Read 23 Minutes Online

Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (7 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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He looks up at that exact moment, and their eyes meet.

The breath she's been trying to steady catches. Because they're crouching on the floor so close to each other without him standing taller than she is, or because of some trick of the lighting, or because of … of something …

Has she ever seen bluer eyes? How could she not have noticed
them before? She was looking directly into his eyes when … when … yeah, leave it at
She remembers vaguely noting that they were blue, and that they seemed to hold equal measures of being scared and being brave. But she did not note the striking color.

The only trouble is that remembering the moment right before the gunman pulled the trigger is abruptly followed by remembering the moment right after.

She winces, her face and arms once again feeling flicked by his blood.

Mr. President looks alarmed. Even touches the back of her hand with his fingertips. “Do you need help? Is there someone I can call?”

That would be one
and one

And she can no longer bear to think of him in connection with the ill-fated William Henry Harrison.

For him, the next words out of her mouth must sound bizarrely appropriate to absolutely nothing: “What's your name?” she asks.

He looks startled, but doesn't demand
Though her question clearly puzzles him, he answers, “Daniel.”

She likes that he says Daniel, not Dan or Danny—not that it makes any difference or that it's any of her business. She says, “I want to thank you, Daniel.”

Her intensity has him looking even more mystified, and just the slightest bit worried.

“For your kindness,” she clarifies, which—in the interval they're currently living—clarifies nothing.

He's still frowning in concentration, trying to follow, and she's thinking that her earlier assessment—more interesting than attractive—was way off. She'd thought before that he had a great
smile. Now she's thinking that his looks as a whole are growing on her.

Which is downright ridiculous, because he's still too old for her.

Not to mention that they're still in a bank that's about to get shot up by a robber.

Just as she's thinking that, one of the tellers squeals in alarm.

I was supposed to have been watching HIM
, Zoe chides herself: the man she knew had come here to rob the bank. Not Daniel.

Still, she's able to catch up in a heartbeat. At this moment, there are seven other customers in the bank, none waiting in line. The robber is in front of the teller, the one who does not have any William Henry Harrison coins, the one who looked pissed off at having to wait on Zoe, little suspecting then that waiting on Zoe would turn out to be the least of her problems.

The next teller over, the one at the station to the extreme right, has just slid a lumpy canvas bag over to her. Zoe can see there are stacks of money packed inside, and a piece of paper lying on top, no doubt a
Hand over the money or die
note. By squealing rather than quietly and efficiently filling the bag and then passing it on its way down the line, the second teller has alerted everyone in the room that something is very seriously amiss.

The robber pulls his right hand fully out of his pocket, revealing the gun.

Out of the corner of her eye, Zoe is aware of Daniel. Still crouched on the floor after helping her to pick up her papers, he has taken all this in. She can tell—maybe feeling it through that lightest touch of his fingertips on the back of her hand, maybe just because she can tell—that he's about to move, to do something in a
misguided attempt to help. There's no time to warn him not to try a foolhardy intervention.

There's barely time for her to catch hold of the cuff of his jacket, to try to hold him back, away from harm.

His eyes shift to her, which gives her the moment she needs to whisper, “Don't. You'll only get killed.”

He could take it as a panicky it's-always-better-not-to-get-involved response.

But she doesn't think he does.

Of course, there's no way for him to guess that she actually
he'll get killed if he intervenes, but he hesitates, apparently choosing watchfulness over action, at least for this instant.

The officious bank guard, who has been paying close enough attention to Zoe and Daniel that he has not gotten distracted by the attractive twenty-something, is standing closer to the teller counter than before. “Hey!” he says, and moves his hand toward his gun.

The robber shoots him.

And Daniel proves he's terrible at staying on the sidelines and doing nothing. He lunges forward, slipping out of Zoe's grasp. Somehow, still barely more upright than in a crouch, he has once again gotten himself positioned between Zoe and the gunman.

Who shoots a second time.

Daniel falls back against her, knocking her down off her knees and onto her bottom.

He's gasping, having a hard time catching his breath, and Zoe puts a steadying arm around him, despite the nearly overpowering smell of blood, despite the massive wet stickiness she feels on his chest.
Please let him keep breathing
, she thinks to God, because surely
a chest wound is better than a head wound. People can survive being shot in the chest.


Her father did.

But meanwhile she's distracted because she's also thinking that, yeah, Daniel is an adult guy, but he's not all
big. And yet, Zoe feels as though she's been slammed into by … well, the image that comes to her mind is a freight train, not that she's ever been run into by a freight train, but she's certain it must feel like this.

So that is what Zoe is thinking as Daniel falls backward onto her, except the pain is centered on her upper left chest near her shoulder.
Heart attack?
she wonders, remembering having heard somewhere that severe pain in the left shoulder or upper arm is a warning sign.

Not for fifteen-year-old girls, though.

She looks down at herself and sees that she's once more covered with Daniel's blood.

Her head feels as though someone has stuffed it with a collection of pins, all trying to work their way out through her skull. And for some reason the pins seem to be humming as they work their way through brain and bone. Very Zen. Even so, she's aware of her surroundings, and that the robber is continuing his spree by shooting the attractive twenty-something, as well as Ms. No-I-have-no-William-Henry-Harrison-coins-bank-teller.

But for some reason the whole bank is tipping. Except, no—it's Zoe who's tipping. And she looks down again at her bloody shirt—Guns N' Roses, indeed—before she realizes that some of the blood is her own.

A lot of it is her own.

The bullet has gone through Daniel and into her.

And she's about to pass out.

