Read 23 Minutes Online

Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (9 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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He nods, either to acknowledge that it is in fact a fender she's describing, or simply to indicate for her to get on with her story.

“And there was like one heartbeat where I thought,
Hey, at least she wasn't two seconds faster, or she would have been run over.
And then Jessie and the bike went flipping over the trunk of the Greenbergs' car, and she went sliding into the street, right under the wheels of another car. She …” It took months before Zoe could get the picture out of her mind, and now here she's gone and invited it back in. “You didn't need to look close to know she was dead.”

Zoe has come to realize during the telling of this story that his steely-eyed poker face does not come naturally to him, because he's lost track of watching over what his expression reveals. Which is a
good thing, she supposes. Would she be able to trust someone who could hear about Jessie's death
without
wincing?

She continues, “I stopped my bike, and I couldn't believe what had happened, how fast it had happened. You know? Not a hint of danger, of worrying, of thinking,
Maybe racing isn't such a smart idea.
And then that collision. I put my arms around myself …” Zoe sees that her hands, apparently possessing a mind of their own, are no longer dutifully on the table where she put them, but are hugging herself. She very carefully clasps her hands in front of herself again, where she can keep an eye on them and not accidentally initiate a playback.

Daniel is watching all this with his I-am-a-rock face once again in place.

She tells him, “And I was wishing I could do it all again. A do-over. Before getting on our bikes, Jessie and I had been playing one of her Nancy Drew video games, and they have this ‘Try Again' feature—if you make a mistake and get killed, you can restart from right before you made your bad decision, and go through that section of the game again. And that's what I wanted, and that's what I said out loud. Not because I thought anything would happen, but because I was kind of in shock. Everybody had rushed out of their cars—the driver who'd run over her, Mr. and Mrs. Greenberg, their assorted kids and nephews and nieces—there were always too many Greenbergs to keep track of. They were all …” Once again, the exact word she's looking for eludes her. Plus, she realizes she's talking like a thirteen-year-old, as though she's channeling her younger self, and she's unable to stop. “They were all … whatever the
frantic
version of milling about is. Yelling, ‘Call 911!' Yelling for a doctor, a blanket, Jessie's mom. Nobody sure what to do because
there very obviously
wasn't
anything to do. So I said, to nobody in particular, just babbling, I said: ‘I wish I could try again. I wish I could play back time …' And all of a sudden, Jessie and I were in her garage, with her leaning down to put some air in my tires 'cause they were kind of wonky.”

Daniel takes a breath, and she keeps on talking, not giving him a chance for questions. “And I was like ‘Whoa!' and she was like ‘What?' And that was the first time. Jessie had no memory of any of it. She was all, ‘Well, if you don't want to race, just say so. We don't have to race.' And I was all, ‘No, but we did: down Thurston, around the corner to Congress, then around the corner to Fairview, and you smacked right into the Greenbergs' car.' And she said, ‘It's Saturday—the Greenbergs aren't allowed to leave their house,' and I said, ‘Greenbergs don't keep Sabbath if Mrs. Greenberg wants to go out to dinner,' and Jessie still didn't believe me, so we got on our bikes, but we'd spent so much time arguing that we were just going around the first corner when we saw the Greenbergs drive by.”

Zoe can tell she's given Daniel way too much background information, but this is the first time in so long that she's talked about that day, the words come spilling out of her as inexorably as Jessie going over the back of the Greenbergs' car.

“OK,” Daniel says, trying to process it all. “So …”

“So, Jessie kind of believed me, on account of she
saw
the Greenbergs' car. Her mother didn't. Her mother eventually said maybe we shouldn't hang around together so much.”

Zoe suspects that right about now Daniel might be identifying with Jessie's mom.

Zoe says, “Did I not warn you that you would find this hard to believe?”

“Fair warning indeed.” Daniel starts again, “So … you've told other people?”

“Yes.”

