Bossa nova beats emanated from the floor next to the couch where Amelia dropped her purse when she returned from the hospital last night. She hadn’t made it much further herself. She didn’t want to talk to anyone but reached for the phone on the off chance Aasma might be calling to scream at her. Calling to cry. Calling to ask why again. Amelia would take any of that gladly. It was not Aasma.
Rufus’ name and face lit up the screen. Amelia stared at it until the ringing stopped and the display switched from an incoming call notification to a missed one. The music played a second time. Then a third. Each time, her estranged husband’s name, face and number appeared, and each time, she watched the call move from incoming to missed with a bleary detachment. The calls ceased after the fourth attempt, and he didn’t bother with voicemail.
The park grew silent and empty as the weather chilled. Leaves that skittered about in the wind with all the gusto of a game of tag now outnumbered children on the playground. That Saturday morning, two days past Thanksgiving, only two families occupied the park: a young couple with a stroller-bound infant and ruddy-cheeked son, and Karen and Lizzie Walden.
Karen waved to Amelia from across the park when they first arrived. In the past two weeks, Amelia had become a fixture there, seeking glimpses of one of the only people she’d done right by with Morty. At least, as well as she could do with her limitations. Karen never walked over to sit with her, never instigated a conversation, but that was probably for the best. Amelia wasn’t there to talk. She was there for absolution.
She’d be rotten company, besides. Two weeks passed since that night at the hospital. She’d not heard from Aasma since, but the look of betrayal on her face still haunted Amelia. Every time she recalled Aasma’s words in the stairwell, her insides turned into a sickening slop of self-loathing. She used the memory to punish herself, but that only carried so much traction before she grew numb from the pain. At that point, she gathered herself together and walked to the park, seeking out the one person who might soothe her soul.
“Lizzie, time to go.”
The young girl with black, glossy pigtails and bright pink coat darted over to her mother. They walked hand-in-hand down the street toward home without so much as a look back at Amelia. The other family departed soon after, leaving Amelia alone in the cold, empty park. That was okay. She got what she came for—the sight of Lizzie, happy and well and full of life on the day she was originally meant to die.
Amelia walked the stacks of City College library, hoping the items she needed might jump off the shelves into her hand. She didn’t care much for research, but her current project required a basic level of knowledge on late nineteenth century railways in New York. The morning’s visit to the park put her in a rare frame of mind which allowed her to be productive. She’d seen not just one person to whom she’d granted more time, but two.
Tommy Glandon passed her on the street as she headed from the park to the bus stop. She didn’t notice him until they passed one another, but she looked back just as he did. Their eyes met with a spark of mutual recognition. He neither waved or smiled, but he remembered her. She most certainly remembered him.
Amelia spent thirty minutes squinting at call numbers and flipping through hardback-bound periodicals to accumulate the armful of books she lugged to a nearby table. As she dug around her bag for a pen and notepad, Morty derailed her plans for the afternoon with its noisy vibrato.
“Not now,” she hissed.
She dropped into her chair before going through the steps that she’d grown to hate: scan and click, scan and click. None of the patrons in her section of the library quieted the device. Amelia turned to the community room on her left. The doors were shut, but she could hear the muffled sounds of men’s voices.
Amelia crossed the hall and waited for the eleven o’clock event listing to appear on the digital display board. The man smiling at her from the middle of the slide seemed familiar. Not until she paired the face with the name below it did she recognize him. Neils Johannsen, right-wing local TV pundit and bloviator extraordinaire, according to Aasma. This was the man she’d all but cursed into an untimely death.
Amelia eased the door open and slipped into the room. More empty seats than people filled the space, so she had no problem grabbing a seat in the back.
“. . . and when you spend nine days out of ten patrolling the perimeter, trust me, nothing feels better than that shower on the tenth day. It feels as great as the one you took ten days earlier.”
The sparse audience chuckled as Johannsen related tales from his tours in Afghanistan. He sat at a table at the front of the room, surrounded by copies of his newly-released book. Amelia tuned out the presentation as she considered the most covert way to check the audience.
She put her shoes onto the seat of the empty chair in front of her and slouched down, bringing her knees up at a steep angle. This posture allowed her to hide Morty behind her thighs as she scanned the room, starting from her left and moving toward the middle.
