Grey clouds hung heavy over the city, depositing a fine wet mist across the windy streets. A chill stood on every corner and fogged the windows of the taxicab. Walter sighed as he clicked on the defroster. Cars were huddled tight on the street for warmth. Drops of moisture glinted off headlights like crystals in the morning murk. It was not how Walter had imagined he would be spending the penultimate day of his life.
The steering wheel was cold beneath his gloved fingers as he weaved his way through the amity of automobiles and pulled up to the side of the road. The businessman who had flagged him opened the rear door and followed his suitcase inside. "9012 North Cleveland," he said, never looking up as he flicked morning's breath off his hat and all over Walter's cab. Walter nodded and hit the meter. He pulled into the street, slow and smooth. When his fare's hat was sufficiently dry, he placed it back on his head. He clicked open the suitcase he had with him and pulled the newspaper from within. He buried himself in the paper, leaving Walter with an unrequited desire for conversation.
For several seconds there was only the pattering of rain and the mechanical droll of the city to stimulate Walter's senses. He glanced in his rearview mirror. The man in the reflection was broad about the shoulders, and had a cold, chiseled face with a sharp nose. The string of numbers that ran across his neck were some day far into the future, far longer than Walter would live. "How about them Bears?" he said, noting the sports team on the front page. "I hear there's been lots talk about whether Johnson is going to stay on for another season."
"Yeah, well, he expires in December, so it doesn't make any sense why they would bother renewing his contract," the businessman said, looking up. His eyes fell on Walter's neck, onto the date stamped vertically beneath his ear. He cringed and fell silent. Walter shrugged the conversation back into motion.
"That's the kind of reaction I've been getting for the past few days now," he said to the businessman. In the reflection of the mirror, he met Walter's gaze with wide eyes round as clocks.
"I'm sorry. Are you ready?"
"Well, I'd better be, hadn't I? It's not a big deal, really. I've been preparing for this day for a while now. My whole life, really. I think most people can say the same thing."
"I haven't really given much thought to it," the man in the hat admitted. "We all know when it's going to happen, so there is no sense in worrying about it."
"Really? Every morning, you get up and look in the mirror, and there's that date staring you right in the face. You don't even think about it?" Walter shrugged. "I guess we've all got our priorities."
"And yours is driving a cab?"
"Mine's providing for my children," Walter said. "They've got long lives ahead of them, and I've done everything in my power to see that they're happy and worry-free."
"I see." The man in the mirror looked out the window to the misty morning beyond. Flashing red and blue lights zipped through the grey as an ambulance screamed down the road. A memory blasted through Walter's mind like the shot of a gun. The rain had misted down from the sky then, so many years ago, just like it did this day. Looking forward in the street, but not really seeing, Walter watched as past and present puddled into one. He had been a younger man then, lively and vivacious. Newly wed and with a child on the way, he was learning to appreciate the miracle that is life. The sky was grey and bleak, but not as grey as the street where he stood with his mother and a crowd of pedestrians with sore necks.
For a moment Walter had strayed into the past and left his fare unattended. There were eyes in the rearview mirror, looking expectantly at him. "What?"
"I just asked if you knew what the cause will be," the businessman in the back seat said.
"I haven't got the slightest idea," Walter replied. "I just hope it's something quick."
"That's what I've always thought," the man in the hat muttered. "I want it to be a surprise. Nothing long and drawn out. That's one battle you know you're not going to win."
"Maybe I'll get hit by a car." Walter shrugged. "The day comes and you know there is nothing you can do."
His fare nodded in the backseat. "Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to not know. To live your whole life never knowing when it would end, never weighing relationships on whether she'll outlive you…"
"It would be a mess," Walter grumbled. "There would be murders in the street, because people wouldn't know when they were meant to go. We are born with the knowledge of when we will die for a reason. Our lives begin and then they end, and there is nothing that can be done about that."
Lights, red and blue, flashed at the back of Walter's eyes. The police had been there that day, so long ago, their squad cars parked in the street. Paramedics, with their ambulance painted sterile white and blood red, had loaded their charge into the vehicle. Walter was not so very different than them; everyone had a place to go, and both he and the ambulance took them where they needed to be.
The taxi hit a rut in the road, and Walter was bounced violently back into the present. 9012 North Cleveland sat in the back, his eyes poring over the morning's news. He was dressed in a warm brown pinstripe suit, with a tie that suggested he was playing with big money. "You in the stock market?" Walter asked the man.
"That's right. Good catch," the man said. "The name's Brown. I'm a dealer over at the exchange."
