Amelia sat at the Formica-topped table with two coffees, neither of which came from the cafeteria, and checked her phone for the tenth time in as many minutes. Aasma was late, but that didn’t irritate Amelia as much as having to sit alone with her thoughts.
When Aasma texted earlier in the evening to check on her—they hadn’t spoken since the seminar last weekend—Amelia hesitated to answer. The memory of Fielding pressed against her in that elevator car mingled with guilt for going to see him without telling Aasma. The incident played in her mind on a sickening loop that threatened to paralyze her. She needed to get out of the apartment and out of her own headspace, so she offered to meet Aasma for a late coffee break at the hospital.
After another long minute or two, Aasma appeared in the doorway to the cafeteria in her green scrubs. Amelia waved to catch her attention, and she rushed over. “Hey, sorry. I got held up with a patient. Stodgy old codger who didn’t want his insulin shot.” Aasma pulled out the chair across from Amelia, dropped into it with a groan, and tucked a few loose strands of hair back under her hijab. “Second shift sucks. I swear it feels longer than third, but a good friend bearing hot coffee always helps.”
“Skinny vanilla latte with soy. Extra vanilla. And hot—ten minutes ago.” Amelia pushed the drink over to her.
Aasma folded her hands around the thick paper cup and smiled after her initial sip. “Alhamdulillah, this is perfect, and warm enough. You’re the best. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I was just skipping through Netflix to avoid productivity. I much prefer this kind of distraction.” She held her cup aloft in a mock salute, a decaf as she didn’t need assistance staying awake at night. “Sorry I haven’t been very chatty this week.”
“Are you feeling alright?” Aasma studied her face.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Winter doldrums, I guess. How about you?”
“I finally got to speak with John Fielding last night.”
A chill ran through Amelia at the mention of his name.
“We weren’t able to meet before he left New York last weekend, so we Skyped.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Amelia took a long draw from her coffee, hoping to mask the frown spreading across her face.
“Yeah, it was. For the most part.”
“For the most part?”
Aasma shrugged. “We discussed his paper on emergency care for patients with chronic illness, and he answered all of my questions. He even steered me toward some resources that are rather cutting edge. It was definitely a valuable connection to make.”
The last line sounded to Amelia less like a statement of fact and more like someone trying to convince themselves of something. “Why does it sound like there’s a ‘but’ to this?”
Aasma grimaced and shook out some thought in her head. “There’s not. It’s nothing, really. It’s just me being me. Being overly sensitive, I think.”
Aasma snorted and tossed an unopened sugar packet at her. “He just . . . well, he was a bit . . . forward, you might say.”
Amelia’s pulse quickened. She sat up straight, her senses now on high alert. “Oh, god. What’d he do?”
“Nothing. He didn’t strip naked or anything. He was just a bit flirty, that’s all. Made a couple of jokes. Said a few things that I’m sure he thought were flattering. That’s how older men are.” Aasma waved her hand, brushing away any ominous implications, but Amelia knew what lie beneath his actions. His words. She knew exactly what type of man Fielding was.
Aasma watched as Amelia squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. “What’s wrong with you? You seem agitated.”
Rufus hadn’t pushed the issue when he consoled her Saturday night. He recognized the freshness of her trauma and let her fall apart without explanation. She appreciated the respect of her privacy, the support without prying. But now, she wanted to talk about it. She wanted to tell Aasma the truth about this man. She needed to tell him. “Something happened. A couple of Saturdays ago, the evening after the Fielding event.”
“You had a dinner date with Rufus, didn’t you? What happened?”
Amelia slouched back in her seat and focused on her near-empty cup. “We didn’t have the date. I had something else I needed to do. Someone else I needed to meet.”
“Oh. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t tell.” Aasma drew out the question, trying to determine which emotional card she should play.
“It was meant to be a good thing, but it turned out different than I planned.”
Aasma leaned forward over the table and studied her face again, this time looking for meaning rather than signs of fever. “What happened, Amelia?” she repeated.