Each person who registered free and clear on the device spiked Amelia’s pulse, because each person she passed over in the audience increased the likelihood that the man up front was Morty’s target. She skipped over Johannsen and worked her way through the dozen or so people on the right. None of them popped up on Morty, either. Good for them. Bad for her. Worse for Johannsen.
The last time Morty acted up at a public event, it sounded its death knell for the main speaker himself. Surely, it couldn’t happen again could it? The coincidence was too much.
The audience laughed, bringing Amelia’s focus back to the room.
“But in all seriousness, when you’ve been where I’ve been, and you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you know firsthand how important strong border security and rigorous immigration policies are.”
Several people agreed with hearty nods while others offered vocal affirmations. A man with a red cap and full beard called out, “You got that right.”
Amelia narrowed her eyes at the disposition of the room. She’d never been overly political, but she held strong positions on certain matters that drew her to the ballot box. After Millie’s death, she disengaged from everything, including social issues. She wouldn’t have recognized Johannsen or known about his toxic positions if Aasma hadn’t enlightened her that morning at Java Jones.
That day seemed forever ago, but it had been little more than two weeks since they caught the bus to City College for Fielding’s presentation. Amelia remembered the vehemence in Aasma’s voice and the pain in her eyes as she recounted ugly statements the man had made on immigration, Islam and feminism.
“I don’t actively wish death on anyone,” she’d said, “but there are some people in this world whom I would not mourn if they died. That man is one of them.”
Aasma was right. Johannsen fomented fear, intolerance and hatred in the guise of common sense policies backed by military experience. If this was the man Morty buzzed about, and if he was due to die in the coming year, what good would come in extending his life? She hadn’t helped Fielding, and that man might have actually saved lives. Johannsen’s dangerous rhetoric could only cost them.
“Screw it,” she breathed.
She grabbed her bag from where she set it on the floor, shot up from her seat and marched toward the door.
“I guess we can’t all be concerned about the safety and reasonable security of Americans.”
The audience chuckled at the quip Johannsen made at her expense.
Amelia turned and glowered at the room. She took three steps up the aisle, eyes locked with Johannsen’s. Her entire body burned with anger.
“I care about compassion and decency, but I think I’m in the wrong place for that.”
“Then you don’t support veterans, is that it?” the man in the red cap sneered.
“Yes, I do. They kept my husband safe while he was embedded with them in Iraq, so I respect the hell out of them. What I don’t support is assholes.” Amelia lifted Morty, still clenched in her right hand, and aimed it at Johannsen. He frowned and tensed in his seat.
“Smile, asshole.” She clicked the side button, dropped the now-silent device into her bag, and exited the room.
No longer in the mood for research, Amelia left the library and headed for a nearby gastropub popular with the students. The minor altercation left her with a need to wash the sourness from mouth. She headed for the bar and ordered a basket of fries and a gin and tonic.
Amelia downed the drink before fishing Morty from her purse. She’d left it open to confirm it was Johannsen who appeared on the display. And if so, she wanted to relish the fact that he would soon pass in an unmourned death. As much as she needed to not see Lizzie Walden’s name on the device, she wanted to see Johannsen’s.
Name: Neils Johannsen
B: July 14, 1982
D: Aug 18, 2019
“Strange, isn’t it? To feel so vastly different about two people who appear on your mortality determinator?”
Amelia jumped at the sound of Cue’s voice. She hadn’t noticed him sit next to her, but then, he’d proven himself to be quite the sneaky bastard.
“Sorry, I guess you call it Morty, right?” He reached over and plucked a fry from her basket.
“Is this going to be your thing? You just pop up whenever you feel like annoying me?”
“Not to annoy you, no, but I may stop by whenever you’re in need of a little direction.”
“Hmmm.” Amelia grunted and flagged down the bartender to order another gin and tonic. “You want anything?”
“Sure, a diet coke.” He snatched another fry. “And an explanation.”
“Explanation for what?”
“You told Aasma Rifaat about our arrangement. You weren’t really supposed to do that.”
“’Weren’t really’ isn’t ‘forbidden’ though, is it? You never said I couldn’t tell anyone.”
