Fantasticoe Fall 2004

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The Day That I Die
by Liz Sager

For certain is death for the born,
And certain is birth for the dead;
Therefore over the inevitable
Thou shouldst not grieve. 

- Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2
What was a man armed with BAs in English and Latin and a teaching certificate to do when it seemed like every place that would conceivably hire him already filled their quota of chain-smoking neurotics? Andrew Stokes sighed in defeat, sinking onto a bench in Central Park around mid-afternoon and lit a cigarette, inhaling and then exhaling heavily. He closed his eyes and scratched his head in weary thought. He wasn’t giving up. Of course not. He simply needed to keep looking. There must be somewhere in Manhattan that would hire him. He was employable, dammit!

“You look beat,” said a man in a dark suit from beside him.

Andrew jumped out of his reverie, nearly inhaling his entire cigarette. “Wh–where did you come from?” he coughed. He hated it when people snuck up on him, it was so creepy.

“It doesn’t matter where I came from,” he answered, brushing a minuscule piece of lint off the shoulder of the suit jacket. “I don’t matter at all. I’m more interested in you.”

This wasn’t making Andrew feel any better. In fact, he was nearly ready to tell the man to go to hell and tell Judas he said hi. Andrew was not normally a rude person by any means, but this guy was really beginning to unnerve him. His mood was not improved by this seemingly all-knowing and all-around really strange man. “Why?” he asked, flicking the ashes into the grass.

“Because you, my friend, are unemployable and I have a job for you.”

Despite his objections to being called this man’s friend, Andrew was intrigued. “Where? How do you know?

“I just know,” he shrugged, waving Andrew off with one hand, as if the answer to the second question were irrelevant or simply unimportant. “Just like I know where you grew up and what your picture in the ninth grade yearbook looked like, I know that you have gone on no less than twelve job interviews in the last three months and have been turned down for all of them.”

This was starting to get creepy. “So why would you want to hire me?

“You have determination. Ambition. We can admire that.” The man had a knowing smirk on his face, and was pulling a card from the breast pocket of his jacket.

“We?” Andrew said skeptically, taking the card and reading it. On it was printed a single address in Lower Manhattan, in the financial district, and a time: three days from now, at noon.

“If you decide that you need a job,” he continued with a sardonic smile, “then show up there at that time. I’ll be there to show you around.” He stood up to leave and Andrew opened his mouth. He had to make sure...

“What does my ninth grade photo look like?”

The man smiled and stopped walking. “You weren’t in the yearbook that year. Missed picture day.”

What the hell? Who was this guy? “Who the hell do you work for? The CIA or FBI or something?”

The knowing smirk came back. “Something like that.” He kept walking, leaving Andrew to gape after him.

~*~

Deciding a job would be most advantageous, Andrew kept his appointment with the mysterious man. He greeted him in a pristine lobby with chairs that looked like they weren’t meant to be sat in and bare walls with a tasteful plastic houseplant in the corner. With a cursory nod, the man motioned to an elevator that seemed to fit perfectly into the decor, and they stepped inside. “So, where are we going?” Andrew broke the ice.

Wordlessly, the man pressed a green button on the panel, and the elevator began to descend. “Down,” he said, as if this action needed no further explanation.

“Of course,” Andrew said. The elevator went further. “What is this place?”

“You shall see,” the man answered with a calmness that irked Andrew greatly.

“Great,” he muttered, looking at his reflection in the chrome elevator doors.

They descended for a long time, so long that Andrew figured they must be a few stories under the surface of the city. Finally the elevator dinged open into what looked like a normal office space. There were cubicles, filing cabinets, and people sitting at the desks. They were ignored as they walked down the central corridor. “Where are we?” Andrew felt compelled to ask.

“Underground,” the man said easily, striding down the corridor as if he owned the place. It occurred to Andrew that maybe he did.

“What is this place?” he asked, stopping. “I’m not moving another inch until you tell me exactly where the hell I am.” His stance resembled that of an obstinate child and looked as ridiculous as one would imagine a man in his mid-twenties would.

The man gave him an appraising look. Andrew felt about four inches tall. “No need to be like that, Mr. Stokes, I was just going to explain.”

