The light changed, granting its permission to cross the busy downtown intersection, as I hurried back to work after lunch. My phone dinged as a text arrived. Without thinking, I started across the street, looking down to check.
I never saw the car coming.
The impact registered as my body flew through the air. I was distantly aware of pain, and the odd thought, Hope the screen doesn’t crack. Then world went black.
It came back slow and blurry, like swimming up from the bottom of a pool. Instead of a hospital or an ambulance, I seemed to be standing in what looked like college dorm room. Which made no sense at all.
“Welcome back to the moment of your death!” a male voice announced cheerfully behind me.
“What?” Twisting around, my eyes scanned for the speaker. Did he say death? “No. I’m not dead.”
Spread out on the bed, ankles crossed and arms folded behind his head, was the source of the voice. “Fraid so, sweetie. You, my dear, are well and truly and completely deaded. Wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. Trust me.” He was a young man, late 20s maybe, with a mop of dark brown hair, and grinning like the Cheshire cat with eyes an impossible shade of blue. A nagging sense of recognition tickled in the back of my mind.
“Do I kn-?” The question died as I suddenly recognized the bed. That was my bed. My gaze shifted back to the room, taking in every familiar and long-forgotten detail, the posters, the teddy bear, the horrid drapes. It had to be drugs. There was no way I could be standing in my dorm from twelve years ago.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side in one smooth motion. “Your eyes do not deceive you. No, you’re not on drugs. This is indeed your dorm room. The date is March 16. Time to pick your classes.” He gestured like some old carnival sideshow host towards my computer.
“Uhn-uhhh.” My head shook “No. No way. Not possible.”
He titled his head to one side and grinned. “Are you sure of that, sweetie? Absolutely positively?”
“Yes,” I bobbed my head. “This isn’t real.”
He rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin on laced fingers. “Tell me then. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Walking across 5th.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” He nodded.
“Gwen texted me.”
“And-” I swallowed back the rising fear, unwilling to say. If I didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be real. It couldn’t be real.
“And you were hit by a car. A blue Ford Expedition to be exact. Going fifty-seven miles per hour to make the yellow light. The driver, ironically enough, checking his cell phone, too. Text from the girlfriend. You know how it goes. Now tell me,” he leaned forward, eyes almost twinkling with delight, “who survives being hit by a blue Ford Expedition going fifty-seven miles per hour?” He raised one hand in an almost agonizing slowness and made a zero shape. “Catch my drift, sweetie?”
“My name is Amy.”
He grinned. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever, sweetie.”
I glowered at him. “And you are?” Time to focus on what made sense. A strange man daring to address me by pet names I could understand and deal with. Claims about my apparent death and somehow traveling back in time, not so much. It didn’t matter how real this felt. I was not going to resign myself to the crazy. My thumbnail dug into my index finger, the pain crisp.
“Call me Aeron.”
“Look…Aeron, I don’t know who in the hell you think you are-” I pointed at him with my last three fingers, still keeping the pressure between nail and flesh. The pain kept me focused. The pain was real.
Something in his tone insisted on a pause. Swallowing, I took a half step back. Somewhere, somehow, our paths had crossed. There was something about his face, his blue eyes and their intensity. I had seen those eyes before. “Have we met?”
He shrugged, rolling like a stretching cat. “In passing a few times. Now I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but you have a choice to make. And I have another date in about oh,” he checked his empty wrist as if wearing a watch, “twenty minutes, give or take. The guy who ran you over? Yeah, his right temple and the steering wheel had quite the meeting. Normally they don’t book two from the same event so close like this. But, ya know, scheduling conflicts and all. So, chop, chop,” he clapped his hands, “choices, choices.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your class schedule for next quarter. The classes you chose to take on this fateful day, specifically World Lit with Dr. Gubber. Who has a name like Gubber, anyhow? Poor fellow.” Aeron shook his head, then waved his hand dismissively. “Anywho, by picking to be part of that class on this day, you set your rendezvous with the blue Ford Expedition which killed you. Talk about DOA.”
No. No. No. My head shook; sharp tight bursts. I could not be dead. There wouldn’t be any pain. No standing, talking, or thinking. Dead was the end; nothingness. He was wrong. “I am not dead!”
“Well, how else do you explain being in your dorm room?”
Regarding the space, I finally threw up my hands. “Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.”
“Already told you. No drugs.”
“And you’re so believable.”
“Is this the face of someone who would lie to you, sweetie?”
