until I'd gone three cars forward that I noticed the times changing. Suddenly everyone was hovering around the three and four minute marks. I chalked it up to the time it was taking me to run along the train, but as I continued running, checking, waiting for something odd to present itself, I started noticing time getting shorter and shorter for these people the closer to the engine I got.
I hadn't thought the words fully before I heard a loud train's horn blaring, echoing through the tunnel ahead of us.
I reached the engine compartment, the people closest here were sporting two minute times and I knew I had to act extremely fast.
"GET OFF THE TRAIN!" I screamed as loud as I could.
People turned to look at me, stunned.
"GET THE FUCK OFF THE TRAIN!"
The horn of the other train blared again, and my palms began pouring sweat. A woman with a little girl stood up and her time changed immediately as she decided to listen - freaked out by the yelling passenger.
A couple people swore as a swatted at them with my hands, urging them to move. "Get OFF the TRAIN!"
"What's going on, buddy?" a burly guy stood up in front of me, his arms crossed over his chest, like he was ready to stop me from harassing people.
"Get the hell off this train, or you're going to die," I answered, shoving past him. "Everyone! Move!!"
An old woman with a wicker basket stood up and started shuffling toward the door, two teenagers sloped along after her, and even the burley guy, though with hesitation, followed the trail of people now moving toward the exit doors.
I reached for an emergency pull by the door entering into the second car and yanked it. The lights flickered and then a red light by the door began to flash and an alarm went off. The rest of the people in the car behind me stood and started swarming to an exit, mumbling and swearing.
So far, I was no more than an inconvenience.
"What is going on?" cried a girl wearing a Columbia sweatshirt as I entered into the second car, yelling for everyone to get off the train.
"Do you need to question the guy?" retorted her friend, "He's probably got a bomb or something!"
That got people moving.
I could hear the inbound train rumbling closer, feel the tracks beneath us shaking, knew it was coming closer. As they moved to the exits, peoples numbers altered and became normal lengths. It's definitely a crash, I thought, panicking.
I continued moving through the train, my heart slamming. I could tell by the times over people's heads, I only had seconds left before those left in the train would be unable to get off.
I imagined the impact. In my head, I could see how it would go. It would fold, like an accordion. The further back in the train the people were, the safer they were, though not completely safe, because they, too, carried short numbers.
"Get off the train!"
A blue-uniformed officer suddenly stood in my way, his eyes bright and his baton out. The people were flowing from the train behind me, like an exodus. He looked livid. "What in the name of Jesus Christ are you doing boy?" he asked.
"Look, I don't have time to answer questions," I snapped at the cop, "But we need to get every single person the hell off this train or they're all gonna die."
The cop raised an eyebrow at me.
"Please," I begged him, "Help me."
I turned to an elderly gentleman seated beside me. "Get off the train," I told him.
He looked at me, concerned, then nudged the woman next to him and turned to a group of ten to fifteen kids, and called out, "Okay class. Let's go."
The officer glared. "There's no reason to evacuate this tra--"
"There's going to be a collision," I snapped, "In two minutes."
The elderly man was herding the kids out of the train doors waving them along as he stood in the doorway, counting as they went by one-by-one.
I shoved past the cop, but he followed me, shouting at me to stop. I moved faster than he was, though, because desperation was filling me. "Get off the train," I shouted repeatedly to anyone who would listen.
The horn of the approaching train sounded again, echoing outside.
I made my way, car by car, running quickly, shouting as loudly as I could. "We are evacuating the train! We're evacuating the train! Please step onto the platform immediately!" People behind me flowed from their seats like flood water, pouring out of the doors on the platform side. I nudged a couple teens that were listening to music under their earbuds, and helped elderly men and women out of their seats.
The cop followed along behind me, shouting to stop. His voice was nervous.
Somehow, I had reached the second to the last car of the train before it happened.
I had just spotted the Indonesian woman with the baby - the one with the shortest amount of time in the entire car - when there was a sickeningly loud screech of metal scraping metal outside of the train in the tube. The cop stopped shouting and turned to look back, through the long snake of cars.
"Get off the train! QUICK!" I screamed.
A guy in his mid-thirties had leaped to his feet and was at the door just as it scraped the wall of the tunnel, eclipsing the platform from view as the impact piled car upon car. He jumped back from the door only just in time before he'd lost a leg or an arm to the wall. "Oh shit, ohhh shit," he cried, looking frantic. "What's going on?"
The cop cried out in alarm and started to run through the cars, headed toward the engine, as though going in that direction could somehow get him out of the train. "Come back!" I shouted at the cop, but my voice was drowned out by the crunching as the engines collided and the cars began being pushed back into each other one by one, like a multiple vehicle accident on an icy road.
"Shit." I ducked forward and grabbed the baby from where his mother had laid him on the seat beside her. I felt my body instinctively curl around him as he began to wail. The mother screamed and began to hit my arms and back frantically. I skid to my knees and bowed my head around the baby, ignoring her beatings.
Suddenly the ground felt weak beneath my knees, and the car shook, and then began to tip. I held my breath as the train derailed. Through the window I was closest to, I could see the rails of the next line rushing up towards us. People all around me screamed.
"Cover your heads!" I shouted the instruction as loudly as I could. "Brace yourselves! Cover your heads! We're tipping!"
The baby was wailing into my ear as the noise of tearing metal filled the car. I couldn't bear the sound of the metal, could scarcely comprehend the sight of the other passengers falling through the air with me towards the wall that was now becoming the floor.
It's like slow motion, I thought, as we fell gracefully through the air.
The train car landed on the rails below and settled there with a groan. A silence so absolute that it was deafening filled the car. Even the baby was silent for a moment. It was so quiet that I imagined hearing dust particles settling around us.
I wondered how many were dead around me.
The lights in the cars flickered, and then went out.
And it was then, in the plunge of the darkness, that the silence broke.
Sobbing and terrified cries filled the two cars that had been shoved deeper into the tunnel, pitched into utter darkness. It was like laying blind in the bottom of a great pit. Shattered glass stabbed into my back and I could feel drops of blood escaping along my back.
I struggled to sit up, the baby crying loudly again in my arms, and reached in my pocket for my cell phone, which I opened up to cast a minimal bluish light. The baby clung to me, his fists balled around the cloth of my shirt as he screamed. "Is everyone okay?" I shouted, "Is anyone hurt?"
"We're all alive back here," called a man's voice from the next car back.
Relief flooded me.
I turned to look at the baby's mother as people in my own car were staring to stir, many bleeding but all moving. The baby's mother was the only one who was still, tears streaming down her face. She was in an awkward position, obviously she'd broken something. Possibly her back. Blood was pouring from her. My stomach twisted.
"Is anyone in here a doctor?" I called out. But no response came.
I handed the baby to another woman who was sitting up beside me. His numbers reflected over sixty years, I knew he would be okay. But his mother.. she alone, of all the people whose numbers I could now see in the car, was still low.
I knelt beside her, my hand trembling. She was bleeding... a lot. "It's gonna be okay," I told her gently, looking her over. I took her hand and laid my fingers on her pulse point. She was definitely weakening.
"Is he okay?" she asked, her voice thick with the whispered accent.
"He's okay," I answered, nodding, "I saved him... Now I gotta save you, too. What's your name?"
"Lila," she answered faintly. I gotta keep her talking.
"Okay, Lila," I whispered, "I'm gonna get you out of here. Don't worry, we're gonna get you out of here."
"Then what?" snapped an old man in an agitated voice, "We’re stuck here, kid."
"I gotta get her out of here," I replied, looking about the train car, "There's no time to waste." The passengers looked at one another frantically.
I looked at the side of the car that was now acting as the ceiling. The doors were opened. I pointed to the door. "Can someone give us a hand up through that? I can carry Lila to the platform and the ERs can start helping her while the rest of the emergency team comes back to get you guys out of here," I suggested.
"We'll all die before you return!" cried a hysterical woman.
I looked at her numbers. She had quite a few years left. "No one here's gonna die," I answered, "Nobody's even close to it, other than Lila," I answered.
My voice must've carried enough authority that nobody dared to question me. The woman calmed and other people all quieted. "I'll help you up," volunteered the guy who had nearly been stuck between platform and wall moments before.
"Thank you," I said to the guy. I slid my arms underneath Lila's body, and she let out a guttural cry of pain. It's going to be okay," I told Lila, "I'm going to get you out of here. But I gotta move you to do it, and it may hurt."
I hoisted her up gently and held her in my arms. The guy who'd offered to help formed a ten finger step and strained with all his strength to raise me and Lila both up towards the doors. I laid Lila down on the outside of the train car and struggled to pull myself up beside her. "Thanks," I called down to the guy. He nodded and waved. I turned to Lila, "We're gonna get out of here now..." I told her.. then I noticed she was crying, really hard, and shaking. "What's the matter?" I asked, concerned. I kneeled beside her and looked into her eyes.
"I cold," she told me, broken english, though her chattering teeth, "I cold..."
I looked around the tunnel. It was really freezing cold in there. I, too, was cold, but I pulled my shirt off over my head so that I had on only my white undershirt and wrapped it around Lila like a makeshift blanket. When I lifted her up into my arms, I hugged her closer and gently rubbed her skin, trying to warm her better.
Carefully, I inched towards the direction of the platform, watching every step I took to make sure I didn't slide off the side of the train. The metal was shining, reflecting the underground lights, and slippery. Only the hind two cars had been tipped over, then there were three still upright before the wreckage that was the site of impact that'd destroyed completely the first three cars. That whole end of the tunnel was hazy with smoke that was pouring out of the wreck.
I calculated my route, deciding that if I walked carefully on top of the two tipped cars, then got down and walked through the two upright ones, I could probably step onto the platform from the furthest upright car.
I could faintly hear sirens blaring and people talking in rushed voices, The excitement and panic of an emergency sounded like a dull roaring hum at the end of the tunnel. I carefully carried Lila along, ducking from the overhead lamps, which were swinging right at my head it seemed.
We reached the end of the tipped cars and I paused, trying to figure out what to do next. I set her down and examined the edge. "If I put you right on the edge and climbed down," I asked her, "Do you think you could push yourself off, as long as I catch you?" She looked frightened and shook her head. "Could you hold onto me while I climb down there then?" I suggested.
She closed her eyes, gathering strength. "I try," she whispered at last, and that was the most I could ask of her.
I turned and she wrapped her arms around my neck tightly, holding onto her own elbows for support. I leaned down and slipped my foot over the ledge, and slowly lowered myself over the side. She hissed in my ear in pain and I winced as I dangled over the side, my arms stretched from holding the weight of us both, and tried to guess how long of a drop I had to make until my feet hit the metal of the bridge between the two cars. It couldn't be too far... could it?
I dropped, and my ankle twisted sharply on the rail.
"Fuck," I called as the pain shot up my shin and into my thigh. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I had to keep going, regardless, I told myself, even though what I really wanted to do was curl up and begin crying right there on the subway rails. My eyes filled with tears as I stood and began walking, my arms wrapping around my back to hug Lila close to me. She sobbed in my ear.
I shuffled and limped as I walked, taking sharp inhales from the pain each time the ball of my left foot met with the floor of the train car.
The car was empty, and my steps echoed about the room as I walked. It was dark, too, only the faint lights from the tunnel illuminated the car. Everything else was pitch dark. Food was left where it had been being eaten, and personal belongings - bags and brief cases - were left abandoned by their owners on the seats. It was like something out of a weird sci-fi movie, like I Am Legend or something. I was the last human being in the train.
When I reached the end of the second car, I could see the platform faintly through a screen of smoke, running even with the furthest door of the third upright car. I breathed a sigh of relief, "We're almost there," I told Lila, "Almost there..."
I rushed to the door of the third cab to find that it'd been an illusion that the doors were even with the platform. It was actually a good ten feet off, and the next car was smoking, crumpled like a paper model, and far too twisted to attempt walking through. I stood at the door, and looked at the platform, my ankle throbbing dully. I cleared my throat, "Hello?!" I called, "Hello! Somebody! Please!!" I looked in a window reflection for Gloria's number.
"Somebody!!" I yelled again with vigor, seeing time was running out. They'd need time to actually fix whatever was wrong too. Just getting her to the paramedics before her time was out wasn't enough. But nobody was responding. There were fire hoses spraying the engines, trying to drown the smoke and people shouting and talking and panic going on behind them.
I cupped my mouth with my hands, "Help us!!!" I yelled. But still no response of any kind came.
I looked down at the tracks below me, a couple feet under the train's door, and I slowly lowered myself down until I was leaning over the floor of the train, my legs dangling, then slid out of the train car and onto the rail. More pain shot up my leg from my ankle and I almost toppled. I grabbed onto the train at the last possible second before I collapsed from the agony.
How the hell am I gonna do this? I thought to myself. How am I gonna get her over there without falling down? If I fall, I'm going to waste precious time.
I took a deep breath and imagined that baby. His tiny, sad brown eyes, as he sucked on his fist, staring at me, silently begging me to save his mother.
You have to do this, Carter, I urged myself. Let's go. One step at a time.
And, delicately, I started walking along, trying not to hit Lila on the wall or on the train.
I inched along like that until we reached the platform, where I called for help again. "Somebody!"
A fireman in a blue t-shirt and the rubber pants noticed me. "What the hell?" he mumbled, coming closer, "We have more survivors," he shouted, reaching out for Lila. When he pulled her up from my back, I struggled to hoist myself up onto the platform, breathing heavily. Paramedics arrived to assist Lila, pushing me aside.
"Where is my son, my son," she sobbed.
"He's coming," I told her, "In just a minute we'll get him out, too. Don't worry." I looked at her numbers. "You're gonna be okay... we made it."
The fireman came to my side, "Are there any others?" he asked, glancing back at the train, a scared expression on his face.
"Yes," I replied, "About fifteen others, including a baby... her son. They're in the last two cars of the train," I told him how I'd managed to get out, and the condition of the other cars I'd traveled through. Then I paused. "Did... did everyone else... make it out okay?"
"As far as we can tell," he answered, "There's over one thousand people who escaped from this train wreck, all up in the street." He paused a moment, studying me.
"A thousand?" I asked, my eyes widening.
"More like 1,500 is our estimate right now," he replied. Then, "Hey... wait a minute... aren't you..." He scratched his chin, "That one kid from the Backstreet Boys?"
Shit. I can't be recognized, I thought, Especially not as a hero. Not after the article about the plane...
"No," I answered.
The fireman frowned, "Funny. You look a lot like him."
"I get that a lot," I answered.
As the fireman turned and started to get to work with his team to get in there and save the people I'd left behind in the furthest two cars, I turned and started to push my way through the crowded station. I couldn't get spotted. I absolutely couldn't. My palms felt sweaty. My ankle throbbed but I ignored it, hobbling toward the locker rooms where I'd left Brian.
I was about halfway there, the pain from my ankle nearly blinding me, when a strong, steely, vice-like grip stopped me as it closed on my upper arm, by my shoulder. "Nick Carter?"
I paused and looked back. A tall, rugged African-American man, with a perfectly clean-shaven head, stared at me, a deadpan, serious expression on his face.
"Um," I stammered.
"Come with me."
And without waiting for a response, he pulled me toward the stairs that led out into the square, away from the locker rooms, where Brian was waiting for me.
The mysterious stranger guided me up the stairs toward the City streets above. I tried to resist, but my ankle was too weak, and I found he was partially supporting me with one hand. "My friend," I said, pointing back towards the lockers.
"Can wait," he supplied. His voice was deep. As I twisted to look at him, I noticed that there was a vacant space above his head, and I realized he was a Time Watcher, too.
"Who are you?" I demanded.
"My name is Dimitri Pyre," he grunted, "And I've been sent to collect you."
"Collect me?" I asked, my voice panicked. "Sent by who? Where are we going?"
But Dimitri didn't reply, he just continued up the stairs, pulling me along. We broke into the sunlight and it was nearly blinding - especially after my nearly blind walk through the tunnels of the New York transit lines. My ankle, too, was making it hard to pay attention to what was going on, blinding me with the pain that kept throbbing and shooting up my leg.
The street was full of curious on lookers, gazing down into the train's tunnel as people poured out, yelling about the accident. I saw the elderly gentleman and the woman with their class, huddled together a few feet away from the entrance. Dimitri pulled me through the crowd though, to a sleek black car, which sat waiting for us on the curb.
"In here," he directed me, motioning to the door as he pulled it opened for me.
I winced as I lowered myself into the car and pushed across the seat. Dimitri followed me into the car and slammed the door. I heard the locks click and the vehicle pulled away from the curb.
I pulled my pant leg up a little bit to look at my ankle. It was bruising darkly already, and swelled twice its usual size. I poked it, and an agonizing pain shot up my leg again. I've broken it, I thought.
Dimitri turned to me. "You will be able to tend to your injury once the Elders have had an opportunity to speak with you," he assured me. "This is urgent business that they must take up with you. That is why they have sent me to collect you."
"The Elders?" I asked, "As in... you're from the ministry?"
"Yes," he answered, rearing importantly. "I am."
"What on earth do they want from me?" I asked, my heart pounding in my chest so loudly I as sure that Dimitri could hear it. The pain of my ankle subsided beneath my whirling brain as I realized that I was being summonsed.