And you really looked like it, he thought sarcastically, but said nothing and waited for the man to continue. “We are an organization that does top secret research in conjunction with the U.S. government. We work with the government but not for the government. Does that make sense?” The man opened a door and went through, motioning for Andrew to follow.

“Er, I suppose so,” he replied as he did so. He looked all around, up and back and forth. They were in a long hallway with shelves along both walls. The shelves went two, possibly higher on both sides of the corridor, which was impossibly long. On closer inspection, Andrew saw that these were also rather deep — two rows of clocks graced each shelf. They were all different shapes and sizes and colors and designs, but all were the old-fashioned, wind up alarm clocks.

Andrew knew he had asked for it when he learned all the clocks in the east corridor didn’t tell time. Oh, but it wasn’t just the ones in the east corridor — the north, south, and west corridor clocks didn’t tell time either. “Do these clocks actually work?” he asked in an affected voice, still in awe at So Many Damn Clocks.

“Oh, they work all right,” his boss/recruiter/tour guide said, only a shade bitter. “Go on, take a look.”

Andrew stepped closer to the shelves, despite his reservations. So many damn clocks. “Are you telling me that these are all the people in the United States?” Andrew choked out, glancing all around him.

“Don’t be silly, Mr. Stokes,” the man chuckled in a way that gave Andrew the feeling that he was being mocked. “This is just the A’s.”

“Silly me,” Andrew echoed dryly. After a long glance at a few different clocks, he discovered not only did they work, but they were all different times. Or they would be, if they told time. Indeed, upon another glance, he noted ten numbers on the face rather than twelve — 1 to 10 on the very outside, and two hands. “Only ten numbers,” he mused aloud.

“The little hand tells tens of years,” the other man said suddenly from Andrew’s side. This man — Andrew hadn’t bothered to ask his name, and he doubted an answer would be given if he had — seemed to have a talent for that. “The big hand gives you single years. Like a real clock.” The irony in his voice could have been cut with a rusty bread knife. “See those little dials down there?”Andrew looked, and sure enough, three smaller circles rested along the bottom. “That’s months, days, and hours. The small hands, going back to the middle, are minutes and seconds.” Andrew’s eyes flickered back to the middle, where two much smaller hands were — and if he had taken time to count them all, there were sixty little tick marks in a circle. “So, what is it these clocks tell?” the man asked conversationally, by way of wrapping it up.

Andrew vaguely wondered if this was some sort of oral test before he could start working here. “Not time,” was the only thing he could think of to say.

“Technically, Mr. Stokes, it is time,” he answered, picking up the clock he’d been examining. Andrew winced. You’re going to break it... “It is days, hours, months, and years of a person’s life. Do you see the hands?”

Sure Andrew saw them. “They move backwards,” he said slowly.

“Backwards, and forwards, contradicting itself... as life often does,” he answered. “Counting down the hours and days of a person’s life until his death.”

Andrew’s mouth felt like someone had force-fed him cotton balls. “Death?”

“Yes,” he nodded, carefully placing the clock back on its place on the shelf. There was the persistent tick tock tick tock of every single clock in the hall, which made for more of a constant buzz than a separate sound.

“What happens when the clocks reach zero?”

“The person dies,” the man said, while giving Andrew a look that seemed to question his SAT score.

“Yes, I know that,” Andrew said impatiently. “I mean, what happens?

As if on cue, an old fashioned alarm clock (at least that’s how it sounded) about fifteen feet up began to ring. There was an immediate reaction of a man who appeared from a door in the wall and began to scale a ladder to the offending clock. Andrew fought the urge to roll over and press the snooze button. “That,” the man answered. “They’re inexact but always very close. You’ll learn soon enough.”

Andrew simply nodded. He supposed he would.

~*~

After that, life started becoming very boring very fast for Andrew. After a month of working there, rather than resisting the urge to press the snooze button whenever a clock went off at work, he now resisted the urge to seize his alarm clock on the dresser at home and carry it to the other room where he would proceed to copy down numbers, names, and all other manners of things when he was at home.

