It had taken all her strength to leave the apartment after what happened the previous night, but Amelia really needed a latte. She’d curled up in an overstuffed chair tucked into a far corner of the coffee house, a steaming cup clutched in her hands. Half an hour passed and the latte grew cold as she fixated on her conversation with Cue. She dissected each word, trying to tease out some hint that it had all been a figment of her imagination. Based on the circumstances of the encounter, she might dismiss it as a dream, or something akin to a near-death experience. A crazed vision, perhaps. She could . . . if it wasn’t for that damned fake flip phone in her back pocket.
The device buzzed once on her way to the coffee shop, but the thought of its function unsettled her too much to look at it. Amelia didn’t know if she was prepared to face the stark fact of another person’s imminent death. There was a difference between generally knowing everyone around you, including yourself, was doomed to die “one day,” and seeing that information explicitly displayed in words on a screen.
High-pitched laughter pulled Amelia’s focus back to the coffee shop. She turned toward the sound to find a middle-aged couple settling onto the bench seat behind her. They were close, definitely what Amelia considered being “in her vicinity,” and yet the device remained quiet and still. If she was going to take a peek at the thing, to see how it worked, this seemed as good a time as any.
Amelia removed the phone from her pocket and flipped it open. The screen lit up and displayed the current time, but that was it. She shifted in her chair to the left, creating a valley between her and the wall, and lifted the camera. She then turned it away from her so that the supposed lens looked back over her right shoulder. She proceeded to make a fuss over the casing, picking and scraping at it with her fingernail as she pressed the button on the side. She wanted a plausible reason—other than illicitly snapping strangers’ photos—for holding the phone in such a strange position. After moving it around for a minute or so, she lowered it and checked the screen.
The current time stared back at her in blocky, dark gray bars on a light gray background. What did that mean, besides the fact that this technology, wherever or whenever it came from, was both alarmingly advanced and hopelessly outdated?
Emboldened by that first trial run, Amelia decided to try scanning someone else, to see what might happen. She turned to the left and aimed the phone at a man sitting alone by one of the windows, too engrossed in his laptop to notice what she was doing. Still, it registered nothing. She pressed the green dial button, the red disconnect button, and even the large home button in the middle. No change. This was frustrating. Time to just dive in.
Amelia twisted in her chair and panned the device around the entire shop. She paused and clicked on each person, waiting for the screen to light up with new information. Besides the two baristas behind the counter, she counted seven other patrons, not including the three she’d already scanned. Twelve people in the shop and not a single one popped up on her so-called “mortality determinator.” A strange and uncomfortable mix of relief and disappointment washed over her.
She had no idea if the damned thing was working right. Cue said it would notify her if anyone nearby was going to die, but she’d neglected to clarify if it would show her everyone’s information or only those who were doomed in the coming year. That meant either everyone in the shop was lucky to have another year left or it was broken—if it ever worked at all. Whatever it meant, she was done here. Her ability to withstand being out in public had reached maximum capacity.
Amelia grabbed her purse and umbrella, stuffed the faux phone back into her pocket, and tossed the cold latte into the trash. Wasted drink, wasted money, wasted life.
She crossed the store, heading for the exit, when her back pocket began to hum and vibrate. She froze and her heart jumped into her throat. Seconds later, a woman pushed through the double doors and stood at the threshold, shaking out her striped umbrella. With that done, she swept past Amelia on her way to the counter. The faux phone continued to buzz against Amelia’s right hip.
Amelia pivoted away from the door and stepped behind a display of coffee mugs and bean grinders to watch the woman as she ordered her drink. Her back was to Amelia, so if she was going to do this, the time was now. Amelia grabbed the phone, flipped it open, and pressed the side button. The buzzing and chiming stopped and the display sprang to life as a series of small, pulsating circles bounced around the screen. And then, it stopped, and words—actual English words—popped onto the screen:
Name: Aasma Rifaat
B: June 14, 1991
D: April 26, 2019
Amelia’s stomach flipped. She stared at the screen, soaking in the meaning of the words. B for birthdate and D for death date. This woman was going to die less than eight months from now.
“Excuse me, but are you taking my picture?”
Amelia jumped. Her elbow knocked over a stainless steel mug that she quickly righted before facing the woman, red-faced and flustered. Aasma Rifaat towered over Amelia by half a foot. She covered her hair with an aqua hijab that emphasized her large, dark eyes. Power red lipstick stained her lips and the white plastic lid of her coffee cup. She was a handsome woman, and at the moment, extremely intimidating.
“Why are you taking my picture?”