"I am not at liberty to discuss it with you," Dimitri answered coolly.
My cell phone vibed three times as the sleek car moved through the City streets. All three times it was Brian. I'd gone to answer it the first time, but Dimitri had stilled my hand. "He can wait," he'd rumbled, and I'd stuffed the phone back in my pocket. Dimitri frowned the second time the phone vibed, though, and encouraged me to at least text Brian back when it went off a third time.
M OK, I texted him, Go back 2 hotel. C U soon.
After what seemed like forever, the car glided to a smooth stop in front of a tall building with a simple granite sign that boasted only the title "Administrative Offices".
"Here we are," Dimitri said, sliding across the seat to the door as the car halted fully. He pushed open the door and waited at the curb for me to follow. I struggled out of the car and winced once more as I put weight on my ankle. Again, Dimitri's firm grasp on my arm kept me upright, and I used his grip like a crutch as we walked to the doors of the building.
At the door, Dimitri pulled a lanyard that had been concealed under his secret-service looking suit shirt, and used a card with his name and photo on it to swipe through a strip reader. The door hummed and a heavy bolt clicked and he opened the door wide, motioning for me to go inside the ominous feeling building.
As I hobbled through the door, Dimitri stepped around me and walked swiftly forward across the dark black, shiny tiles that reflected the vaulted ceiling. Around the perimeter of the room stood potted ficus trees in three foot intervals. The ceiling looked gold-painted. Dimitri, however, seemed to look at none of this, but sped directly to a desk that was built into the wall at the far side of the spacious room. A young blonde Time Watcher stood behind the desk, smiling benignly in our direction.
"Mr. Pyre," she said, "What can I do for you today?"
"I need a guest pass for our unregistered friend here," he answered waving toward me in a grand gesture. "We're here upon the Elder's request," he added.
"So this is Nick Carter?" she asked, nodding and smiling in my direction as I finally reached the desk. How the hell does she know my name? I wondered stupidly. Oh. Duh, Nick. Pretty much everyone who was breathing in the 90's does, you idiot.
"Yes it is," Dimitri answered flatly.
The girl's fingers flew over a keyboard that was inlaid to the fancy wooden desk. "Full name?" she asked me mechanically.
"Um..Nickolas Gene Carter," I said, "The Nickolas is with a K..."
She pointed up at a small black square in the wall behind her before I'd even finished talking. "Look there," she said.
I looked, and a bright flash of light indicated I'd had my picture taken.
A few more clicks and a large, odd looking printer on the counter behind her hummed to life and started printing and cutting something. She pulled opened a drawer and removed a scarlet red lanyard. A small rectangle spilled out of the machine and she turned and picked it up, strung the lanyard through a hole in the top, and held it out to me. "Wear this the entire time you're in the ministry," she commanded. She turned to Dimitri, "They're in the waiting room on level 32."
"Thank you, Miss. Peters," Dimitri replied smoothly. Then, he took hold of my arm once more and pulled me in the direction of a bay of elevators to our right as I yanked the lanyard on over my head. I glanced at it. It bore a startled-looking photo of me, my name, and the words Unregistered Time Watcher, Guest below that.
When the elevator door had closed, sealing Dimiri and I into the cubical alone, I turned to him, supporting myself with the handles that framed the elevator car. "What do the Elders want?" I asked.
"Let's just say that you're being very... conspicuous," he answered, "And they need that stopped."
"Conspicuous?" I asked, confused. "What?"
"I'm not at liberty to talk about it," he intoned blandly.
"Oh," I said, defeated.
Silence fell over us as Dimitri stood, bulky and silent, arms cross across his chest, and I realized he reminded me of a straight-laced bodyguard from the Backstreet Boy tour we'd just completed.
When the elevator door opened to reveal a corridor, we stepped out and I thrust my hand out to balance against the wall as my ankle cried out for me to stop using it so much. Dimitri acted as though he did not notice this motion, and simply began walking down the hall to the right of the elevator.
I limped along behind him until he stopped at the second-to-last door on the left and waited. "Go ahead," he said when I caught up. He motioned at the door. "Do not keep the Elders waiting."
"Aren't you coming with me?" I asked him. As strange and straight as he'd been, he still exuded a comforting feeling now that I'd seen a bit of our bodyguard in his personality. He was, additionally, the only one I'd seen before. I was afraid of what was on the other side of the door.
"No," he answered, "I am not permitted. You must go alone. I will be here to escort you to your hotel room following your time with the Elders, if all goes well."
If all goes well? That sounds promising.
I took a deep breath, though, and turned to face the door. "Ready?" Dimitri asked.
No. "Yes." I answered.
He pushed opened the door, and I hobbled inside, afraid of what I was about to learn.
Brian practically tackled me when I entered the hotel room four hours later. "You're back! Jesus! I was worried sick about you! Where were you?"
I wailed as he jumped at me, my ankle buckling beneath me, and nearly collapsed to the floor. Brian quickly tucked himself under my arm and acted as a crutch, struggling to keep me aloft. "The ministry," I muttered, through a wince.
"What the hell did they do to you?" he demanded as he started guiding me into the hotel room.
"I hurt my ankle saving that woman we saw in Times Square," I answered, my teeth grit in an attempt to take on the pain shooting through my leg. "I think it's broken."
Brian frowned, "They didn't help you before whisking you away?" I could hear the disapproval in his voice.
"No," I answered.
Brian bent to help lower me into an overstuffed chair. He scurried and pushed the coffee table closer to act as an ottoman for my leg, which he gently pulled onto the table. He sat at my foot, straddling the table, and rolled my pant leg up to look at my injury. "How did you end up at the ministry?" he asked.
I gasped when his hand touched the bruised skin around the ankle bone and he lifted his grasp quickly. My voice came out through my panting. "After I saved those people on the subway --"
"Brilliant, by the way," Brian interrupted, rising from the coffee table and walking toward the kitchenette as he spoke, "Absolutely brilliant. All those lives!" he smiled happily then disappeared beyond the wall.
"Yeah, well..." I frowned at my three-times-bigger-than-normal-sized ankle. "That's exactly what pissed them off."
"Pissed them off?" Brian came back around the corner of the kitchenette, carrying a towel balled around some lumpy ice cubes, and the first aid kit that we always packed. I was always getting hurt, so the first aid kit was always mandatory, and always stocked full with every antidote one could possibly need. "Why in the world would that piss them off?" he asked, perplexed, "You saved peoples lives!"
"Exactly," I answered.
Brian's brow furrowed in confusion. "Okay, start from the beginning while I wrap your ankle," he said, laying the ice on my ankle and digging through the kit.
I launched into the story, telling Brian all about Dimitri Pyre abducting me and bringing me to the nondescript building in the nondescript black car. I told him about the beautiful lobby and the guest ID and the awkward separation from Dimitri in the hallway outside the door before going in to see the Elders alone.
"What were they like?" Brian asked, twining Ace bandages around my ankle tightly.
"Sort of like meeting with recording label reps," I answered, "Except much, much more intimidating." Brian frowned. "They had on normal clothes, which was weird kind of, but they were, like, really, really old. Not looks wise, I mean they looked young, but you could tell somehow that these guys were really, really old. Like centuries older than I am if you add all my cycles together, even," I explained.
Brian looked mesmerized. "What did they want? What'd they say?"
"We regret our first meeting being so impromptu and... negative," the eldest of the six of them had said apologetically, pacing around the table they'd sat behind. He'd had long, dark hair that reached to his waist, and a plain, solemn face that looked neither unkind nor gentle. His name, he'd said, was James. "We understand that you've only recently been informed of our presence?"
"They knew I was unregistered," I told Brian. "Apparently, Aimee spoke to them about me, and they've been watching out for me since, waiting for me to come to register. They're the ones that made her call me before, after the article about the plane was published."
"Do you know why you are here, Nick?" asked another of the Elders, Bartholomew.
"No, sir," I'd answered.
"Apparently," I said to Brian, "I've been too liberal with helping people."
"Too liberal?" Brian repeated. His brows were nearly touching he'd furrowed them so deeply. "How can you be too... liberal... with helping people?" he asked, "You save lives. Isn't that the point?"
"Not according to the ministry."
At this, Brian looked extremely disturbed.
"To disturb time from its natural order is to rewrite history," James had explained. I'd marveled at how oddly deep and smooth his voice was as he spoke, how composed he seemed. His fingers were lined up with one another, as though he were praying.
"Apparently saving lives alter history and causes 'disturbances' in the world's natural destiny," I said, nearly quoting James' continued sentence to Brian.
"But, but these people are innocents," Brian stammered, dumbfounded.
"Some," I answered.
"Do you know some of the greatest disasters and dictators that litter the pages of global history were enabled only because of one of our kind being unable to resist rescuing another being at an improper time?" Bartholomew had asked.
"He said Time Watchers were responsible for a ton of damage, historically," I explained.
"How can he say that?" Brian shot back, "Life is above all else precious."
"He named dozens of - of incidents."
"Like bad people that Time Watchers have rescued, or people who went on to give birth to them. By interfering with people's lifetimes they enabled things like the Holocaust to happen."
"Imagine... all those people, killed so pointlessly, all because a Time Watcher rescued the woman who would give birth to Adolf Hitler," another of the Elders had crooned.
"But if it hadn't been Hitler, it would've been someone else that did those awful things," Brian said, "It was just what was meant to be... God directs history, not Time Watchers."
"I don't get the feeling that these guys believe in God, Bri," I said quietly.
Brian frowned, "Besides, I bet a lot of really good things have happened because of people that Time Watchers have rescued, too," he snapped. "Right?"
I shrugged, "They didn't say."
"Always focusing on the negative," he said.
"Either way, they don't want me saving anymore lives," I said. "Apparently, even those of my loved ones." I instinctively looked at Brian's numbers as I said the words.
Brian stilled. "How can they expect you to watch your--"
"They said all I needed was to attach myself to other Time Watchers instead of fragile human beings. They called human life worthless," I said.
Brian looked away, at the wall, and bit his mouth closed.
"They want me to abandon my human friends," I said, "Like Amie did."
"But Amie's got her grand-daughter," Brian spat, turning to look at me. I couldn't tell if it was anger or panic that filled his brilliantly blue eyes as they locked on mine.
I shrugged, "Apparently if it comes to it, Amie will not rescue her grand-daughter.... but would allow her to die, per the code of the ministry."
"Bull shit," Brian exploded, standing up and storming away a few feet before pacing back, anger seared upon his face. "That's bull shit! Allowing someone to die when you could save them - no matter who they are or will become - is murder! This whole concept is bull shit!" He was livid.
Brian, fuming, said, "I can't believe those bastards said this stuff."
"Me either," I agreed.
"So be warned," James had said, as I was on my way out the door, "Registered or unregistered, we will be keeping an eye out for you, to make sure you are not disturbing too much of the balance of history. And don't think we will hesitate to talk to you, should this... problem... occur too many times again."
"That's why I refused to register."
Flashback: Failure, 1964 by Pengi
I was curled on the floor of my apartment, my knees hugged to my chest. I felt like my heart was being ripped out of me and I clawed at my skin so hard I was bruising, trying to feel anything beside the pain that seared within me.
Claire's fingertips were soft, running along the exposed part of my neck by my ear. She held a cool, damp cloth to my forehead, and whispered soothingly. Her kindness was more than I deserved.
"I want to die," I sobbed into my knees, "I deserve to die. More than she did. So why must I live?"
"Nick, Nick, shh," Claire's own voice was broken, on the verge of tears herself. She smoothed my hair and laid a kiss on the pulse point under my ear. "It's not your fault," she whispered.
I shook from the bitter tears that fell across my face and dripped onto the floor. Images were still burned into my retinas of the poor little girl. "I didn't save her, I didn't save her," I sobbed.
Claire's cheek felt cool against mine as she rested her face parallel with my face, wrapping her arms and legs around my body, encasing me. "You didn't have time to save her, Nick. There was no time."
"What good am I?" I asked, my voice tearing at my throat. "What the fuck am I good for? I can't even save --" I felt wretched. I couldn't even get the words out of my mouth.
"Nick, baby.. Baby, please," Claire begged me, "Please, you're going to hyperventilate."
"Shh," she whispered.
"I wanna die, Claire," I begged, "Please... Please. It should've been me, not her... Not her."
Claire's voice was soft. "You can't save everyone every time."
"But she was just a little girl," I whispered. My body felt numb.
"I know," Claire whispered. "You tried. You really did. There was nothing more you could've done."
I closed my eyes and allowed myself to feel Claire wrapped around me. My heart pounded in my chest, tattooing the image of the little girl into my mind. I would be haunted by her... by her face, her eyes... forever.
"I've never failed someone before," I whispered.
Recording Studio by Pengi
Brian and I had each gone home the next morning - Brian to Baylee and Leighanne in Georgia and me to... well, Jerome, I guess... in LA. The apartment sounded loud and empty after spending so much time with Brian, but I didn't dare to leave it much. What if I see someone with no time, I worried, What if the ministry comes to get me again? I didn't even know what they could do to punish me.
After beating my own high score like eight times on the PlayStation, I had settled for trying to read Jerome's mind. He was on the coffee table, his tongue waving, laying on a deck of cards. I was staring at him, trying to channel him.
The phone rang and sighed, "We'll continue this in a moment," I told him, "No cheating."
I crossed the room and picked up the phone, heading back to the couch. It was AJ. "Dude I think we should hit the recording studio," he said, before he'd even said hello.
"The recording studio?" I asked, surprised. "But we literally just got off tour," I said. Usually we procrastinated forever taping a new album.
"Yeah," AJ said. I could almost hear the shrug in his voice, "But this would be the last album with Jive Records, then our contract's up and we can get a new label and Kevin can come back and--"
"Look you don't gotta sell the idea to me," I said, glancing at Jerome as he slithered off the table and scuttled across the carpet toward his sunbathing lamp, which I'd never put back in the bedroom after moving it so Brian could interact with him. "I'm so bored I'm playing mind-reading games with the iguana." Besides that, I thought sadly, there's only a few short months left between now and January, and I'd like to spend it with you guys.
"Mind-games? With Jerome?" AJ asked, he snickered. "And who's winning those?"
"Duh," I said, "Jerome kicks ass at this game."
So that’s how it we all ended up in the studio the next Monday, listening to AJ lay his tracks. Brian, Howie and I were playing cards while AJ worked (and Howie, I’m sad to say, was cheating like a rug… er, something like that). “So, Nick,” Howie said, “You ever hear from that Amie chick?”
Brian looked up. “Why?”
Howie glanced at Brian, then back at me, then to Brian again. “I thought I said Nick?”
Brian flushed. “I’m just wondering why you brought it up.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Nah,” I answered, lying smoothly, “I didn’t hear from her.”
Brian gave me a funny look.
“Too bad, you liked her,” Howie said. He tossed a pair of Jacks down on the table and looked around at Brian and I, thinking. “Nick, do you got a seven?”
“Go fish,” I answered. I sipped the Pepsi I had sitting in front of me. “Yeah, she was all right. But hey, if she’s not gonna call me back… not much point in waitin’ around for her.” I scanned my cards. “Brian, a five?” Brian forked over the five of hearts and I dropped my pair of fives as Howie slipped another card down to the table, thinking no one saw. “Howie, a King?”
“Go fishy, fishy Nicky,” he said in a teasing voice. I knew he’d had one earlier, though. He must’ve dropped it at some point. Bastard. “AJ said she was hot, too,” he added.
“Who’d I say was hot?” AJ came out of the booth, panting and spraying a bottle of water at his face.
“That Amie chick Nick picked up in the sticks,” Howie said, looking over his shoulder at AJ.
“Oh yeah,” AJ nodded. He grabbed a handful of the popcorn that we had sitting in a bowl in the middle of us. “She was a fox.”
“I’m so glad AJ’s approval rating means I should’ve stayed with a woman or not,” I said, rolling my eyes.
AJ smirked, “Well at least your relationships would last longer than like a minute, right? Because … damn, do I approve of women.”
Brian looked up, “And you have such fine taste, too.”
Brian’s words had been sarcastic, but AJ beamed as though he’d meant them. “No shit, right?” He turned and galloped to the bathroom.
“He’s unbelievable,” Howie said.
I laughed, “Yeah, but … he’s AJ.”
“Nick, you’re up,” the production guy called me from the soundboard. “We’re gonna have you run through the vocals on Straight Through My Heart.”
“Shall we pause the game then?” Howie asked.
“Why?” I asked, “You’re cheating anyways.” I grabbed my Pepsi, downed what was left of it and headed into the booth as Howie sputtered to Brian about false accusations and Brian laughed hysterically.
We'd been recording for a couple weeks, and I'd been frantically avoiding going into public the entire time, scared sick I'd see someone who needed rescuing. I hadn't yet decided how I'd handle it if I did see someone, rescued them, and the ministry came to my door step again. We had done an overnight session (the acoustics are totally different at night than they are during the day - go figure) and I'd fallen into bed at 4:00 am, exhausted and sweaty (Brian and I had shot hoops while Howie had wrapped up his take just before leaving for the night). I was still in bed at 2:00 in the afternoon, when the visitor buzzer went off in the other room.
I groaned, then rolled over. The fellas have keys, I thought, pulling a pillow over my head. I didn't care about seeing anyone else.
