Episode Three: An Exploration of the Gift of Amelia Layne

Read Episode Two

Amelia stepped onto the landing of her building and checked the phone again. The Lyft app showed the driver stuck in traffic, which meant she was going to be late for the meeting with her new client. The Fleetwood Station was only a few blocks away and the 513 was an option, but . . .

The train meant people—a lot of them—and crowds meant a high probability she’d run into at least one who’d set the device currently in her back pocket to buzzing. Her last foray with it resulted in failure—both for herself and a little girl who had less than two months left to live. The easiest thing to do would be to leave it at home whenever she left her apartment, but she had a mission. That mission had a deadline, and missing that deadline had consequences. Success wouldn’t come in avoiding people.

“The train it is, then.” Amelia canceled the ride, bagged her phone, and took off for the station.

She passed a corner shop and considered stopping in for a coffee. She pulled the device from her pocket to check the time: 8:41. The station was more than a block away, but if they weren’t too busy, she could make it. As she closed the case, the device came alive in her hands.

“Shit,” she gasped as she fumbled to hold onto it. It had never activated before while she was holding it. The vibrations were solid for such a small device.

Amelia examined her surroundings. There were many possibilities. She could see at least eight people through the large storefront windows of the shop, and another dozen or so making their way to and from the station. She decided to try her luck in the store first.

She stepped inside and slowly scanned the room, pressing the button on the side methodically. She received a mix of annoyed and uncomfortable looks from several of the patrons. Understandable.

“Pokémon Go,” she offered with a half-smile.

Some nodded and others rolled their eyes, but none of them were dying within the next year.

“Got it,” she exclaimed before rushing back outside. She’d have to remember this excuse for next time.

The device continued its ruckus, so the unlucky soul must still be nearby. She was losing time, and Amelia couldn’t miss this appointment. Her new client was infamously fussy, according to another client of Amelia’s who referred her. But then, she couldn’t just let this person go, either, not without trying. Amelia decided to walk in the direction of the station, scanning and clicking as she went. If the person went the other way and she lost them, she’d chalk it up to fate.

She wished she knew the range of the damned thing. Aside from the fact that the “mortality determinator” (she really needed to come up with a better name for it . . .) seemed to work through walls, she had no idea what its maximum radius might be. Amelia was less than a hundred feet from the park two days ago when it activated, so was that its max distance?

The device quit buzzing and switched to calculation mode. Amelia paused to read the data that appeared on the screen:

Name: Robert Davies
B: July 14, 1957
D: September 24, 2018

Amelia did a double-take on the date. “Holy shit, that’s today.”

She resumed walking and picked up her pace, her heart beating in time with her steps. She was looking for a man in his early sixties. Two men walking ahead of her fit that description, but she’d been hitting the button indiscriminately so she had no idea which one it could be. One wore a grey suit and carried a briefcase, while the other was dressed in a sweater and khakis. They both took the stairs to the overpass. She followed at a distance. The suited man headed over to the southbound platforms, while the one in khakis stopped at the ticket kiosk. She stuck with the guy getting his tickets. When the information stayed on her screen, even as Mr. Grey Suit was now out of sight, she felt satisfied this man was Mr. Davies. Then the screen went blank and the phone began buzzing again. Perhaps she chose the wrong man?

Amelia turned away and took two steps before the device quieted again and the swirling circles kicked in. A girl with long, red hair walked past as she pressed the button, and new information appeared.

Name: Julia McMaan
B: December 3, 1992
D: September 25, 2018

“What the hell?” Amelia whispered. This was one hell of a coincidence; that two people at the train station would be set to die one day apart. The redhead disappeared down the steps to the Manhattan-bound platforms.

Amelia followed her, keeping the information on her screen. She realized she now had two dilemmas. With both people set to die in the next two days, Amelia had no time to get to know them before choosing whether or not to gift them years. This had to be a snap decision. Her other dilemma lay in the fact that if the first man she’d scanned had been Mr. Davies, she’d have to go back to find him after dealing with the young woman. Or perhaps she should go back to find him now, as the northbound train—the one she should be on herself, dammit!—was due to leave in a few minutes, and he might be taking that one. She cursed under her breath. She should have waited for the Lyft.

The train heading south wasn’t at the station yet, so she turned to take the bridge back to the northbound platform. The man was no longer at the ticket kiosk, but the device began buzzing. Relieved, Amelia expected to see Mr. Davies coming back up the steps from street level. Instead, two young men crested the rise of the stairs. Amelia’s heart sank. It couldn’t be. Not a third person.

