Jaw set, knuckles edging into the white, and nostrils flared, it was clear (even to Gerry) that he was driving in the wrong mood.
The MR2, a fast red sports car, hurtled up the wet surface of Granville Street. The dashboard clock told him it was 8:35 p.m. It was December 23.
Nothing but trouble. Bugs in the software. Contracts being cancelled. And Christmas. For Gerry it always brought painful memories.
The middle lane was sluggish. He pulled into the right lane behind a cab. He kept a half second distance. He wondered if it were wise to be rushing home to change clothes for a Christmas party that he really didn’t want to attend. Clients would be (possibly) disappointed if he didn’t show. His ex-wife’s friends wouldn’t.
The cab deeked into the middle lane leaving Gerry jowl to cheek with a bus. He hit the brakes, fish-tailed slightly in the slick pavement – it hadn’t been raining enough to wash away the road grease – and regained control. He was so close to the bus he could see little of the road in front of him. An Ocean Construction cement mixer passed on the left and he snapped the MR2 into the lane right behind the truck.
“Come on, come on.”
His cell phone rang.
He let it ring a second time. Gerry grabbed the phone with his right hand and flipped it open. When, he thought, am I going to get a hands-free set?
“Yeah? Hi … they did what? They can’t change the resourcing for the New Year now. What? They cut the effort for the install in half?
At 35th, he pulled back into the right lane, a few car lengths ahead of the bus. He started to overtake the cement mixer. He was considering who to hit at the project office when he approached 33rd and a person at the bus stop stepped, or stumbled, off the sidewalk into his lane.
Gerry dropped the phone.
He couldn’t determine why someone was suddenly in the road nor if they were likely to move themselves out of the way. Two seconds to decide. Gerry couldn’t live with hitting a person and swerved into the middle lane knowing full well that the cement mixer was going to be there. He consciously decided not to check his blind spot.
He regained consciousness in a sea of agony. It was obviously a hospital; he wasn’t sure which one.
There was a man in a tuxedo standing beside Gerry’s bed. He held a strange-looking device – it reminded Gerry of what a kid would do to a cell phone to make it look like a Star Trek tricorder – and was passing it over his body.
Gerry let this strange person sit in his mind unanalysed while trying to take stock of himself. He could move his head only slightly to the right and thus he could tell nothing about his body. All the tubes leading to his body and the amount of equipment in the room disconcerted him. His tuxedo-clad visitor abruptly peered into his face. He had a goatee, a slim moustache and dark, dark eyes.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Gerry.
“Excellent.” He waved the scanner in front of Gerry’s face. Twinkling lights shot down his eyes and into his brain. The pain stopped.
“I’m less of a who and more of a what.”
“Thank you, whatever you are, for what you just did. I take it you aren’t a nurse.”
“No, I’m an angel of death.”
“An angel of death?”
“Well, your angel of death.”
“Yes. You are a statistical anomaly. The chances of you being anything but purée after you embedded your MR2 into that cement mixer are astronomically small.”
“You’re saying I should be dead.”
“You will be dead, soon.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“Let me put it this way … if the doctors could have stopped your pain the way I have, don’t you think they would have?”
Gerry’s angel of death waved his device and the pain resumed. He waved it again and the pain stopped.
“Please don’t do that again.” Gerry took in a hard-earned breath. “If you are Death, why did you stop my pain?”
“I didn’t stop it; I just taught you how to ignore it. Since no one can predict one’s time of death exactly, I have to arrive a little early and people are so much nicer to talk to when they don’t notice the pain.”
“I see … Is it Christmas?”
“What’s the longest you’ve ever waited for someone to die?”
“What’s the average?”
“Eleven point five.”
“Do I get any last wishes?”
“You’re not being executed; you smashed up your car. A direct result of being in a rush, I might add.”
Gerry remembered the crash. “Don’t I get points for choosing not to hit the pedestrian?”
“Spirituality is not a points system. There is no hierarchy of sin or karma.”
Gerry wondered if Death just kept him out of pain simply to harass him.
“You’re a gambling man, obviously.”
Death cocked his head to one side. “Yesssss. So?”
“I bet that I’ll last a total of eleven and a half minutes since you showed up. If I win, you have to grant me a wish.”
Death looked at Gerry. “Eleven point five minutes from now.”
Gerry frowned. “OK, but you have to put me back into pain.”
“I want to monitor my situation.”