“I . . . I wasn’t. This isn’t a real phone. I mean, this is barely a phone. The camera doesn’t work.” Amelia tried to laugh it off, but the woman’s face held only suspicion.
“Then you won’t mind showing me.” Aasma looked at her expectantly.
“Uh, sure. . .” Amelia snapped it shut, hoping that would clear out the screen, and flipped it back open. The information remained. Crap.
“Is there a problem?” Aasma asked.
“No,” Amelia said. “It’s just . . . I have some private information on here.”
“Show me just the photos then.”
Amelia’s heart pounded in her chest. How in the hell was she going to get out of this? The appearance of this woman’s name and birthdate on her phone—assuming it was correct—would be both alarming and unexplainable. And what would she say about that second date?
“Look, it’s not that difficult. I’m asking you to delete my photo. You have no reason to have it, so what’s the issue?”
Amelia considered making a run for it, but she didn’t relish the idea of being tackled from behind in the rain. The idea to smash the device against the wall appealed to her, but she had no idea if that might nullify her agreement with Cue.
As she mulled her options, Aasma snatched the phone from her hand, flipped it open and glanced back up at her, perhaps expecting an objection. Amelia was too stunned to protest. The woman narrowed her kohl-rimmed eyes and bit her lower lip as she turned her attention back to the screen and pressed a series of buttons with her right thumb.
Amelia had already attempted to scroll through the device that morning, using the standard set of button protocols for old flip phones. Nothing worked. It just kept perfect time. She wondered what kind of battery life the thing boasted. Hopefully at least seven months, because Cue hadn’t given her a charger.
“You were right,” Aasma said, raising one perfectly curved eyebrow. “It’s barely a phone. And it seems to be broken.” She handed the device back to Amelia.
“Yeah, well, that’s why I was standing here, hoping it would do something besides show me the time.” She opened the phone to find the woman’s information still there. For some reason, Aasma didn’t see it. Perhaps only Amelia could see the information. Relieved for this small mercy, she smiled up at the woman. “I suppose it’s time for a new phone, huh?”
Aasma didn’t return the smile. “Well, I apologize for my accusation and for grabbing it from you. I am . . . protective . . . of my image and identity.”
“With good reason, I’m sure.”
Aasma nodded and then paused, as if she wished to say something else. Instead, she lifted her cup and said, “This needs sugar. Excuse me.” Aasma walked over to the condiment bar, looked back at her once and set about customizing her coffee.
Amelia took a few steps toward the exit then stopped. This was the perfect opportunity for a trial run, to see how the device worked. She held it level to her chest and aimed it at Aasma’s back, punched a number and hit dial. The spinning, pulsing circles appeared again then reverted back to the time display. Aasma’s information was now gone. Amelia dashed out the door before anyone else challenged her for brandishing the phone.
She trotted the three blocks back to her building and took the steps two at a time to her second-floor apartment. Her heart hammered in her chest, but it wasn’t from the quick pace of her walk. In her hand she held evidence of truth or insanity. She’d gifted that woman more life, in exactly the way Cue had showed her. Now, if she checked her life years balance—if he’d been truthful about that, as well—it should have changed from the twenty times she dialed it up that morning. Her fingers trembled as she punched in the code: star-seven. The screen swirled and flickered and gave her the answer:
Remaining Balance: 64 years
It worked. Amelia was stunned. It actually worked. She had gifted Aasma Rifaat one year of her own life.
Amelia stretched in place and rotated her head to loosen the muscles where her neck met her upper back. She’d been sitting in front of her computer for five hours straight, trying to catch up on work. She was behind on two book covers, and had a trailer due for a new client tomorrow, but that was near completion thanks to the marathon session she just finished.
It took her a couple of days after what happened at the bridge to get back into the swing of things. She had to adjust her expectations from not having a future beyond that plunge in the river to having seven months more to get by. That included the need to make a living. Perhaps in those seven months, she could wrap up projects for her clients, close out accounts, and give closure to those who might need it.
Her phone—the real phone—buzzed on the desk next to her. Amelia looked at the notification and winced: a text from Rufus. They hadn’t spoken since the nasty words she spewed at him back in June. After a cooling-off period of several weeks, he started sending her little white flags in the form of short messages like “hope you’re doing better” and “I’m still here for you.” She’d ignored them. She hadn’t been in the right frame of mind to accept his concern. She still wasn’t sure if she wanted it. She swiped the notification off her screen without reading the message preview.
