Trigger Warning: Attempted suicide by drowning, discussion of suicide
The river was colder than Amelia expected for September. It wrapped around her like a never-ending pile of bedsheets, tangling her legs and arms, her torso, and imprisoning her—not in a grave of 800-count Egyptian cotton but in freezing, murky water. The lights of the George Washington Bridge above her dimmed and diffused as the dark river swallowed her, pushing her down its gullet with pitiless vigor. If she’d had second thoughts about her jump, they no longer mattered. She belonged to the Hudson now.
She forced herself to end the instinctive struggling, relaxed her body, and gave herself over to the sinking. She’d wanted this, after all. She had crossed the bridge, climbed the railing, pushed off from the side—all under cover of half-past midnight on a Tuesday to minimize the chance of interruption. The pain she’d carried for the last year brought her to the bridge, seeking release. That release was at hand.
The water around her began to lighten again, as if the chain of events that followed her flight off the railing looped back into itself. Bright lights descended on her—or she ascended to them; it was impossible to tell in the water—and engulfed her. Where she couldn’t see before because of the frigid blackness, she was now blinded by brilliant white. These must be the bright lights people with near-death experiences talk about. They were right . . . they were all right. Death wasn’t dark. It was the opposite of dark, and this is where she wanted to be.
“You think that way, only because you’ve forgotten what it means to be alive.”
Voices? Was she supposed to hear voices, too? Some of the stories she’d heard mentioned choirs of angels or comforting words from deceased relatives, coaxing loved ones into the light. Was this her grandfather? Her grandmother, perhaps?
“Grandmother? You think I sound like your Grandma Rose? She smoked like a chimney, but her voice isn’t near as gravelly as mine.”
Everything stopped in beat with Amelia’s heart. The cold on her skin. The blinding white in her eyes. The pain of water in her lungs. She blinked several times to clear the unexpected shift of reality that invaded every sense, including her reasoning. This wasn’t a voice she recognized, but it was someone who knew her, or at least knew her family. Even so, she realized she was listening for ghosts, when she herself didn’t feel dead. She didn’t feel alive, either, come to think of it. She floated weightless somewhere in between . . . somewhere . . .
“Ah, bloody hell.”
At that moment, the space beneath her feet solidified. The water disappeared, as if it had never been there. She turned in place, trying to figure out the makeup of her surroundings. She found herself somewhere gray and murky, textureless and tepid but solid. It could be a room, a cave, or the inside of an Easy Bake oven, for all she knew.
“No, this isn’t hell, Amelia. Not that you don’t deserve it, after what you just did. And it’s not quite purgatory, either, or limbo, or whatever you want to call it.”
The voice came from behind her, though there’d been no one else there a moment ago. She spun around to see . . . someone she’d not expected. She recognized his face, but not because she personally knew him. She’d seen him in a few movies, one or two that were popular. He might have even received an Oscar, but she wasn’t sure. But no, this couldn’t be him.
He shook his head and smiled. “You’re not the only one. People always think I’m him, but you can call me Cue.”
Amelia blinked her eyes two more times. “How . . . how is it you know . . .?”
“What you’re thinking? Because I’m God, of course.” The man’s voice boomed, echoing in on her from every direction. He watched her for a moment before he broke into a hearty laugh that fractured his austere expression. “Nah, I’m just playing with you.” He wheezed again at his joke before adding, “That reaction never ceases to be funny.” He straightened up and cleared his throat, schooling his broad grin back down into a mirthless line. “Sorry. But I do know him. Her. They.”
“I . . . am I dead?” The sensation of icy water long since faded away, but a chill still ran through Amelia’s body. Had she actually done it? Had she killed herself?
“Well, no. That is, not yet. Not officially. Your life is over, Amelia Renee Layne, because that’s what you’ve chosen. But exactly when death takes you is entirely up to you now.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand what this is. How do you know me? What is this place? I did jump, didn’t I? I’m sure I did.” She patted down her hair and clothes, all of which were strangely dry for someone who’d just thrown themselves into the Hudson.