But whoever was on the other end of the buzzer was persistent, and when I didn't answer the first buzz, they buzzed again. The third time, they held it down longer, and the fourth time they buzzed in short, annoying bursts.
"What the fuck," I moaned, rolling over and spotting the alarm clock. Granted, I'd slept plenty by this point, but I was still tired, and they were waking me up from a sound sleep. I'd been in the middle of a damn good dream, no less.
I crawled out of bed, distinctly aware of how messed up my hair was (I felt like I was in Flock of Seagulls or something), and stumbled through the apartment toward the door. I almost stepped on Jerome and ended up tripping over my own two feet trying to avoid crushing the iguana. He hissed and ran across the floor and under the table I kept my keys on.
The buzzer was still humming loudly. I wondered if there was a way to disconnect it.
"For the love of God," I said, pressing the TALK/LISTEN button and holding it down, leaning against the panel, my mouth against the grate the speaker was behind. "Stop that annoying noise now."
"Nick?" the speaker rattled a bit, like static. It was a woman.
My mind raced. Was I expecting a visit from a woman? "Um... what?" I asked.
"Nick, it's me," she said. And as soon as the words were out, the sleepy haze that had kept me from recognizing the voice to begin with lifted and I knew exactly who it was. Even without her telling me. "It's Amie."
"What do you want?" I asked. What the hell are you doing at my house? I added in my mind.
"I need to talk to you," she said in an urgent manner.
Talk to me, my ass, bitch. "Fine," I hit the button that allowed her into the building and waited.
It only took a minute. I was on the second floor of a relatively small building. She knocked and I shot a glance at Jerome, who was still hissing at me from beside my sneakers under the table. Last time he'd gotten into the hall by accident it had been disastrous. Let's just say the woman down the hall is not so fond of iguanas. She wasn't as easy to persuade to their coolness as Brian had been, either, especially not when she found them in her laundry basket, stealing her favorite blouse's buttons. I opened the door swiftly and waved Amie in.
She stepped inside and looked around. It wasn't until that moment that I realized I'd really let the place get shot to hell since Brian had been around cleaning it everyday. It looked like Oscar Madison's apartment, kind of. It had definitely lost the scent of Lysol that her permeated the air from when Brian had taken up chasing Jerome around with the wipes. The lemon-freshness had been replaced with a scent somewhat akin to dirty laundry and burnt toast. At least she won't wanna stay long, I consoled myself as I flushed. I wasn't usually the typical bachelor-pad type, but you'd never be able to tell by the state of the apartment.
"Charming," she said. "So, what exactly died in her?" her nose was crinkled and she looked at me with a disgusted look on her face.
"We're still researching that," I replied flatly.
Amie walked further into the apartment, looking around, either not noticing or not caring that I hadn't left the door area. I didn't want her getting too comfy-cozy, I had no intention of playing host. "Well?" I asked after a moment, hoping to prompt her to talk.
She turned to look at me again. "It's not exactly what I had imagined a multi-platinum popstar's home looking like," she answered. "It's more... 'white trash' than 'famous'."
I clenched my fist. I fucking hate the 'white trash' phrase. I thought bitterly. "I did not mean 'well, what do you think of my place'," I responded, my voice straining not to lash out at her, "I meant, 'well, what do you want'. But since we're on the brutal honesty topic... um, hello, you're a bitch."
Amie raised her eyebrow. "Hey, I'm just making observations here. C'mon, you gotta know this place is kind of ... slummy ... compared to what most celebrities have."
"It's not 'slummy'," I retorted, "It's normal. I have enough crazy shit in my life without a freakin' mansion with peacocks strutting all over the lawn, okay? Jesus..."
Amie laughed at this. The sound, similar to falling shards of class on a tile floor, surprised me because I hadn't expected it. I was genuinely pissed off, and she apparently found my reaction to her assessment funny. "Who said anything about peacocks?" she asked.
I shrugged, bitter. "Howie like showing off," I muttered.
Amie continued to laugh, "You actually know someone who has peacocks on the lawn?" she asked, "But what on earth could be the point of that?"
Again, I shrugged. "Probably because he's Howie and he's so ridiculously rich that he can afford to rent peacocks for his lawn," I said, my voice level, "I think that's the look he's going for."
Amie noticed now that I was not laughing with her, and the fit died way abruptly. She sat on a bar stool next to my kitchen counter, about ten feet away from me now, and ran her purple-polished nails across the bumpy counter top. I stayed by the door.
After what seemed a long, drawn out silence, I finally said, "What the hell do you want?"
Amie looked up at me, her hand dropped from the counter. "I thought we were friends?"
"We might've been," I said irritably, "If you hadn't been such a colossal bitch to my best friend for no apparent reason, or if you hadn't told the ministry to watch me or whatever."
"I didn't tell them to--"
"You realize they kidnap people?" I snapped, "No warning, no phone call, not even a fucking postcard! Just boom - kidnapped."
Amie bit her lip and frowned. She adverted her eyes, "I'm sorry. Why did they do that?"
"It's a little late for 'sorry'," I muttered, shaking my head. "And why? Why did they kidnap me? Because I saved like 1,500 lives from a subway train collision, that's why. Yeah, apparently I'm not supposed to save lives."
Amie looked up at me, surprised. "You were saving people?" she asked, her voice sounded scandalized and shocked, similar to how it might've sounded if I'd just informed her that I'd held up a convenience store with a squirt gun or something. "Nick!"
"Well what the fuck else point does being a Time Watcher have if not to save people?" I demanded, my voice sharp. I stormed away from the door and moved into the living room, where I threw myself down on the couch, mad that she had gotten me mad.
Amie had winced at the harsh tone, but followed me into the living room. She sat on the edge of the cushion on the opposite end of the couch from me. "You're being very disrespectful and rude and --"
"I don't care," I interrupted. "I don't want to be respectful or polite or whatever else you were going to say." Amie set her jaw and stared at me, anger burning in the pupils of her eyes. "Why are we here, if not to save?" I demanded. "Give me one good answer."
Amie looked down at her hands, then whispered, "The same reason the peacocks are on your friend's lawn?" she looked up, a half smile threatening to spread.
"That's not funny," I snapped. Well, maybe a little, but like hell am I telling you that.
Amie nodded. "Sorry," she said. Then, "Can't we just exist to enjoy our lives without worrying about everyone else's time?" she asked.
"How can I enjoy mu life if I can't save the people I love?" I snapped.
"You love 1,500 people on a New York Subway Train?" she asked doubtfully, "Nick, most of New York is comprised of idiots. There's no way you love all of them."
"God damn it, it isn't funny!" I shouted. I stood up quickly and threw the TV remote that had been sitting on the arm of the sofa next to me at the wall, where it made a dent in the wall before it fell to the floor. "Do you want me to just let them all die? Like they don't matter? Like life is some stupid thing you can waste?" I was screaming the words, my voice venomous. I flung my arms out at my side, "Is that what life is to you people? A game? A funny little game where it doesn't matter if the worthless humans die, so long as you don't say the unspeakable way to die and you register like good little children at the ministry? Is that what it is? Do you want me to walk away when I can prevent babies from being killed?" Lila and her pudgy little infant had popped into my mind as I yelled, and I took a deep, shaking breath. "Am I supposed to watch them die?"
"It's what is supposed to happen," Amie answered, "It's the way history planned for them to die."
I snorted indignantly and my arms dropped back to my sides. "So you'd just let'em all die, regardless that you could do something to help?"
Amie frowned, "You make it sound really harsh and cruel."
"It is really harsh and cruel!" I answered.
"It's not like that, though," she responded, "That's just the way life is. Some people live and some people die and there's nothing we can do to change that. It's just how it is. But we're not supposed to tamper with it."
"What, then - morally, speaking - is the difference between letting them die when there's something I could do to stop it, and things like terrorism or the holocaust? How am I, someone who will look the other way, any different than a Hitler or a Bin Ladin?" I demanded of her.
Amie blinked in surprise, as though this question wasn't the crucible of what we were arguing about and it had come out of left field. She had a way of seeming perpetually caught off-guard. "Nick, don't be stupid," she said, "They choose to kill."
"And you choose, too," I said, feeling that sense of triumph that came with having successfully made a point. "Every time you turn and look away, you make a choice to kill."
"Nick," she was struggling with the point, and I knew I had her, whether she would admit it or not.
"Every time you make an excuse for why you can't help them, you're choosing. You choose not to save someone's life, you choose that they are dispensable, you choose for them to die."
Amie sighed and looked at her fingernails, defeated. "It's different, Nick," she said weakly.
"It is not different," I said evenly, my voice its normal volume now, the rage of the argument evaporating slowly. "It is very, very much the same. Exactly the same. And that's why I chose not to register."
Amie looked up, covered her mouth with one hand, and her eyes were wide. "What?" she asked, her voice muffled by her hand.
"When the Elders asked me to register, I refused, because I didn't want them to think that I agreed with the policies and views that they were sharing."
"Oh my God, Nick," Amie murmured.
"What? Do they have some kind of spell on you or something? Why can't you see how fucked up they are?" I asked.
Amie's mouth quivered ever so slightly, her nose flared just a little bit as she tried to keep her breaths measured and even so that she did not cry. Afraid, I thought, a wash of pity and understanding flooding over me. She's literally afraid to speak against them, to see it differently than they do.
"Amie," I said gently, "I'm sorry. But they're wrong."
She looked at my eyes and I saw that there was a tear threatening the corner of her eye. "They'll kill you if they need to, Nick," she whispered, "They won't hesitate."
"I don't care," I said, "I won't look the other way. I can't. I am what I am for a reason, and if I can save people, then I will. I don't care what the ministry says or does about it. I'd rather die than be a murderer."
Amie stared at me as I stood there before her, resolute, certain of my words, unwilling to back down. As far as I was concerned, it was true. I would die gladly. I was tired, exhausted, from all the living, and I only had months left with the guys before I'd start all over again anyway. Really, I had absolutely nothing to lose.
"Before you make such a decision," she said, taking a deep breath, "There's something I need to tell you. It's why I came today. I found out something else about the Looping."
"Nothing you say is going to make me change my mind, Amie," I said.
Her eyes connected solidly with mine, and she whispered, "It's also about Claire."
My heart stopped. "Claire? What about Claire?"
Flashback: Heat Wave, 1967 by Pengi
Note: updated warnings for sexual content.
It was one of those rare New England summer nights when the temperature hovers around 100 degrees and humid. Claire, who had asthma, was having trouble breathing in the heat, and a sheen of sweat had completely covered her, like a second skin. To escape the boxed-in feeling of the City apartment, we drove to the beach and were camping out among the dunes, where the air coming off the Atlantic ocean was marginally cooler than that blowing around in the apartment in Boston.
Claire had moved in with me eleven months ago - and an amazing eleven months it had been. We'd celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together. It as new to have someone there with me, someone spending time with me every day. I'd never had someone that I'd been quite this close to before, and Claire's proximity made me feel wanted, something that I'd been lacking until that point.
Plus the sex was like... woah.
We were laying on the beach that night, under the stars, on an old comforter that Claire had pulled from the bed. We'd dragged along a cooler we filled with ice cubes and bottles of Coca-cola and cups to drink the water as the ice melted. Claire had stuck a couple bologna sandwiches in, too, which we'd shared for dinner, even though they'd gotten kind of soggy from all the ice. Claire had wrapped her body around mine, her head rested on my chest, looking away toward a jetty that stuck out into the ocean with a lighthouse on the end. The silouhette of a seagull in her nest stood in contrast to the lamp as it spun.
I was staring at the stars, though, thinking about death - or rather, whatever is after it. The stars had always fascinated me in this way, which sounds unusual until you remember that the stars we can see today have already died. Their afterlife is the light that travels from where they were to where we are, millions and millions of miles away. The stars are proof that there is something beyond death, some lingering part of us, that is our ultimate beauty, our purpose.
The nature of my ability to life forever and watch time weave her web was the cause of the desire to know there was something more. Knowing there was a Beyond made it easier to let go of the people I'd seen move in and out of my life, passing into death.
It was this desire for Beyond that fueled my interest in ghosts and paranormal activity. More than anything, I wanted to believe in seances and ouija boards and ghosts, I wanted to believe that it was possible to contact those who had died, because then my friends, too, could live forever. It was an understandable desire, wasn't it? Considering everyone that I loved had died.
Except for Claire. But the painful knowledge that one day she would pass away, one day she would be cold and still and absent, terrified me more than any other possibility. More than death for myself.
The thought had made me tense, and Claire must've felt the shift in my body, because she moved to straddle my waist, looking down into my face. "What is it, baby?" she asked, bending down to kiss the most sensitive place on my neck.
The moonlight reflecting off her scarlet hair gave her an almost iridescent glow, like the aurora borealis in the dark Alaskan sky. Her green eyes looked dark, as her hair shone. It was like being straddled and kissed by a masterpiece of artwork. I felt myself instantly stiffen, and Claire looked down at the place where our bodies met and smiled naughtily, aware of what had changed. "Oh I see," she whispered.
I laughed quietly.
"Oh Nick," she said, shaking her head, "I really do love you, you know."
"And I, you, my Love," I responded.
She grinned. "Forever," she whispered.
The terror returned at the word, and I looked away, my eyes trailing the rocky jetty. She tilted her head and touched my cheek, "What is it?"
"I am afraid of the future," I admitted.
"Why?" she asked.
I looked up at her. "Because one day I will lose you, and I don't know how I will live without you."
Claire shook her head, "I'll never leave you."
"Someday you won't have a choice," I whispered.
"You mean death?" she asked. When I nodded, she sighed and kissed my jaw. "Even then, I would never leave you. Never, ever."
I laughed sadly, wishing that there were a way that she could be telling the truth.
"Don't laugh at me," she pouted down at me, and I looked up at her. "I will always be wherever you are, forever. Because even if I die, you are my Heaven." I was sure she could see the sadness in my eyes, reflecting in the smile I gave her. She leaned down and our mouths touched again. She ground herself against me and ran her fingers up my shirt as we kissed. It felt so good. I put my hands on her hips, holding her to me, and the ocean roared dully beyond us.
Perhaps the ocean's hum was why we didn't hear him approaching until it was too late and he'd already shined his flashlight on us. Claire stopped kissing me and withdrew her hands from under my shirt, her face flushed with both the passion and the heat. I rolled my eyes up and tilted my head back, exposing my neck, to look up at the officer standing over us. Away on the lot, I could see his cruiser's headlights beaming down across the sand, and his footprints leading from the walkway. He cleared his throat, "Good evening," he said.
Claire rolled off me and landed with a soft thud on the sand. I sat up and turned around to face him.
"The beach is closed," he informed us. Thankfully, he didn't seem interested in reprimanding us.
"Sorry officer," Claire croaked. Her face was the color of a strawberry, her freckles standing out against her nose like seeds.
"Yeah, we're sorry, we were trying to -uh- get some air," I explained, "We're from Boston... the city's hot tonight."
The officer nodded, "Well, move along , kids."
Claire and I stood up and collected the blanket from the sand and the cooler while the cop watched. Then he escorted us back across the sand to the car.
It wasn't until we were in the car and I was driving home, the air streaming through the windows around us, that Claire started laughing hysterically. "You should've seen the look on your face!"
When we got home, the apartment was still hotter than Hell. We walked through the door and started shedding layers until we were both laying on the carpet in the living room in our underwear. Claire was holding her inhaler with one hand, and I was absently running my hand through her hair.
"That thing you said on the beach," I said, suddenly, looking down at her, "About me being your heaven?"
"Yeah?" she asked. Her voice was strained as she struggled to breathe. The sound of her struggling made me nervous and I found my eyes flickering constantly to her numbers to make sure she was okay.
"If I could die," I said, "You would be my heaven, too. I just wanted you to know that."
Claire smiled. "I may die if this heat doesn't stop."
"You aren't gonna die," I said, "I've been watching your numbers very carefully."
"Heatstroke, then," she whispered, closing her eyes.
I looked around and saw a glass of condensing ice water that we'd carried out from the kitchen. I smirked, an idea forming in my mind. "Oh?" I asked.
Claire nodded miserably. "This is New England, not Nevada, I don't understand."
I kissed her nose and reached for the glass at the same time, while she was distracted with my lips on her face. "Mmm," she mumbled.
"Hey I know something that'll cool you down," I whispered in her ear, my voice low, suggestive.
Claire giggled, "Nick, that'll make me hotter."
"No, not that," I crooned, "Although I'm cool with doing that, too, but I was thinking of this..." I poured the water over her in a swift motion, and she screamed in surprise, while I laughed and discarded the glass on the floor.
"Oh my God! I'm gonna kill you!" she screamed, sitting up and rubbing water from her eyes where it had pooled. The water streamed down from her hair and made her light yellow bra nearly see through. "Nick, the carpet's soaked."
I laughed, "Ah so what."
Claire jumped up and ran into the kitchen. I stood up, "No way in hell am I sitting still while you go get a glass of water to get me back with," I yelled, "Just so you know." I could hear the faucet running. "I'm not stupid," I said, smiling.
She came around the corner carrying two more glasses of water and ran at me, squealing. I ducked out of the way as water from the first glass went flying past me and hit the wall of the hallway. "Take it like a man, Carter!" she yelled, coming at me with the second glass.