Amelia crossed over to the window and looked down on the street. The rain cleared overnight, leaving the mid-day sun to dry out the city. She supposed it was time to venture outside again. Her encounter with Aasma Rifaat, coupled with the recent storms, convinced her to stay hidden away at home. She had no desire to walk around the city, bumping into people whose short futures would pop up on the faux phone, like disconcerting text messages. She couldn’t swipe to dismiss those. Two days locked away in self-imposed exile took its toll, however, when Amelia’s stomach growled with neglect. A check of the refrigerator and pantry confirmed what her belly already knew: she was out of food. Well, she was out of edible, non-moldy food.
Amelia chucked the half-eaten loaf of green-spotted bread into the trashcan and collected her purse, keys and shopping bags. She stared at both phones sitting on her desk. She didn’t want to take either one with her. The faux phone was a chunk of bleakness and unpredictability that felt a bit like walking around with a loaded gun, and she wasn’t yet sure how to feel about it. As for her actual phone . . . she thought about Rufus’ unread text and decided it measured up the same. She picked up the new device, opened the clamshell cover, and stared at the digital clock.
“If I take you with me, you have to promise not to buzz my ass off. I’m still getting used to this, okay?”
The screen didn’t change.
“I’ll take your silence as a yes,” she said. She glanced once more at her smart phone but decided to leave it behind. Walking around the neighborhood with one stressor in her back pocket was quite enough for a simple food run.
It took Amelia twice the amount of time it normally would to reach the grocery store. The circuitous route she’d used added twelve minutes to the walk but took her through an area that was less dense with people. The entire trek felt like walking through a minefield, all because of that small device in her back pocket. Each time she saw someone in her path, she cut over a block or diverted down an alley. When they couldn’t be avoided, she hunched over and walked past them quickly, praying the device wouldn’t activate.
Only once did the phone buzz and hum—which scared the crap out of her—though she didn’t see anyone nearby. It must have reacted to someone in the building she passed by at the time, but she had no desire to investigate. Apparently, the device worked through solid walls. Lovely.
Amelia self-scanned her groceries—a variety of frozen dinners, waffles, and a prepackaged salad guaranteed to wilt before she remembered to eat it—and left the store as soon as possible. At three in the afternoon, the place wasn’t packed, but enough shoppers roamed the aisles to make the experience stressful. Again, she’d lucked out in that everyone in the store had at least a full year to go on their own balance sheets, but she’d have to get over this fear sooner or later. Strike that—she’d need to get over it sooner rather than later, as later didn’t jive with her seven-month deadline.
Literally, it was a deadline.
She burst out in a short laugh at the thought. An elderly man a few steps ahead of her glanced back at the sudden noise and quickened his pace. To ease his paranoia, she turned right down the next street and found herself across from a public park, complete with a playground.
Amelia stopped dead in her tracks. The last place she wanted to be with that blasted, buzzing faux phone was in the midst of children. Their youth should make them relatively safe bets to outlive the coming year, but then, childhood wasn’t a guarantee against death. She knew that better than anyone.
Sooner rather than later, Amelia.
She adjusted the shopping bag on her shoulder and took a step closer to the park. When nothing happened, she took another step. And then another. The faux phone stayed blessedly silent. Within twenty yards of the park, however, the infernal thing came to life, buzzing and humming like a large bee in her pants.
“No,” she whispered.
Amelia had half a mind to turn around and get the hell out of there, but some part of her needed to know. It might not be as bad as she feared; the device could be indicating one of the parents or caregivers. She grimaced at her thought that the death of any person on this playground—regardless of age—would be anything less than a tragedy. But then, every single parent here would agree with her initial assessment. The loss of a child was infinitely more tragic than that of an adult.
Amelia took a seat on a nearby bench. She tried to ignore the buzzing in her back pocket, wishing to extend the untainted vision of a playground full of happy, healthy, ostensibly immortal children. After several minutes, she sighed and took out the device. The commotion only stopped when she opened the case. The screen went through its processes as she traced it over the park from left to right, holding down the button on the side. The swirls changed to words when she reached a jungle gym covered with kids. Amelia’s heart plummeted. The information read:
Name: Elizabeth Walden
B: August 19, 2013
D: November 24, 2018
“No,” she whispered again. Five years old and set to die two months from now.
Amelia felt the darkness creep into her body, that same black plague that infected her after Millie’s funeral. She’d been only six. This is what she’d feared in coming to the park, despite all her senses screaming at her to run the other way when the faux phone activated. She couldn’t revisit that pain again, not yet, not now.
And yet, now, she could actually do something about it.