Once Andrew got past the fact that the clocks didn’t tell time, but a person’s time of death, it was just like every other nine to five job. Or was it eight to four? Three to eleven? He couldn’t tell. He always forgot to wear his watch. The job was more or less the same day in and day out, whenever that day started and ended. The observance on the clocks was more or less constant, and when clocks went off, numbers had to be looked up and cross referenced with all sorts of government agencies. He didn’t know what actually happened when he reported a clock that had gone off. There was a definite hierarchy around here, and those at the bottom — where he was currently dwelling — did not know more than they needed to. The man had told him he would learn soon enough.

One particularly slow Tuesday — Andrew knew it had to be a Tuesday because of the Swedish Meatball Surprise in the cafeteria — he was handing in paperwork on a particularly gorgeous brass wind up clock that had gone off three minutes before he would be able to leave for home, when he was approached by the man again. “Having a nice day?” he asked congenially enough.

Andrew wondered if he’d forgotten to initial something or date something he’d signed, but figuring he’d hear about it if he had, said, “It’s been all right.”

“Good, good,” he nodded in response. Andrew waited, not sure if he was going to go on with that train of thought or go on to something else. Just when he was going to turn around to go punch out, the man spoke again, “Are you finding the work to your liking?”

It was The Voice. Andrew had heard it a thousand times; from his mother when she asked him if he knew what he’d done to receive a punishment as a child even though she knew he had no idea and it was the voice of a professor in a seminar class who asked questions about algorithms and oranges. Andrew certainly didn’t know anything about complex math formulas and citrus fruit. “It’s... fine. Just fine,” he answered, glued to the spot by the man’s eyes boring into the back of his head.

“Good,” he said again. Andrew wished he would find some other word to convey his satisfaction. “We don’t do a lot of recruiting, you know. We keep our eyes open for brilliant young people. But working here takes a certain...”

Desperation? he thought dryly. He could feel the back of his neck becoming slick with sweat.

“...level of understanding.”

Andrew turned around. “Ex — excuse me?”

“Well, this job takes a certain amount of ability to understand concepts. We do complicated work here, Mr. Stokes, thinking skills are important here.” The man kept a steady gaze on him, like he could see right through Andrew’s skin.

“Er. Yes.” Nothing to say to that.

“I’m just saying... not everyone is cut out for this job. They just can’t handle it. The clocks, you know, unnerve some people. That’s why we have to be secret. Imagine what would happen if everyone out there actually knew we existed.” The man laughed as if he were sharing a wonderful joke with Andrew.

Nervously, Andrew joined in the laughing. “Clocks? What clocks?” he tried his hand at a joke that fell flatter than a pancake.

“Glad to hear that,” the man nodded, brushing imaginary lint from his suit jacket and walked away as surreptitiously as he had appeared at Andrew’s side.

Andrew sighed heavily and left to punch out. He really needed a cigarette.

~*~

While there was no official rule against it, it was an unspoken regulation that an employee never looked up his own death clock, or usually that of a family member.

There is an old phrase that says, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Andrew happened to know that cats did not have death clocks, although he did not know how the clocks would work if they did, what with the nine lives and all. That being beside the point, one day Andrew’s curiosity finally got the better of him. Surreptitiously, he looked up his mother’s uncle — Orville Redgrave. He hated that man with nearly every subatomic particle in his body, and looking up his death clock was almost a game. When he finally found it, Andrew was half-pleased to discover a reading of three weeks, two days, one hour, and nine minutes exactly left. When he did the math, it worked out to Thanksgiving Day.

Andrew made sure he was dressed up for the occasion. He was even able to smile when good old great-uncle Orville gave him a manly slap on the back and asked if he was putting his education to good use, and Andrew replied he was working for the government, still reeling from the smack on the back. He figured that technically, it wasn’t a lie and as a retired something-or-other in the U.S. Army, this seemed to satisfy him into thinking Andrew wasn’t all that much of a failure after all.

Andrew almost felt bad that it was his day to die. But that didn’t mean he didn’t watch with fascinated horror when Orville keeled over at the dinner table, clutching at his chest. Andrew calmly sipped at his cider while chaos reigned in the dining room. Just let him go, he thought. It’s his time. His clock said so.