She pressed the button on the side and waited. New information filled the small screen:

Name: Geoffrey Loomis
B: May 14, 1998
D: September 28, 2018

The screen recalculated and spit out another name and set of dates:

Name: Michael Cheever
B: December 20, 1997
D: September 24, 2018

The boys, absorbed in their conversation, walked past her without a glance as the device quaked again in her now-sweaty palm. An elderly woman limped up the last step and down the walkway toward her. Amelia swallowed hard and held the phone in front of her:

Name: Dianna Reynolds
B: March 28, 1948
D: September 24, 2018

The device was malfunctioning—it must be. Why would everyone who showed up on the device that morning appear with nearly the same death date? Perhaps so many people around her were dying within the year that it only pinged those headed for the morgue in the coming days? Or maybe the device was miscalculating deaths because of a software error? Of course, Amelia knew the obvious explanation but didn’t want to accept it. She couldn’t accept it.

She followed the old woman to the steps that led down to the platform and stopped halfway down the first level of stairs—just enough so she could see the riders waiting. At least thirty people filled the area. The mortality determinator went berserk in her hand. She began to point-and-click, point-and-click, her stomach lurching with each positive result. Twelve showed up on her phone with death dates listed for today. Four others appeared with dates for the following few days. The remaining riders produced no results, one of them being the man in the grey suit, the other one she thought might be Mr. Davies.

At that moment, the man from the ticket kiosk brushed past her and jogged down the stairs. Already knowing what it would say, Amelia aimed her phone at him and pressed the button.

Name: Robert Davies
B: July 14, 1957
D: September 24, 2018

Something was going to happen on the train. Something awful. Amelia was immobilized. What was she supposed to do? Was she expected to give each of them extra life? Would that prevent the accident? And how was she supposed to know if they were worth giving more life to? Any one of them could be capable of horrible things, things undeserving of extra time. Did that negate her obligation to try to help any of them? And how in the hell could she choose whom to help?

The roar of the train enveloped her as the 332 eased into the station. The power of its engine and wheels vibrated through the concrete landing, and for a moment, Amelia felt she could be the device in her hand, buzzing and pulsing with a portent of death. The automated announcement for the stop kicked Amelia out of her paralysis and she sprang into action.

“Wait! Stop! Don’t get on the . . .”