All at once, the reality of her suspended reality hit Amelia. Her head spun—as if she’d twirled in place for hours—and her stomach lurched. She was certain if she’d had anything to eat in the last day or two, she’d double over and expel it at Cue’s feet. “If I’m not in hell, where am I?”
Cue had been quietly watching her, rubbing the dark hair on his chin. “It’s not a place as much as it is a time, or a time outside of time. This is somewhere between the moment where your feet left the bridge and your body hit the water. After you committed yourself to dying, but before you’ve actually died.”
“But you said my life was over, just a few minutes ago. So am I dead or not?” Impatience fed her demand for an answer, and her words came out scathing. She’d made up her mind, and to have the result of her decision yanked away from her and paused, like an awkward scene in a movie, was intolerable.
“I’m not the one you should be angry with, Amelia.” Cue wagged his finger at her. “I didn’t choose to shitcan a great opportunity, one of the most beautiful gifts a person can receive. You did that.”
Amelia stepped up to the finger and jutted her chin out at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I mean life, Amelia, your life,” Cue retorted, his voice filling with anger. “People never see beyond the next hill, the next horizon. You think that everything ends beyond what you see with your eyes, or past what you save up for in your retirement accounts. You plan for your futures, but you don’t see life. Not really. You don’t see its worth beyond the immediacy of what you are feeling at any given moment.”
He then paused and stepped back, taking a moment to recalibrate his voice back to its previous pleasant tone. “Amelia Layne, earlier today, you chose to throw away your life. That’s done. It’s no longer yours to keep. But, your life was meant to be a long and healthy one.”
“Healthy? What the hell is health without happiness? Without joy? Without . . . without those you love?” Amelia wavered between the pain of her memories and resentment over having a release from that pain snatched away.
“I know your grief, and it matters, Amelia, but it’s not all that matters. You lost your daughter, and that’s a terrible thing for any parent to go through. But then you lost faith in what the rest of your life could have been, and it’s too late to get that back.”
“I don’t want it back. Why do you think I jumped?”
“Fine. You want to die,” he snapped at her. “You want to throw away sixty-five promising years—”
“Sixty-five? You trying to tell me I was going to live to be . . .” Amelia did the math in her head and gasped, “ninety-three?”
“Yes, and I can’t guarantee they would have all been happy, because again, that’s largely up to you. Not many people have that kind of opportunity, though. That vast amount of possibility.”
Amelia chuffed. Living to her nineties sounded like more of a drawn-out death sentence or a slow, agonizing torture. She couldn’t think of anyone she knew in their nineties who seemed to enjoy it. But, did she even know anyone at all who’d lived that long? Her maternal grandparents passed away when she was young, and her dad’s parents—Grandpa Jim and Grandma Rose—died two months apart, the year before Millicent was born.
“Now you see, Amelia, I’m a sensible type of guy. I hate seeing good years go to waste, and you—” he jabbed his finger at her again “—were prepared to waste a whole lot of them. But what if I told you there’s another option? Another opportunity for you to use those years wisely?”
“To not shitcan my life, as you put it?”
“Remember, your life is over,” Cue corrected her.
“Well, that was the idea behind the jump, before you screwed it up. So what do you mean?”
“I mean, instead of tossing sixty-five years of life into the void, you could give them away.”
“Give them away? To who exactly?”
“To others,” he continued. “To extend their lives.”
“Other people? Like Robin-freaking-Hood of life years?”
Cue’s mouth twitched, crooking his mustached goatee to the left. “That’s one way of looking at it, except you’ll be taking years from yourself and giving them to those less fortunate. Those who aren’t as lucky as you, who aren’t rich in time.”
“You’re kidding me, right? So I can’t have my years back, but I can give them away to complete strangers?”
“And what if I change my mind? Do penance and say fifteen Bloody Mary’s or something? Can I keep them then?”
