Read 23 Minutes Online

Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (8 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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A memory bubbles to the top of Zoe's brain from when she was nine or maybe ten years old: Her mother demanding an apology for something-or-other; herself saying, “Sorry”; her mother smacking her across the mouth hard enough Zoe could taste blood; then her mother saying, “No, you weren't. But I bet you are now.”

And she was right
, Zoe thinks.

There's nothing worse than being sorry after it's too late.

If she doesn't at least try to do something, she knows she'll regret it for the rest of her life.

She also knows the irony of what
the rest of her life
might mean.

But she has enough regrets without this.

She tells herself again: She does not have to go back into the bank. There has to be another way.

“Thank you,” she tells the woman with the flamboyantly floral pants, the biker guy, the fast-food place guy. “Thank you. I don't need the papers.” She doesn't like abandoning them where these strangers—kind as they've tried to be—can read them. She doesn't like the idea of sharing her life story. But some things are more important than others.

She stands, with Biker Guy looking ready to grab and steady her, should she turn out to be wobbly.

But she's not.

Her knees sting from the fall, but she takes off running, and if any of them thinks she's pretty fast for someone who supposedly twisted her ankle, she's already too far away for them to tell her so.

There's no being sure what time it is, except it isn't raining yet, so that might mean she's not too late.

She turns the corner of the block with Spencerport Savings and Loan and, about halfway between her and the bank, sees Daniel just leaving a huge old Victorian house that's been divided into offices.

She runs even faster, but is never going to catch up. As he puts his hand out to open the door of the bank, she calls, “Daniel!”

Only then does she wonder if he gave her his real name: her, a clumsy, pushy, strange-looking stranger in a bank, who had for
no apparent reason demanded personal information. She knows that in similar circumstances she has made things up, as a game, a private joke. If he has done the same, she has lost valuable time.

But apparently he's more trustworthy than she is.

He turns.

And waits for her.

And continues to wait, even when the bank guard opens the door to let a woman customer out and to let Daniel come in. Daniel shakes his head and motions for the guard to go ahead and close the door without him.

Zoe is huffing when she reaches him. “Daniel?” she repeats.

“Yes?” He's wearing his sunglasses, and she can't see his eyes, can't read his expression. But of course he doesn't recognize her: This is the very first time he's ever met her.

She says, “Daniel, I need to talk to you.”

He looks a bit bemused as he admits, “I'm sorry—do I know you?”

“I'm Zoe,” she says. “We've sort of met. But I never told you my name.”

“OK,” he says slowly, though she hasn't really offered much of an explanation.

“I need to talk to you,” she repeats.

And
he
repeats, “OK,” though she strongly suspects he's not pleased. As though to prove this, he finishes, “I have some business in the bank. It should only take a few minutes, and then I can come back out and—”

“No!” she practically shouts at him.

His eyebrows go up.

She really
does
need to practice saying
no
without raising her voice and sounding all borderline-demented.

“Sorry, sorry,” she says, her hands fluttering ineffectually as she wonders how she can quickly make him see that she's harmless. “I just mean … Please. This is important.”

He hesitates, which is better than refusing.

She adds, “This is like life-and-death important,” which is true but probably sounds overdone. “Please,” she repeats. “Can we go back to where you work?” She angles her head toward the Victorian house. “This won't take very long.” Under twenty minutes, but she doesn't want to say so. “And it's about to start raining.”

He glances back the way she's looked, then at her. Then he says, “The Fitzhugh House? That's not where I work.” Great, so now he knows the only way she could have made that mistake is if she's been watching him. He probably suspects she's a weird teenage stalker.

But then he checks the sky and relents. “Coffee?” he asks, nodding to the Dunkin' Donuts two doors down from the card shop. “Or …” —he's obviously considering her age, or lack thereof—“hot chocolate?”

She
knew
he would think of her as a kid.

“Yes, please.”

They almost make it across the street before the clouds open up.