“Call me that one more time and-”
“Hey,” Aeron tilted further forward, all mirth gone, “I get it. This is a little hard-”
“A little hard?”
His lips pressed into a thin line. “It’s not easy accepting death. Let alone your own. But you’re dead, sweetie. Deal with it.”
I shook my head.
My head kept shaking, refusing to accept his words.
Aeron sighed and leaned back. “Amy.” His tone reminded me of my father when he tried to coax me down the big slide at the fair as a child. “No one survives a collision like that. I’m sorry. Really. But you died. Now you have a chance for something else. So let’s stop with the whole head in the sand thing, and work with what is, instead of what you wish, shall we?”
“I’m not dead.” My words sounded soft, distant even to me. “Mark. We’re going to Chante tonight.”
He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
Fear slipped over my whole body, heavy like a cold, soaked wetsuit. There had to be a way out of this. This couldn’t be the end. Not now. Not for me. Not here.I licked my lips and glanced at Aeron. “You said something about a choice?”
“Yes.” The grin returned. “You may choose to keep things as they stand now. You take World Lit with the amazing Dr. Gubber and your death will remain as is. Or, you take advantage of this time-limited offer to change the choice and change your future.”
My heart rose a little higher. Options were doable, workable. “What would happen then?”
“You wouldn’t have to deal with that end-of-the-quarter assignment comparing Scottish to English literature in the fifteenth century.”
“Or die?” Was this conversation happening? Were we accepting my death? This was not how my day was supposed to be going.
He grinned at me and winked. “You catch on fast, sweetie.”
Change a simple class and not die? Sounded like an excellent exchange to me. A thought stopped me. “What about everything else? My husband and kids? The job and house? My dog?”
Aeron waved his fingers apart and made a flapping sound. “Gone.”
“What would happen to them?” They couldn’t just vanish. Could they?
“Not my department. I’m just the choices guy. And not to rush, but tick tock, sweetie.” He nodded over to the computer.
Change the class, change my fate. Walking to the computer and sitting down, I kept my eyes on Aeron, who kept grinning back at me. On the screen, was my old class schedule: piano, stats, Women’s Lit, and one blank space where 12 years ago I put World Lit. The cursor flashed, awaiting the numbers that would determine my future.
Twelve years left to live if things stayed the same. With eight mostly wonderful years with Mark. Two babies, Kevin and Patty, children now. They were my world. My job gave purpose and meaning. We lived in a decent part of town. We had plenty of money for needs and wants with extra to save. It was a wonderful life. One many envied. The only apparent flaw was it ended far too soon.
No. The thought slammed into my brain. It couldn’t be over. There was still so much to do. Learning French for starters. Hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Seeing my grandpa again. How could I be out of time? Would making a different choice buy me more time?
But what would change? What would happen to my family? Aeron had said gone. Would I be trading them for that time? A mother laid down her life for her children. Yet here I sat, contemplating trading them for my benefit. Then again, might they survive on elsewhere? Could I not still have them again?
What was it about this specific class? It wasn’t connected in any way with my crossing 5th. It was only taken because Creative Writing started at eight and I didn’t want to get up that early. Nothing more than a filler class.
Yet, Aeron insisted this class was the cause of my death. How? It made no sense. Not that any of this was making sense to begin with.
Assuming this was all truth and really happening and I could trust Aeron, couldn’t I still meet Mark and have our babies regardless of my class schedule? They might be independent of this whole debacle.
Or they might cease to be. My new life and extended time for theirs.
My head started to hurt. This was why I didn’t take philosophy. Too many unknowns. Too many what ifs.
I stared at Aeron, helpless.
“You’re not going to help me with this?”
He shrugged. “Not my life.”
Scoffing, I looked back at the screen. No help was forthcoming from that quarter.
I didn’t want to die. At the end of the day, it came down to that. It couldn’t be my time.
To avoid death, I would gamble with the lives of my children.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “Mommy loves you.”
Even with the declaration, my fingers punched in the code for Creative Writing.
And hit enter.
Three weeks later, I sat next to a young man named Peter. Six months and a whirlwind romance later, we wed.
We wrote a book series together, which became an international sensation almost overnight. The demands for more books, the tours, the interviews, the movie contracts, the whirlwind of success kept us so busy. We knew we couldn’t bring children into the world. Not yet. Next year, we’d see about starting a family. But every year, we had one more project to do. I never noticed the passage of time.
Until almost seven years after our marriage when our plane crashed. And I died.