Bloody hell. Just say it.
“I met with Fielding. He said he had some pamphlets about Shackle’s Disease for me, so I met him at his hotel.”
“You met him at his hotel? On a Saturday night? For pamphlets?”
“Yes, but he said they were up in his room. He said I could come up and pick out what I wanted, and—”
“You didn’t sleep with him, did you?”
“No! Of course not, but I thought you weren’t interested?” Amelia’s stomach churned. Might Aasma have actually been keen on the lecherous lout?
“I’m not. I’ve told you, I’m not interested in relationships right now, but he said he didn’t have time to meet me while he was here. He sure made time for you, though, huh? I hope you at least remembered to grab the pamphlets while you were in his room.”
Amelia winced. “I didn’t make it to his room, Az. He . . . he attacked me on the elevator.”
“He what?” Aasma’s face slackened, smoothing out the wrinkles set there by her anger.
“He assaulted me. He tried to . . . he wanted . . . he was all over me, touching me, but I kneed him in the groin when the elevator doors opened, and I ran. I just ran. I should have known. From the way he acted at the reception. The way he looked at me, the way he smelled me.”
Once the floodgates opened, Amelia couldn’t hold back the tide. Everything spilled out in a flood of words and tears that evaporated quickly on her heated cheeks. “I shouldn’t have gone, I know, I shouldn’t have but I had to. His research, his potential. He might save thousands if he doesn’t die, and isn’t that worth at least trying? Even if he’s not a decent person, isn’t his work worth saving? But then I didn’t. I didn’t save him. I just left.”
Amelia looked up to find Aasma staring at her with eyes wide and mouth open in a slight “oh.” “I’m sorry, Amelia. I didn’t know about him.” She spoke each word with the following space of trying to figure out what the next word should be. She reached across the table and placed her hand on Amelia’s forearm. “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not, but I will be. I got away from him before anything else happened.” She downed the remaining contents of her cup in one long draw.
“I am sorry, Amelia. No one should have to go through that.” A look then passed across her face, like she was stewing over a particularly vexing riddle. “You said he could save thousands, if he didn’t die, but that you didn’t save him. What did you mean by that?”
The air around Amelia thickened, and every ambient sound in the cafeteria rushed in to fill the dampened space in her mind. The buzzing of the fluorescent light above them. The muted beeping of an appliance in the back kitchen. The threads of conversation of the other people scattered throughout the sterile dining room. The frenetic tempo of her own heart. In that moment, Amelia knew she’d tell Aasma everything. Not just about Fielding but about the morbid second chance she’d been granted with regard to how she spent her remaining life.
“I’m going to tell you something, and I need you to keep an open mind, okay?”
With a single, deep breath, Amelia launched into the incredible tale that had been her life for the past two months. Starting with the leap off the bridge in September to the moment where she went to the hotel to determine if Fielding merited more years, Amelia held nothing back. Well, next to nothing. She glossed over the particulars of Morty and how it worked and didn’t mention the first time she’d actually used it at the coffee shop. The day she first bumped into Aasma.
Aasma sucked on her upper lip and stared at the table, tracing the boomerang patterns of the fading Formica with her index finger, as she listened to Amelia’s story. Once Amelia finished, the ensuing silence rang louder in her ears than the sounds of the cafeteria, so she prodded Aasma with a question.
“I wouldn’t have gone to see him, but I can’t ignore the fact that with a few more years, he might be able to save thousands of people with his research. You understand that, right? What would you do, if you were in my position?”
Aasma looked at her with an unbearable expression of pity. “Amelia, sweetheart. I don’t even think you’re in your position, so I don’t know how to answer that. Have you sought counseling?”
“I’m not crazy, Az.”
“No, but you’ve been through a lot of trauma this past year. What with your daughter’s funeral, Rufus leaving, your jump off that bridge, and now this thing with Fielding? It’s a lot to deal with. I’m worried maybe you’re not handling it well. That maybe it’s affecting your ability to separate reality from delusion.”