Amelia’s bag caught between two balusters of the railing and tugged her off balance. She twisted as she fell and tried to stop her fall by grabbing at the rail. The entire episode happened in a blur of motion, punctuated at the end with a sharp pain to the side of her head followed by blackness.

~~~@~~~

Amelia awoke on a bench in the station. She blinked to clear her eyes and the world came into soft focus. She heard voices to her left, speaking in hushed, urgent tones. One of them said, “She’s awake.”

A warm, male voice accompanied a gentle touch on her shoulder. “Are you okay? How are you feeling?”

Her head spun as she tried to concentrate on the question being asked. “I think . . . I . . . what happened?”

“You stumbled on the steps and took quite a nasty blow to the head. You’re going to need stitches, maybe a CT scan, so we called an ambulance. They should be here in a few minutes.”

Amelia touched the side of her head, the part that throbbed and burned, and winced at the result. “Thanks,” she mumbled. Her fingers came away with a light coating of blood. The sight of it reminded her of what took place before her fall, the deadly accident she’d intended to stop.

“The train. What happened? To the 332?” She looked up at the man, expecting to see the answer written on his face. It was the man in the grey suit, the one she thought might be Mr. Davies. One of the passengers meant to survive.

“Nothing I’m aware of, except that it left without the both of us.” His face betrayed a slight hint of annoyance behind the concern. “But I couldn’t leave you after that fall. I’ll just catch the next one.”

“Thanks,” Amelia said.

“And here, this went skittering across the platform.” He handed her the device. “You’re lucky it didn’t break, unless you were hoping it might. Looks pretty old.”

Amelia turned it over in her hands, inspecting it. It didn’t have a single scratch on it. She flipped it open. The time was 9:18. She had no idea what happened to the train, and she was officially late for her meeting.

The ambulance arrived and transported her to Montefiore. She convinced the driver to turn off the siren, needing neither the urgency nor the headache, and made a call to her jilted client. Despite the warning Amelia received about her, the woman was understanding and told Amelia to call next week to reschedule.

The short trip to the hospital also gave her time to reflect on what might have gone wrong with the mortality determinator. Why had it shown so many people with the same incorrect death date? Perhaps the thing worked on wireless technology as crappy as the current cell networks, and the signals were jumbled. Or maybe it had a software virus that turned everyone’s listed dates sour, but who knew if it even used software? She could speculate all day, but unless she knew the status of the 332, it was a senseless game to play.

“You seem lucid, but we’re still going to wheel you in, as a precaution,” the EMT said.

The ambulance parked at the emergency entrance. The tech jumped out and—with the assistance of the driver—pulled her from the back. The combination of laying in the gurney, the rocking motion of the ride, and likely a slight concussion, made it difficult for Amelia to keep her eyes open.

“Process this quick. We just got another call,” the driver murmured. “Mass casualty.”

Amelia’s eyes popped open. Every fiber of her body tingled. “Did . . . did you say, mass casualty? Where? What happened?”

The ambulance crew ignored her questions as they pushed her through the emergency room doors. The world changed in an instant. The facility buzzed like a beehive during pollen season. Nurses and medical staff scrambled from room to room, calling out to each other with urgent questions and commands.

Even the woman preparing Amelia’s in-patient paperwork seemed on edge. Once the EMT moved Amelia to a wheelchair and signed her portion of the paperwork, she vanished back out the ER doors with the gurney. She heard the ambulance siren fire up again and fade into the distance.

“Do you know what happened? Please, tell me.”

The administrator peered at Amelia over her readers and shook her head. “Not sure. Something with one of the trains, I think. We were having too quiet of a morning, I guess.”

Amelia’s stomach bottomed out at the mention of the word ‘train.’

“Here’s your ID and insurance card back. You’ll have to wait until a nurse comes to get you. Give me a minute and I’ll find someone to wheel you to the waiting area.”

Amelia nodded, but she hadn’t really heard. The hard reality of what was about to take place in that hospital consumed her: the aftermath of an accident for which she’d had some culpability. Even though she balked at gifting her years to any of the victims, she was still there. She knew what was coming. And then, she fell down the stairs and knocked herself out before she could stop them from getting on the train. She didn’t save them, with either extra years or a warning, so she as good as killed them.

Amelia scrolled through the news and found headlines posted in her Trending Now section but the linked articles provided only basic information with directions to check back later as the story developed. Social media was a nightmare: photos from the scene of the accident, graphic accounts from eyewitnesses, and one widely shared post from a woman who claimed to have been on the 332. Amelia shut off her phone and buried it in the bottom of her bag.

She could avoid the news, but Amelia couldn’t avoid life around her. Within minutes, victims began arriving at the hospital. Teams of medical personnel jogged alongside gurneys. Some carried patients wailing in pain. Others bore unnervingly still bodies blanketed with blue sheets splotched with blood. Amelia caught sight of one with red hair spilling out from beneath a full-face oxygen mask. The device buzzed in her pocket, but she couldn’t stomach seeing their names again. It finally silenced after the initial wave passed through the waiting area.

The world both slowed and sped up, and the next couple of hours passed in a blur. At some point, a nurse fetched Amelia for triage. He took her vitals, assessed her head injury, and asked her a few questions, but she floated somewhere just outside those events; near enough to respond but only in a detached way. He must have deemed her in suitably stable condition. She found herself back out in the waiting room, staring at the device as she rolled it over and over in her hands, reliving the events of that morning and thumbing through the what-ifs in her mind. She didn’t notice the woman who’d approached and stood over her.

“You sure are attached to that phone, aren’t you?”

The voice had a light accent; one Amelia couldn’t identify yet it was familiar as she’d heard it only days before. She steeled herself and looked up into the face of Aasma Rifaat.

“You work here?”

“Yes, for my residency.” Aasma situated herself behind Amelia and wheeled her down the hall to a smaller acute care ward. “And what lucky turn of events has brought you here today?” Aasma helped her up to the examination table then drew the curtain around on the rollers for privacy.