Amelia studied the cluster of kids around the jungle gym and spotted two girls who looked to be about five. One, a child with a head full of loose blonde curls, trailed after a slightly taller boy with the same mop of hair. The other, a girl with short, glossy black pigtails and a bright pink jacket, sat digging around in the drying mud with a stick. At this distance, Amelia couldn’t determine which one was Elizabeth. She’d have to get much closer to distinguish them with the device, and a stranger creeping around their kids with a camera phone wouldn’t go over well with the parents.
And did it matter anyway? If the device could pick out which child in the bunch had less than a year to live, then it would certainly send any gifted years straight to that child. That was all Amelia needed to know. She pressed the seven button, moved her finger to the call button, and—
“Lizzie? Are you alright, honey?”
Amelia’s head snapped up. The girl with the black pigtails was coughing; a dry, rough hacking that shook her entire upper body. A young woman swooped in behind her and lifted the girl into her arms. “Oh, sweetie, are you okay? Here, drink some water.”
Amelia removed her finger from the green call button. Something Cue said popped into her head when the girl began coughing, something about illness.
If they’re sick, they’ll likely stay sick.
Amelia knew enough about terminal illnesses to know that diseases that killed you were seldom kind about it. They were long, messy and painful, and most came without respite. Is that what she wanted to gift to this child for seven years?
She watched the woman give her daughter another sip of water then set her back down and straighten her pink jacket. “Five more minutes, okay?” The girl nodded and went back to tracing lines in the dirt with her stick. The mother watched her for a moment, eyebrows knitted in concern, before she returned to her bench.
Amelia stared at the information on the device. Aside from the cough, Lizzie appeared healthy. Her death might not be the result of illness but rather an accident. Seven more years would hold that off until the girl was twelve. Even then, her death would be tragic, but at least her mother would have seven more years to be with her. Seven more years to love her. Or, seven more years to watch her daughter struggle with an agonizing disease.
Amelia was torn. The decision seemed simple, but what it might mean for the young girl and her family was unclear. Cue said she must get to know her potential recipients, to determine if more time would be a burden. She needed to find out if the girl was sick before she sent extra years her way, but two months was not a lot of time. She’d need to gain her mother’s trust and compel her to confide in Amelia about her daughter’s status. Was that doable?
The screen of the faux phone pulsed and swirled and reverted back to the time. Amelia raised her eyes to the bench, but the mother was gone. The girl was gone. While she sat debating her options, Lizzie and her mother left the park. Amelia dashed from the bench to the middle of the playground, scanning the sidewalks that led to it, hoping to catch a glimpse of that pink jacket. The doomed child left on the wings of death, and Amelia hadn’t been ready to help her.
She worked to recall the girl’s last name, thinking she could look them up. Was it Wilson? Walton? Amelia pressed through all the buttons in the device, hoping to find a log of some kind, but the display didn’t change. Why didn’t it have data storage or a memory? And why hadn’t Amelia committed the name to her own memory? Stupid. Stupid!
She walked home in a haze, her mind consumed with doubts and regret, pink jackets and black pigtails. She didn’t remember walking up to her apartment, unlocking the door, or putting her groceries away, but she found herself sitting on the edge of her bed, her real phone in hand, thumbing through photos of her own daughter. She came across one of Millie in a pink and white t-shirt with her hair pulled back in a brown, curly ponytail. The smile on Millie’s face was mirrored by Rufus’, who held her in his lap. Amelia could no longer contain her tears.
She closed out of the photos and tapped over to her text messages. She opened the earlier text she’d ignored from Rufus.
I’m still here if you ever need me.
Amelia tapped out a reply:
Rough week. I’m struggling. Could use someone to talk to.
She stared at her response through blurry eyes and considered if this complication was something she needed right now. She’d never felt more alone than she did at that very moment, not even when she was standing on the other side of the bridge guardrail. She needed to talk. She needed him, but she didn’t need the expectations he’d bring with him.
Amelia hit the backspace button until the message was cleared out on her phone. She shut it off and placed it on the table next to her bed. She lay back and stared up at the ceiling. The device in her back pocket was silent but it felt like a leech, sucking her attention toward it. She pulled it loose, opened it and held it above her.
Too early for bed. Too late for anything else. Too late for little Lizzie. Too late for her. Too late for Millie.
Amelia dialed in star-seven. The display showed her stats for about twenty seconds then reverted back to the time. She pressed star-seven again and again.
Remaining Balance: 64 years.
Remaining Balance: 64 years.
Remaining Balance: 64 years.
Sometime after 6:13, Amelia fell asleep.