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A silver car streaked down a damp Boston street at five to four in the afternoon. David Chance was painfully aware that he had maybe five minutes to get out of the city before hitting rush hour traffic. He had made a promise, and he intended to keep it.
It was raining, but only enough to be annoying. The squeak of the windshield wiper blades normally would have driven him nuts, but today was a particularly good day. Today was the anniversary of the day he had met his wife, Sharon, the love of his life, and mother of his two children. He could picture her now, standing in front of their bedroom mirror wearing the sexy dress she'd promised to pick up, admiring the body she had worked so hard to get back into shape. She was a beautiful woman, inside and out, much nicer than David had expected to win, and he did not want to disappoint her.
The light ahead turned amber, and David reluctantly pressed the brake pedal, his eyes darting from the digital readout on the car stereo to the rearview mirror at the line of traffic already beginning to form. A familiar but muffled rendition of Music Music Music began to chime. David patted his suit jacket, reached inside, and fished out his cellphone.
“Did you make the reservations?” It was Sharon.
“Of course,” he replied. “Le Bocage.”
He could detect the smile in her voice. Le Bocage was a nice restaurant, and fairly expensive for an intern. David's recent graduation from the New England School of Communication had helped him get a position with the Channel Seven News Team, but moving back to the Boston area and starting from scratch was proving to be more of a challenge than he had expected.
The light turned green and the little Neon accelerated. “Did everything go well at the mall?” he asked.
“Oh, I think you'll be pleased.”
“Oh yes. I know you’ll be pleased.”
David smiled. “I’m sure I will.”
The car sped under an overpass and the phone made a digital gurgle.
“Hey,” Sharon said, “by the way, Alex called.”
“I told him we were going out and asked if you could call him back later tonight, but he said it wasn't important.”
“I’m supposed to pick him up at the airport tomorrow. He probably just wanted to remind me.”
“I haven’t seen him for a month. It'll be good to see him again.”
There was a noticeable silence on the other end.
“Please promise me you'll keep the late nighters to a minimum. That man’s a bad influence on you.”
“I know, but that's happening less and less, ‘cause we’re so busy, and you know-- gettin’ old.”
“I just don’t understand why he doesn’t get married and settle down. He’s always saying he wants to-- and he certainly doesn’t have any trouble attracting women.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“Yeah. Well, just remember, I married you because I like having you around.”
“And I like being around. Don't worry. I'll keep it under control.”
“Alright. --Are you on schedule?”
“Kay, then I'll see you when you get here.”
“And I’ll see you when I get there.”
She chuckled. “I love you too, David. --Bye.”
He pressed the phone with his thumb, tossed it in the passenger seat, and peered up at the sky through the front window. It didn't look like the rain was going to let up any time soon.
The little car cruised on past strip malls, urban housing, gas stations, construction sites... and his mind drifted. Should I have told her about this afternoon? He wasn't even sure if it had really happened. How could he expect her to believe it?
It was a little after 1:30, and it was David’s odious job to meet with the lead producer and the on-line editor to work on a story for the 6:00 news block. David's role was minor: write down the time-code marks as dictated by the producer and log what he saw on the screen. It didn’t require a whole lot of concentration, so usually he found himself fending off waves of drowsiness. His creative mind was well suited for accomplishing large abstract tasks, but less than adequate at mundane repetition.
The editor cued the tape. The television monitor flickered and rolled, and let off its familiar audio squeal. David logged the starting time-code as the producer began the pre-edit strategy, then he leaned back in his chair, awaiting instructions. He stared at the screen, then heaved a sigh and looked around. This is SO mind numbingly boring! Maybe I can find something to read. He scanned the room and a notion struck him. His eyes drifted from a coffee mug which read, “Number One Producer” to a sign on the wall, “Be All You Can Be” to a monitor displaying the program logo “In The Know.” From each source he drew a word and constructed a sentence. One Can Know. He smiled to himself; he hadn't expected to come up with an actual working sentence.
Still bored, he made a second go. His eyes scanned the room and extracted words from the sea of text around him. Will from the Will &amp;amp; Grace poster, exit from the exit sign, needs from a posted letter to employees, and tape from a label indicating Reusable Tape Stock. The sentence solidified in his mind. Will exit needs tape.
The producer turned to David, interrupting his game. “Hey, Chance, could you go get me a tape from my desk. It's marked...” He paused. “Know what, never mind. I'll go. There's something else I have to do anyway.” The producer stood and exited the booth, leaving David in stunned silence.
“What's wrong with you?” asked the editor.
David offered a weak smile. “Ah-- nothing, just something stupid.”
The editor shrugged and turned back to the video gear.
David sat motionless and stared. Did I just predict that? The incident replayed in his mind. I think I did! I predicted the future!
He shook his head. No. It was only a coincidence. It had to be.
David turned the little car down a side street and gunned the engine. Four more blocks and he would be on the Interstate, hopefully just ahead of rush hour traffic. As he drove, the mysterious incident continued to nag at him. He wanted to dismiss the whole thing as nothing more than a fluke, but he just couldn't reconcile the fact that the words had been there for him to string together. His eyes were drawn straight to them. There was no premeditation. He wasn't even trying to make a sentence. --Still, it had to be a coincidence.
He scanned the sea of words zipping by outside his window. They beckoned to him from road signs, marquees, window signs... There were plenty of potential sources for a test, perhaps he could give it another shot. After all, a couple of bona fide failures would set his mind at ease.