“I’m not imagining this. I know it sounds impossible, but I promise, it’s the truth.”
As if on cue, a familiar buzzing emanated from the bag hanging over the back of Amelia’s chair. Seconds later, a short, stocky man ambled into the cafeteria. He frowned at the serving line, dark and closed for the night, then moved over to the vending machines. Based on his attire—stained, slouchy sweatpants and an untucked plaid flannel shirt beneath a worn army jacket—Amelia might guess he was homeless and seeking respite from the cold night in the cafeteria, but a plastic ID bracelet circled his left wrist.
“Here, I’ll prove it to you. Do you know that man over there?”
Aasma twisted in her seat to look where Amelia nudged her head. “Yeah, that’s Mr.—”
“Ah! Don’t tell me. I’ll tell you.” She fished Morty from her bag, opened it and aimed it at the man. “Now, I’ve never met him before, but I can tell you his name is Thomas Glandon. He was born September 15, 1987. And according to this, he’ll die on . . .” She did a double take. Not only was the death date next week, but she was certain she’d seen it on Morty before. “He’ll die next Saturday, on the twenty-fourth.”
Aasma’s eyes widened before dropping into her patented skeptical scowl. “Come on, you know him. I think he lives in your neighborhood.”
“I don’t, I swear. We’ll go ask him if he knows me.”
Amelia stood and shouldered her bag. Aasma sighed and swigged the last of her coffee before following her to the vending machines. The man pounded on the glass front, cursing at a bag of Bugles stuck between the spiral arm and the glass.
“Hi, Mr. Glandon,” Aasma started. “You doing okay?”
He turned sharply, a guilty look on his face. “I wasn’t doing nothing. It stole my money.”
“You’re fine. I wanted to check to see if you needed anything else? You should be cleared to go home now.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay.” He glanced once in Amelia’s direction, before looking over his shoulder at the vending machine. “I’m fine. Just trying to get something to eat on the way home.”
“Do I know you? I feel like we might have met somewhere? Maybe in the neighborhood?” Amelia canted her head, as if she were trying to place his face.
Thomas stared Amelia up and down then shook his head. “Nah, I don’t think so. I’d of remembered.” He gave her a quick, shy smile then glanced again at the bag of trapped Bugles.
“Mr. Glandon, can you verify something for me?” Aasma said, drawing his attention back to them. “Your chart said your birthday is September of ‘82, right?”
“’87. September 15, 1987. Why?”
Aasma blinked as she processed his words. “Yes, I meant ‘87. I just wanted to make sure the year was correct, that it wasn’t a typo. You look closer to twenty than thirty.” She smiled. “Well, if you’ll excuse us.” She clutched Amelia’s arm and led back to their table.
“How in the hell did you know his birthday?”
“I told you. I can see who is destined to die in the coming year. I know their names, their birthdates, and the date they’ll die.”
“And you can just give them more years? Just like that?”
“Like I said, I can give them up to seven.”
“Can you do that right now? For Mr. Glandon?”
Amelia stepped back. “Yes, but I don’t know if it will benefit him. If he’s terminally sick, more years won’t necessarily cure him, remember? I can only give raw time, not health.”
“Trust me, he’s fine. He came in today for a simple ear infection, but he’s otherwise healthy as a horse, so you can give him more time. Plus, I want to see you do it.” The agitation in her voice mingled with concern. She wanted Amelia to prove to herself as well as to Aasma that none of this was possible. She wanted Amelia to face her delusions.
“Alright. How much should I give him?”
“Give him the full seven. I mean, why not, right?”
Amelia shrugged as she aimed Morty at Thomas Glandon, pressed seven and then SEND. Granting this stranger a full seven without knowing more about him made her uneasy, but he seemed harmless. For all she knew, he could be a youth pastor or a foster for orphaned kittens.
“What did you expect? Glowing lights and trumpets?”