"I never liked the stocks myself. Too much risk involved, you never know what's going to happen next. It's nearly as bad as gambling."
"The risk is part of the challenge. Part of the fun." Brown grinned slyly in the back seat.
"You sound like my brother. Always diving into the unknown."
"He sounds like an interesting man."
"He was." Walter clenched his teeth. The traffic was heavy here, and it was slow going. Brown was looking down at his feet, or his paper, Walter wasn't sure which. It was the act of a man who didn't know quite what to say. Walter decided it was time for a change in subject. "Anything in the paper about those new miracle patches?"
"Miracle patches? Doctor Kurt's death-postponing patches?"
"I don't know, I just know I heard of them on the radio. I didn't take much stock in it. People have been trying to scam good folks out of their money since the invention of scamming. First it was buying magic trinkets, then it was some snake-oil elixir, now it's a bandage you stick on your expiration date. It's never worked, and it never will work, I tell you. The date on your neck is the day you die, and that's the way it's always been and always will be. People go their whole lives with the same six numbers under their ears, and there's no new innovation of technology and medicine going to change that."
"People said the same thing about the electric light to Edison. Hell, they said it to Galileo," said Brown. "They said, 'it's always been this way and it always will be, and nothing you do can change that.' Don't get me wrong, I think Doctor Kurt is just as much a fraud as anybody else selling things these days. But who knows? Maybe someday, someone will create something to extend the expiration date. Medical innovations have been made before. Maybe someday someone will postpone death itself."
"Let them try, I'll be content watching from upstairs." Walter said with a shrug and an index finger to the sky. Brown chuckled and nodded, then went back to his newspaper. Walter was again left alone with his restless mind. As his foot worked the gas pedal, he meandered back into his memories.
Watler's memory of his brother's jump was the last time he would ever see those legs in one piece. The psychiatrists and therapists and shrinks hadn't the slightest idea what had possessed his brother to leap from seven flights up, but Watler knew. He liked to think it wasn't the phone conversation that persuaded his brother to jump, but it was that lie that had kept him up late at night. Walter shivered as he dug deep into the recesses of the past. He had picked up the telephone to find his brother on the other line.
The fog had cleared by the time Walter stopped at 9012 North Cleveland Street. He pulled the taxi to the side of the road. "Here we are."
"Thanks." Brown handed him a wad of cash. It was more than he owed. "Keep the extra. Goodbye." Walter nodded as Brown picked up his suitcase and slid out of the cab. He shut the door behind him and he disappeared into a dark glass building. Walter looked at the cash in his hand. It was faded, well-worn with circulation. It was more than he was owed. He opened his door and tossed it into the wind.
There were no more passengers for Walter. He drove back to the depot and parked the taxi beneath a rusted metal catwalk. Two large garage doors let light flood in on the concrete ground. Charles was sitting in his room, a box of windows adjacent to the garage. Battered lights hung from the ceiling. As Walter slowly climbed from the cab, his boss emerged from his office. "Walter," he said, sounding surprised. "What are you doing? You're supposed to be out on the road."
"I'm done, Charles," Walter said, straightening his aching back. Charles looked from Walter's face to the date on his neck, then back to his face. He nodded and extended his hand. Walter's hands were cold and clammy compared to Charles' as they shook farewell.
Storm clouds brooded in the distance as Walter started his walk home. He knew the streets like the back of his hand, but the people never seemed any more familiar. They were cold as they passed him, their eyes glossing over him like he was never there at all. The crowds weaved through each other like salmon swimming upstream, a messy mass of busy bodies on their way to live the lives they had left. They pushed their way through their way through their days, rushing to make the appointments they had set that dictated their lives.
The crowds of people and towering buildings gave way to a neighborhood of suburban homes. Walter strode up the sidewalk of the townhouse where he lived with his wife and his youngest son. A picket fence lined the yellowing lawn. He walked up creaky wooden steps to the front porch and stuck his key into the lock. The door creaked open and Walter breathed in the familiar musty scent inside. He stepped inside and for a moment stood on the doormat, watching dust dance in the invading light. A small end table sat to the right where pictures of memories past were lined. Walter passed them and ascended the wooden staircase to the second floor. The walls were lined with black and white photographs of family.
In the room at the end of the hall there was a bed beneath a mirror. Walter took a step into his bedroom, and then another. Beside the bed were dressers. He walked over to his, where a datebook sat shut beside a lamp. Walter fingered it, running his fingers across the black leather cover. He opened it to the date marked with red pen. This the day you die, it read, in Walter's simple scrawl.