He looked left through the wiggling rivers of water on his window. “Your One Stop Shop.” And right, at an old barn board. “On Sale Now!” His mind pulled out the words Stop Now! He hit the brake and the car went into a skid.
The driver in the Mustang behind him laid on the horn, swerved out around, and gunned his engine. David, unable to pull his eyes away, watched the vehicle tear off down the road. As it passed through the green light, an eighteen wheeler ran the red and plowed into the little car from the side. Metal buckled and windows exploded as both vehicles slid left and disappeared behind a row of buildings.
David sat wide eyed, gripping the steering wheel, unable to catch a full breath. His heart pounded in his ears, his thoughts a flurry of panic. With a trembling hand, he pushed the door open and stepped out onto the street. Car horns competed with car alarms. Off in the distance a siren wailed.
But to David, it was all a hollow drone.
Sharon Chance peered through the living room curtains at the empty driveway. Two boys stood across the street, waiting for the city transit, and her next-door neighbor, Frank, was watering a flower pot on his front lawn.
It was getting dark.
“Where's your father? He said he was on schedule.”
“Maybe he stopped to pick something up,” ten year old Ben spoke loudly over the sounds of machine-gun fire and explosions.
Sharon looked in the mirror, tucked a stray blond curl behind her ear, then walked past her son and daughter into the kitchen. “Those video games are gonna rot your brains!”
“Too late!” Ben shot back. There was nothing more satisfying in his moody prepubescent life than blowing his little sister into a thousand meaty chunks.
Sharon looked at the teenage girl sitting at the kitchen table. “The emergency numbers are on the fridge. If you need anything you can use my cellphone. David’s cell is in my contacts list.” She slid the phone across the table.
The somber-faced teen caught the phone with her palm, “Bedtime's eight, right?”
A car door closed out front and Sharon's eyes lit up. “Okay. Make sure Emily doesn't have any chocolate before bed, and Ben needs to take care of his school work.” She snatched her purse and headed for the door.
“Mo- m!” Emily called. “Ben keeps killing me and I don’t get to do anything!”
“Ben! Stop killing your sister!” Sharon turned and kissed her son and daughter on the tops of their heads.
“Mom. She won’t listen! Emily! Just do what I told you then you could get away!”
“Be good for Maggie,” Sharon sang over her shoulder as she reached the door.
“Yes, Mom,” they chimed together.
Sharon flung open the door, stepped out, and stopped cold. Two Marines in dress uniform were making their way up the concrete walkway.
Her heartbeat quickened. “Can I help you?”
The muscular black soldier on the right stepped in, removed his hat, and offered an envelope. Sharon reached out and took it. She didn't have to read it; she knew what the letter meant, but she found herself going through the motions anyway. The men watched in stoic silence as she fumbled with the seal and pulled the letter out. Dear Mrs. Chance. Her eyes flew over the words. We deeply regret to inform you that your brother, Sgt. Brandon William Walsh was... She put her hand to her mouth. ...killed...
The letter blurred.
She had considered the possibility that this day might come, but the words on the page cut deeper than she had imagined. Her baby brother-- dead? How? She wanted to know, but she knew these men could not tell her. She understood all too well the way this worked. She remembered clearly the day her mother had received a similar letter concerning her father.
She stood staring at the men, her hand still over her mouth, tears threatening to overflow. She needed to be strong, for her family, for herself. Her brother would have wanted it that way. She drew the emotion in, removed her hand, and let out a controlled breath. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
The two men took a step back and snapped to attention with a salute, a salute of respect, a thank you to the family of the fallen, whose burden was considered no less than that of the soldiers themselves. It lasted only a few seconds, but they were the most excruciating seconds of Sharon's life.
They released the salute and the second man spoke gently. “Ma’am, I’m the base chaplain. Would you like me to stay awhile?”
She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “No. Thank you. We’ll be fine.”
“Alright. But if you have any questions or need anything, please don’t hesitate to call.”
She nodded stiffly.
The men turned and headed down the walkway under the cover of darkening clouds. From the back, the chaplain actually looked like Brandon, broad shoulders, medium build-- even the swagger in his step. She stood frozen in the doorway; something inside her determined on remembering this moment for the rest of her life.
The men reached the car, opened the doors, and disappeared inside. Sharon looked down at the letter with the official seal emblazoned on the top. It all felt surreal, somehow artificial.
“Mom? Who was that?”
She turned and looked down at her son. “They’re from the military,” she said softly.
He saw the conflict of emotion on her face and his expression turned to concern. “Did something-- bad happen?”
The innocent question opened a guarded place in her heart. It bore deep inside and confirmed what she had not allowed herself to fully accept. “Yes.” Her voice cracked. “Something bad has happened.”
“Is it-- Uncle Brandon?”
She watched as the car pulled away from the curb and rolled slowly down the street. “--Yes, honey. Uncle Brandon was...” She looked down at Ben with his chest puffed out and his lips pursed. He was trying to be strong for her. She again brought her hand to her mouth, and the tears began to flow. He reached his arms around her waist as Emily appeared in the doorway. Sharon crouched down and drew them in. “Your uncle is dead,” she whispered. “He died in the war.”