“No, but it doesn’t prove that what you’re saying is true, Amelia. I’m worried for you.”
Aasma’s unwillingness to believe her, though reasonable, frustrated Amelia. She needed someone—just one person—to believe her. To know and empathize with what she was going through. She hoped Aasma would be that person, but her friend was highly pragmatic. She’d need more convincing.
“Then let me show you again. Let’s go to the emergency center or the acute care ward. This is a hospital after all. I’m sure there’s lots of people here that will die in the coming year.”
Aasma pinched and rubbed the space between her eyebrows. “I shouldn’t encourage this, but maybe it will help you face the truth about whatever you think is happening here.” She motioned for Amelia to follow her toward the exit. “Come on. I have someone in mind. Someone I know you won’t know.”
Aasma thankfully walked them past the elevator bank to a stairwell in the east wing. Morty buzzed and convulsed in her back pocket the moment they stepped through the door onto the second floor.
“It’s this way.” Aasma led them down the corridor to a room two doors down to the left. “You shouldn’t be up here, but I’m hoping this helps you. Allah knows it won’t help the poor woman we’re going to see.”
The room contained four beds, each of which had privacy curtains drawn around them. They walked past the first set of beds and stopped at the unit in the far right corner next to the window. Aasma peeked behind the curtain then waved at Amelia to follow her as she disappeared behind it.
A woman lie in the bed, held captive by tubes and wires that linked her to the complement of monitors, fluids and apparatuses around her. Like arteries connected to vital organs, they connected the unconscious woman to life. Casts encased both arms and a traction device elevated her left leg. Bandages covered most of her face and head.
“We’ve done everything we can, but I don’t think she’ll survive another week let alone a full year. Her internal injuries were too extensive,” Aasma whispered. “But you’ll be able to tell me when she’ll die, yes?”
“Who is she?”
Aasma stared at her pointedly.
“Right. I’ll tell you.” Amelia pulled the noisy device from her pocket and aimed it at the woman.
“Her name is Poppy Brown. She was born on April 17, 1967, and she’ll actually live for three more weeks, until the second of December.” Amelia turned to find Aasma gaping at her. “What happened to her?”
Aasma checked the plastic id bracelet on the woman’s arm. “How did you know her name? Her birthday?”
“Who is she?” Amelia asked again.
“She’s a British tourist, visiting New York with friends for a couple of weeks. She stepped out in front of a bus a few blocks from here. We’re waiting for her family to arrive, but how . . .” Aasma grabbed Amelia’s upper arm and ushered her out between the curtain and the window. “How do you know her information?” she hissed.
“I already told you. I—” Morty resumed buzzing, even though she hadn’t yet cleared out Poppy’s information. They both stared at the device, as if it might leap from her hand to bite them. “Shit. Someone else in this room is going to die in the coming year, too.”
Amelia scanned the device around the room. Neither the bed across from Poppy nor the one next to her on the right triggered Morty. Only after Amelia aimed it at the bed closest to the door and clicked the button did Morty fall silent.
“Him. Brian Heidelberg. Born August 25 1941. His death date is three months from now. February 13. What’s he here for?”
“Advanced liver disease.”
“Am I right? About his name? His birthdate?”
Aasma pushed back the privacy curtain to reveal a balding, overweight man sleeping with his mouth open. She gently lifted his arm to check his bracelet, glanced at Amelia with a stunned expression then wandered from the room without another word. Amelia followed and found her leaning against the wall next to the stairwell.
“Do you believe me now? How can I know their names and birthdays, unless I happen to know them both, and they just so happen to be here in the same room? Too much of a coincidence, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“I suppose I might have memorized the names, birthdays and room numbers of everyone in the hospital to support my delusion.”
Morty, still open in Amelia’s hand, activated for a third time. Without warning, and just as she had the first day they met, Aasma snatched it from Amelia’s hand.