“Good call,” Daniel says once they're safely indoors. He's taken off the raindrop-splattered sunglasses, and she sees that it wasn't just the light in the bank—his eyes really are that blue.

Still, that's no reason for her to get all giddy.

He orders and pays for two hot chocolates.

Which, she tells herself, does not mean they're on a date. He's still too old for her, and they come from different worlds. She and her friends have been drinking coffee—most of them taking it black—since they were thirteen. When, at fourteen, Zoe had her first beer, she was somewhat of a late starter. Not that she drinks beer regularly: She isn't fond of the taste, and mostly she doesn't like feeling out of control. Life seems out of control enough as it is.

She lets Daniel live in his fantasy that she's young and innocent, and he brings two cups to the table in the corner where he's told her to go ahead and sit. “I didn't think to check if you wanted whipped cream,” he apologizes.

“Well, yeah,” she says, since as far as she's concerned there's no question: If she's going to drink hot chocolate, it had better have whipped cream. She eats a couple spoonfuls of the cool, sweet topping before stirring the rest into the cocoa.

Daniel waits while she sips at the chocolate, which is too hot to actually drink. When she puts her hands around the cup for warmth, he prompts her, “So we met … where?”

“In the bank,” Zoe says. Not knowing if he does business with more than the one, she tips her chin to indicate Spencerport Savings and Loan, which they can just see through the doughnut place's steamed-up window, beyond the driving rain.

Daniel nods, but says, “I'm sorry, I don't remember.”

“Well, you wouldn't,” Zoe tells him.

He takes that the wrong way and apologizes: “I'm usually pretty good with faces.”

Ooh, he's just tried to tell her:
No, no, don't say you're unmemorable—even though … oops! I guess I've just said you are.

“This is very difficult,” she says.

In a gentle voice he asks, “Has someone hurt you? Or threatened you in some way?”

Yeah, and where is she going to go with that question?

Instead of answering, she says, “What I need to say is going to be difficult for you to believe. I need to tell you something so strange it's scary.”

“OK,” he says, sounding somewhere between wary and amused. Definitely more on the amused side. She even wonders if he might not be faking the wariness entirely, to pretend he's taking her seriously, in order not to humiliate her thoroughly.

Still, she likes the tendency he has to draw out the word OK, as though giving it real thought.

But she is no closer to knowing how to start. She says, “I think I need to circle around and take this from a different direction.” Not that she's actually chosen
any
direction.

He tells her, “Take your time.”

Definitely a lawyer, she decides, and not a businessman. She suspects he's used to people telling him secrets they wouldn't dare tell anyone else, revealing what they've done, what they fear, baring their hearts—with him listening and not flinching.

Not judging?

She, herself, finds it hard not to judge.

Snap judgments can be a very handy tool for someone who has only herself to count on in a harsh world.

She says, “Something very bad is going to happen. I know this for a fact, and it's how I know it that's … where the believability factor comes in.”

He nods for her to continue.

“Can you promise me ten minutes?” she asks. “Ten minutes
during which I won't appear to be making sense?”

“Have to,” Daniel points out. “Or I'll have bought the hot chocolate for nothing.” He's smiling, but she's pretty sure he's taking her seriously.

So far.

Part of the reason she's asked for ten minutes is that the man who will be robbing the bank has just pulled his car up in front of the card shop.

Something about Daniel has set the thief off each time that Zoe has seen. The fact that the man began shooting even when Zoe wasn't there makes her suspect that then, too, Daniel got in the way: trying to prevent the robbery, trying to protect other people, since that seems to be his nature. Perhaps all she needs to do is keep him out of there. Then the robber won't go all ballistic; then nobody has to die. So what if the robber makes off with all the money in the bank? That's acceptable. She even has his license plate number—Highly Deranged Person 347—that she could give to the police.

If only the people in the bank can keep from getting killed.