When David arrived home, the lights in the living room were dim and the room was empty, but there was activity in the kitchen beyond. Sharon was talking with her brother Jerry, no doubt; his car was parked out front.
David entered the kitchen and found his wife in jeans and a comfortable shirt sitting at the table with her brother. Wadded balls of tissue were scattered around the address book on the table.
David took a hesitant step in. “Wh- what's going on?”
Sharon’s chin wrinkled as she spoke. “Brandon isn't coming home, David.”
He crouched in front of her. “Oh, honey-- I am so sorry.”
She gripped his arm but turned away, then leaned in and placed her cheek on his shoulder. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered. “He’s never coming home.”
David held her gently and let her cry. There were no words to relieve her pain; her loss was too great. Apart from David and the kids, Jerry and Brandon were the only family Sharon had left, and although she would never say this to Jerry, she had always loved Brandon the most. He was the one who’d always made time for her when she needed him, like after their mother died. He had spent many long nights sitting with her, helping her get through.
He was a compassionate man, and it was this compassion that had driven him to join the military to serve overseas. He had been moved by the events of 9/11. After seeing so many innocent people die at the hands of the terrorists, he had felt compelled to take action. While others rung their hands and did nothing, Brandon’s course had been clear.
“I called you,” Sharon whispered, “but you didn’t answer.”
“There was an accident.”
She pulled back and looked at him.
“It wasn’t me. I got out to see if I could help, and I must have left my phone in the car.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Yeah. It was pretty bad.”
She put her cheek back on his shoulder. “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”
“Yeah-- me too.”
David looked over at Jerry sitting silently with his brows scrunched and his jaw tight. He was clearly angry, David suspected he knew why. It was no secret that Jerry hated the war, and hated the current administration for dragging the country into it. He hated, even more, that his brother, whom he loved, had chosen to go and fight in that war. Now his brother was gone-- and that gave him even more reason to hate.
David lifted Karen’s head and wiped her tears. “Are the kids upstairs?”
“How are they taking this?”
“As good as can be expected.”
“Have you called everyone?”
“Who?” Jerry spoke loudly. “Who’s left to call?”
Sharon gave her brother a cold glance. “Please, Jerry.”
“Sorry.” He pursed his lips, “It’s just so...” There was a mixture of emotion on his face. “I loved him too you know.”
“We didn’t agree on much-- but I loved him!” He chewed nervously on his thumbnail, his face taking on a desperate look. David didn’t know if he was going to cry, or turn the table over.
“Look.” David spoke gently. “Why don’t you go take a walk, maybe it will clear...”
“Yeah. I’ll do that.” Jerry stood up. “Maybe a drive or something.” He looked at his sister. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Okay?”
“Don’t do anything crazy. You’re all I’ve got.”
Jerry gave a heavy nod, left out of the kitchen, and out the door with a thump.
David pulled out a chair and sat down. “I hope he doesn’t do anything stupid.” Sharon stared blankly at the tissues scattered across the table. “If he was going to hurt himself he would have done it a long time ago.” She brushed the hair out of her face. “I must look a mess.”
David leaned in. “You’re more beautiful than the day we met.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because I didn’t know then the depths of beauty I have been blessed to uncover all these many years.”
Her eyes watered as her hands began awkwardly tidying up the mess in front of her. “Alright, you don’t have to sleep on the couch tonight.”
He let out a small laugh. One of the things he loved most about his wife was her sense of humor. Even now, in this dark moment, she was able to find reason to joke.
“Want me to run to the store for some comfort food? Rub your back? Anything?”
“Thanks, honey, but I think I’ll just go to bed.”
“Alright. I’ll be here if you need me.”
She deposited the tissues in the trash, gave him a kiss on the forehead, and left him sitting alone in the kitchen.
David picked up the phone and tapped in a number.
After a few short rings a voice answered. “Hello?”
“Alex. You called?”
“David! Buddy! I can't wait to see you, man. It's been weeks!”
“Yeah, I know. --It'll be great.”
“You okay? You sound exhausted.”
David drew in a breath. “Yeah. It's been one of those days.”
“Wife on your case?”
“I’d take wife troubles over this any day.”
“I've had days like that.”
“Oh I guarantee, you haven’t had a day like this,” David said, thinking back to what had happened earlier. He paused.
“O-kay. Want to fill me in?”
Did he? No matter how he told it he was going to end up sounding like a nut job. But this was Alex, his best friend since grade school. If he couldn’t tell him, who could he tell?
“Well, it's just-- really weird.”
“You've always been weird. What else is new?”
“Thanks, Alex. Now I really don’t want to tell you.”
“Come on, David, spill it.”
David thought for a second. “Do you believe in ESP?”
“You know, ESP, extrasensory perception.”
“I know what ESP is, but what are you talking about?”
“Well, this afternoon when I was in an edit session with a couple of guys at work I uh, think I experienced it.”
“You wanna explain?”
“Well,” he took a deep breath. “I was scanning the room for something to read, because, you know, I was bored, and my eyes started going from one word to another and... You sure you want to know this, it’s really stupid.”
“Yeah, go on.”
“Well, my eyes were drawn to a bunch of words that made a sentence. It said, ‘Will exit needs tape.’” David paused again.
“So-- what’s so stupid about that?”
“Nothing. Until it happened. The producer got up and went out because he needed a tape!”
“Oh. That is weird.”
“I know, right?”