"You throw like a girl, Lawson," I shouted back, escaping down the hall.
She followed, her laughter echoing in the hallway, a slight wheeze breaking through it. "You are so getting soaked," she threatened, holding the second glass at the ready.
"Am I?" I asked, ducking into the bathroom. I closed the door behind me, and I heard her barrel into it just as I locked it.
"Wuss!" she yelled, knocking.
"Wuss, am I?" I yelled back.
"Biggest wuss I ever knew!" she answered. She stopped knocking.
I leaned against the door, listening. "Do you know many?" She didn't answer, "Claire?" I called. Still no answer. She must've gone to reload, I thought. I opened the door and stuck my head out, to be greeted by the splash of the second glass of water. She was leaning against the opposite wall, a gigantic grin on her face.
"Ha! I got you!" she dissolved into giggles, dropping to the floor.
"Okay, that's it." I grabbed her, lifting her off the floor. She kicked at the air, but I carried her into the bathroom, into the shower, and turned it on. The ice water started pouring from the nozzle and she squealed as it hit her back. I was standing with her, it was hitting my head, cascading off of me and down onto her, making my hair fall forward, drenching us both. The water ran down my spine and I felt my boxers getting soaked. Her little yellow bra was officially transparent and I cupped my hands around her gently, grinning down as the water made her hair hang in heavy, dark auburn-looking strings around her face.
"Fuck that feels good," she whispered as the water cooled her temperature.
I started massaging her chest and she groaned, biting her lip and closing her eyes. I bent my head down, the water splashing off my cheek and getting in our eyes, and began kissing her neck, drinking the cold water off her skin. She pressed into my hands as they moved against her and her fingers scratched their way down my spine, touching each vertebrae in a way that made a chill crawl through me.
It was the most amazing sex we'd ever had, standing there in the ice-cold downpour, drinking the water from each other's bodies and feeling it make our skin slippery, washing away the sweat that had glazed us. And when I put myself inside her, it was euphoric. My palms pressed against the shower wall, my head tilted back, water pouring onto my face. Claire's face pressed into my neck, kissing and nipping gently at my skin, her arms wrapped around my neck, holding herself up. I could feel her knees weaken as she got closer and closer. Our hips moved together, our skin only separated by the water.
"Oh Nick," she suddenly moaned in my ear, "Ohhh."
The sound of her made me press all the harder into her, made me feel as though I was standing on the edge of a great precipice. She brought her legs up around my waist and hung there from me like a spider-monkey, clinging to me. I brought my face into her neck now, her head tilted back, and kissed and sucked at her neck, the tips of her breasts rubbing against my chest rhythmically. And then, she was calling my name. I pushed into her one last time, as deeply as I could and held onto the shower curtain pole to steady myself, my knuckles white, my toes curling beneath me as I, too, let go.
We tumbled into the bottom of the shower, sitting in the curve of the bathtub, Claire straddling me, me still imbedded inside her, our chests heaving. She fell forward, gasping, sliding off me, and laid down across my chest, her wet hair hanging like a curtain over my shoulder. The water continued to rain down over us.
"See?" she gasped, but not because of her asthma now, "Heaven."
"Now I'm not certain this is the answer for you," Amie had said when we'd sat down, "So don't get your hopes impossibly high, but - if what I'm guessing is true..." she's let her voice trail off.
Amie was sitting there on the sofa, cross-legged and facing me. I was on the edge, staring down at my hands, my palms were sweating. My heart was pounding in my chest like a heavy drum-line.
"What is it?" I'd asked, sitting back down numbly, shocked from having heard Amie say Claire's name.
"I found this book, its colossally old, written way, way back when, by one of the first Time Watchers who worked to preserve history and science in our world. He mentioned a phenomenon caused by destiny that he called Destina-Looping."
"Destina-Looping?" I asked, tilting my head.
"It's when two fragments of soul are split, and one part of the soul that is born before the time of the second part of the soul's birth. It's basically soul mates, but one of the parts of the soul forgot to set the alarm and missed being born at the same time as the other - so they lose each other in Time," she smirked at the corny analogy.
"Okay?" I blinked, trying to comprehend where she was going with this.
"It's a horrible, tragic thing, and it happens to human, too, but if the part of the soul that is born first is born a Time Watcher, then it's a whole different ball game. The Time Watcher will experience Looping - because Time in its almighty knowledge of everything, knows that the soul is not complete, that the other part is coming." Amie paused and gnawed her lower lip, thinking. I still wasn't entirely sure what she as saying. I had a slight idea, but I was afraid to accept it, scared that the concept would burst and be gone. "How old were you when you first met Claire?" she asked.
"Thirteen," I answered, "I usually am thirteen when I first meet the people I love, though, because I'm starting my life over again. Like I met Brian and the fellas when I was thirteen, too."
Amie nodded, "Yeah but last I checked you weren't soul mates with them."
"Well, no," I answered. I paused. "Wait, you're saying Claire caused my Looping? But I was looping long before I met Claire."
Amie nodded again, "Yes, but Time knew that you were born too soon, and therefore preserved you for Claire. You had to be 13 when you met Claire because Claire was thirteen when you were destined to meet her."
"She was twelve, actually," I answered slowly.
"Whatever," Amie said. "The point is that the Looping provided you with the means you needed to meet her, right? If you'd been thirty in 1957, you never would've met her."
I'd never thought about it like that before. "Right... but then..."
"Well Time also knew how long you would need to be together before you bound your souls," Amie continued.
"If you're talking about sex, we did that way, way before I was thirty."
"Too much information, but no, that's not what I meant. Nick, it sounds old fashioned, but that's what marriage is all about... binding the soul before God... or Time or whatever you want to think of the sovereign rule in life as." Amie hesitated, "Did you marry Claire, Nick?"
Our eyes met. "Yes," I whispered, remembering the whirlwind night we'd done it.
"Just before I changed. We thought... if I was committed... that the cycles would stop... and I'd stay thirty."
Amie's face cracked into a grin. "Nick..."
"So you're saying that I relive the same seventeen years because that's how long I knew Claire? Because Claire met me at thirteen and married me at 29-almost-30?"
"Yes," Amie whispered, "But there's something else."
"Remember what I told you, about how a Time Watcher is created?" she asked, "About there being a choice that the person makes before their death, and then they become a Time Watcher when they die?"
The idea was completely insane.
"Claire can't have become a Time Watcher. I was there... I was beside her, holding her hand when she died."
"How old was she?"
"Sixty-four," I answered.
"She wouldn't have stayed 64, Nick," Amie said. "How long did you stay with her?"
"I couldn't stand to see her like that," I answered, remembering how her hand had gone cold, how her face had slipped into an emotionless sleep. I had lifted her, kissed her gently, and laid her back down, tears pouring from my eyes, dripping onto her cheek, and I'd fled. I'd run from the hospital and sat there at the lagoon until I'd had to go back to the hotel because the fellas would miss me, wonder where I'd gone. I hadn't stayed. "I - I left, almost immediately."
Amie nodded. "Nick she would've changed like you do. It would be hours, overnight, not instantaneous."
My mouth went dry. "She's..."
"She might be," Amie corrected with emphasis, "If she made the choice to stay with you."
I couldn't process. "She's... she's..." I looked at Amie, "But, then- the Looping..."
"Her soul was connected to yours at 30, you're both destined to be 30, you just have to have the two pieces together. It's like a bond. If you are together, and you're both 30, the Looping will cease because the destiny will have been fulfilled. Destina-Looping is cured by the destiny the soul is waiting for being fulfilled."
I felt numb. Claire? My Claire could still be alive? Well, not still, because she did, indeed, die, but... If the choice was hers.... maybe... Claire... was... a Time Watcher, too?
"Nick?" Amie said gently, reaching out and laying a hand on my knee. "Are you okay?"
"What are the odds of this being true?" I asked her quietly.
Amie hesitated, "I don't know, only you know how much you told her about your ability."
"I told her everything I knew," I whispered. I looked at her, she was smiling. I could feel my entire body was tense with anticipation. "How the hell would I find out?" I asked.
"Look for her," Amie answered. "That's what Rodney did for me. He looked for me."
"How long did it take to find you?" I asked.
"A year or more," Amie replied.
"I don't have a year," I whispered, "I'll be thirteen again on the 28th of January..."
"I know. That's why it was so urgent; you have to find her before you're 13 again," Amie replied, "That's why I flew out. Nick, it makes so much sense."
It's so crazy, that it almost does, I thought.
"What happens if I find her after I turn thirteen?" I asked.
Amie's eyes met mine. "The Looping will stop once you are both reunited. Regardless of the age you are."
"So I'd become 30 then?" I hazarded a guess.
Amie frowned, and shook her head. "No. But that's why you need to find her before you change."
Brian and I were sitting outback of the recording studio while AJ was taping when I told him about Amie's visit - our fight, and the news about Claire. Brian's eyes had darkened, brightened, and then set ablaze with excitement as the story progressed, and now he was sitting on the top of the old, dilapitated picnic table that the recording company kept around for God-knows-what reason, his hands palm-down on his knees, practically shaking with excitement.
"Holy crow, Frack!" he'd exclaimed when I'd gotten to the end, the part where Claire was maybe a Time Watcher, too. "Holy crow!" He rubbed his palms on his knees, and beamed at me, "Dude I've got goosebumps right now." He held out his arm.
I laughed. "You're such a dumbass, 'Rok," I smiled at him appreciatively. "If I ever told AJ or Howie this story, they'd make fun of me 'til the cows came home... Especially AJ."
Brian laughed, "Yeah. But who cares, dude? I mean, this is awesome. How excited are you?"
"I'm trying not to get my hopes up too impossibly high, actually," I admitted, "Which, by the way, you're really helping with." I pushed his shoulder playfully. He smirked. "I mean, Amie said it was only a possibility. There's no way to know for certain until I find her."
Brian grinned, "But it's such a cool idea anyways!"
I nodded, "I want it to be true so bad. Claire is... she's a part of me, and... I've never been happy without her. Even before I had her, I always felt like part of me was kind of void. I thought it was because I kept losing everything. I've never had a home longer than 17 years, never had a family or friends or anything longer than that. Until Claire."
Brian ruffed my hair - which I don't particularly like, but it's Brian, so I didn't complain. "Well, Romeo, we gotta figure out how you're gonna track her down then, don't we?"
"Yeah. I mean, I have like what now, six months approximately, right? There's only like six billion people in the world, I should be able to find her, right?" I laughed sarcastically. "Oh and I gotta track her down while I'm touring and doing promo work for the album...."
Brian laughed. "Well, the album promo may actually help you. I mean we're gonna be all over the news for a couple days, and there'll be tons of places to find out exactly where we are and stuff, so if Claire is looking for you, you'll be relatively easy to track down."
"Yeah, if I'm not in frickin' Japan or something," I answered, frowning.
"Release week is in New York," Brian reminded me. "Plus we have a couple Jingle Balls and the New Years Eve thing."
"So what happens if you don't find her before your birthday?" Brian asked suddenly.
Dammit, I thought. I'd slipped that part of the problem in by accident, having meant to leave it out. The last thing I'd wanted to do was draw Brian's attention to my impending change. As of yet, he had not yet made the connection between the 17 year cycle, my current age, and what my upcoming birthday meant and I'd liked it that way. It kept him from worrying and being all Brian-like.
"Complications," I answered slowly.
Brian thought about it, then said, "Oh." Then, after a longer pause, a more empathetic, "Oh." He looked at me, his eyebrows knit together. "But if you turn 13..." his voice faded, and he just looked at me with those crystal blue eyes of his for a long moment. Then he looked away, and we fell into a thick cut-it-with-a-jack-hammer silence.
The metal door leading into the studio opened and AJ stuck his head out. "What the fuck man, you guys are hard to track down." He opened the door the rest of the way and leaned against the door jamb, holding the door with his foot. "We were looking all over the place for you two."
"Bri needed to get some air," I said, standing up, hoping AJ wouldn't notice the sick look on Brian's face. This is exactly why I didn't wanna tell you, B, I thought, shooting a glance at him.
AJ looked at Brian, "Crap, 'Rok, you look like shit man."
"I don't feel really too good," Brian mumbled. He got up and slipped past AJ into the hallway and I could hear him thumping up the stairs to the studio.
AJ glanced over his shoulder as Brian retreated, then looked at me. "Oookay, then. Is he sick?"
"Probably," I answered, "He was uh fighting it, that's why we came out here."
"He better not fuckin' ralph before he gets to the bathroom," AJ commented, his nose scrunched up.
I laughed. AJ had the most unique vocabulary at times... "I'm sure he won't toss the cookies before he gets in there..." I snickered.
"Hurl," he said.
Our conversation was very quickly turning the way of a couple of four year olds seeing who could say the dirtiest word. "Barf," I said.
"Blow chunks," he grinned.
Time to play the V-card, I thought. "Vomit." I knew AJ hated the word.
"UGH!" AJ turned away from me, "Jesus, you win Carter, you sick fuck."
I laughed, "Why does 'vomit' bug you when none of those other way-more-disgusting terms don't?"
AJ shuddered, "I dunno man! It's freaky. Like the word sounds exactly like it does when ya do it... Ugh." He shook his arms, hands, and head violently, as though getting the word off his skin, then grinned. "You're up next in the booth, by the way."
"Sweet," I said. I'd been looking forward to getting into the booth... We were recording one of the last pieces we needed for the album already. Even though we'd only been in the studio a couple weeks, most of the material had been taped off and on throughout the last tour - something that I was thankful for, because it made for a quick release, which I would have no problem getting done before my birthday. I would even have time to enjoy the promotional work.
I clapped my arm around AJ's shoulder and we goofed off, dancing on our way up the stairs to the studio.
Flashback: Can't Stay, 1968 by Pengi
I leaned my forehead against the seat in front of me as Boston's skyline grew progressively smaller out the window of the Greyhound bus. Tears streaked my face. I tried to keep from looking up, I didn't want anyone else seeing them fall.
The greater part of me hoped that she would completely forget about me, marry some rich guy that could take care of her for all the days of her life, and that she'd live happily ever after in a fairy tale life, like she deserved. I wanted her to have the perfect wedding with him, have children and be the best mom ever. I wanted her to grow old with him, sit in rocking chairs on the front porch with him. Experience life with him.
But the selfish part of me - my heart - prayed she'd come after me.
We'd been sitting at the breakfast table that morning, eating eggs and bacon, when she'd put down her fork, wiped her mouth, and said boldly, "Nick, marry me already, will you?"
I'd looked up, surprised, and blinked wordlessly. The idea of being married to Claire had made my heart soar for the most marginal second. I'd really pictured it - seen her in the white dress and me in the black suit and bow tie, and heard the march, the whole nine yards. But then reality, as usually, snapped back into place. My forehead creased. "I can't, Claire," I said.
She looked hurt. "Why? Don't you love me?" her bright green eyes had dimmed the moment the words came out of my mouth.
"I'm sorry," I answered, "Claire, you know what's wrong with me, you know I can't do that. I only have seven more years."
"So? Marry me and we'll spend all seven together."
"I can't do that to you," I answered.
"Do what? Agree to love me and take care of me and cherish me?" she asked.
"Promise you 'til death do us part' because death won't part us," I answered, looking away, unable to stand the look in her eyes anymore.
Claire had reached across the table and touched my hand. "I don't care if you turn thirteen again," she whispered, "I'll always love you anyway."
I pulled my hand away. "Someday you'll want to marry someone, and you won't be able to because a thirteen year old is in the way," I said, shaking my head, "I can't do that to you."
"I'll never want anyone else," she replied, stubbornly.
"You say that now, but it's only 'cos I'm still here," I said, "I'm not going to always be here, Claire. Eventually I'm going to have to leave, and --"
"You can't leave me," she whispered.
It had been in that instant that I realized how selfish I'd been. Staying with Claire was destroying her life. She would waste her entire life for the seventeen years that I was with her, and she would die alone... and it would be my fault, for leading her on, for not letting her go.
Claire wanted things that I would never have the luxury of being able to give her. Such as a marriage and family and a husband with salt and pepper hair.
And I loved her too much to deprive her.
I'd packed my clothes up in the dark. The note I'd left sat on the pillow next to her, all the money she'd ever need in a bag I'd slipped into her purse. I dropped a check into the box of the landlord on my way out, paying rent for the next year.
I threw up twice on the way to the bus station - once in the Public Garden and once in the restroom at the terminal while i was waiting to buy the ticket. I'd chosen a place close enough that I could check on her if I wanted to, but far enough away that the odds of running into her were not very high. Though, I admit, I did not want it to be completely impossible.
And that was how I ended up on a midnight ride to New York City, crying, and praying that she could forgive me for running away.
The First Rescue Since by Pengi
We had wrapped up recording the first week of September and rushed the tracks into production. The fans were ecstatic when we announced our release date in early October. I was, too, because that meant I had plenty of time to focus on the promotion for it, do a mini tour, and find Claire before January, so that I could potentially keep my life and finally be stable, if not normal, for a while anyway. Not to mention finally, absolutely, never leave Claire again.