“Well Gerry, I’m impressed.”
Gerry was exhausted. Clinging to his consciousness had been like bailing out a horribly leaky lifeboat with a teaspoon.
“There are limits to what I can do in the last wish department, but here’s what I can offer. You can spend six minutes at three different times in your past.”
“In my current condition?”
“No, no. Something useful. Age thirty.”
“Divisible by six.”
“Oh. What different times? What can I do there? Won’t this screw up the space-time continuum?”
“The date will be picked from your memories more-or-less randomly. I can’t control that part. You can do anything you want in six minutes and, finally, I think the space-time continuum (as you put it) is old enough to look after itself.
“When does this start?”
Even if he hadn’t recalled the dingy yellow gloom of the corridor, the smell was a giveaway: high school. He looked at himself. Not smashed up, wearing jeans and a corduroy shirt. All blue. His watch was different. It had a simple digital display with a chronometer – counting down. It read: 05:40. But when was this?
The corridor had that eerie during class quietness. He heard the muttering of teachers talking about algebra, physics, botany, and social studies. Did he hear the typing class clattering away in the distance? He pivoted slowly in the middle of the corridor. He saw the plaque on the door: PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE.
05:10. Minutes and seconds remaining.
He opened the door and entered the office. The huge counter, which acted as a kind of safety buffer between the dry, grizzled secretaries and any student misbegotten enough to visit, seemed to warn him to go back.
He walked past it and the secretaries (to whom he wished a pleasant day).
“Mr. Helm is with someone.”
“I know, thanks.”
Gerry walked into the office and, sitting in the usual I-am-the-powerful-principal and you-are-the-worthless-student chairs were, respectively, Mr. Helm and himself at age seventeen.
Man, was I a geek, Gerry thought.
“Hello …” said the Principal.
“Hi, I’m Gerry’s Uncle Gerald and I hear there’s a bit of a problem.”
‘Uncle Gerald’ winked at his younger self and – with his face away from Mr. Helm – mouthed the phrase “work with me.”
“Well,” said Mr. Helm as Gerry Sr. took a seat, “we were just discussing what’s appropriate for slide shows at school assemblies.”
During high school, Gerry had photographed everything that moved, particularly female things that moved. As president of the photography club, he organized the various slide shows sponsored by sports teams, the student council and so forth. His meeting today with Mr. Helm was the result of a swim team photograph.
“Sorry to jump in like this,” said Gerry Sr., “but I’m really pressed for time. As I understand it, you are concerned about a photo of a girl on the swim team. As I’ve been told, the photo garnered some wolf whistles from the audience.”
“Yes it did and ….”
“And you don’t think this is appropriate behaviour. I understand that ….”
“It was not my intent,” said Gerry Jr., “to … embarrass anyone.”
“I’m certain that’s true Gerry but ….”
“Mr. Helm,” jumped in Gerry Sr., “I have a hypothetical question for you. We all agree that the swim team member in question was, shall we say, a buxom lass.”
Mr. Helm scowled.
“I’ll take that to mean you noticed her breasts; everyone else seemed to. What if she had been flat?”
Mr. Helm twitched.
“Gerry, you’d have still put the picture into the show, right?”
“Of course. The lighting poolside is atrocious. The flash units barely compensate. I took two rolls of film and got four usable shots ….”
“Thanks. Mr. Helm do you agree that, if she had had nominal bazoombas there’d have been no wolf whistles and I … and Gerry would not be having this conversation with you?”
“It’s possible, but there were wolf whistles and this can’t be tolerated.”
“But the problem, if there is one, isn’t the photo, the tits or the whistles. It’s the attitude. How do you expect to teach these kids anything about moral behaviour when you are sexist?”
“Yes, if it had been a guy – shirtless – or a trim girl we wouldn’t be having this chat. You wouldn’t have noticed a problem. Furthermore, you are not teaching or nurturing these kids; you’re trying to control their behaviour so that they don’t embarrass you. I urge you to examine your motives and review your breast fixation. The teenage boys around here are supposed to be upset by them; you’re not.”
“I’ve got to go. Gerry, let’s move. Nice talking with you Mr. Helm.”
Gerry Jr. followed semi-blindly, leaving Mr. Helm to wonder what had just hit him.
Once in the hall, Gerry Jr. said, “who the hell are you?”
Gerry Sr. stared at him.
“He’s you,” said Death.