The line was silent for a moment. “These words you’re talking about-- they were from stuff in the room? You didn’t pull them from your head?”
“No. It was a poster, a coffee cup, that sort of thing, from wherever my eyes landed.”
“And your eyes went right to them, you didn’t guide them?”
“No. Yes. I mean, it was like-- like something else was drawing my attention to them. It's hard to explain.” He thought for a moment. “It was, like being in a river current. I wasn't controlling it was controlling me.”
“I know it sounds insane, but that’s what it felt like.”
“Did you try it again?”
“Yes. Get this. When I was driving home, I was thinking about what happened and I thought I’d give it another shot, you know, so I could prove it wrong. But as soon as I started looking, my eyes went right to the words stop and now. I knew it was real and I...”
“Yeah! I slammed on my brakes!”
The guy behind me swerved around and kept going and got plowed over by a Mack Truck!”
“No! The paramedics said the man died on impact!”
“That could have been me, Alex. If I hadn't listened to that message, I'd be dead right now.”
Several seconds passed. Then Alex spoke. “So you saw stop and now and you stopped. Just like that.”
“Because it was-- it was. It wasn't so much the message that made me slam on my brakes, it was the feeling I got when it came to me, like a confirmation, like I already knew the message, but the words were confirming it somehow. Something deep inside me understood that what I was looking at was not just real, but truth, something so pure it could not be doubted.”
There was no response on the other end of the line.
“Anyway. I knew if I didn't stop something terrible was going to happen, so I slammed on the brakes.”
“--Wow. David, I gotta say. That's... That’s...”
“Crazy! I know it's crazy! Do you think it’s possible for it to be some kind of weird coincidence?”
“One heck of a coincidence don’t ya think?”
“Alex, I appreciate you not thinking I'm a head case.”
“Oh you're nuts, certifiably insane.”
David shook his head. “I knew I should have kept my big mouth shut.”
Alex laughed. “I'm joking. I know you're for real. You've never lied in your whole life. If you said it happened, then it happened.”
David was quiet.
“Have you told Sharon about it?”
“No. I didn’t want to upset her any more.”
“Why, what’s going on?”
David paused. He knew Alex really liked Brandon.
“What’s going on, David?”
“It’s Brandon, Alex.” He lowered his voice. “He was killed in the war.”
“Aw, man, you're kidding me.”
“She got the news today.”
“David. I'm so sorry. Sharon must be devastated. That's horrible!”
“Yeah, we’re all struggling with it.”
“Brandon was such a great guy. Remember the time I got my car stuck in the mud and he came with his truck...” As Alex talked, David's eyes shifted to the kitchen counter and rested on a can of beans and franks. The word frank popped out at him.
David’s breathing became shallow.
In front of him, his eyes peeled the word needs from the cover of a Good Housekeeping magazine, and from a Valentine's card on the fridge, the word you stood out. The message constructed itself in David’s mind. Frank needs you.
“David? You still there?” The voice coming from the phone sounded distant.
David's heart throbbed in his chest. The room swam around him. He took in a difficult breath. “It just happened again.”
“What? The words? Are you seeing the words?”
“I have to go.”
“David. Hello? David!”
Bleep. The phone went quiet. He placed it on the table. Frank needs me? Was he in trouble? Was he in danger? The chair squelched as David stood. His hands were shaking. This is crazy. Was he supposed to rush into some unknown and possibly dangerous situation just because some random words came together and made a sentence?
He made his way to the front door. Under the coat rack, in a bag, was Ben's baseball gear. David pulled out an aluminum bat. It was small, but better than nothing. He gripped the front doorknob with a sweaty hand, paused, then forcefully pulled the door open and stepped out into the night. Looking toward his neighbor’s house, David saw that Frank’s car in his driveway. There were no lights on in the house, but this was normal, he was the gym teacher at the local school and most days he had to be up early. David jumped down into his neighbor’s driveway from the stone wall divider and climbed the concrete stairs to his friend’s front door. It was open a few inches. A pensive wind sucked it in and out slightly, as if the house were breathing. Shadows moved in the cracks around the door frame. David angled himself to see into Frank's living room, but the darkness was complete. If anyone was inside, the contrast created by the streetlight made it impossible to see.
Now what? Was he supposed to just barge into his neighbor’s house with a bat? He gripped the bat in response to the thought. His adrenaline spiked. This is nuts! This is what crazy people do! Hear voices, sneak into their neighbor's house with a bat, and end up on the Jerry Springer show-- after a couple of years in prison. No. He was not crazy. He decided to knock. Sane people knock.
A loud clatter and a desperate moan came from inside. Riding on pure adrenaline, David burst through the door. The room was pitch black except for a path lit by the streetlight outside. Sounds of thrashing came from the kitchen. David crouched low and moved toward the sound. He ran his hand along the wall to find the light switch. His heart was on fire, his senses working overtime. More movement. It sounded like a struggle. He rounded the corner and his fingers found what they were searching for. He gripped the bat, flicked the switch, and stiffened to defend against an attack.
But none came.
On the floor, surrounded by canned food, Frank lay gripping his chest. David dropped the bat and ran to him. “Are you okay?”
Frank struggled to speak. “My- h- heart.”
“I’ll call 911.”
“Where?” David looked around frantically. “Where are they, Frank?”
“I don't kn...” Frank did not look well.