It was the weekend and we'd been invited to do this shindig charity thing at Brian's alma mata, Tate's Creek High School, in Kentucky. They were throwing a big outdoor barbeque and shooting off fireworks at dusk, collecting donations of $10 admission and $20 to watch the show we were going to put on in their little football stadium, raising money for the state of Kentucky's school music programs. AJ, of course, who has always been a big advocate of VH1 Save the Music, was on board immediately, and the next thing you know, between Brian's reunion and AJ's passion, all four of us were on a plane to Louisville.
Brian had finally stopped acting funny around me, as he had been since he'd figured out what me turning 13 in January would mean, not only for me but also for him. He'd steered clear of me for almost a week, until the last day of recording, when he'd come up to me with a list of 246 ways I could get Claire's attention during the promotional time of release week and beyond.
"I figure one of these has to work," he explained, "Then you can stay and we'll just say you're like Dick Clark or something."
I'd smiled. "We'll figure it out. Thanks, man."
The ideas had been kinda crappy, but I didn't care. He was back to goofing off and treating me like normal and that's what mattered.
Today, on the plane, Baylee was sitting between us hugging Woody from Toy Story to his chest, and laughing hysterically at a cartoon Brian had set up for him on the little in-flight TV. The headset was huge on his little head, his wild mess of curls sticking out every which way. I was kinda jealous of him for getting to watch the cartoon.
"So what if you just outright make a statement," Brian said, "Like right on stage at like GMA or something? Just 'Claire if you're out there, meet me at...' type thing? It'll be very Sleepless in Seattle."
"I'd really rather it not be 'very Sleepless in Seattle, thanks," I laughed, "Plus if I ever did that Claire would never be able to get anywhere near wherever it was that I said - all the fans would go there."
"That's true," Brian screwed up his face in concentration. "Unless you used code!"
"Code?" I laughed, "Brian..."
"No, no, what if you were like 'Claire, meet me at the place that we were when I last saw you' or something like that?" he asked.
I thought about it, imagining the options I had for such a statement. Claire, find me where you found me last time. I imagined the pier looking over the Hudson Bay toward Lady Liberty and the full-blossom cherry trees, with their pale pink petals falling like snow... "I could do that," I said.
Baylee yanked the headset off his ears, "Daddy are we almost there?" he whined, kicking the seat ahead of him.
"No, and don't do that," Brian waved his hand at Baylee's knees, just as Howie leaned over the seat to look at us.
"Which one of you chuckleheads is kicking my seat?" he asked. Brian and I pointed at Baylee, and Baylee pointed at me. Howie took Brian's point wrong. "Oh sure, blame the kid Nick," and disappeared behind the seat.
Baylee and Brian cracked up. "How the hell did I just get blamed for that?!" I cried.
"Sorry Uncle Nick," Baylee said laughing.
For those of you that haven't guessed, Brian's high school is actually pretty small. I was kind of surprised to find out they had a football field at all. It turned out that it was actually on a large public property that the entire surrounding area used once a year at the 4th of July for events very, very similar to what we were doing - minus the top-selling pop band, of course.
The field was about a mile from the actual school, and Brian explained to the rest of us that they only really used it for track meets and practice. It was a bit pathetic - the football field was encased inside the track, and a single bleacher stuck up in a wedge from the far side of the track. A tennis court with roll-away netting doubled as an outdoor basket ball court. Around these two facilities, however, were four different sized baseball diamonds. You could definitely tell what the Tate's Creek sport was.
Brian brought Baylee immediately down to the baseball diamond closest to the track/football field while the rest of us were being given the 'grand tour' by the high school principal. I watched them out of the corner of my eye. Brian was pointing at stuff, and making motions like he was playing ball, and I smiled, guessing he was telling Baylee about his high school sports career. From what I'd heard, Brian had actually been pretty good at baseball in high school.
"And this is the vending machines and outhouses," the principal waved to a little brown hut that sat at the end of a long hill, just beyond the tennis courts. "Normally the drinks and candies are seventy-five cents in these babies, but for you guys," he stepped among us handing us funny gold coins that looked like something from an arcade, except they had a big K stamped on them, "You can have up to four things absolutely free!" he beamed.
Oooh, my life has just been made complete, I thought, looking over the coins. "Thank you!" I shouted aloud, a little too enthusiastically.
"Now where on earth is Mr. Littrell gone to?" the principal asked, looking around.
I thumbed back the way we'd come, "He's showing Baylee the baseball diamond," I said. I stuck out my hand, "I can give Brian his coins if you want."
The principal laughed and wagged his finger at me, "Oh no, no you don't, sneaky boy," he said tilting his head with a chuckle. His hair wiggled unnaturally at me, "Don't you go tryin' to steal Brian's coins now. I'll deliver these babies myself." He smiled warmly, then led the way toward the diamond I'd indicated.
As we walked, AJ fell into step beside me, "Dude's a fucking freak," he whispered. I laughed.
We were herded across the field to the diamond where Brian was standing with Baylee. They'd found a stick and a rock and were pretending to play baseball. It reminded me of a story I'd read about in a player biography about what it had been like growing up in the slums of Puerto Rico.
"Brian!" shouted AJ as we approached, "We got coins!" He waved his hand over his head for Brian to see, and I did the same. Howie gave us a funny look and rolled his eyes.
The principal seemed not to notice AJ's mocking tone as he broke into a grin and announced loudly, "But no worries, you get some too! And so don't you little man!" he bent down and dropped a couple into Baylee's hand.
Baylee looked at the coins then up at the guy. "What do I do with these?" he asked.
"An excellent question," AJ hissed in my direction, so low that nobody else could hear it. I suppressed a laugh.
"They get you free soda from the vending machine!" Brian cried before the principal could say. His eyes were wide like he was holding gold.
AJ's face contorted, like he was being tortured.
"No way!" Brian was grinning. "Thanks Mr. Hasselhaffer!"
AJ ducked behind me, unable to keep the laughter back. Howie gave him the evil eye, but tears had been streaming down AJ's face before he smooshed it against my back, so I was pretty sure he didn't see them.
Principal Hasselhaffer smiled and did that gun-point, tongue-click thing at Brian like Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore and winked. "Okay, boys, let me show you where we're going to be setting up your equipment, then we'll show you to the tent we've got set up for you to change in."
We all turned to follow him. "Hasselhaffer?" AJ hissed to Brian, "Seriously, how the hell did you make it through high school?"
Brian made a face.
Baylee reached up and tugged on his father's shirt. "Daddy, can I go play on the bleachers?" he asked, pointing.
"Sure," Brian replied, "Just be careful, okay? And stay away from the very top." Baylee scurried off, ecstatic. "I always wanted to play on them too at 4th of July," Brian reminisced, smiling. "We always sat on our blankets over there," he pointed toward the rolling hill that ended in our free vending machines.
"It's weird going back someplace you haven't been in a long time," I said, knowing the feeling he was getting.
Brian laughed, "Must be even weirder when it's a lifetime apart."
Our equipment was stuff that had probably been used by a barbershop quartet for the last 50 years, and Brian confirmed later that at least the stage had been. A couple high school kids were putting it together in the center of the field, facing the bleachers.
Principal Hasselhaffer waved his arms at the bleachers, "It should be a good-sized crowd coming out today, we publicized that you'd be here. We figured if the bleachers fill up we can open up some of the field here for extra standing room. The stage rolls easily enough once it's assembled."
"I think he better plan on opening up the field," Howie mumbled to AJ, Brian and I under his breath. We all nodded. We were evidently being grossly underestimated.
"And your dressing tent is right over this way." The principal led the way across the football field toward a little white tent that they'd set up near the vending machines - quite a way from the field. This, I thought, Is going to be hell trying to get back to the stage if any fans show up....
Principal Hasselhaffer opened up the tent door and made a 'tada' sound like he was showing us into the Taj Majal. Which he was not. Inside were four lounge chairs, a couple coolers, a table covered with magazines and bowls of chips, and, sitting in fifth lounge chair, reading a magazine was--
"KEVIN!" all four of us shouted.
He looked up from the magazine and a smile spread across his face. "Hey you guys," he stood up, "I heard this was going on and you know I had to come by and see you." He stood up and tossed the magazine down on the chair and gave each of us a hug, except AJ who belly-bumped him instead.
"Dude it's been, like, forever," Howie commented sternly.
"I know, I'm sorry," Kevin apologized, "I just have been crazy-busy with Mason."
"How is Mason?" Brian asked, smiling broadly.
"Very well, he's here somewhere with Kristen, she bought him a wiffle ball and bat."
"Oh, Baylee will love that," Brian said, "Let me go get him." He turned and ran out of the tent to fetch his son.
Kevin smiled. "I heard you fellas have a new album coming out next month, very cool. And you," he looked at AJ, "A solo album, huh?"
AJ beamed, "Hell yeah."
"Hows your solo stuff coming?" he asked, looking to me and Howie.
"Pretty well," Howie answered.
I shrugged, "I'm not sure I'm gonna do it. Maybe next year," I added when Kevin frowned. He'd always hated my tendency to start a project and never finish it. It was a habit, however, that was ground to the very core of me.
Brian's shout was loud and sudden, laced with panic. "Bay-LEE!" he yelled.
I bolted out the door, the other guys clambouring over me. Brian was in a dead run toward the bleachers, and my eyes flittered across them, looking for Baylee. He was on the top row of the bleachers, where Brian had specifically forbade him to go, holding onto a rung and leaning out, laughing. My eyes shot to his numbers.
I bolted toward the bleachers, my long legs quickly catching me up to Brian. "Go under him," I yelled and Brian's eyes caught mine for a split second, understanding that his worst fear was founded. He sped up and ran down behind the bleachers, yelling all the way for Baylee to stop. I could hear the other guys' thundering behind us, and the sputtering of the bewildered principal as we ran for the bleachers... but it was all secondary. As was the worry of what would happen after this. Was I about to be apprehended by the ministry?
Baylee was tottering on the edge of the bleachers, laughing still, unaware of the danger he was in. They weren't very high, but they were high enough; the ground below was a big drop - particularly for someone the size of Baylee.
I took them three at a time, careful not to trip on the seats as I bolted up them. Never had my accuracy in running been more crucial. Because of the time over his head lagging the actual fall, there was no way to tell how long I actually had before gravity took its toll on his little body.
"Look, I can fly," Baylee was calling. I could hear Brian's yells, which were muffled by the wind coming off the bleachers, which was why Baylee probably couldn't tell what he was yelling.
I reached the top few rows with a crash, tripping at last over it, and sending myself face first into the bleacher behind Baylee. He jumped, startled, and slipped.
My hand shot out, as I propelled myself forward with my legs, reaching for the back of his t-shirt, and closed on empty air. Brian's yell broke through the wind. I launched myself over the edge of the seat, too, in the same motion I'd made to reach his shirt. I tumbled over the side.
Baylee's hand shot up toward me, and mine shot down at him, and we connected. I pulled him to me as I dropped like a huge rock, my weight so much heavier than his, it sped up the fall. I squeezed him to me, caged him with my own limbs, and closed my eyes, ducking my head to cover his.
We hit the ground, the fall just barely broken by Brian and Kevin, who had stretched out their arms to catch us before we hit the ground. The impact hurt like a son of a bitch on my back, the part that had struck, and Baylee let out a wail like you wouldn't believe as he slammed into my chest.
Silence fell over everyone at first as the dust settled and what-just-happened registered in our minds. My breath came out in great big gasps and Baylee started sobbing. AJ and Howie were standing there dumbfounded, looking at Brian and Kevin, whose arms were stuck underneath me, bent down on either side of me. Principal Hasselhaffer ran up behind them, his face stunned.
"Holy shit," whispered Howie.
Brian wrenched his arms out from under me and grabbed Baylee off my chest, clutching him to him. "My son, are you okay? Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, don't you ever-- ever--" he was crying harder than Baylee was at this point.
Kevin looked stunned, and pulled his arms out, too. "Are you okay?" he asked, panic in his voice as he looked at me.
"My back hurts," I answered, groaning, trying to sit up. I felt stiff and my neck was screeching in agony, but I was moving.
"What about your legs?" he asked, looking at them a little worried. I moved them slowly, like I was making a half of a snow angel in the sand.
"I'm okay, Kev," I answered.
AJ's eyes were wide, "Shit you could've killed yourself, Nick."
"You saved Baylee," Brian said, looking at me, eyes pooled with tears, but more gratitude than I'd ever seen in anyone's face before resonating beneath them. "Jesus, thank you." He looked up at the sky.
I felt a lump in my throat begin growing.
"C'mon lets get you back under the tent," Kevin said, standing up and reaching down to help me. I struggled to my feet. Every bone in my body felt sore and I limped with him and AJ on either side of me toward the tent, Brian following behind, clutching Baylee. Howie and Principal Hasselhaffer followed along, too, until I'd been deposited into the lounge chair carefully.
"That was a real act of heroism there, young man," Hasselhaffer said proudly. "A real act of heroism."
"Maybe he'll give you some more coins," AJ whispered into my ear.
Chapter End Notes:
The location of Tate's Creek High is sooo totally fictional it hurts, as was pointed out by a reader from KY in the reviews! I'm just saying!!
The location, sadly enough, is based on the local high school here in Concord, NH, where the football team really does play on a track field with a set of pitiful little bleachers with portopotties and vending machines with special coins that the school can pass out to get free stuff! Yes, Concord NH is THAT pathetic. ;)
High School Band by Pengi
Even if I live forever, or even longer, like beyond the existence of time until there's nothing but void. Even in the year 503,302... I'll never be able to tell you how the fuck I made it through the concert that night."You are.. my fi-ire, the one.. de-si-ire...
First of all, from the moment that all the fuss and worry had died down, the sinking feeling of waiting for Dimitri Pyre to show up began flooding me. I jumped at small noises - and when the only thing shielding you from a football field of noisy people, many of whom were yelling your name and screeching at random because they realized I was so close, there's only just so long you can go before you hear a noise.
Second, the ache that had started numbly at the base of the drop had only increased over the next few hours, to a point that even breathing had begun to hurt my back as the muscles tensed up from the shock of the impact. Baylee was fine - once his shock had worn off he'd been up and playing with Mason, no where near the bleachers. I felt like I'd been hit by a Mack truck.
"Are you sure you're okay to do this?" Brian asked, for about the 908th time just before we took the stage. "I'm sure Principal Hasselhaffer will understand if we have to back out."
"I'm okay," I insisted, shaking my head, "Really. I'll be fine." I winced as I took a step toward the stage, but didn't let Brian see. Howie had done a no-no and given me a couple prescription strength IB Profins he had in his backpack, left over from a tooth ache he'd gotten on the last tour.
Kevin was standing just off the stage, with some of our crew and body guards. He smiled at me, "You okay, really?" he asked once Brian had accepted the answer and turned away. Kevin knew I'd never tell Brian the truth about it even if I wasn't.
What he didn't know was that I also wouldn't tell him the truth either.
"Yes," I said, forcing a smile, "A little stiff, but I'll make it."
The fact of the matter was I knew that no matter how shitty of a condition I was in, I would never stand up the fans unless I was on the verge of death, which, consequently, would never happen since I was invincible. I'd felt a lot better since Amie had discovered that the numbers were the Loop and not my possible death, and gone back to believing myself unkillable, although I didn't know for certain, but Amie had said that there was only one thing to kill a Time Watcher. And who the hell knew what that was?
I stepped onto the stage, following my brothers, and the bleacher-and-field full of people started screaming as Principal Hasselhaffer introduced us. "It is a special treat, Tates Creek High, for me to welcome here, on our own Commodore's field, an alma mata of the school returned for a good deed... Brian Littrell, and the Backstreet Boys!"
The high school band played and we walked out onto the stage, Brian flushed bright red for having been singled out as though we were "Sting and the Police" or something like that. The people cheered, and AJ was clearly thinking something evil in his head because of the way his mouth was curled. Howie was grinning.
Principal Hasselhaffer waved his hands, "Now before the Boys start performing for you, I had a very important announcement to make." A hush settled over the crowd, and I had an idea what was coming. Like I need more attention drawn to it, I thought.
AJ nudged me, "Here come your coins man!"
"Today, a tragedy almost took place as Brian's son, Baylee Littrell, took a tumble from the top row bleacher. But one of Brian's own friends risked his own health and well being to dive after him to save his life..." Hasselhaffer waved his hand to me, "Nick Carter."
Again, the band revved up and the people cheered. I stayed put in line, hoping maybe they'd think he was pointing at AJ. But Hasselhaffer reached back and pulled me forward, a big dopey grin on his face, and he tapped his hand on my chest as a guy with a big ass camera took a picture. I groaned. Great, I'm gonna be on hickville USA's front page, my life is great.
"And now," Hasselhaffer said, once the photo op had been taken, "The show!" He pushed me back into the line up and rushed to climb down the little metal steps that carried him off the intensely small stage.
"This is gonna be a weirdass show," AJ muttered, shuffling his feet to indicate out lack of dance space.
To make it even odder, the high school band started playing the opening stanza for I Want it That Way and Brian's face, which registered surprise, was almost too busy trying not to laugh to start singing where he was supposed to.
Be-lieve when I s-ay, that I wa-nt it tha-at way..."
I guess they didn't get the memo that we'd supply our own music...