Zoe absently fiddles with the string on the envelope Daniel has placed on the table between them, and she's
so
pleased with herself for having ditched her own paperwork. If he caught sight of that …

She realizes she shouldn't be touching his things, that he might consider this an invasion of his space, even though he's working very hard to keep his face nonjudgmental and friendly, both trusting and trustworthy.

And trust is the issue here.

She is not going to try to bullshit him.

“When I was thirteen,” she starts, “something happened. I'm
not sure I understand the specifics of exactly
what
, and I definitely don't know
why.
But all of a sudden I found that I could …” It's like pulling off a bandage, Zoe tells herself: best to get it over with quickly. “I could … revisit … a time that I'd already lived through. Sort of. To a limited extent.”

She hesitates, trying to gauge his reaction. She can't read him.

He asks, “How do you mean?” Gathering more information before committing to a decision. It strikes her as a very lawyerly thing to do.

It's been a couple years since she tried to explain playback. And that didn't go well. That
spectacularly
didn't go well. Zoe is beginning to think she should probably count this playback as a lost cause and start over. The only thing that holds her back is that she has no idea what she'd do in its place.

If her plan works—if keeping Daniel away from the bank is all that's necessary—then what she says is not really all that important. She just needs to keep him occupied for another ten minutes or so. At the worst, he'll think she's a nutcase. Like that's a new experience for her. It isn't as though she'll ever see him again.

But she isn't sure she can keep him here without telling him what she knows.

And if the plan doesn't work, then she might as well have tried
something
, possibly learned something.

Through the rain and the condensation on the window, she can make out the robber entering the bank. Which means the time is 1:29. She has exactly ten minutes left if she's going to replay this time. But her hope, of course, is that she won't have to. It makes her anxious that the combination of distance and weather prevents her
from seeing inside through the bank's large window.

Zoe tells Daniel, “It's sort of like hitting the rewind button for a movie. Things back up for twenty-three minutes …” She's making an inane gesture, moving her hand from right to left as though pushing something back, which demonstrates nothing, so she clasps her hands together on the table to force them into stillness. “So the movie restarts from that point and plays itself exactly the same as before … just as movies always do … except for me. For everybody else, it's like the first time. They have no memory of having lived through it before. Of saying and doing and seeing and hearing everything already. Only I know. Only I can instigate change by what
I
say and do.”

Daniel is as good at keeping his face blank as her doctors were.

She really hopes he doesn't turn out to be a doctor.

She remembers the original time, before it became a story line, in the bank, when they first realized the place was getting held up. He saw the robber. There was that flicker of something she still can't quite put her finger on—maybe a presentiment of his own death? Then it was like Daniel closed his emotions down, and his face was saying,
OK, I'm not playing this game anymore.
Absorbing information, not showing anything of what he was thinking.

Of course, they quickly went from there to him getting his head blown off.

She twitches at the memory.

Which she sees Daniel note. He asks, “Why twenty-three minutes?”

“Not a clue,” she admits.

He sighs. “Can you give me an example?”

She figures a nice instance from somebody else's life will work a lot better than telling Daniel what lies in his future. “When I was thirteen …” She stops, thinking,
Yeah, at the beginning of when I was thirteen and life was normal, one minute following another and no going back.
She doesn't say that. She swallows hard and starts over. “When I was thirteen, my friend Jessie and I were riding our bikes on the sidewalk. On our own block. We were racing, which—all right, all right—we shouldn't have been doing.” Zoe doesn't want him getting sidetracked, the way Dr. Shaheen did, about unsafe behaviors. Zoe says, “She was ahead of me. And at one point she looked over her shoulder to see how close I was. And just then the Greenbergs were backing up out of their driveway, and she was going down the sidewalk like a bat out of hell, and she didn't see them, and they didn't see her, and she smacked right into their car, right … I don't know what that's called … behind the back passenger door, kind of where the gas cap is? What is that—the fender?”

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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