David opened cabinet after cabinet, nothing but cups and plates. He slid open several drawers, still nothing. He could hear Frank gasping for breath behind him. He scanned the counter. “What does it look like, Frank?” His voice sounded desperate in his own ears. He needed to calm down. He remembered taking CPR in high school. Always stay calm, no matter what. He took a deep breath, and refocused. There was an orange bottle behind the sink. He scooped it up. Nitroglycerin. “Found it!” He dropped to his knees, popped the cap, and shook out a pill. Frank eagerly took it under his tongue.
“That's it, buddy. Relax. You're okay. You're okay. I found the pills. Everything's gonna be okay.” He leaned back against the cabinet door and looked down at Frank, then jumped back up and left the room.
“I’ll be right back. I’m getting you a pillow.”
He re-entered and crouched down. Gently he lifted Frank’s head and put the pillow in place. “You rest. I'm calling 911.”
He stood and grabbed the phone. “Yes. I think my neighbor's had a heart attack. Yes. 103 Birchwood. I gave him a Nitroglycerin. Okay. Thank you.” He looked down at Frank and gave a reassuring smile. “They're on their way.”
Frank lifted a thumb.
“You scared me half to death you know.”
Frank smiled weakly.
David crouched back down and leaned against the sink cabinet. He stared quietly at the recovering man.
Again the words had spoken the truth. Frank did need him. He might have died if David hadn't shown up. What is going ON here? Something-- or someone was sending him messages. It had to be. David couldn't possibly have known his neighbor was in trouble.
In the distance an ambulance shrieked; the fire station wasn't far. The color was returning to Frank’s face. He reached out and gripped David by the wrist. “You know something?”
“What's that, Frank?”
“God sent you to me.”
David's heart skipped a beat. “What? What do you mean?”
“I prayed that God would send someone, and you came.”
A cynical smile creased David's lips. “You must've hit your head when you fell.”
Frank looked serious. “I prayed, and you showed up just in time.”
David hesitated. “Ah, okay.”
“Why did you come, David? I didn’t yell. I could barely breathe. But you came.”
David didn't say anything. He just sat there, crouched against the cabinet, staring at Frank.
“You knew. I can see it on your face. How did you know?”
“You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don't even believe me!” David snapped.
Frank recoiled slightly.
“I'm sorry, Frank. I'm just a little freaked out right now.”
Frank's eyes widened. “It's true! God did speak to you, didn't he?”
“Not exactly.” David put his head in his hands.
“What do you mean?”
“If,” said David, poking a finger at Frank, “if it was God who spoke to me, and I'm not saying it was, but if it was-- he did it with written words. It was a message.”
“A message? Did he write it on the wall with his finger, like in the book of Daniel-- or in stone like with Moses and the ten commandments?”
David put his palm on his face. He wasn't really going to tell him he got the message from a can of beans, a magazine, and a Valentine’s card. Was he?
The ambulance siren cut off; it was outside.
“You okay, Dave?”
David let his hand slide down. “Yeah. I'm okay. Look. I'll stop by tomorrow to check on you, but I need some time to process, you know, before I start blabbing to the whole world that God is in communication with me.”
Frank chuckled. “I imagine it's a lot to swallow, talking to God and all, but I want you to know something.” Frank turned his head and fixed his eyes on David's. “If you do decide to come back and tell me about the writing, I promise I won't think you're crazy.”
David shook his head. “Well then-- that will make one of us.”
David splashed water on his face and looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Was he crazy? If he was, would he know it? Who knows they're crazy? Crazy people think everyone else is crazy. Right?
He splashed his face again, but no amount of washing was going to remove the bags from under his eyes. The glistening water only made his eyes appear more hollow. He toweled off, ran his fingers through his curly brown hair, and adjusted his tie. Again he looked in the mirror. All he wanted to do was crawl back into bed, pull up his blanky force field, and make it all go away. Like it wasn’t hard enough being an intern competing for limited full-time positions at one of the largest television stations in Boston, he had to go and add a family crisis, and a paranormal psychosis for good measure. He squeezed his eyes shut. “--Just shoot me. Shoot me right now. In the face. With big bullets.”
He turned to replace the towel on the rack and noticed a new piece of artwork taped on the wall. Obviously drawn by his daughter, it was a crude picture of a flower looking miserable underneath an umbrella. Rain was shooting down from big black clouds. In purple crayon were the words, “The flowr is sad becuz he dusnt undrstand that the rane will help him grow.” David stood and stared at it.
There was a tiny knock on the door.
“Dad? It's time for breakfast.”
David opened the door. It was Ben, still in his pajamas. “I take it you're not going to school.” He reached out and ruffled his matted blond hair.
“Mom said we're staying home.”
“And what do you think about that?”
Ben gave a lackluster smile and squeezed into the bathroom.
Poor little guy. He had the day off from school but couldn't even enjoy it. Ben loved his Uncle. They both loved sports. They used to spend hours naming off baseball stats, even rare ones, like what player, in 1946 walked in the third inning, winning the game for the Dolphins. --David wasn't even sure if the Dolphins were a baseball team.
In the kitchen the aroma of eggs and sausages filled David’s nostrils. Sharon was at the stove. Emily, with her curly brown hair shooting out in all directions, sat staring vacantly into her bowl of Froot Loops. She was not a morning person, and this morning weighed especially heavy on her little heart.