She opened and shut it, pressed every button, and tried to pry open the casing, all to no effect. She opened Morty again and glared at the outdated digital display that showed her only the time: 9:46 PM. Then, her entire face slackened and paled.
“Oh, no.” She shook her head as she repeated the word several times over. “No, no, no.” Morty fell from her trembling hands as she stumbled over to the exit door and pushed her way through.
Amelia picked up Morty and scrambled after her. She found Aasma leaning over the stainless steel handrails, coughing and wheezing as she struggled to inhale.
“That day in the coffee shop. When we first met. You had that phone out.” She spoke in short sentences punctuated with sharp breaths. “You aimed it at me. Like you aimed it at them.”
Every nerve in Amelia’s body sprang into high alert. “Yes.”
“You saw me. On that thing, didn’t you? You saw my name?”
“And it said I’m going to die soon. Within the next twelve months.”
“But you fixed it.” She straightened and turned on Amelia. “You fixed it, yes?”
Amelia could only nod. A sickly sour feeling flooded her stomach, and her heart clenched in her chest.
“Alhamdulillah. A full seven, right? That’s what you said. You can give up to seven years.” She fanned herself with both hands. “Seven years. That’s soon. So soon, and it’s an awful thing to know when you’re going to die, but—”
The anguish must have been apparent on Amelia’s face, because Aasma stopped short when she glanced at her again.
“But . . . you didn’t give me the full seven, did you?”
Amelia’s misery and heartbreak over the truth finally broke free in a sob that echoed off the walls of the stairwell. She covered her mouth to keep the bile in her throat from following it.
“How much time did you give me, Amelia?”
Amelia kept her mouth covered as she closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m sorry. It was the first time. I didn’t know if—” she whispered through her hands.
“You might have been sick, and I didn’t know how it worked, or if it worked, or—”
Amelia’s mouth opened and closed as she tried to form the word she didn’t want to say, but it didn’t matter. Aasma said it for her.
“One. You gave me one.”
“I’m sorry,” she gasped.
“Shit. Shit!” Aasma leaned against the handrail for support as she turned and walked down the stairs, taking one step for every shallow breath she exhaled. When she made it to the middle landing between floors, she stopped and stared up at Amelia.
“Why?” Her voice shook, but from anguish or anger Amelia didn’t know, though likely both.
“I’m so sorry, Az.”
“Why only one? You gave that man in the cafeteria seven, and you didn’t even know him.”
“I didn’t know you, either, yet. And you told me he was healthy.”
“I see. I was just some stranger, then. Some Muslim in a hijab not worthy of your years.”
“No, it wasn’t like that.”
“It’s always like that!” she spat. “You saw my death and did the bare minimum, just to appease your own curiosity, apparently. A year—hah! A year.” Aasma’s eyes glistened with rage. “You saw me, considered me, and deemed me unworthy. Judge, jury and executioner, you are. You condemned me, same as you condemned everyone at that train station.”
With that, she turned and descended the stairs. A heavy metallic clang echoed throughout the stairwell as the exit door closed behind the woman who’d come to be Amelia’s only friend. A woman who had no reason to be her friend. A woman Amelia condemned to an early death.
Amelia curled deeper into the corner of her couch, crying over the lives she’d held in her hands through Morty. Lizzie. Geoff. Ida Mae. Thomas Glandon. Fielding. All the people at the train station. And Aasma. Their faces haunted her, like ghosts might haunt their murderers.
Judge. Jury. Executioner. Judge. Jury. Executioner.
Is that what she was? Is that what this “second chance” of Cue’s amounted to? Amelia struggled to think of it as an opportunity since he placed that damned device in her hands. Perhaps, after Geoff and Lizzie, she’d even started to believe it. She gave them more time. Snatched them from the jaws of premature death. She saved them. She saved them.
But did she really?
“You’re not. You’re not saving them. You’re not saving anybody. You’re not saving anybody.” She beat at her head with her fists as she repeated the mantra, a punishment for the sin of playing judge, jury and executioner.