There will always be other days and other moments. There will be “next times” and “see you laters,” other chances and more opportunities.
Until one day there aren’t.
One day you’ll reach the end of the line, your final hour. You’ll be handed your last chance while the rest of your opportunities run back out the same window fate once left open for you. You’ll watch as doors are slammed in your face and possibilities ripped away from you.
The sting is cruel, like whiplash and a “Five Star” across your soul. You’ll bleed in a slow ache, momentum and motivation pooling out of you as seconds, minutes, hours slip between your immobile fingers. You’ll watch as the final moments of your life disappear, helpless to stop them.
You’ll think back on the moments you didn’t appreciate, the opportunities you didn’t seize, the days, weeks, months, years that you wasted in pursuit of future happiness. You’ll wish you could do them over, to live your life with the perspective of hindsight. You’ll beg, plead, and wish from the bottom of your heart for another chance. You’ll promise to be better, to do more, to fix your mistakes.
But that’s not possible.
You can’t fix what’s set in stone, can’t undo what’s already been done. Our lives are endless streams of choices, many seemingly insignificant, but there are rare moments fixed in time, too. Moments that we can’t take back or change, moments that will always play out the same way.
Death is a fixed point.
My head hits the pavement in slow motion. In vivid detail I watch as blood pools beside me on the ground, dripping down my face to congeal in my eyelashes and fill my nose. I can taste its iron flavor on my lips. My body is sprawled on the top step and my head is cocked at an unnatural angle. No sounds of life fill the empty air except for the static hiss of a train departing the subway station two floors below. I am alone and I am dying.
Twice daily I am overtaken by this waking nightmare. The same vision flashes before my eyes each and every time I emerge from the underground. My body shakes with tension and goose bumps spread across my skin as I near the top. I’m sweating a little, too. It is on the last step that I will meet my end.
My parents called it an overactive imagination. “Don’t be ridiculous, Lily,” my mother said after the first time it happened. “You’ll be late for school.” We were on our way to kindergarten, exiting a subway station near Central Park. It came to me between blinks, a thought so sudden and clear to my five year old mind that I’d stopped dead in commuter traffic. I don’t remember my first day of school, but I’ve never forgotten that vision.
Years later, a social worker would diagnose it as acute anxiety brought on by the traumatic loss of my parents. I didn’t tell him that I’d seen it before. I didn’t understand why I was telling him at all. “You just have to learn to push through it, Lily,” he said. “Your mind is sabotaging your ability to get well.” I was sixteen then, living in a group home in New York City. I still rode the subway to and from school.
I’m twenty now and I’m drowning in the confusion of my numbered days. But if there’s one thing I know for certain it’s that my time is running out. The vision hasn’t stopped. If anything it’s become more vivid. Or else maybe my imagination is filling in the gaps, remembering time and again the horror of my own mangled body, emphasizing the red stain of my blood on concrete. Its haunted me for years, unchanged even as I have grown from a child into adulthood. I’ve never understood it, but I have always accepted it.
It is my Death Scene. Not an if, but a when; a guarantee.
I’m wearing three coats. Well, two and a thick sweatshirt, but either way I’m a walking TSA nightmare. Ok, not walking, really. More like a huddled mass trying to stay warm under the heating vents of Penn Station. But if anyone asks, I’m just waiting for a friend.
The wind is gusting outside, bringing into town not just the rain but also the first taste of the winter to come. There’s frost around the edges of the windows, and a bite to the air that’s trying desperately to take a chunk out of my face. If this is November, I can’t imagine what New York is like in January.
An inconsiderate soul pushes open the door to exit, letting it swing shut and flash freeze everyone behind him. Collective groans fill the room. I just glare at his retreating back, too cold to do anything but shiver in my coats and tuck my knees up under my chin to keep warm. But I’ve got enough energy left to wonder if coming here might have been a mistake after all.
“What happens if you don’t find what you’re looking for?” my roommate Jean had asked me. I already had one foot dangling out the window. “What will you do then? They won’t let you back here, again.”
Here meaning the orphanage where we’d grown up in central Florida. Again meaning I’d already tried to run away once before. I didn’t bother telling her that I hadn’t meant to come back the last time, either. I’d just gotten caught outside of Washington DC and the police had given me very little choice: go back to the orphanage or test out a juvenile detention center. Even I wasn’t dumb enough to reject such an offer – no matter how badly I wanted to get to New York.