David picked up the coffee pot. “How are you holding up?” he asked his wife.
Sharon’s eyes stayed fixed on the stove. “Fine, I guess.”
“We had quite a day yesterday.”
He sipped his coffee and examined her intently, maybe a little too intently.
“I'm fine,” she said, evenly. “You don't need to stare.”
“Ben says you're staying home.”
“Yes. I need to see about funeral arrangements. I guess the Marines want to be involved. There are a lot of details to comb through. I’m not just taking the day off to sulk.”
“I never said you were. And I wasn't staring, I was thinking. I was trying to decide if I should tell you something. Judging by your reaction, I guess it can wait.”
She slid the contents of the pan onto a plate and set the pan back on the stove. With a heavy sigh she turned and faced her husband. “What is it? Something about work?”
“No. Not really. It's about why I was late last night. I wanted to tell you when I got home, but for obvious reasons, I decided to wait.”
“You mean the accident?”
“Yes. Well, not the accident specifically.”
“Well then what?”
David paused. “You know, I really don’t need to tell you right now. It’s not that important.”
“David. You have my attention. Tell me.”
“Okay.” He took in a deep breath. “Something really weird happened before the accident-- and last night at Frank’s. --Here. Let’s sit down and I’ll explain everything.”
By the time he was done, his entire family sat at the kitchen table, staring at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“Can you do it anytime you want?” Ben asked.
“I don't know.”
“Try it right now,” he said excitedly.
Sharon interrupted. “Am I the only one who thinks this is creepy? I don't know how I feel about all this, David. It makes my skin crawl.”
“How do you think I feel?”
“Are you a superhero?” That was Emily.
Sharon slid her plate away. “What strikes me is, you started getting these, these-- messages the same day Brandon died.”
David felt a chill run down his back. He hadn't thought of that-- and he wished Sharon hadn’t either. The thought of a dead relative watching his every move made him uncomfortable, to say the least.
“Do you feel anything when you see the words? Do you hear the words out loud?” Ben asked.
“No. It's not a voice, it's a sense, like déjà vu.” His brows furrowed. “It's probably just some latent mental ability or...” He looked up at the wall clock. “Oh! I have to go. They’re expecting me down at the courthouse.” He took the last gulp off his coffee. “I can’t believe how fast this morning flew by.”
“Are you sure you should go in? Don’t you think you should try to figure out what’s going on first?” Sharon stared at her husband.
“Competition is fierce for those full-time positions at the station.” David stood and set his cup in the sink. “I need to stay on top of things. Besides, It’s only half a day, and I need to be downtown anyway to get Alex. I'll call you if anything happens. Okay?”
Sharon sat with her lips pursed.
David looked at the kids. “Be good for Mom, alright?”
“Yes, Daddy.” Emily pushed her chair out. “I’m going to go look for words in my room. Maybe that’s my superpower too.”
David watched her shuffle out of the kitchen in her rumpled pjs and tangled hair, then turned to his wife. “Call me if you get overwhelmed.” He bent down and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll come home if you need me.”
“Okay.” Her hand gripped his wrist. “Call me if anything happens. I know how guarded you can be when you're struggling with something.
“I will, honey. I promise.”
By the time David arrived at the courthouse it was already mobbed. Police barricades blocked off traffic to the street in front, a barrier was set up to hold back the crowd of spectators that was forming, and reporters milled around at a calculated distance from the doors-- like piranha waiting for a feeding.
On the blocked off street were several news trucks, including the one for Channel Seven. David pulled up to a police checkpoint and flashed his press pass. The officer squinted at it then waved him through. David rolled in carefully and double parked next to the big white truck.
There were quite a few pedestrians on the street for such a cold autumn morning. David stuck close to the car and worked his way to the truck. He found the thin metal door and rapped his knuckles on it. A head poked out from the dimly glowing guts of the news truck. It was the notorious switch operator and technician, Jeffery Nord, nicknamed Nerd by his coworkers. He was six feet and lanky, with green eyes and tousled orange hair that, quite frankly, made him look like a troll pencil. Anyone else would have found the title Nerd demeaning, but not Nord. He wore it like a badge of honor.
Nerd hovered in the tiny doorway, waving a thick pencil in front of David, like a security wand. “--Boop.”
David raised his eyebrows. “Um. Hey there, Nerd.”
David craned his neck over Nerd’s shoulder. “You the only one here?”
Nerd ignored the question and continued on as though his pencil joke was going well. “Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. No flesh eating viruses detected.” He laughed a breathy laugh.
David gave a half smile.
Nerd pulled back into the truck and took a seat in the switcher's chair, which he perceived as the captain's chair of his little rolling Enterprise. “Brad and John are in front of the courthouse waiting for the Senator to come out.” Nerd pointed to a television monitor at Brad Knight, Channel Seven's premier field reporter who was going over notes on his PDA.
“What do they want me to do?” said David.
“I guess they want you to shadow me, kinda see how things work behind the curtain.”
Oh how fortunate, David thought, to learn at the feet of The Great and Powerful Oz! He sat down at the only other seat in the truck. It was beside the device that put words and graphics on the screen. “What's this thing called?” he said, pointing.
“That is a character generator.”