They whirled in sync to see the tuxedo clad figure leaning against a locker, smoking a cigarette.
“Why are you smoking?” asked Gerry Sr.
“I’ve always wanted to smoke in a school corridor.”
“What do you mean he’s me?” All of Gerry Jr.’s muscles were tense and he appeared like a cornered cat looking for a way out.
“He’s a solid projection from the future fulfilling ….”
“Shut up. He doesn’t need to know that.”
“Gosh, now who’s embarrassed.”
“Look, Gerry, I’m going to be gone in a minute ….”
“Be quiet. And the importing thing I want to tell you is to firmly and politely stand up for yourself. You were going to let that idiot Helm make you think you had to kiss his ass. It’s not required.”
“OK,” said Gerry Jr. “I agree, but if you’re really me, you’ll be able to tell me what I really wanted to say in there.”
“Sure: ‘Mr. Helm, if that girl had been flat chested I wouldn’t be in here. Your puritanical attitudes are not my fucking problem.'”
“I guess you are me.”
“Bye, bye,” said Death.
It felt as if they were on a high speed moving sidewalk, blasting through an airport full of people, buildings, and animals.
“What is this?”
“A transition to the next stop. It takes a couple of minutes to settle down.” Death looked at his hand held scanner and snickered.
“This should be fun.”
Gerry was lying on his back, knees bent, on the rear seat of a car. He kept very still and glanced at his watch.
The car was big, a station wagon, and from the front seat he heard voices and noises.
Gerry didn’t realize that the sounds of kissing and caressing were so distinctive. He heard the occasional murmur, but could discern nothing that made sense.
It seemed a waste of his six minutes to be sitting in the back of a car, motionless. The shock he would give the romantic couple would be fairly intense.
“Please, I don’t want to do it again,” said the woman, a girl really.
“I’m sure you’ll like it once you’re used to it. The first time is always tough.”
The man’s voice was indeed much older than the girl’s and was familiar.
“I just don’t think I’m ready.”
Now the girl’s voice was familiar … high school? Is this another encounter from that time?
“No one, not even men, are ready my dear. It’s a matter of being taught, getting into the rhythm.
“And being ready to learn …” Her voice was faltering. This was followed by the sounds of clothes being manipulated.
Taught? Teacher? Like a flash card being removed to show the answer, Gerry knew. This was Mr. Benton and Cindy – a girl who was part of his group of friends. So it was true. He’d heard rumours, been provided with allusions by serious-eyed girls, but had never really believed. A crushing guilt fell upon him. He’d liked Cindy in high school, even asked her out once, but she was remote and unapproachable. Maybe this was why.
“I’ll be very, very careful,” said Mr. Benton.
04:57and Gerry’s blood was up.
Mr. Benton was in the midst of freeing himself from his trousers when someone’s hand grabbed the side of his face and inserted a finger into his ear.
With his middle finger pressing into Mr. Benton’s ear and his thumb and index finger at very uncomfortable points under Mr. Benton’s jaw, Gerry slammed the teacher’s head against the driver’s side window.
“Shut up and don’t move,” screamed Gerry. To Mr. Benton, “Mr. B! Having fun yet? How does it feel to have something unwanted in an orifice of yours?”
Mr. Benton’s powerful hand moved to grab Gerry’s arm.
“I don’t think so,” said Gerry, who slammed Benton’s head into the window a second time. “Use your hands to put your dick back into your pants.”
Once Mr. Benton had adjusted himself – Cindy took the opportunity to re-dress as well – Gerry said, “Good. Now, I promise you, I won’t be long, but I insist you answer some questions. One: how many high school girls have you had sex with in your career? And if you say ‘only Cindy’ I’ll plunge my finger into your brain.”
“Uh … seventeen.”
“Over how many years?”
Cindy was looking shocked by the figures.
“How do you know our names?”
“I’m asking the questions. So, why isn’t your wife sexually satisfying for you?”
“I don’t know!”
“Sure you do – it’s power. You have power over Cindy, but not your wife. Poor Cindy here not only has to put up with your immoral and illegal behaviour but has to face the fact that you can influence her marks, including the ones that may or may not let her go to university.”
“It’s not true! I loved them all!”
“You’re so full of shit.” Gerry turned away. “Cindy!”
“OK, why’d you let him touch you?”
“I trusted him. He treated me like I was special.”