“Well, for one, they’re Hail Mary’s. . .”
“Not in my book . . .”
“And two, penance is for Catholics, which you are not. . .”
“And do you? Do you want to still live, Amelia?”
“No.” The answer came quick, without thought, because the truth was that Amelia hadn’t wanted to live for nearly a year now. She’d gone through the motions of living since Millie’s funeral. Every single day for the past ten months had been a forced march through her existence. Every conversation, an act. Every interaction, an abrasion. The opportunity to renege on her decision to die wasn’t going to change one moment of the past year, so the chance at a do-over meant nothing to her. “No, I don’t.”
“Then the ‘what-ifs’ don’t matter, do they? But I’m trying to give you the chance to make your unused years matter to someone. To backtrack on your selfishness.”
Amelia tapped her chin with her forefinger. “Do I have a choice? Can I say no?”
Cue studied her for a moment, as if she’d said something reprehensible and he was now recalculating her value in his mind. “No, you don’t. It can end here. You can trash your remaining life years, if that’s what you want. But, there are people out there right now who would give anything to have just one more month, one more day. People who cherish every single minute of their lives—the bad with the good—and would do anything to have the years you were given. Have you really hated living so much this past year that you’d deny it to others?”
Amelia was taken aback by his words. Yes, she had hated living, but not everyone did. She knew that. Not everyone deserved or desired death the way she had. She’d met people who were much more worthy of a longer life than she was. Millie had deserved a longer life. Perhaps there were others like her, other little girls who deserved all the years Amelia wished to throw away. They’d be welcome to them.
She shrugged. “What do I have to lose?”
A warm smile flashed across Cue’s face. “Nothing you haven’t already given away.”
“Right. So, how does this work? Do I get to pick who gets my leftover time?”
“You will get to choose the recipients of your years, Amelia, but there are some restrictions—”
“You mean rules?”
“Guidelines. First, only those due to die within a year are eligible for extra time.”
“Alright, but how am I supposed to know when people are going to die?”
Cue pulled an object from his right coat pocket and tossed it to her.
“An iPhone X?”
Cue frowned, strode over and snatched it from her hand. “Sorry, that’s mine. I reached into the wrong pocket.” He shoved the iPhone back into his coat and pulled another, much smaller item from his left-hand pocket. He held it out to her. “Here.”
“What the hell is this?” she said, taking it from his hand with no small amount of hesitation.
“It’s what we call a mortality determinator.”
“It’s a flip phone.” She opened the dark gray case and scoffed at the small screen. It looked a lot like the first phone she’d had in high school, complete with rubber buttons and a large photo lens on the clamshell lid.
“It’s reliable and accurate. It will alert you if anyone nearby is slated to die within a year. All you have to do is point the camera at them and click the button on the side. It will give you some basic facts about them—name, birthdate, and date of death.”
Amelia squinted at the screen. “Great, now if only I could read it.” She pointed the phone at Cue and clicked the button. “Nothing on you?”
“I’m already dead.”
“Already dead. And what are you exactly?” she asked as she snapped the phone shut.
“Something not like you, but not too different. Now, back to those restrictions—”
“—guidelines. You can’t nickel-and-dime your time out. No one gets less than a year or more than seven.”
Amelia stuffed the phone into her back jeans pocket. “Why seven?”
“Because anything more than an additional seven years past a person’s scheduled death date could cause serious damage to the fabric of space and time.”
“Absolutely. Our top scientists, mathematicians, and theoreticists spent years researching and designing formulas to calculate the optimal time a person’s predetermined life could be extended before it caused irreversible harm to the future.”
“Science in the afterlife. That’s . . . weird. So how many years did it take to figure that out?”
“Seven. Also, each recipient you choose can only be given time once. If you only give someone a year, you can’t go back and give them another year or two later on, so make sure you’re satisfied with what you are gifting the first time around.”
“Okay, no seconds. Got it. Anything else?”