“Oh.” David looked around at the mass of video electronics, rows of flashing lights, and plastic push buttons. His eyes came to rest on a box of donuts, and he suddenly became aware that he had never eaten his breakfast. His belly gurgled. I wonder if there are any glazed left? He tipped the cover and peeked inside. Yes! One left. Things were beginning to look up! He reached into the box, but his hand froze. An orange sticky-note hung just above the lid. Scribbled in pencil were the words, “Good and Working.” Two letters stood out, G and o.
Oh no! Not AGAIN! Go? Where? Out of the truck? NOW? His pulse quickened. This was nuts. He couldn't just drop what he was doing every time a message came. Yet, he couldn't ignore it. Maybe something horrible was about to happen to the truck! Again his pulse spiked. Nerd, thoroughly engrossed in his preparations for the broadcast, tapped at his keys and examined the readouts. David's eyes dropped to a hammer on the console. On it was a metal label with the words in/out. The word out screamed at him.
He sprang to his feet. “I have to step out for a second.” The sentence was rushed, but Nerd didn't seem to notice.
“Don't take too long. It could start then you’ll miss everything.” Nerd continued to study his equipment.
“Yeah. Okay.” David fumbled with the latch and opened the door. Light bit into his eyes as he stepped back out onto the sidewalk. He took a look around. There didn’t appear to be any danger. More spectators had joined the throng in front of the courthouse, all waiting for a chance to see the Senator whose name had been topping the headlines for the last three weeks. Dread boiled in David's chest at a single troubling thought. Is something going to happen to the Senator?
Several doors opened. A delegation poured from the building, and the sea of waiting reporters surged forward like a tide, encircling the emerging group. David felt helpless, transfixed on the scene as he waited in horror for the next instruction to come.
A young man with white cords protruding from his ears brushed past, causing David to step back. He glanced briefly at the man and immediately his eyes were drawn to the back of his red tee-shirt. “Follow me as I follow Him.” David had no idea what the cryptic message meant, but it didn't matter. The word follow soaked into his mind.
Perspiration chilled on David's forehead as he moved through the crisp morning air. Short, nervous breaths shot out in thin white puffs. To his right, reporters fired off questions like hungry wolves chewing on a carcass. The man in the red shirt paid no attention, maneuvering along the sidewalk, dodging back and forth, lost in his own private concert.
David followed, stealing glances to his right, but quickly returning his focus to the man in the red shirt. A woman with a dog cut him off, but he compensated and passed between two men on the left, pushed past another man in a business suit, and caught up.
The man skirted the outside edge of the crowd, stepping in time to his own rhythm, weaving in and out of the gathered onlookers. David trailed him with pensive intensity, afraid to continue, but more afraid to stop. He pressed on past the crowd, away from the Senator. This doesn't make sense! Why is he moving away? He stopped and looked around in a panic. Had he missed something? There were words everywhere, but nothing spoke to him. He twisted back toward the truck. Nothing but silence. Was he supposed to continue following this man? Was the Senator not the target?
Brandon, if this is you, buddy, throw me a bone here.
He turned back and saw the man a considerable distance away. He broke into a sprint, pushed his way past a group of boys, and sidestepped around a woman with a stroller. The man was now at a crosswalk. David kept his eyes trained on the red shirt. The man crossed the street then turned and disappeared into a coffee shop. David dashed to the entrance and almost plowed into a couple trying to exit. He gave them a look of apology, and squeezed past.
The coffee shop was small and quaint, and unexpectedly quiet in contrast to the throng of activity outside. At one table a little wrinkled man read a newspaper while chewing on a bagel. Three people were standing in line, the last being the man in the red shirt. David stepped in behind him, sweaty, and out of breath. Now what? He felt horribly conspicuous. No one knew his reason for being there, but he felt like it was painted across his forehead. I'm only here to follow this guy because his shirt told me to!
The line grew smaller and David had no plan. He scanned the room, letting his eyes bounce off words, but only a string of nonsense appeared. Great! I'm stuck in a stupid coffee shop while right next door a famous Senator is creating a media frenzy! HELLO! The line reduced again. The man in the red shirt was at the counter now, and David was next. He snatched up a menu and bounced his eyes back and forth. Nothing. I followed the man in the shirt! Where are you? What am I supposed to do?
The man clutched the top of his to-go bag and brushed past. David did not make eye contact. He stepped forward and looked up at the menu. His eyes were drawn to a big yellow 3 in a blue circle on top of the kids’ section.
“May I help you, sir?” said the young gum-chewing blond behind the counter.
“Yes, I'll take three, ah, coffees.” He stole a glance behind him to see the man still standing in the entrance. He was looking at business cards on the cork board. He looked back at the blond.
“That will be five dollars and thirty-five cents,” she said with a couple of quick chews.
David pulled out a ten and slid it across the counter, then glanced back over his shoulder. He was gone! He pushed away from the counter and looked out the windows. Where’d he GO? David burst through the door and looked back toward the courthouse, then ran around the other side of the coffee shop.
The man was gone.
David wiped his face with his hands. How could he lose him? I only turned away for a second! He stood in the crosswalk, turned left, then right, then left again. It was no use. The crosswalk sign changed, it said, “WALK.” Another message? He crossed the street and stopped in front of a large glass window. On it, written in yellow paint, were the words IT Consultant, and Come In, We're Open.
His mind grabbed the words Open and IT and pulled them together.
He stood and stared. Open what?
