Footsteps thundered down the alley after her, growing closer and closer until she imagined their hot breath was curling the tiny hairs on her neck. Her lungs and legs protested, but she forced herself on faster, praying that she could somehow lose her pursuers in the winding city. She was almost back on the main street. Just a little farther.
Tires squealed against the pavement, and she smelt burned rubber as headlights blinded her. A small, sick part of her enjoyed the idea that she should escape her followers only to be killed by something so mundane as a car. Before she even had time to skid to a stop, the driver door flew open, and rough hands grabbed her, pulling her into the vehicle and flooring it before the door even closed.
"You're really bad at not being in life-threatening situations, aren't you?" the driver growled, as though the whole thing had been her fault!
Pushing herself up off his lap so she could return his glare, she spluttered, "It really hasn't been an issue until recently!"
"Lucky me," he grumbled, weaving in and out of traffic to put as much distance between them and the creatures that were chasing her as possible. Car horns blared in their wake, but he didn't care. Glancing in the mirrors, he asked, "Was that him?"
"N-no. I don't think so. Just some of his lackeys," dear God, she'd dated a guy with lackeys.
Piper always knew that her ex-boyfriend was an asshole. She just thought he was a get-drunk-and-make-out-with-other-girls type asshole, not the evil-inhuman-creature-looking-to-sell-her-on-the-magical-black-market type, with which she was rapidly becoming familiar.
It's not like she had expected much out of the relationship, to be fair, but she could honestly say she hadn't anticipated this. When she broke up with Jacob (re: making out with other girls), she thought she might have to deal with drunken 3:00 AM phone calls, not the forces of evil.
Leave it to Piper King to make even a simple relationship into something unexplainable.
She'd learned when she was very young that she wasn't "normal". When, at the age of four, she had predicted the exact day that her aunt would die, her parents reasoned it was an unusually accurate guess (her aunt had been ill for a long time). When two years later, Piper predicted her grandmother's death by choking, down to the hour, that was a lot more difficult for her parents to explain away. When she'd known before anyone else that the mailman had passed away of a heart attack...
To be fair, it must've been very unnerving to hear your 7-year-old say, "Of course there's no post today, it's the 5th. The postman is dead."
Piper had long since stopped telling her parents about what she could see, but that didn't change the frightened way they would stare or whisper about her sometimes when they thought she couldn't hear. Like they thought she brought about these unnatural deaths on purpose or something. Even though she tried to keep the abnormal behaviours to a minimum around them, sometimes it couldn't be helped, or some prediction would slip out.
Fast-forward twenty years and, despite enduring years of psychotherapy, Piper could still see on a person exactly how and when they would die. She'd learned how to tell, as well, if it was possible to stop the death – say, if the person is about to walk out into traffic, you can stop that, and the number changes. Other times, it was final. Now she just knew better than to tell anyone about it.
She would've assumed that she were a little crazy along with the rest of them, if only her predictions weren't so bloody accurate. When Piper saw the day hanging over someone, they would die on that day. No ifs, ands, or buts. Maybe that did make her crazy.
But she didn't want to be. She wanted – no, was desperate for – some semblance of a normal life. At 18 she moved away from her poor skittish parents (who were only too happy to see her go, despite their protests) and moved to the biggest city she could think of. Where better to disappear?
And she'd been doing a wonderful job at just that until he showed up! A man with no number, no death.
The day he turned up and began ruining everything started like any other, with Piper hurrying down the familiar city street to her bus stop, already running late. Angry dark clouds threatened nasty weather, and she cursed herself for not grabbing a thicker coat. There was no snow yet, but the November air was thick with a damp chill that seeped into her bones, and everyone on the busy sidewalk had their shoulders hunched against the cold, rushing to get inside.
Her attention snagged on her reflection in a shiny shop window, and Piper hesitated for a second, examining the way her dark auburn bangs were falling into her eyes. Her hair was getting too long again – reaching past her shoulder blades. She'd have to cut it soon. Round cheeks and a tiny nose, bright pink with the cold. Her hazel eyes looked a honey brown today, with just a touch of green, that would have made her look tan in the summer, but now reminded her too much of her mum. Poor Cassie had only a few years left now.
Pushing that thought away, Piper resumed her harried trek, trying to ignore the morbid information that surrounded her. Dates, times, causes, from peaceful to painful. Everyone had to die sometime.
Now, you might be wondering why someone with Piper's affliction would choose to move to a crowded city. The more people, the more deaths she would see. Why wouldn't she live to a small county town? Partly because she was from one – no small town kid wants to stay in the small town forever – but also because in a city it was so easy to disappear.
That morning as she stood waiting for the bus was a great example. A mother pushed her toddler in the stroller past the bus stop, distractedly reading something on her phone. Piper glanced from the mom (who would die in her sleep of old age on December 3rd, 2064) to the chubby faced infant. The little girl stared back at her with beautiful green eyes, but it was the number that caught Piper's attention. Death by an illness, in only a few months. The light blue shade of her aura told Piper something else: Preventable.