“Yes, and this you’ll want to pay the most attention to.”
Amelia cocked an eyebrow at him. “Go on.”
“You’re getting enough life back to see this through, but only a small amount.”
Amelia inhaled—slow and deliberate—as she dwelled on the idea of seven more months. Or, only seven months left, depending on how you looked at it. For someone who had just tried to commit suicide, that seemed an eternity. “What the hell is up with all the sevens?”
Cue ignored the question. “You have seven months to gift out all your remaining years, Amelia. After that . . .” He glanced away from her and shifted his footing. He was obviously uncomfortable about whatever followed ‘after that.’
“After that, what?” she prodded.
“After seven months, you’re stuck with any remaining years you didn’t give away.”
“Stuck? You mean I’ll have to keep them? Keep living?” Her voice rose in indignation.
Cue remained silent for another minute before he brought his eyes up to meet her. “Yes, but you’ll be in a coma. Not quite clinically brain dead but in a vegetative state. You’ll spend the rest of the years you have left—whatever you didn’t give away—in a hospital bed, hostage to your immobility and incommunicability and dependent on machines and physicians for your maintenance.”
“But that’s not fair,” Amelia burst out. “How is that an incentive to do this? I should just take my death as planned and forget any of this noble crap.” She made to grab the phone-like device from her back pocket, with every intention of throwing it at him. Cue put his hand on her arm and stilled her.
“I never said you’d have died tonight. Your jump from the George Washington wasn’t meant to kill you, Amelia, and you’d been worse off if I hadn’t intervened. The moment you decided to step off the bridge, you were doomed to that coma, not for sixty-five years but for far more than you or any of the people you are leaving behind would have wanted.”
The question was weak, almost inaudible. The vertigo and queasiness from earlier returned two-fold. She backed away from Cue and crouched to place her head between her knees. She took several deep breaths—in and out, in and out—to settle herself.
“But do this, Amelia—accept life for just a bit longer, long enough to give the rest of your sixty-five years away to those who deserve them—and you’ll get the clean, irrevocable death you wanted.”
“This feels like extortion,” she said without bothering to look up at him.
“It’s an opportunity. A chance to do something good with the waste you’ve made. And, maybe you’ll actually take the time to say a proper goodbye to the people who care about you.”
Cue was right: she hadn’t said goodbye to anyone. The decision to kill herself was a recent development, and she didn’t want anyone to try to talk her out of it. She’d also been too raw, too numb from Millie’s passing to offer meaningful moments or conversations to anyone. She hadn’t spoken to her mother in weeks, and Rufus . . . she’d stopped talking to him months ago. She owed them more than long stretches of silence capped off with an early morning phone call from the port authority police.
Amelia blew a lock of hair from her eyes and peered up at him. This had turned out to be one hell of a jump, and the pinnacle to an unbearable year. “Fine, I’ll do it,” she said. “But I have a question for you first.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m not surprised. Go ahead.”
The nausea and dizziness finally passed, and Amelia stood and rounded on Cue. “If I have to keep any years I don’t hand out at the end of seven months, what happens if I give them all away before then?”
“You die as soon as your last year is gifted.”
Amelia betrayed herself with a quick smirk. This was the loophole she’d been hoping for. “So if I distribute my years within a week, I don’t have to stick around for the rest of it.”
Cue shook his head. “It’s not going to be that easy, Amelia. You can’t just go out there and throw out a bundle of seven years to the first ten people you meet and call it good.”
“Why not? They’re my years, aren’t they? Shouldn’t I get to decide how to use them?”
“You gave them up, remember?” Cue closed his eyes, sighed, and rubbed his forehead. Amelia wondered if he could actually get headaches. “Look, it’s not about who the years belong to, it’s about spending them wisely. You aren’t gifting your recipients with your health, your wealth, your ethics or opportunities; you’re only giving them raw time. If they’re sick, they’ll likely stay sick. If they’re a criminal, they may continue to commit crimes. You don’t have any control over what happens to them during those gifted years or how they spend them.”