“And you've done this reliving of an incident other times, too? Besides with Jessie and the Greenbergs?”

“You're missing the point.”

He looks relieved to hear this, as though still hoping the conversation might turn rational.

Zoe doubts her further explanation will keep him relieved for long. She checks out the window facing the bank and sees—so far—no sign of commotion. She says, “Let's say that at exactly twenty-three minutes after the hour, something bad happens.”

Daniel has seen her eyes flick toward the window, and he, too, glances outside. “Any particular hour?” he asks.

“No.”

“Any particular bad thing?”

“No.”

“Am I one of the Greenbergs?”

“What? No.” She puts her hands on her hips and stares him down. “Why would you even ask that?”

“Don't know,” he admits. “People not remembering things. All those Greenbergs unaccounted for … I thought you were going to tell me I have amnesia.”

Zoe suspects he is trying to break the tension. Either that, or his mind has begun to wander. She says, “You're supposed to be taking this seriously.”

“I am,” he protests, though he clearly is not. “Sorry,” he says, though he clearly is not that, either. “Just checking.”

“No amnesia,” Zoe says. “No stray Greenbergs. Twenty-three
minutes after
an
hour—the time chosen purely for illustrative purposes and for the sake of saving me from having to do math—something happens that I feel needs changing. I say, ‘Playback,' which plays back time, which goes back twenty-three minutes—in this example, just to make a point, to the hour. I try to improve things by doing something differently. But I don't like the way it's going. So, maybe twenty-after, I call it quits. I say, ‘Playback' again. Suddenly it's exactly on the hour again—even though I only used part of the twenty-three minutes. I can keep on going back and keep on going back—always to the exact same starting point—until I'm happy. Or, more likely, till I'm willing to settle. Or, up to ten tries. And the other limitation is, once the time goes past twenty-three minutes, then that's it. Once minute number twenty-four starts, that whole previous twenty-three-minute block of time is closed, and I can't go back any more than anybody else can. Oh, yeah, and the last limitation is: I can't take anybody or anything with me. Which means nobody else remembers. So it's kind of hard to prove.”

“I can imagine,” Daniel says. Then, seeing her don't-talk-down-to-me look, adds, “The hard-to-prove bit.”

“Uh-huh,” Zoe says. She watches him taking all this in, then adds, “I'm not on any prescription meds.”

He asks, “Are you
supposed to be
on any prescription meds?”

“Not at the moment. I gave up trying to convince people. It was just easier that way. So, no more meds, and visits with a psychiatrist only once a month.”

“And you're telling me this …?”

“Because something bad has happened. Something very, very bad. I've been trying to change it.”

Daniel, clever young man that he is, catches on. “Which is
where—or, rather,
when
—we met before? How you learned my name?”

But even though he's said it, she suspects he doesn't believe it.

“We both know that my knowing your name does not prove we've met. All sorts of ways I could have learned
that.
So what I'd like you to do is come up with a secret word or phrase that has meaning only to you.” She can tell he's not following. Before he can ask, she says, “I don't mean your computer password or social security number.” The last thing she needs is for him to suspect she's trying a scam. “And I don't mean something you make up here and now. Maybe something from your past. Something that—next time I see you—when I say it, you'll know there's no way I could be familiar with that word or phrase or idea except by your telling me.” She sighs. “You don't understand.”

“No kidding,” he tells her.

“It's not that I'm asking you to give me a word that will help you remember me. I'm asking for a word that only has meaning to you, so if a stranger comes up to you and says that word, you'd …” She drifts off, thinking the whole thing is hopeless.

“The stranger being you?”

She nods, but he sits back in his chair and she can tell he's done humoring her.

“One more minute,” she says. “I'm not asking you to tell me right now.”

“Zoe …” Daniel shakes his head. “I wish I could help you, I really do—”

“There's a man across the street, even now, as we speak,” Zoe says all in a rush, “robbing the bank.”

That's gotten him focused again.