"Um - excuse me, ma'am?" Piper stepped out of the bus-stop shelter, catching the frazzled mother's attention. "Um – this is going to sound strange but – has your baby had all her shots?"
"Huh? What are you, some kind of vaccine activist?" The agitated mother nearly pushed her out of the way.
But Piper persisted, stepping into her path, "No, I'm not, I just – Your baby looks a little sick to me. You should go make sure she gets her shots. Today, if you can. And take her for a check up in a couple months."
"Sick?" The woman bent forward worriedly, feeling the toddler's round face for a fever. "What do you mean? She looks fine."
Piper's bus pulled up. Skipping backward to get in the line, she called, "Just trust me, I have a feeling about these things."
The woman grumbled something Piper couldn't hear as she was jostled up the steps onto the bus, but when Piper craned to peer at the toddler through the bus window, the child's number was replaced with another, one that would give her a long, and hopefully happy life. And Piper would never have to see either of them again. No hassle, no hard to answer questions.
Wedged between a business man (April 2028, lung cancer) and a strange smelling teenager (August 2071, influenza), Piper reluctantly gave in and pulled out her phone. 2 missed calls and 3 unread messages, all from Jacob. No point in putting it off, she supposed.
Jacob (12:48 AM) – Baby pls call me back. I just want to talk, no pressure. I love u & miss u
Jacob (1:32 AM) – Baby I need to see u. Plaese
Jacob (2:11 AM) – Pipr i need u. Call. Now
This was so strange. Normally the guys Piper agreed to go out with were the ones she knew she wouldn't get too attached to. They were usually kind of jerks, too cool to be so needy. They would go out for a while before getting bored of her, and Piper didn't have to worry about getting too close, or saying too much.
But she must have misjudged Jacob. She'd broken up with him over a week ago and she was still getting more than one nightly message. She'd been ignoring them until now, assuming he'd give up, but that was seeming less and less likely. Fed up, she caved and finally responded.
Me (7:36 AM) – Jacob, I'm sorry that you're upset, but I don't think talking is a good idea. I want a clean break
The reply was almost immediate.
Jacob (7:36 AM) – Can we meet? Please?
Jacob (7:37 AM) - Just once, I promise
Me (7:38 AM) – fine. Come to my work at 3
Jacob (7:38 AM) – See u then
Maybe agreeing to meet Jacob was a bad idea, but being uncomfortable for an hour was better than waking up to needy messages for the rest of her life. Obviously he had some thing he needed to get off his chest. And if this didn't stop, she could always block his number.
How naïve she'd been.
Finally the bus pulled up to her stop, dropping Piper right in front of her work: Mel's Diner. Just in time, she ran through the side door, sloughing off her coat and bag, and calling, "Sue! I'm here! Not late!"
Her manager was already in the kitchen, turning on all the equipment and putting on the first batch of hash browns to fry. The sweet, bitter smell of coffee made her knees weak. Sue stuck his head out of the door to glare at her, "What do you want? A gold star for meeting the minimum expectation?"
Sue (Nov 1, 2034. Heart attack) was her grumpy, pert boss who had no trouble voicing his opinions. His grey hair had thinned so much you could see his scalp, and his impending heart attack was no surprise with the way he ate and his opposition to any activity resembling exercise. He was only a little taller than her, which was surprising, considering she barely reached 5'2", and for all his sourness Piper was very fond of him.
She tied her apron around her waist, checking the pockets for her notebook and a hair tie, calling, "Ha-ha. You're hilarious. I'm unlocking the doors!"
See? The morning was almost painfully normal, aside from the incessant ex-boyfriend texts. It was a Tuesday, so the breakfast rush was slow, basically only the regulars who sat around reading the paper, or sipping coffee and discussing how to solve the political problems of the world, if only the world would listen.
When the bell above the door chimed Piper was stacking up some dirty plates from one of the empty tables, internally grousing about her sore feet – new work shoes were a distant dream. With dishes piled in her arms, she turned, calling cheerfully, "Just have a seat wherever—"
And there he was. The first thing she noticed was how tall he was, tall and broad. He took up almost the entire doorway, and he must've had to duck his head to come in. Shaggy, white-blonde hair swept back from his brow, and a large, crooked nose that looked as though it had been broken more than once sat between sharp cheekbones. His features were too harsh to be handsome, and there was something brutal about him, and his cold, bright blue eyes. Staring straight at her.
Piper hardly noticed though – all she could see was what she couldn't see. No date on which this man would die hung about him. No cause of death. He was just –nothing. She'd never, ever seen anyone without a number before.
The plates slipped from her fingers, cascading to the ground, and not even the sound of shattering glass broke her out of her trance. The man wore a deep frown. He scowled at her. No number.
"Hey! What the Hell was that?!" Sue yelled from the kitchen, finally breaking through to her mind.
Everything around her tilted into real time again. All she could hear was the cheery soft rock music that played on the radio as everyone stared at her in confused silence. Heat crept up her neck to her cheeks, her gaze dropping to the ground where the broken plates splintered out away from her. "It was just me, sorry!" she called to Sue as she scurried for the small closet where they kept the brooms. When she came back, the man was still standing there in the doorway, scowling, his eyes following her.