“Somebody call an ambulance!” yelled his mother, and he looked up. He saw the looks on everyone’s faces, scared and pale, and he realized that this would be a bad place to point out the fact that it was his time. He couldn’t. No one knew about the clocks.

An ambulance arrived on the scene, great-uncle Orville was taken to the hospital and was doing well by nightfall. Andrew’s tie came off, and he sat on the front porch chain-smoking while deep in thought. His clock had been up! Hadn’t it?

~*~

After great-uncle Orville’s brush with death (whose clock was now completely set for the next fifteen years, to Andrew’s dismay), Andrew was more baffled than ever. If these clocks told a person’s time of death and they didn’t die, what then? Why were they still alive?

More curious than ever, Andrew did something he never, ever should have done.

He looked up Stokes, Heather Rose — his younger sister — wrote down the number, and looked through the hall for it. After a search that persisted for forty-five minutes and moving the ladder three times, he found it. He carefully took it off the shelf with both hands; he was ten feet in the air and dropping his sister’s death clock just seemed like the ultimate sibling retribution that he really didn’t want to be responsible for.

He held it in his hands, took a look, and grinned. It was a Mickey Mouse clock that looked like every other Mickey Mouse alarm clock ever manufactured, like the one Heather had in her bedroom — except for the fact that it was a death clock. Ten numbers, three smaller faces, and four hands. He looked at the face, and he nearly dropped the clock. He fairly literally juggled it before finally catching it and looking at it again in disbelief.

Four years.

Three months.

Six days.

21 hours.

19 minutes.

Sixteen... fifteen... fourteen seconds.

His sister was going to die exactly four years, three months, six days, 21 hours, 19 minutes and some odd seconds from now.

Andrew placed the clock back on its place on the shelf and went down the ladder. Once his feet touched the floor, he sprinted to the front lobby and jammed quarters into the payphone and punched in the phone number of the house he’d grown up in with trembling fingers. What time was it anyway? He looked around desperately for a clock, and found none. The phone on the other end of the line picked up. “Hello?”

“Is Heather home from school?” Andrew demanded without preamble.

His mother seemed to make nothing of his distressed tone or shaky timbre. “She just walked in the door. Hold on a second, Andy.” Andrew took the opportunity of the phone changing hands to roll his eyes at his childhood nickname. The outside world could call him ‘Andrew’ and ‘Mr. Stokes’ or ‘Hey You’, but his mother would call him Andy until the day he died, or she died. He didn’t plan to find out which would come first. “Hello?”

“Heather,” he answered, trying not to sound too relieved. “How — how are you?”

“I’m all right,” she said, a bit uncertain. There was a pause, and he heard a kitchen chair scrape across the floor as she apparently pulled one out to sit down. “Um, how are you?”

“Spiffy,” he replied, dry-mouthed and feeling a bit ill. “What’ve you been up to?”

Another pause. “Are you sure you want to know?”

He hesitated, and then rested his forehead against the wall beside the phone. Eight years and a figurative ocean of space between them. Of course she was asking if he was sure if he wanted to know.

Too many years spent in disinterest. So few left... “I have fifteen. I’m listening. Tell me everything.”

~*~

So he’d finally gone off the deep end.

Not in the traditional sense. He wasn’t in a white suit (at least not by choice, only when nothing else was clean) and he was still allowed to use the silverware in the cafeteria. But after viewing his sister’s, the death clocks were no longer just a job for Andrew. They were an obsession.

At home, when he wasn’t sleeping, he was lying awake staring at the pristine white ceiling, the buzz of the tick tocking clocks still in his ears, never to fully leave.

The thought that one of the hundreds of thousands and even millions of clocks in the corridors belonged to him was not something he cared to think about — yet he couldn’t help it. He had a recurring dream about the clocks. He was atop one of the ladders in the corridors with the clocks, and was searching for his clock. He had no number written down or even in his mind, but he knew it was clock he was reaching out to find. He was finally able to take a clock from the shelf, but before he could look at it, he always woke up — usually to his alarm, ironically enough.

