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Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (20 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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Daniel counters, “How likely would you have been to take advice if I had been there to give it?”

Zoe shrugs.

“I'm guessing,” Daniel continues, “that the kind of person who becomes a housemother has probably heard—and forgiven—a lot of name-calling. Anyway, I fully intend to tell her how heroically you acted today.”

“Yeah, right,” Zoe scoffs.

Daniel repeats what he said in the bank: “You were very, very brave.”

“I was not.”

“You were.”

“Was not.”


Now they're both sounding about seven.

He isn't going to concede, so she says, “I'm not going to try to explain playing back time.”

“I should hope not,” Daniel says. “I told the police you came to me after you saw Wallace in his car and spotted his gun. And I'll tell your housemother the same thing.”

They're almost at the Fitzhugh House. She doesn't want to talk about what they've just been through, about dying and almost dying and finally—finally—nobody dying. Later, yes—but now is too soon. To cover maybe five more seconds before they reach the door, Zoe uses conversation filler. She says, “So, you have a brother. Is he younger or older than you?”

Daniel stops walking. “How could you know about the trust fund, but not about my brother?”

Maybe it's the tinnitus. Or the powder burn, which is beginning to throb. Zoe admits, “I'm … not seeing the connection.”

He's obviously trying to read her face. He must come to the conclusion that she's confused, not playing games, because he explains, “It's a special needs trust fund, to take care of my brother in case he outlives our parents and me.”

Special needs?
” Zoe echoes. “As in …?”

“He has schizophrenia.”

That explains why Daniel was not freaked out by her history.

He adds, “Pete has a janitorial job at the bank. That's how the
people there know him.”

Zoe is coming to distrust a lot of the conclusions she's made over the day. People can be more complicated than she has been giving them credit for. “I thought you were rich,” she says.

“Ah,” he says. “Me and my Mercedes Benz.”

“You have a Mercedes?” she asks.

“I have a Saturn station wagon.”

“They stopped making Saturns
ago,” she protests, knowing this only because her family had a Saturn from the last year the company was in business.

“Even so …,” he says.

When she eventually realizes he isn't going to say anything else, she says, “But you have expensive clothing. And, apparently, an impressive office in an old-monied section of town.”

“One expensive jacket,” he corrects her. “A
office. Clients aren't going to trust an investigator who looks like the kind of guy who has to borrow money from his parents.”

you had to borrow money from your parents?”

“Not yet,” Daniel says. “Hence the Saturn. Until the college loans are paid off.”

“Not Harvard?” Zoe says, remembering how she almost lost credibility by taking Wallace at his word. “Or Yale? Princeton?”

“State University of New York at Brockport, with just enough scholarship to make it almost seem doable.”

“Wow,” she says. “Times are tough for young P.I.'s.”

“Oh,” he says, “I'm hoping times will get better. If you can continue to keep me from getting killed.”

“Hmmm,” she says. Very aware of his exact wording. Very aware that he did not say simply,
If I can keep from getting killed.
She turns
it back onto him. “It seems as though
turned out to be pretty good at keeping
from getting killed, too.”

“But I only had to do it once,” he points out. “Here,”—he pulls a cell phone from his pocket—“things are not so tough that I can't afford a small token of appreciation for you.” She's seen his phone often enough to know this isn't it. “I got it at the wireless kiosk behind the bank while the paramedics were still checking you over,” he explains when she looks at him blankly.

“What is it?” she asks suspiciously.

Very slowly he enunciates, “It's. A. Cell. Phone.”

“For me?” Zoe asks. The noise in her ear is still diminishing, but her brain seems to have liquefied. “You bought that for me?”

“No, for your housemother,” Daniel says in exasperation.

Zoe shakes her head.

Daniel continues nonetheless. “There's a digital clock. So you'll always know what time it is. Plus, you can call for help. If you need it. So you don't always have to do
all by yourself.”

“I don't
have to do
all by myself,” Zoe protests, feeling that his words make her sound pigheaded and inflexible. Which …

All right, all right,
Sometimes. A little bit. But only because she has to be.