"Dude that was the fucked-upest concert we've ever done," AJ was laughing a few hours later, when we were sitting in the airplane, waiting for it to take off back to Los Angeles.
"I just can't believe they literally had the band learn like fifteen of our songs," Howie agreed. "And how weird was that with the xylaphone during Straight Through My Heart?"
"I vote we never, ever, play a concert using a high school band again," AJ suggested.
I laughed, "I doubt it'll ever be a problem again."
"You never know," AJ argued, "Someday we might go visit Howie's alma mata and they might make us play in the band."
"It was nice seeing Kevin, though," Brian said, piping up only after he'd gotten Baylee settled into the seat. He was stroking Baylee's curls behind the headset, which Baylee was listening to cartoons under again.
"Yeah it was cool seein' Kev," agreed AJ, "He hasn't changed a bit, though, Christ did you see him trying to take over for the music director of the band during Incomplete? 'No no that's the wrong key'." AJ did a deadpan imitation of Kevin's voice.
Howie's eyes glittered as he perked up, "That was what he was doing? Holy crap I thought I was just joking when I thought that."
"He was ready to beat that one guy over the head with that baton thingy," AJ said, nodding, "He was ripped. I miss Kev, but I don't miss psycho-anal Kev."
Brian laughed, "Is there a not psycho-anal Kevin?" he asked. He jumped and reached for his pocket for his cell phone just as the attendants started walking down the aisles to shut everything off.
"He's got a point," AJ said, pointing at Brian with a laugh.
"Mr. Hasselhaffer?" Brian was covering one ear and pressing the cell phone to his ear tightly, "I'm sorry, we're on a plane, you're breaking up. Say that again?"
A stewardess motioned for AJ and Howie to sit forward and then leaned across and gently tapped Baylee. "I'm sorry sweetie, we have to turn the TVs off until we're in the air." She looked at Brian, "And the cell phone, sir?"
Brian nodded and waved her off. She looked affronted, but turned and started down the aisle. I could tell she'd be back to check in on us and make sure everything was off. I busied myself helping Baylee turn off the TV screen and roll up the headset.
"A woman? What? Oh, what? What?.. WHAT?" Brian looked at me, eyes wide, "Did you get her number?! WHAT? Why!?"
I looked at him, my heart slamming.
"Sir, the phone?" the stewardess was back.
"I gotta go but if she comes back or calls you, please give her my phone number," Brian said, "Thank you for calling us, sir. Thank you." He hung up the phone and looked at me, eyes blazing.
"Thank you sir, attach your seatbelt," the stewardess said, turning away.
Brian yanked on his seatbelt. "Claire was there," he said, his voice rushed, low and ecstatic.
"WHAT?" I shouted. The plane filled with the sound of the engines whirring - the sound that meant there was no way in hell I was getting off the plane now. "She was - there? THERE? At the thing? Today? What? What? How? HOW?"
"She found Hasselhaffer after we took off - I mean we left quick, you didn't wanna stay, you weren't feeling good, and worried about the ministry and stuff, but then she went to Hasselhaffer while they were cleaning up and said she was your girlfriend, she needed to find you." His voice was tumbling over itself, like he couldn't get the words out fast enough.
"Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit," I muttered over and over, as the plane started to back up. "How do you know it was Claire?"
"Hasselhaffer said it was a red haired woman, and he couldn't remember the name exactly but he said 'Carla, Cara, Clara' trying to jog it," Brian replied. "Nick, she is looking for you, too."
My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it was gonna come out my neck any second. "Crap. Holy crap." My fingers ground into the arm rests of the plane as it started to take off down the runway. I couldn't tell anymore if the motion making my stomach roll was from my nerves of excitement or from the plane lifting off the ground.
Flashback: The Lost and Found, 1970 by Pengi
The obits page of the NY Times lay on the table. My friend Daniel stared up at me. I'd been sitting there, staring down at the picture, feeling helpless, for days. I'd only moved to pee or to get another beer out of the fridge. My mind swam, hazy and distant. I had known it was coming, I knew that night in the back of the van, listening to him talk about dimensions. Yet it was still a surprise. Daniel had been the only friend I'd had since I had left Claire.
My hands shook at the thought of her. Claire, my beautiful scarlet-haired angel. I wondered where she was, what she was doing right that moment. Had she found someone to love her right? To be there for her the way she needed someone to be there for her?
My heart felt too big for the cavity in which it existed these days, as though it had swelled from the pain of losing Claire, then losing Daniel, too. It was hard to breathe sometimes, and I often wondered what would happen if I just tried to kill myself like any other human being. Would wounds randomly patch themselves on my skin? Would drugs mysteriously slip through my veins without taking my life? Would my breath pass through things like pillows and plastic wrap? Would my lungs magically breathe water?
It was seven o'clock at night when I realized I couldn't handle the claustrophobia of the apartment any longer and I stumbled into the hall. A girl that lived across the hall was just coming in with her laundry, "Oh hey Nick," she said, smiling, her eyes twinkling, "How are you?"
"Fine," I answered dully, my voice monotone.
"I'm throwing a party later," she said, "You wanna come by?"
"No it's okay, thanks for the invite, though. I'm going for a walk down to Battery, though." I motioned toward the door.
She smiled, "Well if you change your mind... it's an open door party, so you can just walk in. Hey on your way out can you prop the hall door open with that brick for me, too? Thanks."
I trotted down the stairs, propped the door like she'd asked, and broke into the street. I headed south east along Fifth Avenue, toward the pier that overlooked the Hudson. The sun was setting behind the city, casting long shadows from the skylines of Manhattan and Newark in the distance, turning the surface of the bay into liquid gold and Pepto Bismol.
Battery Park was beautiful all year 'round, but the Summer was its best. The long cherry tree branches were covered with little pink flowers that fell off and their petals blew about the bricked walkways like tiny ships. I sat on one of the wrought iron benches at the utmost point of the park, the only thing between me and the water was the rungs of the railings. A few feet away stood one of those silver metal view finder things, and in the far distance, across the glass sheen of the water, was Lady Liberty, her crown and torch a glow.
I'd been there awhile before I heard footsteps coming up behind me. The sun had set almost completely, the sky was now livid pink and deep, deep hues of lavender. The water had gone dark, and only the street lamps illuminated me and the windblown flower petals. I didn't look around as the footsteps neared, I didn't really care who it was. After all, there wasn't much they could do to me.
I blinked in surprise, my body tense, not daring to believe my ears or to turn around, certain that it was a ghost.
A ghost with a really beautiful voice.
"Is that you?"
I turned, slowly. Each twist in my muscle seemed to take a lifetime. My eyes locked on hers, those unmistakable green eyes.
"Oh my God, it is you."
I stood up, and suddenly she was on me, her arms stretched up, hands cupping my face, mouth ravenous against mine. I kissed her back, my hands on her hips, still waiting for her to disappear.
"I can't believe I found you," she whispered.
"Claire?" I asked, feeling my mouth drying as I realized she was not a figment of my imagination. "Claire? You came?"
"Of course I came," she said, tears filling her eyes, "Why on earth wouldn't I come?"
"It's been a year..." I whispered. "I thought..I- I thought you-"
Claire shook her head, "It could've been a hundred years, Nick... I never would've given up."
My heart slammed in my chest, "But... Claire, in five years, when- when I change..."
"We'll figure it out," she promised, "I don't care if you change. I don't care what happens, as long as it happens while we're together. I can't live apart from you, Nick, I just can't." She clutched my hands, "Please, don't ask me to."
I clutched her to me. "Oh Claire," I whispered, "You silly, silly woman..."
"I love you," she breathed into my chest, inhaling me.
I inhaled her, too. "And I you, my Love."
I laid in bed that night, thinking about Claire, wondering where she was. Part of me was waiting for a knock on the door, or for the phone to ring. I stared out the window, beyond the balcony rail, into the dark, hazy sky over Los Angeles. Just knowing that she was definitely out there, somewhere, was enough to make my heart race. There was no way that Amie had been wrong if Claire at least existed in this world still.
I wondered if she still looked the same as I remembered her, as she'd looked in 1975 rather than at any other time that I'd known her. She'd always been changing in the way that humans do naturally. Her features had grown, some had widened, others had shrunk and disappeared - like the smattering of freckles that had once sat across her button nose. Her eyes had grown wider and darker, and her scarlet hair that had once been fiery red had darkened into a crimson by the time we'd reached the mid-70's.
I hugged the comforter to my chest and buckled my knees up so they touched my stomach. My back was still sore from the fall, but the muscles had relaxed into their normal state of being slowly over the night. Now that it was three in the morning, I was almost back to normal.
Claire came, I thought, the word repeating over and over in my mind each time I dared to think about something -anything- other than her.
My eyelids felt heavy, but I was afraid to close them, afraid of missing another opportunity to collide with her, to pull her close and stop this craziness. If I fell asleep, I worried, I would wake up thirteen, months early, just to spite my own luck.
When I did sleep, it was through strange dreams whose meaning I could never guess. In one, I was microscopic and laying in a peatrie dish while AJ, dressed in a while lab coat, examined me using strange tweezers and peering through a microscope, musing about time and dimensions being interrupted by “this funny little creature”, as though I was a strange bug.
There were others, too, equally strange and seemingly without purpose. But one in particular, that horrorfied me beyond any dream I’ve ever had in my lifetime.
I was locked in a pitch black room, which was flooded with ankle deep water. There was nothing to see except a faint, pale blue light far, far above me in the dark that only cast enough light below for me to be aware I was moving. I ran in circles, water splashing, gasping for air. The walls were perfectly smooth and I kept bumping into them. I was screaming Claire’s name… And then, as if over a loud speaker, came Amie’s voice, “Well we are Time Watchers, after all, it only makes sense when you think about it…”
I awoke suddenly from that dream, in a pool of sweat. My sheets were soaked, my body covered as though I’d just stepped out of the shower, and I was shaking. Every part of my skin crawled and my bones felt weak, far away.
It was during the ensuing panic attack that there came a knock on my door. Ministry. The word shot through my head, as though I were filled with ice water. I felt as though I couldn’t move, so struck by fear of the mysterious dream and of the mysterious knocker.
The knocking continued, so finally I struggled to my feet and made my way to the door, still covered in sweat and shaking, and looked out the peephole in the door, fully expecting to see Dimitri Pyre in the hallway, looking back. But instead, it was Amie.
I opened the door her, my mind taking a moment to recognize that she, too, was disheveled and shaking. “Amie?” I asked.
Her eyes were full of tears, about to overflow onto her cheeks. “Nick,” she gushed, throwing herself through the door and into my arms.
I stood there, stunned, my arms wrapped limply around her as she sobbed into my chest. I felt my strength and sanity slowly returning – I was one of those people who always was able to push aside my own need and worries when someone else needed me. I rubbed her back softly in circles, trying to calm her cries. “What on earth is the matter, Amie?” I asked, perplexed.
“Abby,” she gasped into my shirt, “She’s—he could’ve saved her—he didn’t – and –“ A cold that felt like wet, icey netting fell over us, weighing down on us. After a long moment, while the pieces fell into place in my mind as to what had happened, Amie’s eyes met mine. “You’re right, Nick, it is murder to turn away.”
Amie stayed with me after that in the guest bedroom of the apartment. She couldn’t go back to Rodney in New York, she said, because he had been so callous. She described his careless air toward her granddaughter’s life, how he’d turned away as though Abby’s cries had been nothing more to him than the buzzing of a gnat. She sobbed every time she thought about it, and I struggled to comfort her. Amie, I realized, had never encountered unnatural loss.
After a few days had passed, we began discussing again the mentality behind the ministry’s view of human life. “I don’t understand, “Amie said, “Now that I’ve seen the careless, reckless way that their view causes us to treat the humans, I… I can’t understand why I didn’t see it that way before. You were right the whole time, Nick.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” I told her sternly, “It’s not your fault you didn’t see it. I’m convinced that what James said is true, being around other Time Watchers will cure one’s sensitivity to the human need for rescue. I’ve never been around anyone but humans, of course my sensitivity to them is going to be higher. You, though, you’ve been around Time Watchers since you were young.”
“What are we going to do from here, Nick?” Amie asked me one afternoon, a hopeless look on her face, “If we ignore it we become murderers, if we rescue them, we get tracked down by the ministry.”
“We’ll just have to save lives,” I answered, “And be ready to stand in opposition to them when the ministry comes knocking.”
Flashback: July 8, 2001 by Pengi
"When this tour is over, we are done. Do you hear me? Done." Kevin's voice was echoing off the bus, even before Brian and I got anywhere near it.
Brian looked at me, a queasy look on his face. "Not again," he whispered.
The door of the bus slammed open and AJ practically face-planted on the cement beside it. "Fuck you Kevin," he yelled, his words running together like colors on a painter's pallet. "You're just a stupid, anal prick. You dunno... You dunno nothin' about me or about anything... stupid.. stupid prick." He stumbled, and hit the side of the bus with a loud thud.
I'd been watching AJ for months, slowly deteriorating before my eyes into the drugs and alcohol. It was consuming him, stealing him away from us. The worst of it had been in the last six months or so since his grandparents had died and his father had wrecked havoc again back in March, claiming to want to be part of AJ's life, but really only looking for money. AJ had spiraled rapidly since, like a plane with only one wing, unable to lift himself back out. I'd tried, I'd tried desperately to talk to him, and a couple times he'd even agreed himself that the drugs and alcohol was going to kill him. But he fell again, every time, unable to stop.
Kevin, who had followed AJ, came out onto the parking lot, too. "You can't even fucking walk a straight line, AJ!"
Brian stepped forward, "Kev, maybe right now isn't the best--"
Kevin's eyes were fire when he looked at Brian, and Brian hung back with me, instantly silenced.
"Fuck off Kevin," AJ slurred.
Kevin reached for AJ's shoulder and spun him around, slamming his back against the bus. Hands pressed against the bus, Kevin had AJ pinned to the metal. AJ's eyes stared, unfocused and blurry, beyond Kevin at some unknown point in the distance. "Where the fuck is my friend?" Kevin demanded, "Where the fuck is he in you, huh? Where are you hiding him?" Kevin's voice was thick with emotion.
"Kev..." I reached out a hand and touched Kevin's shoulder.
AJ's eyes were only slightly more focused as he stared right into Kevin's eyes.
"You -" Kevin's voice and shoulders shuddered with the pain of the sentence he was about to utter, "- are dead to me." Kevin shoved away from the bus, releasing AJ from the cage, and stormed back into the door.
AJ slid to the ground beside the bus, curling in on himself, a gut-wrenching, deep-from-within sort of noise reverberating from within his chest. He clutched himself and his forehead hit the cement roughly, drawing blood. He did it a second time before Brian and I had caught him by the shoulders.
"Where's Howie?" AJ asked thickly.
Brian and I exchanged glances. Howie had been the only one that had been able to get AJ to talk for months now. Since Howie had lost his sister, AJ had felt a connection to him, making him feel comfortable to talk about his grandparents' death. The forged relationship between the two was similar to mine with Brian. "Go get D," I told Brian, and he nodded, bolting for Howie's private bus.
"AJ, what'd you do?" I asked, sitting down beside him. He slumped into my lap, hiccuping and shaking, "Huh?"
"JD," he mumbled.
"You gotta stop this," I whispered.
"You can't keep bullying up Kevin and us, and dropping down like this everyday... The fans even are noticing now that something's up, dude. We can't keep up the charade forever. Eventually, they're gonna find out what's going on behind the scenes. Or worse."
AJ looked up at me, his forehead bleeding a little, with sand pebbles stuck to the skin and blood. He looked pathetic, and I was reminded of Daniel in the alley in '69. I pushed the dirt off his forehead carefully.
"You know, Nick, sometimes, I just want it all to end, just to get it the fuck over with. You know?"
"I know." Did I ever.
AJ nodded. "I'm glad someone understands."
I didn't let Howie trade rooms with me, even though he'd asked to. He thought he was doing AJ a favor by trading, but I alone knew what the night held and therefore I knew that only I could be the one to stop it from coming true.
AJ stayed in bed the rest of the night in the hotel room, the bedspread pulled up over his head, so that only his face peeked out. He stared blankly, nearly comatose, across the room, unseeing. I kept my eye on him, especially the time over his head, waiting for the moment it would start.
At quarter of eleven, AJ sat up. I looked over at him.
"What's up, 'J?" I asked.
"I gotta pee." He rolled off the bed, then stood there awkwardly between his bed and mine, looking at me. He didn't look pleading or sad or anything, just... curious, I guess, more than anything. He nodded, and turned, apparently satisfied with the pause to have been a goodbye, and walked toward the bathroom.
"You shouldn't do it," I called after him.
"You know what I mean," I said. "You shouldn't do it."
AJ looked at me, but his time didn't change at all. Not even waver. His face was long, downcast, void. He shook his head and disappeared into the bathroom.
I leaped to my feet and followed him, my heart pounding. I cannot let this happen, I thought to myself. I grabbed my cellphone off the dresser as I passed it, punched Kev's speed dial, and said "Get over here", as I followed AJ into the bathroom. I had already close the phone by the time I'd stepped through the bathroom door.