Cue reached for a third French fry. Amelia scooted the basket out of reach. “No, but I didn’t think it’d be necessary. Does this seem like something we’d want you to share far and wide?”
Amelia shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t care what you want. This job comes with a lot of pressure.”
“You accepted that pressure when you accepted the arrangement.”
“Yes, and I needed to talk to someone about it. I trusted Aasma.”
“And how did that work out for you?”
Amelia glared at him. “You can leave now.” She downed her drink and signaled for a third.
“Look, I’m sorry about your friend, and for all the things you’ve been through this past month. I know it’s not easy.”
“You think you know what I’ve gone through?”
“Yes, I do. With Aasma and Rufus. And Fielding.”
Amelia met his eyes. “Then you don’t need an explanation.”
Cue sighed and lowered his head. “You’re right. Perhaps I don’t. But please, from here on out, keep this to yourself.”
“Fine. It’s your arrangement.” Amelia clasped her hands around the chilled glass placed before her.
“So, while I’m here, can I ask for your thoughts on Neils Johannsen? You considering passing on him?”
“He’s a fear-mongering douchebag. Why should I give him extra time?”
“I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, but it seems like a hasty judgment on your part. Sometimes, people become so wrapped up in their own hateful assumptions that they don’t stop to actually listen to those they disagree with.”
“I’ve listened to him, and he’s a dangerous demagogue whose opinions provoke and enflame. Trust me, no one will miss him when he’s gone.”
“I wouldn’t say no one will miss him.” Cue nodded toward the front entrance. Amelia followed his gaze at the same time Morty buzzed in her hand.
Johannsen walked in with his wife and children, all smiles and upbeat chatter. In his arms he held a little girl with blonde hair and pink cheeks who clung to his neck. The two boys, each the spitting image of their father but with chestnut hair, held their mother’s hands. An older daughter, dressed in tights and a light blue dress, tickled her little sister’s leg as they waited for a table.
“Shit, what’s he doing here?” Amelia pivoted in her seat so that her back faced the door.
“Grabbing lunch, I’d suppose.”
She peeked over her shoulder to watch as a waitress, a tall, thin girl with an African accent—likely a foreign student at City—ushered them to a table on the far end of the pub. Johannsen chatted amiably with her on the way over.
“Did you do this?”
“Convince him to come eat here with some Jedi mind trick thing.”
“Certainly not. Why would I?”
Amelia glared at him. “Why indeed. And for the love of god, is there some way to shut this thing off? Without aiming it someone, I mean.” She shook the still-buzzing Morty at Cue.
“Oh, sure. You can dismiss alerts without looking at them. Just hold down the side button for five seconds and that’ll snooze a person’s alert until the next time you run into them. Did I not show you that?”
“No, you skipped that part,” she said through clenched teeth. She pushed the button until Morty stopped buzzing then smacked the silent device down on the bar top. “So you want me to give this guy more time because he’s got a family, is that it?”
“I don’t want you to do anything, Amelia. The decision is always yours, but I’d like to think you’re making fair and thoughtful ones.”
“Everyone around me who will die this year has family, Cue. That can’t be the only thing that factors into my choices.”
“You’re right, it’s not the only thing, but it is one. You must consider how extra time might benefit not just that person, but others, as well. Family. Friends. Patients. Even strangers they may affect.”
Amelia choked on her drink, wheezing and coughing to expel the gin and tonic from her airway. “You think I should have saved Fielding? Is that what this is about? After what he tried to do to me, you think I should give him more of myself?”
“No. I told you, we don’t have an agenda. We aren’t pushing you to save one person or another. Everyone comes with an expiration date, with the consequences of their death laid out in a soft, gray future. We are allowing you to postpone that for a few individuals, knowing the extra time may change the future for others who are connected to them. For many, it may be a positive change, but not always, and not for everyone. For a young child, having a father around for seven more years can be a powerful thing.”
Amelia peeked again at the Johannsen’s table. The two boys nestled in with their mom, while the girls sat next to Johannsen. The youngest—the one he’d carried into the gastropub—stood on the bench seat and planted a dramatic kiss on his cheek. The kind always accompanied by a loud “Mwah!” Millie used to give her and Rufus those very same kisses.