She can no longer hear Daniel's raspy breathing. He has slumped forward. He might be unconscious, or he might be dead, or maybe it's just that the humming in her own head has gotten too loud. With no time to even check whether Daniel is alive, she shoves him off her. Kicks herself away, using his body as leverage. What kind of monster is she for even being able to do this? She hates herself, because it seems that a better person should be paralyzed by empathy for the young man she had hoped to save. But she can't playback her way out of here while touching anyone else. She knows this from experimenting when she was thirteen.

She wraps her arms around herself.

Sees the gunman's attention has been attracted by her movement.

He aims the gun at her.

She says, “Playback,” but can't hear her own voice over the roar of the gun.



Zoe has just gone from sitting on the floor in the bank to standing—in front of the hat and purse boutique, of course.

She's also just been shot. Twice, she suspects.

Still, the bullets, the wounds, have not traveled back in time with her. Because that's just not the way things work: Nothing
travels back with her, only her memories—her damn memories.

It wasn't that long ago that she was thinking she'd just come as close as she ever had to dying, and now here she is again, having come even closer.

This is not a personal best record she ever wants to visit again.

Whatever else happens, there's one thing in the world she absolutely knows will
: She will not go back into that bank.

Off-balance, she teeters and falls to her knees, not sure if she's fallen from the sudden shift from sitting to standing as time played back, or by the realization of how very, very, very close she came to getting killed. Or by the thought that she has no more left to give. She cannot bring herself to go back. Surely no one—God, the universe, even Daniel himself—could expect her to try again after that.

One way or another, Daniel will die within the next twenty-three minutes, and probably a whole bunch of other people will, too.

All she's accomplished is to get to know Daniel a little bit
better than simply as the sweet, nameless bank customer who died within moments of being kind to her.

It's not fair, it's not fair
, she thinks, covering her face. She doesn't want him to die; she doesn't want herself to die.

Someone has laid a hand on her shoulder. “Miss,” a voice says. “Hon. You all right?”

Not Daniel's voice.

Never again Daniel's voice.

Zoe looks up.

The biker guy walking his Chihuahua has stopped and is leaning down to look at her with a solicitous expression. The Chihuahua is yapping at her, dragging its leash through the folder and the papers that are littering the ground around her knees, doing an excellent job of shuffling and spreading them.

After what's just happened, it's hard to be concerned about that.

She hears the biker guy answer someone, “I don't know. She just fell. I was looking right at her, but I didn't see what happened.”

A small crowd has gathered. The department store saleswoman, the one who once told her the time, slows but does not stop.

The girl with the cell phone that does not have unlimited minutes asks, “Is she all right? Should I call 911?”

“No!” Zoe practically screams at her.

Everyone freezes, except for glancing at each other from the corners of their eyes.
See that?
everyone seems to be silently asking.
Oh yeah
, everyone mentally answers.
Don't let her get excited …

Zoe doesn't want to sound like a crazy person. Been there, done that, as part of the awfulness of being thirteen. Never again, she's promised herself. She forces her voice into a calmer register. “Sorry,” she says. She doesn't exactly sound normal, even to her own ears,
but she keeps working at it. “I just mean …” One final steadying breath. “There's no need for that. I'm fine. Really. Thank you for your concern.” Strangers. Strangers are acting concerned. About her. She doesn't remember that ever happening before. In her experience, strangers are oblivious. Or casually cruel. She's not exactly sure what to make of this new experience, but the feeling is not unpleasant.

Cell Phone Girl still looks a bit scared of her. “OK,” she says, and resumes walking. And talking on her cell phone.

Zoe says, “I just … twisted my ankle.” She tries to force a laugh, but it comes out more of a snort. “Wow, did I go down fast.”

The biker guy pats her shoulder.

With his tattoos and his full beard and his chain jewelry, he probably finds
, with her ragged blue hair and Guns N' Roses t-shirt, kind of drab and average-looking.

The others who have stopped to see what was going on—now that they've caught a closer look at that blue hair and slightly seedy clothing—no doubt have her pegged as a clumsy street kid who likely fell because she's on drugs or alcohol.
Back on familiar ground
, Zoe thinks.

But not entirely. They don't all dismiss her. The biker guy and the younger of the two fast-food place guys and a woman wearing pants with a pattern that should absolutely not even be legal—except,
, in Hawaii—are gathering her strewn-about papers for her. Trying to help. With no likely expectation of gain. The Chihuahua just generally gets in everybody's way. Still, the papers are no longer important to Zoe—well, they
, but they aren't. In any case, she doesn't have the heart to tell these nice people, “Never mind.”

I need to let go
, she tells herself.
I need to let go.

She tries not to let her brain dwell on the last twenty-three
of the last twenty-three minutes. She tries not to remember the way she was startled by the blueness of Daniel's eyes. By the way his fingers brushed against the skin on the back of her hand.

By the way he asked if she was truly all right.


I wish …
she thinks.

But she only knows one wish that comes true, and it just isn't cooperating today. It rarely does, but today it's being dramatically disobliging.

I'm sorry
, she thinks to the people in and around the bank, whose names she doesn't even know, who in turn don't know they have fewer than twenty minutes to live. And to the one whose name she does know.

She repeats it out loud, because that's what she's used to doing, since that's the way the playback spell—or ability, or curse—works; it needs to be said out loud. “I'm sorry.”

Yeah. A lot of good
has ever accomplished.

But the woman in the exceptionally awful pants thinks Zoe is talking to her and to the other people chasing down Zoe's papers. She smiles encouragingly and says, “Nothing to apologize for, dear. Everybody needs help sometimes.”

Not me
, Zoe thinks.
I can take care of myself.
Needy people do not survive the system.

BOOK: 23 Minutes
3.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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