Except then she thinks back to her mother with the gun at the Family Counseling Center. Everything does
always have to come down to her. Even without her, everyone survived that time, too. More or less. Not her family as a whole, of course. Her father sued for divorce from his hospital bed. Her mother signed the papers while in her jail cell. Zoe ended up in a group home. The counselor closed his practice and moved to Florida with his receptionist. Life
moved on, and yet Zoe cannot honestly say whether things are better or worse for what happened back then.

Zoe informs Daniel, “It's not like I
to be a loner.”

He says, “Uh-huh. Can you say that a second time with a straight face?”

It doesn't help that he looks ready to laugh at her. She counters by saying, “Blitzen.”

Daniel clearly has no idea how to take that. “
,” he repeats.

,” she tells him, knowing it's no clarification for him, “William Henry Harrison.”

“OK,” Daniel says, slow and uncertain. They have not discussed reindeer this past twenty-three minutes. They have never discussed U.S. presidents.

Zoe relents and explains, “I just acknowledged you're right.”

Daniel nods, still not looking entirely convinced. But then, still with no way of understanding, he buys into it. He goes back to explaining about the phone. “It's pay-as-you-go. Prepaid for one year or a thousand minutes. If you need more minutes, you're on your own, so easy with the texting. I've already programmed my number into it, so if you need me—for anything—you can reach me.”

“I appreciate it,” Zoe says. “Truly I do.” She uses the word
intentionally—despite the fact that even if he could remember their previous playbacks, still, he wouldn't realize this is one of
words, not hers. And, in any case, now that she
used the word, she regrets it because it sounds like the end of a letter. And ends are sad and scary because you can never be sure what's coming next. She won't let herself think about that, so she, too, goes back to the phone. “But we aren't allowed—”

Daniel cuts her off. “I will have a good long talk with your housemother, explaining it's an issue of safety.” He considers. “And if I can't convince her …”

It's Zoe's turn to interrupt. “Then I can hide it.”

Daniel shakes his head, but it's not to disagree with her. He muses, “Here I am, contributing to the delinquency of a minor …”

Zoe's heart is doing odd flip-flops.

She's almost sixteen.

He's almost twenty-five.

It is—at this point in their lives—an insurmountable difference.

But it won't always be.

He's just being nice
, she tells herself.
Older-brotherly nice.
Not that she's thinking of him in a brotherly way. But if she pushes now, if she's impatient and impulsive and doesn't think ahead to the future, she's just going to end up embarrassing herself and—more importantly—cutting off possibilities for that future. She's done that often enough before. She will not do it now.

You were very, very brave
, Daniel told her. Twice now. And Charlotte said it, too.

There's more to being brave than risking your life.

Sometimes, you need to risk everything.

There will be a lot of twenty-three-minute intervals between now and when she's old enough—even going through them only once. A lot of things can change in that amount of time.

But she forces herself to say no more than, “I promise I won't abuse your friendship.”

He responds to the seriousness in her tone with a slow,
thoughtful “OK” that simultaneously shakes and strengthens her resolve. Then he smiles and asks, “Come in with me? While I trade Milo back for my jacket?”

“Sure,” Zoe tells him. “Even though you're only asking me because you think you need a chaperone when you're with him.”

He laughs as they start up the front stairs.

Oh, she likes that laugh every bit as much as she likes the “OK.”

She's used to playing back time to try to fix things gone wrong. This once, she almost wishes she could play back just one minute, this last minute, simply to savor it. But she can't. So she'll play it back only in her mind, the way everyone else does, because—anyway—she wouldn't dare risk changing a second of it.

As the start for a new story, Zoe thinks it's just about perfect.

has often been in banks, and sometimes in banks that have been robbed—though she's never been in a bank
it was being robbed. But she would still like to have the ability to replay time to get rid of embarrassing incidents, such as the one Zoe thinks about—having the hem of her skirt caught in her waistband. That was the author writing from personal experience … Vivian lives in Rochester, NY. Visit

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