He turned his head and spotted a heavily bearded man playing guitar with fingerless gloves. Next to him, his guitar case sat open with a few wadded bills in its belly. The case was already open. That wasn't it. He turned around. And around again. Open WHAT! Behind him was a bench. Shoved between the slats was a magazine. David walked forward, snatched it, and opened it. He scanned up and down the first two pages. Nothing. He turned to the back. Nothing there either.
He sat down and turned to the center of the magazine. There was nothing special about the glossy pages, and nothing stood out. Am I doing something wrong? Why do I keep losing the trail? Is there some kind of method I’m missing?
Maybe I’m just trying too hard.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then refocused on the magazine. “Two Killed with Car Bomb,” said one headline. “The President to Stop in Turkey to Meet With Makhim Alad Rheen,” said another.
He tried to relax, and allowed his eyes to scan. Two words popped out. The. President.
Okay-- now we’re getting somewhere.
He continued to scan... will... die.
David shoved the magazine from his lap and stood. “I don't want to know this!”
An old lady passing by gave him a stern look, but he hardly noticed her.
I don’t want to know this! This is NOT happening. I don't WANT to know! He paced back and forth next to the clump of magazine. Why? Why me? Why did you choose me? I'm nobody! David hovered over the magazine. His mind was on fire. If I DO this. If I DO this. If I read this message, can I turn back? Can I walk away? A sense of futility washed over him. Clearly, he had no control over the messages. It didn't matter what he did, they would find him. And if he did try to stick his head in the sand, he might end up dead. Or worse.
He groaned, crouched down, and snatched the magazine off the sidewalk. Whatever they were, they had saved his life and the life of his neighbor. For all he knew, death was waiting around the corner, even now, in any one of the many varieties found in the big city. Being in the good graces of the author of the messages was certainly better than the alternative. He sat back down and opened the magazine. Okay, David. Relax. Just relax. His eyes fell on the word in, the number 2, and finally on the word days. The words tumbled in his mind, rearranged themselves to form a new sentence.
In 2 days the President will die.
His eyes flitted to the byline, and grabbed three more words in quick succession. Stop. The. Killer.
That was the whole of the message. David stared in stunned disbelief. Save the President? Of the United states? Saving his next-door neighbor was one thing, but he couldn’t even begin to wrap his brain around this one. I’m no hero. I'm an intern ... I’m not even a fully functioning member of the workforce! How am I supposed to save the President of the United States?
He laid the magazine down, and rubbed his temples. This is not happening. This is not happening. This is NOT happening... There must have been a clerical mistake somewhere. He was so obviously not the guy for the job! And what was he going to tell Sharon? “Um. honey, I have to go to Washington for a few days. The President’s gonna die and I'm supposed to save him. --Oh, and I'll be charging it to our VISA. You're okay with that, right? Honey ... what are you going to do with that knife?” Yup. That was how it was going to go down. She’d think he was crazy, and he was going to have to agree with her.
He stood and threw the magazine into a nearby trash can. There was no plan, no next step, just a directive. That wasn’t enough for David. Until the messages chose to give him more, he decided he was going to sit on the information; his present situation was going to be hard enough to deal with. After all, he had just walked off his job site to chase supernatural messages. How was he going to explain that one?
David headed back across the street and toward the truck, playing through all the scenarios in his head. In each one he ended up looking like a nut case, no matter how he spun it. Mental dysfunction was definitely not the way to endear oneself to a potential employer. It would be infinitely easier if I could just lie. But he would not do that. He'd seen the destruction lying had wrought in his father's life, and he'd promised himself long ago that he would not repeat the mistakes of his father.
The coffee! He stopped in his tracks. Maybe I’m supposed to get coffee. What had appeared as a trivial detour now made perfect sense. He turned, bolted back to the coffee shop, and strolled in through the door. He gave a smile to the blond behind the counter.
“Thought you took off,” she chewed.
“Sorry about that.”
She grabbed the tray and slid it across, then handed him his change.
She gave a robotic smile. “Don't mention it.”
David exited the shop and headed back toward the truck. As he neared, he held the coffees strategically out in front of him. The three men standing there didn’t notice him at first, until he was right up on them.
“Chance. Where ya been?” said John.
“Coffee?” said David.
Nerd scrunched his face. “You completely missed the broadcast. We went live and Brad got an interview with the Senator. I was feeding video, running the switch and punching up Chyron all at the same time.”
“I wasn't gone long.” He held the coffee tray out. Each of them grabbed a cup.
Brad smiled. “The urge to fetch coffee was just too strong for ya, huh?”
“I am your humble intern.” David returned the smile.
“Well,” said Brad, “we’re heading out to film a piece for the art show, then we’ll head back to the station to go over the afternoon game plan. You going to meet us at the show?”
“If you need me, but I'm only on for half a day, right? I have to pick up a friend at Logan.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Hey, this is turning out to be a busy day and you'd probably find yourself shoved in a corner anyway. Look. Why don't you just take off? We'll pick up on Monday when things have died down a bit.”
“You sure? I can...”
“Yeah. You've been busting your hump the past couple of weeks. You deserve it. So go before I change my mind.”
“Alright. Thanks, Brad. I owe you one. See you guys Monday.” David set the cardboard tray in a nearby trash can and went around to his car. He had two hours until he had to pick up Alex. What am I going to do for two hours?
One thing was certain, he did NOT want to look at any more words!
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