Piper didn't say anything as she hurried to sweep up the broken glass, praying that the man would leave. She kept her back to him, ears straining for the bell that would meant he was leaving, jumping when she heard glass crunch instead. She whipped around to see the deathless man slide into the booth she'd just been cleaning. The scowl was gone, replaced by a look of boredom, but his stare hadn't left her.
She cleared her throat uncertainly, "Sorry, I was just – I haven't cleared that table yet."
The man's intense gaze left her for only a second to flick to the table. When he spoke, she was surprised by how smooth his voice was, musical almost. He had an accent too – Irish maybe? She'd expected him to sound as rough as he appeared, but his rumble was silky, "Looks clear to me."
Piper floundered for something to say, still unable to get past the nothingness of this man. Was it her? Was she losing her macabre talent? It was almost too much to hope. But when she looked to the others, they were still haunted by their own deaths. So was it something about this man?
Thoughts moved through her mind sluggishly, but some part of her registered that she had to clean up the broken plates before anyone hurt themselves, so she turned without responding and began sweeping. The heat of the strange man's eyes bored into her back as she swept until she was finally satisfied that she got it all and could disappear into the refuge of the kitchen.
Sue wiped at the sweat that beaded on his chin, still working on the next order, "What was that crash?"
"I dropped two plates," she pretended to be busy washing her hands.
He paused, peering at her around the fridge, "Did you hurt yourself?"
"No, I'm fine. Sorry. I can pay for the plates,"
"Meh, don't worry about it. So long as I don't have worry about finding someone to cover for you," he would never admit it, but Sue was rather fond of Piper too.
After finishing all the busy work she could come up with in the kitchen, Piper finally had to go back and face the stranger. Maybe he'd given up, exasperated about her terrible service, and left?
No such luck. It was almost comical, this severe looking man who could've been an MMA fighter, wearing black, sitting in the bright, cheerful diner booth, an 80's power ballad playing overhead. Suddenly she was suppressing a giggle at the absurdity of it that bubbled in her throat, even as his scowl deepened. Giving up, Piper crossed the room to stand beside his table, but the closer she got, the less funny it seemed. "Hi um – what can I get you?"
The bored expression returned as he cocked an eyebrow at her, "You haven't given me a menu yet."
"Oh," a blush crept back into her cheeks, and she hurried to grab one. She couldn't quite meet his eyes as she handed him the sticky plastic page, asking, "Can I get you a drink to start?"
He took the menu and set it in front of him without even glancing at it. Instead, he tilted his head forward, trying to force her to meet his bright blue eyes, "What's your name?"
Piper had to stop herself from covering her nametag. She met his stare, trying to understand why he asked, "Um – Piper."
"Piper," her name sounded so strange in his lilting accent, "Piper what?"
She fidgeted, trying to find an excuse not to tell him, "Piper – McLean."
Panic hit as she thought he must've realized she was lying, by the way his eyes narrowed, but he said nothing for a moment. Just studied her until she found the courage to ask nonchalantly, "Drink?"
"Water," he responded, and finally turned his attention to the menu.
She had to force her shoulders not to sag in relief as she turned away from his table. Whoever this guy was, something about him put her on edge, like he knew exactly who and what she was, and he didn't like it.
Like I said, she was naïve.
Figuring that the sooner she served him, the sooner he would go, she hurried back with his water, and asked, "So, what can I get you?"
Instead of answering her simple, simple question, he asked, "When do you get off work?"
That one took her aback. She was sure that she must have heard him wrong, "Excuse me?"
"What time are you done working?" he asked slowly, as though speaking to a child.
"Why?" Piper blurted before she could stop herself.
"I think you and I have some things to discuss, don't you?" his voice was so smooth and lilting, not at all reflecting his irritated look.
"D-discuss? Like –" did he know what she could see? Was he like her? Or maybe he knew was nothing at all, and this was just how he prayed on cute girls. He didn't volunteer an end to her sentence, merely lifted his brows impatiently.
Piper's mind was at war with her curiosity. Maybe this stranger knew something about her and her affliction (foreshadowing: he did) but even if he did, this could be a terrible idea (more foreshadowing: it was). But a glimmer of understanding why she was like this – that was something she'd waited her whole life for.
Finally, chewing on her lip, she reasoned, "We can talk. But we have to go somewhere public, no – back alleys or anything weird."
For the first time something like amusement flickered behind his hard eyes. He agreed, "Nothing weird."
"Okay. I get off at 3, so… oh shit. I can't. I mean – I'm supposed to meet someone here for a bit, so I could meet you somewhere, or maybe tomorrow would be—"
He cut her off, irritated again, "I'll wait."
"Oh, okay," and then, watching as he sat back, she realized he meant all day as well.
She played with a lock of stray hair, confused. Who was this guy? Didn't he have a job? Finally deciding it didn't matter, she tucked the hair behind her ear, "So…did you want something to eat?"
Author's Note: Thank you so much for reading! Comments always help me write, so please review and let me know what you think!