When my eyes opened, it was to my college dorm and a stranger named Aeron sprawled on the bed. His brilliant white grin stretched from ear to ear as he explained my options. Elusive humor colored his words, like some personal inside joke. For another chance at life, would I be willing to take a class other than Creative Writing? Would I shuffle the deck and try again?
It was never a question; of course. To pass up a chance to live beyond seven more measly years was insane. Besides, I hated getting up early. Though not dealing with writing, sociology always appealed and I chose the intro class at eight pm. Evening classes were much more my speed.
Only three years later, my best friend was getting married. Of course, Shelly wanted to go bungee jumping. I felt uneasy, and almost claimed the 24-hour flu bug . As the maid of honor, it was my duty to go. So I went. I should have listened to my gut. Because the cable snapped, and I died from blunt force trauma.
No sooner did my lifeless body begin to float down the river when my eyes blinked and beheld my dorm and Aeron. This time, it would be French instead of studying social behaviors. Spring break that same year found me touring Europe with the last stop in Ireland. A local directed me to a wonderful little pub. I was in love and ready to move until a bomb went off.
Next, my eyes saw a man all but draped over the back of my computer chair in my dorm. “I know you.”
“You do, sweetie.” His eyes danced, but his words were solemn.
He nodded. “I know, sweetie.”
“What are you doing here?”
“To tell you your time has come. It is time to die.”
I remembered this. We had done this before. “No.” I took a step back. “No. Not yet.”
“There are no more choices left to play.” He sat up and spread his hands wide.
“Yes, there are.” I pointed to the open class catalog. “That thing is filled with different classes. Different choices. Different outcomes.”
He shook his head slowly. “Not for you.”
“I’ll quit school. Move back home. Move to another state. Another country. Those are different choices. I can still do those.” My feet shuffled further back.
Aeron steepled his fingers and shook his head again.
“What do you mean no?”
“Just that. No.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Everyone always says that.”
“I’ve always had a choice before.”
“They always say that, too. While it may have been true before, that’s no longer the case. You see, before this, you had time.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I took another step back, edging my way to the door.
Aeron looked at his nonexistent watch. “It means you have about…oh, five, maybe ten minutes, give or take. No choice you make would change what will happen then.”
“So why am I back here again?”
He shrugged with his liquid grace. “Not my department.”
“You’re just the choices guy?” my lips asked, recalling something he said once before.
He smiled and tilted his head. “And occasionally the guide guy when the situation requires. Which it will here soon enough.”
“So this is it? There’s nothing else I can do? Surely there’s something. Just tell me!”
“Sweetie,” he leaned forward, “you’ve had every chance in the world. You lived to be ninety once before. You’ve had children and grandchildren. Progeny. Husbands and lovers. You’ve had good work, meaningful work, fame, and fortune. You’ve had it all. And every chance, it has never been enough for you.” He smirked, shaking his head. “You, foolish, foolish girl. Through it all, you never once thought to ask what it would cost you. Never once. You got close once, though. I’ll give you that. Right after…oh, what’s his name? Mark. Right after Mark. You almost asked then. You were this close.” He held up his fingers. “But, nope. Just ended up barreling straight through like you always do. Isn’t there supposed to be a saying about looking before you leap?”
No. No. This couldn’t be happening. It was getting harder to breath as I choked on the terrible truth. He was right. What had I done?
“Each choice, as all choices do, come at a price….Time.”
My hand touched the cool door handle. I could change this. I could fix this.
“You have no more time to barter with. You’ve used it all up. Every choice you ever made. Every decision. Every keystroke at that computer brought you one step closer to this point. To this ending.” He stood growing taller, flowing and malleable. He held out his hand. “Take my hand, sweetie.”
“No!” I spat the word at him, pushing the handle down. This would not be the end. Not for me. I raced down the hall, refusing to look behind. He could chase me all he wanted. I was not going to take his hand. Past the elevators, I rounded for the stairs.
I made it down the first flight, feet familiar with the rise and turns of the ancient steps.
“Sweetie!” Aeron’s voice echoed down the stairwell.
I needed to move faster. Hands grabbed the rails and my feet jumped. Taking four steps at once was nothing new.
My heel caught and slipped. I screamed as the world spun helter-skelter. Each step dug painfully into my body, arms and legs hopelessly tangled and unable to slow my fall. Something gave in my neck with a loud crack.
The world went dark.
And all around me the word, “Sweetie.”