The device buzzed again. Amelia winced. She couldn’t very well hop off the table and roam around the ER ward, aiming an old phone at dying patients. She buried it in her bag and tossed it onto the guest chair. “Fell down the steps at the Fleetwood station.”

Aasma looked at her in alarm. “Fleetwood? Were you . . .” Aasma gestured with a nod of her head back toward the reception area.

“Oh, no. I saw . . . that train . . . coming into the station, but I was heading north. Before I took a dive down the steps, that is.”

“Yes, well, it happens. Especially when you walk around all day with a screen in your face.” The assumption irritated Amelia. She prepared to contradict her, but Aasma continued. “Still, there are some misfortunes no amount of attentiveness would allay. I’m thankful you were not southbound.”

“Thank you.”

“Any trouble hearing, swallowing, or seeing?” Aasma palpated Amelia’s skull with a gentle touch.

“No.”

“Headaches or vomiting? Seizures since your trip down the stairs?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but I did black out for about ten or fifteen minutes.”

Aasma hummed in acknowledgement and stood in front of her. She shined a light in Amelia’s eyes to check for pupil constriction then examined her nose and both ears. Something about Aasma’s quiet sense of competence and authority soothed Amelia.

“A few stitches to the cut, and I think you’ll be good to go.”

Amelia sighed in relief. “Thank you,” she repeated.

Aasma pulled a suture tray from the cart near the exam table. She held up a razor. “I’ll need to shave a small section for the stitches, but the rest of your hair will cover it, okay?” Amelia nodded. “How are you feeling otherwise? Do you need to talk to someone?”

“About the fall? No. I’ve never been accused of being graceful, so I’m used to bumps and bruises.”

Aasma grimaced before setting to work on Amelia’s head. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Amelia murmured. Over the past year, she learned to shut down when people showed concern for her, because it only served to amplify her pain and loss. Aasma’s manner nullified that. Amelia found she wanted to confide in her, to soak in her calming presence. “I just don’t deal well with trauma and grief. Not anymore.”

“You lost someone?”

“My daughter, a year ago.”

Aasma paused for a second or two before continuing. “I’m sorry for your loss. Are you seeking grief counseling?”

“Thanks. But I’m fine, really.”

Aasma hummed in doubtful acknowledgement again and finished her work in silence.

“Okay, you’re done. Wait about ten days before having them removed—your primary care doctor can do that. And be careful with brushing your hair.”

“Alright. I appreciate it.”

Aasma nodded as she put away the unused items. She treated Amelia to a weak half-smile before turning to leave the room.

“It’s just that I do feel guilty.” The words rushed from Amelia’s mouth in an attempt to keep Aasma from leaving. “About what happened at the train station. I feel like I’m to blame.”

Aasma took a few steps back in her direction. “Survivor’s guilt is normal, but it’s not the same as responsibility. There’s nothing you could have done.”

“Isn’t there?”

Aasma looked bewildered. “No, of course not. How could you have known what was going to happen let alone stop it?”

How, indeed. She’s the one person in the world who might have been able to stop it, and yet she couldn’t. She didn’t. That wasn’t something she could explain to Aasma, a therapist, or anyone else.

“When you survive something like that or come in close proximity to it, you feel involved, like a spectator who just let it happen. It’s hard not to feel responsible in some way.”

“I get that. But some things—like that train crash—are out of your hands. We aren’t here to save everyone we come into contact with. And even if we could, life is designed to be limited. If you had somehow saved everyone on that train, you’d only have saved them for the moment.”

“I’m not sure this is making me feel any better.”

Aasma smirked at her sarcasm. “Look, I’m not a therapist, but I see death nearly every day in this hospital, and I know it’s a part of who we are. Whether we have a day left or a year or fifty, it’s never enough, for us or those we love. That’s where the guilt comes from. Not because we think we should have somehow saved them, but because we aren’t ever ready to say goodbye.”

Amelia shifted and looked away. The conversation took a turn that actually did make Amelia feel worse. For the first time, she thought about those who would miss Aasma when her day came, a day that would arrive much sooner than she knew. Amelia reached for her bag. Inside, the device continued its commotion.

“Am I free to go?” she asked, avoiding Aasma’s eyes.

“Depends. Is there someone who can sit and keep an eye on you today? Otherwise, you’ll need to stick around here for observation.”

The last thing Amelia wanted was to hang out for hours at an emergency room with the death device. She nodded and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “My mom.”

“Then yeah, you’re good. But here.” She opened a drawer, pulled out a note pad and scribbled on it.

“Something for the pain?”

“I can write you a prescription, if you want. You’ll have one hell of a headache later, but you can take over-the-counter meds for that.” She tore off the top sheet and handed it to Amelia. It contained Aasma’s name and phone number. “That’s for if you decide later you want or need to talk. We could get some coffee.”

She took a few steps before turning back to face Amelia with an expression that hovered between amusement and annoyance. “And answer that phone already. Apparently, someone’s dying to talk to you.”

~~~@~~~

True to Aasma’s words, a dull ache bloomed and spread through Amelia’s head, but the real pain came from the memories of the past few days. She was granted this ability . . . this responsibility . . . and hadn’t used it to save anybody thus far, except one person, and even that she screwed up. She gave Aasma only one year—the minimum—and it turned out the woman was a bloody doctor and a compassionate person to boot.

Amelia sat on her couch and thought about how the device activated while she was getting stitched up. Some of the people on the train weren’t set to die today. Some had dates for tomorrow and the day after. One had a date for later this week. She tried to recall the names listed on the screen. They’d come too quickly at the station, and she hadn’t committed them to memory, except for Mr. Robert Davies. She saw his name twice. He was gone now, but maybe she could return and do something about the others. Maybe she could do better by one of them. Maybe she could make up for Aasma, and Mr. Davies, and Lizzie. Maybe, maybe, maybe . . .

Her temples throbbed, so Amelia laid back and closed her eyes as she thought about the possibilities of tomorrow. Yes, she would do better tomorrow.