If you want the exact date he cracked, it was December 10, a full year and a half after he began working there — or if you wanted to talk in terms Andrew was thinking; three years, one month, 4 days, 12 hours, 35 minutes and X amount of seconds until his sister would die. He was flipping through pages in the computer database, looking for a name “Starkey”.

Not that much different from his own name, Stokes.

...What would a look hurt?

He’d just look at the serial number, he reasoned. That would satisfy the curiosity and he could go back to his job and waiting for his sister to die.

The serial number he was going to copy down for Starkey, James Joseph became his own. It was not only written in short, quick pen strokes, but was now burned into his retinas.

Before he could stop himself, he jumped up from his desk in his cubicle and moved to the corridors that contained the clocks. The buzz filled his ears. He wouldn’t go to find it, he told himself as he walked to the far west wall where he knew that it would be. He wouldn’t touch the clock, just look at it, he reasoned as he scaled the ladder with the fierce determination of a mountain climber who was mere inches from the summit of Mt. Everest. He would just hold it — not even look at it, if he was going to do that, was the argument for several years.

Before he knew what had possessed him, he held the clock in his hands. His clock in his hot little hands.

I can’t look at it...

You know that you want to.

But I don’t!

You do.

Andrew held the clock in his hands and felt the steady tick tock tick tock as it worked on. Slowly, he turned it over, and several things happened at once.

First, Andrew lost his balance on the ladder — he stood at one of the uppermost rungs of the ladder, and the fall was not going to be charitable. Second, the clock went haywire — the hands went beserk, spinning the way they were supposed to in a very fast, continuous movement. Relatedly and lastly, Andrew dropped the clock and fell after it.

The descent was rather fast, and Andrew discovered his life flashing before his eyes wasn’t as boring as he thought it might have ended up being. There was his childhood, the bicycle he got for Christmas in Kindergarten, falling off said bicycle and getting six stitches in his chin, tripping in the cafeteria in junior high, a rather embarrassing junior prom night, a slightly better senior prom, graduating magna cum laude from university, all mixed in with his family, a string of girlfriends, and the incessant clock ticking—

Andrew hit the ground, and one clock’s alarm went off with the sickening crack of a neck being broken.

The rest of the clocks ticked on.

~*~

When Andrew’s body was found, the man who had recruited him merely shook his head. “The kid never learned,” he sighed to himself, picking up Andrew’s clock that laid next to his body — the face smashed in and springs poking through. He’d never learned. Never learned not to look for curiousity’s sake, never learned that the clocks were only an estimate, and never learned that a man’s clock only lasted for however long they made it last, not the other way around.

~*~

 Acknowledgments

Without the help of friends and classmates, The Day That I Die would be mediocre. My classmates Erica Nuss, Aaron Stroschein, Evan Jones, Jessica Fraghia, Melissa Mickael, Alonso Avila, Chris Kehe, and Jeff Weisenborn all gave me good feedback. I appreciate their input and responses. Extra special thanks to Melissa, though, for not only feeding my ego in return for me feeding hers, but letting me use the extra scene that she suggested without demanding royalties. I also have to thank my mother who is always a decent sounding board.

My internet friends who encourage me even when I probably shouldn’t be encouraged -- thank you. You all know who you are, and to those of you who I see on AIM every night I thank especially for giving me the Real Andrew Stokes.

More thanks to my FYS instructor, Terry Heller, who thankfully seems to appreciate my paltry attempts at humor, my bad Italian, and for some reason put up with my constant interruption in class, and whose insight and feedback was and is always welcome.

Thanks to my roommate, Leisl Schutte who can sleep through anything, including me printing off eighteen copies of a six-paged story at three in the morning — even at two pages to a sheet of paper, that’s fifty-four sheets of paper. She was always willing to laugh with me and laugh at me, and has not only been a great is messy and unorganized roommate but a good friend.

I must also thank the diligent workers at Pepsi Cola Inc., because without their continued work, I would not have caffeine and would not be able to work to ungodly hours of the morning.

You, whoever you are — thanks for your time in reading my story. If you had half as much fun reading it as I had writing it, well, I had twice as much fun writing this than you did reading it. And if you can tell me what short-lived TV show that was from I will give you a cookie.