He's looking out the window, although he can't make out what's going on inside the bank any more than she could.

Outside the bank, however, Zoe sees that this time, finally, the woman with the stroller has reached her car, parked in front of the bank. She has turned on the engine to warm the car, and has gotten her child unstrapped from the stroller. She is now half-in/half-out of the backseat of the car as she works to fasten the toddler into his car seat, while the stroller—and her lower half—continues to get rained on.

It must be almost 1:39.
Then
it won't be up to Zoe anymore.

“I don't know the man,” she assures Daniel. “It's not that I overheard plans or anything like that. But I was in the bank the first time it happened. And so were you.”

Daniel stands up, as though he feels compelled to be doing something but has no idea what that should be.

“What time is it?” Zoe asks.

Daniel looks surprised she needs to ask—as though everyone in the world has a cell phone—but he checks his. “One thirty-seven. When you say—”

Zoe interrupts, knowing she only has about a minute and a half before this twenty-three minutes will close to her. “Never mind,” she says.

Let Daniel think she's a grade-A crazy. The robber has not shot anyone, and she is going to assume he will not. Of course, someone could get killed at minute twenty-four, and then everybody will be out of luck.

But this is not her problem.


Never mind?
” Daniel echoes, somewhere between incredulous and angry.

“I think it's fixed itself,” Zoe tells him. She watches the young mother back out of her car.

The door to the bank flies open.

No no no!
Zoe thinks, figuring the robber has picked the worst possible moment to make his getaway from the bank.

But it isn't the robber. It's one of the customers who comes running out.

There's the crack of a gunshot, and the customer goes sprawling on the sidewalk.

More shots.

Screams heard through the open doorway.

Now the robber
does
run out. He collides with the young mother. He shoots her, then jumps into her car, probably not yet even noticing the child in the backseat. Not yet. He takes off with a squeal of tires.

Daniel's eyes have gotten big. He is looking at her in horror, as though she's the one responsible for all this.

Which she is.

In a way.

Staff and customers from Dunkin' Donuts crowd around the window to see what is going on, blocking Zoe and Daniel's view.

He asks her, “It happens like this every time?”

“There are differences,” she says.

She suspects he knows what one of those differences might be. But he says, “If you can change things, you have to try again.”

So she comes out and says it: “I've seen you die.”

She sees him take in this information. Mentally weigh things. He considers. He may even try to talk sense into himself. But, if so, he fails. He takes a deep breath and says, “Armadillo.”

“What?” she asks.

“When you see me next time, tell me that I told you to say
armadillo
.”

She nods.

She, too, hesitates.

But in the end she hugs herself. And she says, “Playback.”

CHAPTER 8

T
IME RESETS TO
1:16.

The situation is not as hopeless as it has seemed. Daniel has become more than a victim, a potential fatality who needs rescuing. He may well be an ally.

Zoe sees a garbage can in front of the store two doors down from Tops 'n Totes. She tosses her formerly precious folder of papers into it as she takes off running toward Independence Street.

Daniel denied working at the converted-into-offices Victorian place, the Fitzhugh House apparently, but she knows she saw him coming out of there. She bursts into the front hall and is faced with a sign listing the people who have offices: one law firm takes up the entire third floor; an evidently smaller law firm and a photographer share the second floor; and the ground floor is home to a real estate agent (Room 1A), an acupuncturist (1B), and someone (1C) described as “M. Van Der Meer, Designer,” though designer of
what
the sign doesn't specify.

Zoe takes a second to pull her ponytail out of its elastic. She gives her blue hair a quick fluff-up, telling herself this is to look older and—by extension—more credible. Also, she suspects it's more becoming.
Pathetic
, she chides herself.

A door on the second floor opens, and Zoe hears Daniel's voice, saying thanks and good-bye to someone.

She runs to the staircase with its old-fashioned wooden banister
in time to see him close the door labeled 2A, the office of Nicholas Wyand, Attorney-at-Law.

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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