"What the fuck man?" he was sitting on the edge of the bath tub. I shoved him and he fell backwards into it, dropping the bottle of pills that he'd been holding onto the floor. They spilled, rolling every which way. He crashed into the back of the tub wall and growled angrily, flaring up. His time had increased by ten minutes.
"I'm not gonna let you fucking do this to yourself." I stomped on the pills, crushing them into the tile with the force of my foot.
"You fucking asshole," AJ shrieked, his voice shriller than I'd ever imagined it could be. "You and Kevin both, parading around like you're a couple of perfect fucking gods. Well sorry, Titan and Poseidon, but you're both full of shit. I don't give a shit what you think of me or what you think I should do. You cannot stop me from making my own choices."
I shouted the words I knew would piss him off because I knew if I could just get him to vent the anger, no matter how violently, that he would come out the other side, broken, and ready to give in. "Just because you're too much of a pussy to move on--"
He lunged for me, his hands aimed for my neck. I ducked him and he banged into the counter of the sink, his face flushed and panting. "I fucking hate you," he yelled looking into the mirror so that, to this day, I will never know if he was speaking to me or to his own reflection. He turned, swinging his fist with a velocity that could've killed. I ducked again, raising my hand to block his, and our hands collided. His fist flying, mine blocking, and the feeling of shattered bone filled my now-limp hand.
I doubled over, howling in pain.
AJ grabbed the toilet bowl brush and threw it into the bath tub's wall in anger, smashed two glasses standing on the counter by the sink, and then, in a waterfall of sound and glass, sent his angry fist right into the center of the mirror. As the glass shattered and cascaded down like sheets of rain, he slid to the floor too, sobbing.
"I didn't mean to do this," he cried.
I knew he didn't mean the mess, or at the moment, even my hand.
"I know," I said.
"I'm so lost," he gasped in a whisper.
"It's gonna be okay, AJ."
Flashback: Whole, 1970-1975 by Pengi
After Claire found me in 1970, I couldn't run again. There was something magnetic about her, and I felt as though even if I ran to the ends of the earth she would be able to come to me, be able to locate me. It was like our souls screamed out for each other, like we were inseparable on a level far beyond human control.
Far beyond whatther-the-fuck-I-am control, too, for that matter.
So even though I knew in five short years I was going to be suddenly propelled backwards in my own personal history, even though I knew it was going to end soon, I stayed.
Claire fell back into the comfortable pattern we'd had going all those years, cooking, cleaning and making love to me. Her beautiful red hair and sultry eyes kept me hypnotized and I followed her around, a shadow for a beauty, clinging to her, constantly touching her, wanting her closer to me. Even when I was inside her, even when I was curled around her like smoke, I still coudln't seem to be close enough to her. It's like I wanted to take my soul out of my own body and inhabit hers. And even that wouldn't be quite close enough, either.
Claire made me whole in a way that I'd never been whole before.
Which is why in 1971 when she asked me to I married her.
It was a simple ceremony. We stood on the beach in the fading sunlight one evening with a minister and a couple of the friends we'd acquired together over the years, but nothing huge. She held reeds from the dunes instead of flowers and a simple, flowing white gown that hung from the curve of her hips in a whimsical fashion that reminded me of a Lilly of the Valley petal. Her hair was gathered in loose clumps and the freckles that came across her shoulders and arms during summer speckled her tanned skin, which glowed with happiness.
I wore my suit proudly, never so content to be dressed formally, staring at her, my hands shaking, even as I repeated the vows and put the ring onto her finger. When she slid the gold band onto my own hand, it didn't feel heavy, as I had expected it to...it felt...right, like it had always been there, always a part of my hand, as though my hand had been waiting for it to be found and replaced.
I kissed her deeply and our mouths melted together like chocolate around strawberries.
We had a wonderful marriage. Claire became used to my constant worrying about saving people I loved and I became used to her constant reassurance that it was going to be okay. She listened patiently before reprimanding me when I started talking about the future, when I would turn thirteen, and it would all be over.
"I want you to fall in love again," I pleaded with her. "Fall in love and remarry and have a long, beautiful, happy life with someone." The words were catching in my throat, my heart aching and burning with the idea that someone else would touch these breasts, hold these hands, kiss this mouth...
"I'm going to have a long, beautiful, happy life with someone," Claire said, rolling her eyes, "I'm going to have it with you, Nick. You're not going anywhere. We'll figure out how to keep you here."
But on January 27, 1975, we didn't have much as far as answers go. Despite the fact that we'd tried and tried to find something - anything - that might ground me, that might keep me there.
So we decided to try something basic.
Every pore of my body was pooled with sweat, my heart slamming in my chest, my hands on her hips as she hovered over me, her body grinding into mine. My arms were shaking. I felt her every move deep within my core. "Jesus," I muttered as she ran her hands down my chest. My own hands travelled up her body, feeling her curves, clinging to her.
The idea was that perhaps if we were one, the force that changed me, that stole me away each time, would be unable to find me buried within her, that her soul would protect mine from being detected.
"I love you," Claire gasped, her breath coming out labored from the passion.
"And I - I you," I panted.
She laid down over me, her breasts pressing into me, and our mouths met as our rhythm continued. I clung to her, my arms wrapped around her. Slowly, we stopped moving, slowly our kisses became calmer, less passionate, more gentle, more sleepy...
And before I knew what had happened... we'd fallen asleep, together.
Our lips were hovering over one another, though at some point we'd rolled apart from each other so that I was on one side of the bed and she was on the other, no longer connected.
But when I woke up, I knew without even opening my eyes what happened.
I dressed quickly in clothes that were way too big for me. Pulled my wallet from the dresser table. I opened it, looked at my license, at the license that would no longer be valid, and stared at the picture that stared back at me, my face, my eyes, my mouth. But it was no longer me. I dropped the card on the nightstand. It was useless to me now. I'd left her a small pile of treasures like that. My keys, half of all the money I had (more than enough to keep her), my glasses, a seashell I kept in my pocket from long ago... Things that would help her, mean something to her, but that had become trinkets to me.
I kept my wedding band.
Claire slept on, wrapped in the comforter and sheets, a precious, unknowing smile upon her lips. Her scarlet hair sprayed across the dark sheets and pillowcase. I let my eyes roam across her body, drinking her in, memorizing every curve of her body. Her closed eyes, the thick eyelashes, the plump lower lip.
Her eyes slowly opened, looking up at the ceiling, not at me. Her hand moved to the empty space beside her where I'd laid all night.
I backed away from the bed as she sat up, realizing I wasn't there. Her head turned first in the direction of the bathroom, not even seeing me at all where I stood, back against the wall.
"Nick?!" her voice was panicked.
My voice had changed.
"No." She shook her head, but didn't turn around. I knew she didn't want to see.
"No," it was more of a whimper this time.
"I- I can't control it."
"No," this one broke her. Her shoulders folded in towards her chest, and her elbows moved to push her hands against her eyes. Her hair fell across her creamy, smooth back.
"I have to leave," I said, fighting the instinct to crawl across the bed, to hug her, to make her better.
"No," she cried, with more ferocity than I'd expected. She whipped around, clutching the sheets to her chest, covering herself up. Her eyes finally fell upon me and she gaped at me, her eyes wide, her mouth a perfect O. "Oh my God." Her hand covered her mouth.
"I told you," I whispered.
Her eyes welled with tears.
I couldn't handle it.
"I have to go," I repeated, grabbing the bag that I'd just packed, stuffing my wallet into my pocket. I moved quickly across the room to the door and into the hallway.
"Nick!" she screamed, "Wait!"
I was already on the stairs before I heard her trip over the sheets, curse, and get back up. I was on the bottom one before she emerged from the bedroom, pulling on the silky night gown she'd worn to bed the night before. I plowed ahead. I didn't want to feel the pain that was exploding inside my chest, like a bullet had struck me in the heart.
"Nick, please!" she cried, "Please, we can make this work."
If I'd believed for even a second that it was possible to make it work I would've stayed. But a thirteen year old and a thirty year old? There was no way to make it work. No way...
The doorknob all but burned my hand when I grasped it. I wrenched the door open, certain that there must be a blossom of blood spreading across the shirt that hung, too loose, off my chest.
"Nick, Jesus. Please."
The stoop was hot from the sun already, the pebbly texture of it stung the bottoms of my bare feet. No shoes that had fit my 29-year old self would fit me now. I would have to find new shoes.
Claire, wearing only the lingerie, followed me, even to the step; but I'd already leapt onto the lawn, already determinedly walking across the grass, heading toward the street, unsure where I was going, only knowing that I could not ever, ever look back, or I'd never go.
"Nick!" her sob tore my heart in two.
I hesitated, ever so slightly, at the edge of the lawn.
"Come back," she pleaded, her voice guttural and desperate.
"I can't," I said.
"But- I love you!" The words had come from the most extreme depths of her body.
I steeled myself. You can't. You can't go back. "And I, you, my Love," I said, as I always did. But it sounded different… childish… like a little kid reciting lines from a script of what I would have said to her.
I heard her sobs. Heard her fall to the ground with them. Her pain made me numb in a way that I had never been before. But I kept walking until the sound of her faded.
And now, I was sitting on a subway car, the backpack on the floor between my feet, which I had at least obtained shoes for, with nowhere to go.
"Heyyy," AJ crowed, pointing, "It's Yacht Girl."
I have to admit I was impressed he remembered Amie after all the time that had passed since August. Leave it to AJ to not only remember the face, but remember the goofy nickname he'd assigned. He swept over, a grin on his face, and grabbed Amie's hand. "I'm Alex," he said in a smooth, womanizing voice. He winked, "If you need anything at all --"
"I'll be sure to ask Nicky," Amie smiled sweetly.
AJ turned pink. "Right. Right, yeah."
We were getting ready to finish the tour, and Amie had opted to come along with me. "If we stick together," she said, "We're stronger if and when the ministry comes for us." I was okay with this idea. It was nice havin someone who really understood what I was going through. I mean, poor Brian tried really hard to understand, but he just didn't get it. Not the way Amie, who's been there/done that did.
Plus, Amie was my second set of eyes to look for Claire during shows. Clearly, Claire had caught onto the idea of attending Backstreet Boys concerts in order to find me. She'd done it once, and since I was so much easier to find than she was, I figured I may was well use that platform to help us. I gave Amie a bonus VIP pass for every night so she could get Claire backstage with ease if she found her.
"It's great to meet you, finally," Howie said, shaking Amie's hand. "Nickerbocker didn't shut up about you for quite a while."
Amie grinned, "Oh?"
Howie nodded, "Oh yeah. He got quite obnoxious."
I felt my cheeks turn a little bit pink, even though I knew Amie knew better - Amie knew about Claire, after all. Hell, Amie was helping me to find Claire, wasn't she?
Brian pulled me aside as Amie boarded the tour bus. "Does she know I know?" he asked quietly.
"Not exactly," I answered. I hadn't gotten around to telling Amie that I'd told Brian everything. It just hadn't come up, it wasn't a purposeful design.
Brian nodded, "Okay."
Something inside me twitched. I don't know why, but as Brian started to walk away, I caught his elbow. "Hey B-Rok?" I asked, "Can we - uh, I mean, would you mind not - er --"
"Keeping it that way?" he asked, smiling gently.
"Sure, no problem."
As I watched him walk away toward the Littrell Clan bus, I wondered what had gotten into me. I didn't really care if she knew. Yet... I did. It was a weird feeling, somewhere deep in my gut. I shrugged it off as best I could and started toward my own bus, where Amie was waiting.
The first couple shows, it was easy to remain upbeat and hopeful. But by show five, when Amie popped backstage after the show was over with that same pouty frown on her face, I started to lose hope - and fast. January was just around the corner, and I was terrified.
"It's okay Nicky," Brian said, patting my shoulder when we were changing between sets, "You've got tons of time to find her." He smiled. I hadn't told Brian about the thirteen thing. I felt like I was keeping a lot of half secrets from a lot of people. I nodded, though I didn't feel enthusiastic, and buried my face in my arm the moment Brian had frolicked out of the room.
I suckered a deep breath and looked into the mirror. My eyes were swollen, puffy from lack of sleep, and blood shot.
I felt as though I'd been waiting all of eternity.
It didn't take much to get my hopes up. A flash of red - any shade - would make my heart nearly stop, convinced it was Claire's hair. The stage lights glimmered around me, and every now and then the red lamp would catch my eye as it zoomed by and I'd forget what part of the dances I was doing.
"God damn it, Carter," AJ snarked once as I stopped mid-step and he slammed into me. We'd landed on our asses on the stage, and he'd jumped up, dusted himself off, and shook his head, "Having a woman on tour doesn't flatter you at all, man," he said in disapproval.
"It's okay, Nick," Brian said in a more understanding tone when I voiced my concern about my distraction by the color red. "One of these times, it'll really be her."
"I feel like a damn bull," I groaned.
At the fifteenth show on the tour, I barely had the energy to go on stage at all. "Maybe Hasselhoffer or whatever was wrong," I muttered to Brian morosely, sitting on the stool in front of my mirror, half heartedly buttoning my vest.
Brian was standing a couple feet behind me, tying his monsterous white sneakers. It was the week before Christmas. "Don't give up hope," he said, shaking his head.
I swallowed. "I don't have time to give up," I whispered; Brian didn't hear me.
”Niiiiiiiiick! Help me, please!”
I woke up with a start, and a shout. I hit my head on the ceiling of the bunk with a loud thunk and fell backwards into my pillow again, my forehead throbbing. I rubbed the sensitive skin, knowing I was going to end up with a bruise, and moaned. I’d just had the most terrible nightmare that I’d probably ever had. My stomach was rolling, churning.
I crawled out of the bunk and lowered myself into one of the seats by a window towards the front and stared out at the passing scenery. Cactus and dry flatlands told me we were almost into Phoenix. I stared at the rocks that were almost as red as Claire’s hair, and thought about the dream, letting it mull over in my mind.
I could hear her voice, echoing, begging, pleading to be saved. But I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t see how long I had. I had been back in that dark room, with the ankle deep water and the smooth walls and the tiny bead of light hanging high overhead, like a pinhole. I’d clawed at the walls, every cry of her voice sending my heart into cascades of furious worry.
I had to get to her. I had to save her. I had to… I just had to.
But there was no way out.
“Are you okay?” Amie was suddenly at my side, her palm cupping my shoulder.
I looked up at her. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I answered. She lowered herself into the seat ahead of me, kneeling to stare over the back of the seat at me. She reached over and stroked a strand of my hair over my ear. I stared out the window, ignoring her touch, though she was trying to be soothing. “I need to find her,” I whispered.
“You’re trying to,” Amie said.
I shook my head, “Not hard enough.”
“You’re doing all you can really be expected to do,” she argued.
“No, I’m not, Amie,” I argued back. “I can hear her… She calls to me.”
Amie looked at me, concerned, “She calls to you?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I dunno… Maybe I’m crazy… maybe it’s just a dream but… it feels so real.”
Amie sighed, “Nick, you’re trying the best you can,” she reassured me. But I shook my head. “What more could you possibly do?” she asked me.
Our eyes met. Locked.
“Just… more,” I answered, “Whatever it takes.”
Flashback: Greg Brunner, 1975-76 by Pengi
I'd managed to stay away from Claire for one week. Away, but not completely away. I followed her, at a safe distance, checking on her as frequently as I dared, making sure that her time was safe, that she was okay. I imagined myself as her guardian angel... always present, always ready to guard... but never seen.
However, if one thing will get to you, it's certainly winter weather in the northeast. Particularly when you don't have very warm clothing and no real shelter to stay in. I mean I was sleeping in a make-shift stucture I'd built myself in the woods behind the house.
I got sick.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
My breathing had fallen into the soft pattern of the heart monitor. A pointless apparatus, obviously, since I couldn't die. I closed my eyes and let the sound of it melt over me. I contemplated sitting up, ripping the IV out of my arm and walking out of the hospital. But they'd already called her. All that would do is make her seem like a bad person. I had no choice but to wait.
Even though I wanted to run.
"Nick?" she stepped into the room, her eyes landing on me. She inched closer to the bed and laid her hands on my forearm. "Oh Nicky," she whispered, her eyes softening.
Her red hair was haloed by the light coming in from the window. Lines around the corners of her eyes and mouth told me she'd spent a good deal of time sad.
Because of me.
"I'm sorry they called you," I whispered.
Claire shook her head and a pair of dangling pearls bounced off the soft spots beneath her ears. "No, no it's okay," she whispered, "Don't ever be sorry for that."
I felt cold all over, like I'd been dunked into ice water. I reached for her, "Claire," I whispered, "I missed you."
She bent forward, her arms easily wrapping around my scrawny fourteen year old frame. "I missed you, too," she said back, squeezing me into her. I wrapped my arms around her, too, drinking in her smell. It warmed me, like liquior in the veins. I felt hot tears on my cheeks. "Don't go away again," she pleaded quietly, "Don't leave me again, please. I don't care how old you are..."
I pressed my cheek into her shoulder, "But it isn't fair for you," I replied. "You deserve so much more than I could ever give you. And the people - imagine what the people would think?" I asked, "You, a thirty-one year old woman and me, a fourteen year old boy? It's not even legal, Claire."
She shivered with tears. "Then say you're my son," she pleaded.
"Your son?" I asked thickly, "Your son who's madly, insanely in love with you?"