“Listen to me very carefully. You are special. He can tell you that without fucking you.”
Mr. Benton punched Gerry while his head was turned. Gerry’s hand released the teacher’s head. He was once again on his back in the car. Mr. Benton left the vehicle and opened the rear passenger door. Gerry was groaning. Mr. Benton reached in to grab him. Gerry raised his foot, planted it just below Mr. Benton’s shoulder and pushed. The teacher landed on the gravel of the dark and deserted parking lot. Gerry moved quickly out of the car and sat on Mr. Benton.
“Mr. B., what we have here is a failure to communicate.”
“I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime. Think of yourself as Dicken’s Scrooge character. See the folly of your ways and remedy it while you’re still relatively young. And uninjured.” Gerry moved his weight up and down on top of Mr. Benton. “What do you think?”
Gerry looked at Cindy, who was scrutinizing him. I really hope she doesn’t recognize me, he thought. She was a girl of simple looks: long brown hair, decent skin, and an unbalanced teenaged figure that Gerry figured would be just fine later.
“Do you drive?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Good, take the car and drive to the bus stop at York Mills and go home from there. Lock the keys in the car. Don Giovanni here can figure out how to rescue his car later.”
Cindy didn’t move.
Gerry watched the tail lights fade into the night.
“And you were worried about the universe.”
From the gravel, Mr. Benton looked up to see a man in a tuxedo.
“Do you think he learned anything?”
“I don’t know; let’s ask: Mr. B., did this evening prove enlightening?”
“Yes. Can I get up now?”
“You’re really not very convincing.”
“Well, Death, do you think we can have a relatively spectacular exit to help this poor man?”
“Don’t see why not. But if you wanted him castrated, I could always ….”
“No. For an angel you are pretty bloodthirsty.”
They left in a burst of blue flame.
The moving sidewalk raced them through manic scenes of life. Gerry would barely make out a scene or face before he was bombarded by more images.
“What’re you getting out of this?” asked Gerry.
“Me? I’m just honouring a gambling debt.”
“But you chose the means of paying up.”
“I have less choice about these things than you think. You wanted a wish; I’m not a genie. I can’t bring something into being, but I can give you the chance for wish fulfillment. You still have to do the work.”
“Does what I’ve done so far effect my car crash?”
“That would be telling.”
The bus stop at 33rd and Granville was wet and cold. Gerry, unlike his previous appearances was wearing a rain coat. It didn’t fully protect him from the chill. He wrapped his arms close around him.
There was an old lady sitting on the bench. She was well-dressed in a warm coat and well-shined new boots. Her cane was gnarled – carved from drift wood and polished. The handle was a relief of a face transmuting from a female to a male, or perhaps vice versa. She smiled at him. Two teenagers riddled with earrings in places other than their ears were arguing loudly about a pop band called White Zombie.
He had a very bad feeling about where he was. Gerry wiped a spot on the bench free of moisture with his coat sleeve and sat down near, but not right beside, the old lady.
“Pardon me, ma’am, do you have the time?”
“Yes, it’s 8:30.”
“This may sound like an odd question, but it’s the 23rd, right?”
“Oh yes,” she laughed.
“It’s amazing how you can lose track of the date when you get too busy.”
Gerry wracked his brains. He’d left Richmond when? 8:15? So, about fifteen to twenty minutes to get to 33rd, given the traffic over the Arthur Laing bridge?
Gerry’s mind was wrapped up in how to flag down the car his other self was driving before the accident.
He suddenly felt stupid. Stopping himself wasn’t the problem – he needed to stop whoever stepped out onto the road. The paradox hit him. If he stopped whoever fell onto the road, he would never crash. And if he had never crashed, Death would never have gambled with him and never given him the opportunity to stop the crash or visit the past.
“Young man; you look like you are considering very serious matters.
He turned to look at the old lady. She was wrinkled, but all laugh lines. And her eyes were crisp and green like a healthy child.
“I’m struggling with a puzzle. A paradox actually.”
“You mean two impossible notions like ‘responsible government’?”
Gerry laughed. “Isn’t that an oxymoron? I’m thinking of a personal problem like the famous time travel paradox where you go back in time and murder you grandfather before your father is conceived. Do you suddenly cease to exist or are you fine?”
“I always found that example rather hard on senior citizens.”
The two teenagers were fighting, pushing and shoving each other. It was becoming obvious to him, too obvious. Teenager A pushes teenager B into traffic and idiot driver C (him) crashes into a truck.