Now though, freezing my face off in a bus station, I could see the merits of a spring thaw.
“You look like a homeless person, Zoe.”
At the sound of my name, I poked my head out of my cocoon and squinted grumpily at the image of my friend bathed in fluorescent light. “The south has ruined me,” I said by way of greeting.
Lily smiled and rolled her eyes. “Clearly.”
She offered me a hand up and I took it, hauling myself and all my layers out of the plastic seat where I’d been camped out for the last few hours.
“So what took you so long?” I asked her. “I called you like a week ago.”
Lily led us down a hallway towards the nearest subway station. “Contrary to what you might believe, I can’t just drop everything and come down here whenever you manage to break out of child services,” she scolded. “And it’s not like I knew you were coming today, anyway.”
“And here I thought you were supposed to be psychic,” I whispered back.
“I’m not that kind of psychic and you know it, Zoe. So quit acting like a brat when I’m doing you a favor.”
And she was, really. Lily was a few years older than me, but she and I had been in the same group home once. It was just for a little while before I was shipped back home to Florida after my parents died. I’d had the misfortune of becoming an orphan out of state while my family was on vacation and it’d taken NYPD a little while to figure out what to do with me. Long story short, my parents were the victims of a mugging gone wrong; I was just the orphaned collateral damage. Not really a complicated story, but in the few weeks I’d been in New York, Lily and I had become fast friends. Meeting her had changed my life more than my parents’ death had. You wouldn’t know it by the way that we talked to each other, but then she and I had a rather unusual bond to begin with.
Lily swiped her transit pass for the underground and pushed through the turnstile. She didn’t bother passing her card back to me.
I ran my fingers casually over the card reader, feeling the hum of the technology under the metal frame. With a mental push I shut it off, and then slid my way through the turnstile after Lily.
She wasn’t the only one with weird talents.
My apartment was small – like barely had a separate room for the bathroom kind of small – but at least it was clean and relatively warm, especially when compared to Penn Station.
“I dig the view,” Zoe said.
There was only a small window in my fourth floor walkup, but she was right. What I could see of the city skyline was stellar.
“You going to tell me how you broke out?” I asked, changing the subject. “I wasn’t really expecting you until next year.” I’d always known Zoe would come up north when she turned eighteen. She’d written me numerous letters over the years detailing her plans and complaining about the orphanage, but her birthday wasn’t for a few more months yet.
“I couldn’t really wait any longer,” she said. “I just needed to start my life already. You needed to start your life already.”
I frowned. “That was rather impulsive of you.”
“I know,” she admitted. “But you’re running out of time. Besides, it’ll be worth it when we find the others. It’s what I’ve always wanted, anyway.”
Most of the time I tried not to think about how close my Death Scene was, tried not to recall the image to mind purposely if I could help it. But Zoe was right. Judging by age alone, I only had a few years left.
Zoe reached up to touch my shoulder. “We can’t possibly be the only ones with gifts, Lily. Its statistically impossible.”
“And if we are?” I asked. “What if it’s just you and me alone in all of New York City?”
“Then at least you’ll die knowing that you lived the last few years of your life.” Zoe smiled mischievously. “Because whether we find them or not life with me around is bound to be one hell of a ride.”
I laughed, a smile finally breaking the perpetual frown lines of my face. Sharp-tongued impulsive little Zoe, five foot-two inches of pure trouble and my best friend in the whole world; it was good to have her back around, again.
“So where do we start?” I asked.
“First things first,” Zoe said. “I’m going to need a little cash.”
“I don’t have much, but I can get you a job,” I offered. “A guy I know from school owes me a favor.”
“That’s nice, but I was thinking something a little more substantial.”
“Well unless you’ve got a sugar daddy I don’t know about, Zoe, this is all there is.” I gestured to the apartment around us, such as it was. “In case you hadn’t noticed, New York doesn’t exactly come cheap.”
“Oh, I know. That’s why we’ll hit up an ATM tomorrow.”
“What, did you like steal someone’s wallet? Last I checked orphans didn’t have debit cards. I would know. I was one.”
Zoe laughed. “Oh, honey,” she crooned. “You didn’t think my tech trick was subway exclusive, did you?”
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