Walter shut the book and opened the dresser. Amongst a mess of papers and books was a revolver. He pressed his fingers around the cold iron and drew the gun from the drawer. It was dense in his hand, made heavier by the power it held. He pushed the dresser drawer shut. Walter looked at the weapon as if for the first time. He had bought it many years ago, in case of a break in.
Today Walter pressed the barrel of the gun to his forehead. Looking in the mirror, he almost laughed at how ludicrous his reflection looked. His heart tingled at the memory of a normal phone conversation between Walter and his brother. Walter shivered as he dug deep into the recesses of the past. He had picked up the telephone to find his brother on the other line. "Ma's birthday is coming up," Walter had said. "Don't forget about the party Friday."
Over the phone, his brother breathed a curse. "I'll have to write it down. So much going on, what with meetings and parties and dates… all those goddam dates, Walt. So much ink on the calendar. I just want the dates to go away."
Walter had laughed at his brother then. "What does that mean? Should I tell ma you won't be showing up?"
"No, I'll be there…" his brother's voice trailed off, leaving a shivering undercurrent of static.
"You still there? Are you doing alright?"
"I'm fine. No, I'm not fine. That was a lie. I'm sick of all these dates. This schedule that runs our lives."
"There's not much you can do about that," Walter had told his brother over the phone. If he had rephrased his statement or if he had kept his mouth shut… or maybe not. Perhaps what had followed had been inevitable.
"There is something I can do. We didn't invent the concept of time to be made slaves to it. I am a free man." Then his brother had hung up the phone. Then he had jumped from the ledge of his apartment.
Walter could remember how his brother had looked on the ledge of his apartment, the tips of his toes dangling over the edge. The moment had felt surreal, just like it did as Walter held the gun to his head. He looked down one last time, down to the damned datebook on the dresser. The red ink splotched on the page sent a surge of adrenaline through his veins. "I am a free man," he whispered. Then he pulled the trigger.
Maneuvering the wheelchair through the narrow hospital door was a graceless debacle, but eventually Mickey managed to wrestle his way into the room. His mother was behind him, her eyes dry and red. She had always been ready to coddle his broken form at a moment's notice, but she had learned long ago that her son was not a man who suffered assistance. He was still a man, just as much as he always had been, though he was confined to a chair with wheels to take him where he needed to go.
Tonight he was within the familiar eggshell walls of a hospital room. The sharp sterile scent of alcohol tickled at memories. Lying on a bed was his mother's son. Everything was white; the curtains were white that hung from the windows, the bedsheets were white, the hospital gowns were white. It made for a striking contrast against the red that soaked the bandage wrapped around his brother's head. Mickey rolled up to the man on the hospital bed, looking for words. Only one came to him. "Walter…"
At the sight of her son, a fresh set of sobs racked their mother. The figure upon the bed did not respond. The bandage was spun around his forehead like a crown of gauze. Somewhere, a clock ticked as Mickey sat beside his brother. "Your wife was in earlier," he said at Walter. "with your kids. She found you when she got home from work. She was so startled."
Mickey watched his brother's chest rise and fall weakly, drinking in his soft breaths like each was a note in a sad soft symphony. "They can't understand why you did it, Walt, especially with it being so close to your expiration date. But I can, Walt. We wanted to be free men. But there is a plan that is bigger than the both of us. My fall didn't kill me, not like I planned. It shattered my legs and my life, but it's not my time yet. I know when my time is. Now I'm living my life out of a wheelchair."
Walter stirred in the bed beside him. His mother gasped as he said in a voice as soft as a whisper, "I'm sorry." Mickey leaned forward. It was the first conversation they had had since the jump.
"No, Walt, don't be sorry, don't apologize."
"It was me," Walter wheezed. "I put you in that wheelchair. I should have… should have said something. I'm sorry."
"Don't, Walt. I'm responsible for my actions."
"You wanted to be free… you failed. I thought I could do what you didn't. I thought I could fight fate and win. I thought I could… in this world of subjugation, I thought I could beat them… society. The date-keepers and timekeepers… our whole lives we let the future dictate our decisions. But you know what?" Walter smiled slyly. "I won. I beat them."
Walter looked to the window, where the thin white curtains could not mask a fleet of stars shining on an azure sea. He closed his eyes with that smirk on his face and died at the sight of nighttime. His chest fell, never to rise. Mickey choked on a sob as he called for a doctor. A nurse rushed in and checked for a pulse. In walked a man wearing a clean white uniform with a clipboard in his hands.
"He's gone," the nurse told the doctor. She looked to the clock. "Time of death, 12:23."