For reasons he couldn’t pin down, he was convinced this was the correct assessment.
Death was sitting beside him.
“Gerry, what’s up?”
“How big a liar are you?”
Death peered around him at the old lady. She waved politely.
“What did she tell you?”
“Nothing. Do you know her?”
“Of course. The cute old lady disguise doesn’t fool me a bit.”
“Who are you two?”
“Long story,” said the old lady.
“Don’t you have some decisions to make, Gerry?”
Death straightened his bow-tie.
The teenagers who were pushing and shoving each other about were nearing the curb. Gerry glanced down the road. He thought he could see the cement truck.
Gerry decided to give himself ninety seconds to think. He believed he was part of some sort of game between advanced beings. Angels, ghosts, gods, whatever – it didn’t matter. He wanted to optimize the outcome. An interesting thought. What was optimal? (The teenagers were getting quite loud now.) He had been focused on his feelings about the past and how to avoid the accident. He thought past the accident. Assuming he was right, how would these boys have fared after the accident? Despite his evasive driving, they may still have been injured. Was this something worth avoiding? He honestly thought they were jerks and didn’t mind the thought of them suffering broken bones. But, in the end, he knew that if he could prevent an accident, he would. In addition, his gut told him he really needed this accident to shake him out of his bad driving habits and even worse attitude. He also didn’t want to retroactively miss the visits to the past.
His decision took less than ninety seconds. The two teenagers were still brawling. A closed fist punch was thrown that landed on a cheek bone. The howl was incredible.
The old lady and Death’s eyes watched him.
“HEY,” yelled Gerry. They froze for a second.
Death smiled, thinking he’d won.
“You want to see a real fight? Watch this.”
The teenagers looked on in confusion as a guy in a trench coat grabbed some guy in a tux and threw him into traffic.
Even the old lady was surprised.
“You bastard,” yelled Death as he tumbled onto Granville Street.
Gerry was looking for the MR2, but instead he saw himself behind the wheel of a Volvo.
Death stood up, clearly angry.
The Volvo swerved and crashed into the cement mixer.
Gerry woke up in post-op, not the intensive care unit. His head swimming with what was likely anesthetic, Gerry sat up slightly.
The little old lady stood in front of him, smiling. She wore a nurse’s uniform, but still carried her gnarled multi-faced cane.
“How do you feel?”
The old lady picked up his chart. “According to this, you have suffered multiple breaks and fractures and just finished up in the OR. Prognosis, good. Much better than last time.”
“I was dying before.”
“Oh. Him. He wasn’t really Death. He’s an excellent liar.”
“I have so many questions.”
“I’m sure you do, but I am not going to answer them. However, since you made me so happy when you embarrassed him, I want to give you a Christmas present.”
“What is it?”
“Knowledge. I’ll tell you three things.”
“My favourite number. Now listen. One: Your gambling with him has changed history. Two: The problem is that you don’t remember what is now real. Three: you have only one ex-wife (same woman) and your second wife (to whom you are still married) is going to be here to pick you up. Be nice to her; she’s lovely. And plan to have amnesia for a while.”
Gerry tried to sit up more, but his battered frame would not let him.
“Wait, what’s her name?”
The old lady just smiled, tapped her cane twice and was gone.
Gerry tried struggling with the sheets, managing to get his unbroken arm free, but had to stop due to a sudden urge to throw up. By the time he calmed himself down, the recovery room nurse was by his bed.
“Well, you seem very alert.”
“Yes, I’d have to be.”
“Oh. I see. We’ll get the doctor to look you over and hopefully he’ll let your wife see you.”
What the hell am I going to do? he wondered. His next thoughts fell over the concept of not knowing his own history since … when? High school?
The doctor arrived, took the usual pulse and blood pressure readings and asked him how he felt.
“I don’t feel like I really know where I am. I recall having an accident but other stuff feels hazy.”
The doctor assured him he was physically OK and was likely just muddled.
Finally they put him on a gurney and wheeled him to a room.
Gerry looked away from the door, scared by what or who he might see.
He recognized the voice, but it was older sounding. Gerry turned to see Cindy, the girl he’d rescued from Mr. Benton, all grown up. She held him, kissed him and wept on him.
“I was so worried.”
“Me too,” Gerry whispered, thinking he was very glad that she was someone he liked.