"It's better than being apart, isn't it?" she asked. I held her tight to me, and lifted my chin to rest on her head as she melted into my chest, shaking slightly. My fingers moved across her back, along her spine like the keys of a piano. I clutched her to me. "Please..." she cried. I could feel my chest getting damp from her tears. "Just don't go."
"You like oranges, don't you Nicky?" she'd asked, picking one up.
Claire had picked up an orange and rubbed it in her palm before dropping it into a clear plastic baggie and sealing it with a twist-tie. She smiled and dropped it into the cart.
"Excuse me, son," a tall, lanky guy had pushed by me with a cart full of crates of oranges. He was probably 35 or so, with messy brown hair and sharp green eyes. He looked at Claire, with her long, red hair and form-fitting sun dress - and did a double take. I recognized a hungry expression in his eyes. "Can I help you, ma'm?" he asked.
Jealousy instantly flared up in me. Take your eyes off her, you bastard.
"No I'm okay, thank you, though," Claire replied. She started to push her cart around the guy, I followed in her footsteps.
"Cherries are in season," he said, stepping up alongside the cart. "Your son might like some of those. They're on sale this week." He smiled.
Claire looked at me, as though to remind herself that this produce guy was referring to me as your son. "Do you like cherries, Nicky?" she asked in a motherly tone.
We'll laugh about this later, I thought. And nodded.
"Where are the cherries?" Claire asked.
"I can show you," the produce guy abandoned his cart to lead the way toward a display of them, near the grapes, and waved his hand. "Maybe your husband would like some also?" he asked.
Claire blushed. "I'm not married."
Yes you are! I thought, looking at her, aghast at how smoothly it had come out of her...
"Oh," the produce guy was struggling not to smile, "I'm sorry, I thought --" he glanced at me.
"My husband's gone," Claire said flatly.
I'm right here, I thought, Not so far away...
"I'm sorry, ma'm," the produce guy frowned, legitimately this time. He looked at me. "Sorry, Tiger."
Go away, I thought, scathingly.
Claire shook her head, "It's been awhile, no harm done. Thank you for showing me to the cherries." She turned and started poking around through the bags.
The produce guy didn't leave. "This bag here will be especially juicy," he said, lifting a particular bag from the top of the pile. He handed it to her. "The color, you know? You can tell the flavor by the color."
"Thank you." Claire put the cherries in the cart and looked at me. My face must've been sour, because she quickly nodded her head and grabbed the cart's handle and started to walk away.
The produce guy just couldn't take a hint. "My name is Greg," he said, extending a hand. "Greg Brunner."
Claire only glanced at me a second before accepting his hand and shaking it. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Brunner," she said. "My son and I are running late," she added hastily, catching my eye. "I need to run."
"Anytime you need help," he said, waving his hand around the produce section, "My office is over there." He pointed to a counter in the corner, by a large display of apples. "I'm more than willing to answer any questions you have about fruits and vegetables."
She smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Brunner." I grabbed hold of the cart and yanked, pulling her away from produce. She trotted alongside me. My palms were sweating.
Why is this a surprise? I wondered, I knew it would happen, sooner or later...
"Greg is a good man," Claire was saying as she dragged her lipstick across her mouth. I stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, scowling. "He cares about me, and about you too..." she looked at me in the mirror of her vanity table and sighed. After a long pause, she turned and looked into my eyes directly. "Nick," she said, her voice even, "I thought this was what you wanted?"
I hung my head. "It is," I whispered.
Claire stood up and crossed the room and stood before me. She rested her hands on my skinny shoulders and I looked up into her eyes. "Please," she whispered, "Don't make this harder on me than it already is."
"I will always love you," she said, "More than I will ever love any other man."
"...and I you," I whispered.
A glistening tear leaked into her eye. "Why," she whispered, "Why do you have to- to be-" she stammered and sucked in a deep breath before turning away. Her shoulders shuddered.
I reached out a hand and touched her back. "If I knew how to stop it... to change it... I would," I whispered, "But I don't know how."
Downstairs, the door bell rang.
"He's here," she gaspd. She shook her hair back from her face. "Can you go answer the door and keep him occupied just a moment while I change bags?"
I nodded, "Of course." I started for the door.
"Yeah?" I turned to look at her.
She forced a smile, "Thank you."
I nodded, then turned and trotted down the stairs as the door bell rang a second time. I pulled open the door and there he stood, clutching a hat in one hand and a bouquet of daisies in the other, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt with a goofy looking bow tie on his neck. "Hello Mr. Brunner," I greeted him, stepping back so he could come in.
"Why hello there, Tiger," he said, stepping into the house. He looked around, "Your mothers here, right?" he asked.
I nodded, "She's getting ready." I closed the door behind him as he stood awkwardly in the foyer, still clutching the hat and the flowers. He smiled at me in a nervous sort of way, like he wasn't sure what to say to me. I leaned against the wall and stared at him, giving him a sour once-over. "Look," I said after a long pause, "I'm gonna be straight-up with ya," I said.
Greg Brunner's eyes met my own. "Yes?"
"If you hurt her," I said, "I will not be afraid to kill you. Do you understand?"
He blinked in surprise, then a chuckle issued from the back of his throat. I didn't relent my glare. The chuckle died. "Y-Yes," he said finally, "I understand."
It was the day before Christmas and we were doing an appearance at a radio show in honor of the holiday before splitting and going our separate ways. Brian was rambunctious, as he usually got just before major religious holidays. He kept poking my arm and shifting his weight from one butt cheek to the other. AJ was antsy, too. Even Howie was a little distracted, texting Leigh while he sat in the seat in front of me. I think I was the only one not excited for the "break".
I was the only one that knew this was likely the last time I'd be -- you know, 30. The next time the Backstreet Boys did an interview... it would be sans me. Probably reporting a "tragedy" to the fans. Probably cancelling a tour because I was gone. Vanished, they would know - but they'd say otherwise to everyone else.
I wondered if Brian would wonder.
"So how are you guys planning to spend the holidays?" asked the DJ - a rotund man with a wide smile and big ass nostrils.
"With family," Howie and Brian said simultaneously. They shot each other the yeah, we're siamese twins grin and Brian offered D a high-five.
"I'm doing a couple solo concerts out in Cali," AJ answered, "In early January..." he shrugged, as though he'd answered the question.
The DJ looked at me, just as his commercial break lights started flashing. "Guess we'll hear from Nick when we get back from break," he smiled, "Right after this."
Truth was, I was relieved.
I didn't have an answer. I wasn't doing a whole lot for break. Well, nothing I could share with a billion people anyways. I was going to New York. I was going to the house that Claire and I had last lived in together. I was tracking down our past in hopes that she would do the same.
Brian nudged me, "You okay? You seem... distant."
"Just thinking," I answered.
When the DJ came back from commercial, he'd forgotten all about the fact that he'd never gotten my response to the holiday question and he launched into talks about the new album - an album I didn't think I'd get to work on - and the rumors of a new tour that were supposedly going to follow it up with.
Somehow it made me sadder. I mean I knew all along that eventually, one day, there would come a day when I'd be laying down plans, fabricating future storylines, and never getting to see them fulfilled.
I'd convinced myself time and again that that time was far, far away.... but now... it was very much arrived.
"Okay, so we're gonna take some call-ins with some fans," the DJ said excitedly, "Are you guys ready?"
"Ready, ready," chirped Brian, shifting left to right and back again.
"Okay, our first call is from Riley in Missouri," announced the DJ. "Riley, you're on the air with the Backstreet Boys!"
"Oh my God," stammered a stunned sounding girl's voice. "Oh wow. Um... Hi guys!"
"Hey Riley," we all chimed at once.
"Oh my God," she giggled, then launched into a story about her family and how much our music meant to her. I stared blankly in the general direction of the microphone we were supposed to speak into, my eyes unfocused. It wasn't that I didn't care what Riley was saying... Really. I did care. That was exactly it. It was killing me to think that Riley - some girl from Missouri that I'd never even met - was going to think that I'd died a month after she spoke to me on the phone.
It killed me to think I was leaving them... the fans.
Brian eyed me warily from the side as we listened to Riley speak and AJ respond to a compliment from her.
"Okay, next up - Tom from Alaska. You're on air with the Backstreet Boys."
"Hey Tom," Howie greeted him.
"Hey Howie... I'm from Juno..." he had a thick accent. I rubbed my palms together and tried to concentrate.
"My girlfriend of five years is at home right now, no doubt listening to this... and.. um... I was wondering if you - you might call her for me... one of you...and... Well, I have a question for her."
AJ grinned and whipped out his cell phone.
Fifteen minutes later, Tom from Alaska had proposed to screaming Alicia from Alaska and Jenny from North Dakota had professed her undying love for Brian. I'd been told by Kelsie in Texas that my ass was looking great recently and Debra from Oakland was excited to hear we were doing a new album with more R&B to it.
The DJ looked at the switchboard. "Okay, last call --- and Claire, you're on the air with the Backstreet Boys."
Brian's eyes were wide.
"Claire? Hello?" the DJ smiled, "Claire, where are you from, sweetie?"
"Claire?" I gasped.
"Nick??!? Oh my God, it's you!"
"Claire!" I couldn't breathe. I'd know that voice anywhere. I leaped up from my seat, knocking it backwards into the wall, nearly stepping on AJ. Brian jumped out of the way. "Claire, where are you I'm coming now. Where are you?"
"Nick! Nick, I'm ---" and the call disconnected.
The DJ's face, contorted with confusion, tapped the line button a couple times, "Hello? Claire, you there, honey?" he asked. But the line was dead.
I looked at Brian.
"We apologize for the glitch, folks," the DJ muttered, "I guess we're having technical difficulties..."
"It was her," I said to Brian.
His eyes were wide.
"It was her," I repeated.
Brian had followed me to the bus, a perplexed expression on his face. When I blew onto the bus, I looked around quickly for Amie, but she was nowhere to be found. Once I was certain the coast was clear, I turned back to Brian. “Dude, that was freaking Claire on the phone,” I gasped.
Brian nodded enthusiastically.
“She knows where I am, she’s keeping up, I’m not imagining this shit…” I rubbed my hands together and paced. “God damn it, and that was our last scheduled thing until the break.”
“Now what?” Brian asked.
“I don’t know,” I muttered. I was pacing. My feet were carrying me back and forth and back and forth the length of the bus, wearing a pathway in the carpeting. I wrung my hands. “I dunno what to do Brian, I don’t know what to do. Why the hell did the phone hafta disconnect for?! I mean seriously, what is that about?” I stared up at Bri’s face.
Bri folded his hands together. “What if –“ he stopped. “Nawh, nevermind.”
“What if what?” I asked.
“Well, it’s weird,” Brian said, “That she’s been following us – as public as you’re making your schedule – and hasn’t caught up yet. It’s weird that the one time she does she sounds… panicked.”
“I thought frantic,” I answered, like she was pressed for time to talk to me because it was a radio show.”
“Or because she knew she was having a problem contacting you.”
I stared at Brian. “What are you getting at?”
“You don’t think there’s someone like keeping her from getting to you, do you?” he asked.
Immediately, my thoughts went to Dimitre Pyre. “Shit. You mean like the Ministry?” I asked.
Brian nodded. “Yeah.”
“Shit that makes so much sense,” I gasped, “They didn’t want me saving people, they’re pissed at me as it is, why would they want me to end up with Claire? They wouldn’t.” I turned away and wandered the length of the bus, biting my knuckles. When I turned around again, I hissed, “They’re keeping her from me. Those bastards. And it’s so close to Janu—“ I stopped mid-word.
“To what?” Brian asked.
I swallowed. “There’s a part of this all that – that I haven’t… told you…” I stammered.
“There’s more to add to the freak show?” Brian joked.
I was just about to tell him – when the door opened and Amie stepped up into the cabin of the bus. She came around the corner and stopped short, looking shocked between Brian and I. “Hey,” she said, looking us over, “What’s going on?”
I glanced at Brian. “We were just – you know – hanging out,” I said, “Brian was trying to cool me down… This—this girl, I – that I used to date was – she called the station and – yeah.”
Brian grinned. “I know, Nick’s dated so many women, we shouldn’t be surprised by such things but, alas alas!” He stood up. “I’ll see you when we stop at the big Taco B – E – Double L?” he asked, pointing at me.
“Drop the Chalupa!” I responded, laughing and winking as Brian slipped out the door. He mouthed the words we’ll talk later and bolted off across the parking lot. When I’d closed the door behind him, I turned back to Amie.
“A girlfriend, huh?” Amie asked.
“Claire called the station,” I gasped out the words, “But she got disconnected before she could tell me where she was.”
Amie’s face flashed with surprise. “Wow,” she whispered.
“Yeah. I dunno what to do,” I explained. “I can’t very well leave if she knows where I am, but there’s really no reason for me to stay here either…”
Amie slipped down into the seat that had been occupied by Brian just the moment before. “Is it a local or a national broadcast that you just did?” she asked.
“Oh good point,” I stammered, “It was local. So to hear the interview, she had to be local, right?”
Amie smiled. “Yes.”
“So she’s gotta be here, somewhere…” I concluded. I stared at Amie.
“So I’d say that staying put is going to be your best bet, Nick,” Amie said quietly, smirking. “So she can come and find you.”
I dropped into the seat opposite Amie. “If you think it’ll help Claire find me,” I said boldly, “Then I won’t move from this chair until she arrives.”
Amie smiled, “They say that sitting still is the best way to allow anyone to find you, don’t they?”
I smiled back, “You’re absolutely right.” And just like that, all the things Brian had said had gone out of my mind like pigeons taking flight....
Dimitre's Return by Pengi
I fell asleep at the table, waiting for Claire to knock on the door like some kind of fairy tale ending. I’m not sure exactly what I was imagining happening – perhaps I’d scoop her into my arms and we’d kiss and in the background from some mysterious place would rise the sound of Rod Stewart’s voice proclaiming us to be Forever Young and we’d fade off into the sunset, only to return for me to continue the Backstreet Boy tour seamlessly…
”Nick, please! Nick!” Claire’s voice echoed through my head. ”Please!”
My heart was racing, I could feel it bouncing off the chambers of my chest, like a pin ball machine, dinging and racking up points with each hit. I clutched the table, trying to keep my consciousness from slipping into that strange, doorless, lightless room… A slamming sound startled me awake and I sat up, the low parking lamp lights the only illumination as they melted in from the parking lot. I was staring into darkness on the bus, and my mind scrambled to make sense of the slamming - the door.
“Claire?” I gasped, my mouth dry as bone.
The shadows shifted and I realized there was somebody there, and I stood. I expected her to come around the corner, expected the happily ever after to begin.
His voice was deep, etched with time and I felt the adrenaline in my veins, the excitement that had been pulsating my heart, die within me. My heart stopped and for a moment, I forgot to breathe as Dimitre Pyre stepped into the soft orange glow. I backed up, out of the pool of light, into the shadows, but like a cat’s eyes, Dimitre’s eyes followed me, traced my motions, like he could see in the dark.
He stepped closer, “I hear you are seeking someone,” he said quietly, patiently.
Brian’s suggestion slunk through my mind. They’re keeping her, they have Claire… I thought helplessly. I stared up at Dimitre. I didn’t dare to respond, didn’t dare to acknowledge in a positive or a negative way.
“I believe, Mr. Carter,” he said quietly, “That I have exactly what you are looking for.” He reached into his pocket on the breast of the nice grey suit coat he was wearing and withdrew a photograph of Claire, which he tossed into the lamp light on the table, where it spun, finally stopping perfectly angled so that I was staring into her gorgeous eyes.
“Claire,” I whispered.
Dimitri smiled, “Ah. So you she is the one, is she?”
I stared up at him. “Please,” I begged, “Please let her go. I’ll- I’ll do anything.”
Suddenly Amie was at my back. “Dimitre,” she said, her voice low.
“Amie,” he acknowledged her.
“Why on earth did they send you to collect him?” she asked.
Collect me? I looked at her with confusion, “Amie? Collect me?” I asked.
Amie turned to me, her face stony, “What, you haven’t put it together yet?” she asked, “Didn’t figure it out that maybe I wasn’t being everything that I was claiming to be. Ironic, is it not, that I found you and had changed my mind so drastically just after the ministry finds out you’ve ignored their warning…”
My mind was reeling.
I’d been duped. I’d been made to believe what I needed to believe in my blindness for Claire, in my desperation to find her, to reunite us together. I’d allowed myself to believe a lie, to deliver not only myself but my Claire into the hands of these heartless, cruel people.
And then I realized… I hadn’t been having dreams, I’d been having prophecies.
I looked back at Dimitre. “Where is she? Where is my Claire?”
“Relax,” he said throatily, “I will bring you to her.”
Within moments I was in a sleek black car, sandwiched between Amie and Dimitre. I had my palms on my knees, staring down at my feet. The lights of the city spun by us in streams of color and light. Horns honked and the world seemed to move in fast forward. I tried to focus on breathing in and out, on keeping my heart pounding.
Surely, I thought, this is how a Time Watcher is killed… by separation anxiety.
By the time the fellas realized I was gone, I’d probably be on the plane, on the way to New York. Nobody would think to come try to find me – except Brian, when I stood him up for our chalupas.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.