Amelia threw her hands up. “Then what’s the point in being selective?”
“This is why you have seven months. You must get to know your potential recipients, at least well enough to determine if their lives are worthy of the gift of more time or if that gift might be a burden.”
“The coma is starting to sound like the better option . . .”
“You’re a smart, intuitive woman, Amelia. You can figure this out. I have faith that you’ll make the right choices.”
“I don’t know. You aren’t a big fan of my first choice of the night.”
Cue held out his hand. “Let me see your M.D.”
“Your flip phone. I need to show you how it works.”
Amelia pulled it from her back pocket and handed it to him.
“Here.” He waved her over to stand next to him. “When you’ve chosen a recipient, aim the camera at them to pull up their data, select the number on the keypad that corresponds to the years you want to gift them, and hit the green dial button.” He closed the case and handed the device back to her. “Pretty simple, really.”
“Yeah, sounds it.” She turned the fake phone over in her hands a few times. “If I want to know my available balance, do I dial star four?”
“Star seven, actually,” Cue said without a hint of irony.
“Huh.” Amelia re-pocketed the phone.
“It’s time, Amelia. In a few minutes, you’ll close your eyes, and when you open them, you’ll be back on the bridge, at the moment before you stepped off. I suggest you don’t do it again, because this is a one-time offer, and now you know what will happen if you make that jump.”
“So I’ll remember everything that’s happened . . . here . . . just now?”
“Of course. That’s how you’ll know what your new mission in life is . . .”
Her eyelids grew heavy and closed.
“. . . however short that life may be.”
“Nice,” she grumbled before blacking out.
Amelia opened her eyes. She was on the bridge, teetering on the outside of the side rail and holding tight to it with one hand. An unexpected gust pushed her forward, and she yelped and wrapped both arms around the railing. Her clothes and hair were dry, and she wondered now if they were ever wet. “What’s happening?”
She climbed back over the barrier and, from the safety of the other side, stared out over the Hudson, trying to sort out the events of the last few . . . minutes? Hours? She had no idea how long she’d been standing on the bridge or talking to Cue. Hell, she wasn’t sure if she had been talking to him at all.
A set of lights grew in her periphery. Was she going under again, through the blackness and back into the light? Just as she had under the water? She turned to face the source and was blinded by a set of headlights coming toward her. They stopped a few feet away. The driver door of the vehicle opened, and a short, squat silhouette got out.
“Miss, are you sure you’re alright? Do you want me to call someone?”
It was her Lyft driver. When she’d told him to drop her off at the end of the bridge, he asked her three times if she was sure. She mumbled a quick lie about meeting someone for a romantic midnight date, bid him goodnight, and didn’t look back after she exited the car. He must have had an inkling of what she was really up to, seeing as he stuck around.
“Yes, I’m fine.” She stepped away from the railing to prove it. “Only, I just realized it’s technically Wednesday now, isn’t it?”
The man looked down at his watch. “Uh, yes, I suppose. Technically.”
“Ah. There, you see? My date said half-past midnight on Tuesday. Silly me—guess I stood him up.” The man only tilted his head to the left. He didn’t believe her story, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to jump, and he wasn’t going to pry.
“Can I give you a ride back home, or somewhere with family? No charge.”
Amelia smiled and nodded. He was a kind man. Gray hair capped his head, and she figured he was about the age Grandpa Jim would’ve been if he were still here. She hoped this man had many years left.
She climbed into the passenger seat and sat back, finally able to relax. “Can you take me back to where you picked me up?”
“Sure. No problem. I live out that direction myself.”
As the lights of the bridge blurred into a stream that flowed into the pulse of the city, the events of the evening blurred in her mind. The jump, the water, the gray room, the man who looked like a movie star and all the things he said; it all blended into a haze that had the aura of a dream. She could almost convince herself it was, if it weren’t for the strange flip phone she now held in her hand.