“But you’re right. Someone like Johannsen can have a devastating impact on those for whom they have neither direct responsibility nor compassion, especially when they have access to a large audience like he does.”
Amelia scowled at him. “Thank you so much for this wonderful Ted talk, Cue. It was extremely helpful.” She gave him a dual thumbs up.
“There’s no right or wrong here, Amelia. You have time, and so does he. More than you, actually. He’s a public figure, so you’ll be able to track him down again, if need be. Just think about the value of your time, and apply it where it will mean the most.”
Cue reached past her, popped another fry into his mouth, then rose from his stool.
“Before you go, can you at least tell me what he’ll die from? I know you know.”
Cue sipped down the last of his soda before answering. “I do, but I’m not really allowed to tell you that. I will say, however, that every year, many people find out the hard way that alcohol and speed boats don’t mix.” He winked at her and left the pub through the front doors, in a completely normal and non-sneaky manner.
Amelia asked for the check and turned to finish her fries. The basket sat empty.
The vision of a happy Johannsen family sharing lunch haunted Amelia on the bus ride back to her neighborhood. Morty buzzed twice on her trip but she now had enough on her mind without adding additional complications to the mix. With no small amount of guilt but a silent thank you to Cue, she dismissed the device’s insistent alerts.
She didn’t owe Johannsen her years. She didn’t owe his family more time with him. A man like that didn’t deserve life that wasn’t his, and he could possibly cause loss of life that wasn’t his. Words held power, and his words were dangerous at best. They’d already worried Aasma to the point of agitation and fear. To a point where she’d be unbothered to see him die. To a point of hatred. Perhaps letting Johannsen go would balance the wrong she’d done to Aasma.
But she kept coming back to the image of the youngest Johannsen daughter giving her daddy a Mwah! kiss.
This internal debate plagued her all the way back to her apartment and into the evening until her phone startled her into active consciousness. She snatched it up, hoping Aasma might be on the other end of the line.
Rufus’ name popped up in a text message.
Just returned from field assignment. Tried calling before I left. How are you?
That must be why he called repeatedly the night she returned from seeing Aasma at the hospital, and why he hadn’t called in the time since. His work often took him places where he had neither the time nor access for phone calls. Amelia pursed her lips as her thumbs tapped out a reply. It was time. Rufus needed to let her go so she could die, and Amelia needed to set him free so he could live.
Yes. Let’s meet. Can you come by tomorrow?
Before she hit send, an incoming call replaced the messaging screen. The number pushed her heart into her throat. The 539 area code came from Tulsa. Her family still lived there, but she didn’t recognize the number. She paused to draw in one deep, long breath before she flicked the green “answer” icon.
“Mom? Whose number is this?”
“We got a new number. I’m sorry, honey. Is it late there?”
“No, it’s fine. But you stopped answering my calls and texts months ago. Why are you calling now?”
“It’s your Grandma Lois. She’s in the hospital. She’s asking to see you.”
A chill snaked its way through Amelia’s body. She loved the old woman dearly, but Amelia hadn’t been able to get in touch with her Grandma Lois since last March, when her parents retreated from Amelia’s life.
“Do you think you can get a flight out tonight?”
“Tonight? I don’t know. It’s the holiday weekend. Everything may be booked.”
“Please try. The doctors don’t think she’ll make it through the weekend.”
“Alright. I’ll call you back with flight info when I get it.”
Amelia ended the call and switched over to her travel apps. Her heart ached as she waited for the app to return available flights. Most out of New York were either too expensive or too long with at least two connecting flights. Cursing, she selected a non-stop flight from JFK that cost more than she made in a month. She’d put it on her credit card, knowing she’d never be able to pay if off before her seven months were up.
And did it matter? Someone who meant the world to her lay dying in a hospital bed in Tulsa. She’d already lost so many people. She couldn’t lose her grandmother, too, not without saying goodbye first.
Amelia didn’t know if she’d use Morty on her. The last time they spoke, Grandma Lois had been fit and considerably healthy for her age, though that may have changed since March. She had no idea if extra years would benefit her. What she did know was that she’d never forgive herself if she didn’t at least make the trip to consider it.