Robert R. McCammon's "Life in the Day of"

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A Life in the Day of

by Robert R. McCammon

Originally published in
Night Visions IV
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Late! Late! Late! Late! Late!

Twelve minutes after nine on the cold face of his golden Bulova. Heartbeat drumming ... hurry, hurry ... pulse like a jackhammer under his skin ... hurry, hurry ... neck itchy with sweat in the wet August heat ... hurry, hurry . . . somebody gets in the way, push them aside ... hurry, hurry, hurry!

Johnny Strickland was almost running on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk, dodging in and out of other blurry shapes, hitting the slower ones and knocking them aside. Somebody yelled, "Watch it, mac!" when he shouldered the guy out of his way, but he had a long stride and he was out of range of a punch within seconds. He could almost hear time ticking past, and he kept his black briefcase in front of him like a wedge to dig a path before him. He would not now be twelve minutes late if he hadn't stayed up until after three in the morning poring over the layout roughs for Hammerstone Seafoods; he detested being late but he knew Mr. Randisi would forgive him. Packed into his briefcase were dynamite ideas that would surely bring old hard-assed Hammerstone around to renewing the contract. And if these ideas didn't do the trick, he'd work all night tonight to come up with better ones. No way am I going to be left behind! he told himself, his teeth clenched and his jaw jutting out like the prow of a speedboat. No way! Those junior execs are going to be eating my dust this time next year and wondering who passed them!

He had hardly spoken to Anne this morning, had crammed a blueberry croissant into his mouth and washed it down with ebony coffee to get his batteries charged. He was in such a rush to gather all the work together and finish his report that he'd hardly had time to think; of course he'd missed his subway train by only a few minutes, and he damned himself for pausing at the apartment's front door to let Anne kiss him before he darted off to the white-collar wars.

She would have to understand that being a rising young star in one of the most muscular ad agencies in Manhattan had to come first, he reasoned as he plowed through the sidewalk crowd. Sure, she didn't understand now. She didn't see why he couldn't slow down just a little bit, why he couldn't take the time for a leisurely dinner with her, go out to the movies or the theater or just sit and talk like they used to. But Jesus Christ, everybody had time to do that sort of stuff when they were kids and just married! Now he was twenty-five years old and he was on the fast track at Kirby, Weingold and Randisi, and if he landed Hammerstone again he'd get a hoped-for bonus that would pump his pockets up to thirty thousand scoots a year. Anne didn't understand that Fletcher and Hecht and Anderson—as well as a dozen other Ivy League grads— were breathing down his neck, and the only way to keep ahead of them on that fast track was to put the pedal to the metal, the nose to the grindstone, the coals to the fur—

"Pencils?" a high, thin voice asked, and a tarnished metal cup full of them was shoved upward in Johnny Strickland's path.

He almost stumbled over the figure before him, cursed and drew himself up short. His hand was locked to the briefcase's grip, and a surge of fury coursed through him at being even momentarily stalled.

"Pencils, mister?" the man asked again. He was small and gnarled and as ugly as yesterday's headlines; he wore a ragged green coat, even in this stifling heat, and on his head was a filthy Mets cap. He had no legs, and he was confined to a little red wagon that looked as if it had been salvaged from the dump. He cocked his angular, grimy face in Johnny's direction, and Johnny could see that both eyes were filmed with grayish-white cataracts. Hanging on rubber bands around his neck was a crudely-lettered cardboard sign that read: I AM BLIND. PLEASE HELP ME IF YOU CAN. THANK YOU.

The beggar shook the can of pencils in Johnny's face. "Wanna buy a pencil, mister?"

Johnny almost shrieked with frustration. The revolving doorway to the Brennan Building was little more than a block away! "No!" he snapped. "Move out of my way!" He started to go around the old man, but the beggar suddenly reached out and caught Johnny's trouser leg:

"Hold it. How 'bout a nice wristwatch, huh?" And he thrust his skinny right arm out of his coat sleeve; on it were maybe eight or nine watches, all of them showing different times. "For you, wholesale."

"I said no!" He pulled his leg free, started to stride on.

And he felt the beggar's claw grip his ankle, with much more strength than he would've imagined the frail-looking old man possessed. Johnny tripped, almost fell but righted himself. His face flamed with anger.

"In a hurry, ain't you?" the beggar said, and when he grinned his teeth were the color of mud. "Businessman. Young bull, thinkin' the world's movin' in slow-motion, right?"

"Listen, I'm going to call a cop if you don't—"

"Hush," the beggar told him, and the sound of his voice made Johnny stop speaking. "I'll tell you somethin', and I'll tell it true: Time flies."


"Time flies," the old man repeated. His grin widened. "Nice watch you got on. How much it put you back?"

"It ... was a present ... from my wife ..." He caught himself suddenly, realized he was talking to this old, smelly coot like the bastard was somebody! My God! he thought, and dared to look at his watch again. I'm seventeen minutes late!

"Time flies," the beggar said, and nodded. "You remember that." And he released Johnny's ankle with a satisfied grunt.

Johnny took three long strides, turned and shouted, "You're a public menace, jerk!" but the old man was already pushing himself along with one hand and shaking the can of pencils in someone else's irritated face. Johnny pushed his way forward, his face red to the roots of his curly, dark brown hair, and finally shoved through the Brennan Building's revolving doors at exactly nineteen minutes after nine o'clock.

He had to endure a wry, snide glance from Peter Fletcher as he came off the elevator onto the sixth floor and hurried past Nora, the attractive auburn-haired receptionist. Fletcher was bending over the desk, making chitchat; but Johnny knew he was trying to look down her dress, and anyway Fletcher was a married man the same as Johnny. But then he was past that point of torture and striding along the corridor, past the secretaries at their desks and to his own small, windowless office. He went in, closed the door and paused for a moment to take a couple of deep breaths; he was feeling dizzy, light-headed, and he thought that his encounter with the blind pencil seller had affected him more deeply than he'd known. Jesus Christ, the cops ought to get stuff like that off the streets! That guy could've broken my leg!

He knew Mr. Randisi would be calling him in a few minutes, and he'd better have the notes and outlines organized. He laid the briefcase atop his desk like a crown jewel. On the desk were files and folders from other accounts, and on the floor were stacks of newspapers, ad magazines and various other publications. Johnny was nothing if not a voracious reader, particularly if it helped his climb to the advertising stratosphere—and he planned to be in that celestial realm by the time he was thirty years old.

He started to open the briefcase, and then he realized something was wrong. He had caught from the comer of his eye the number of the calendar that hung on the back of his door; it said Tuesday, August 11, 1987. But that wasn't right. No, he'd forgotten to pull the page off when he'd left the office yesterday. Probably in too much of a hurry. But that bothered him, and so he crossed the cramped little office, reached up and ripped the page away. And now the date was correct: Wednesday, August 12, 1987. He was a man of dates and times, and now he felt a lot better. This office was a second home to him. Small wonder, he mused as he went to his desk and sat down. I probably spend a lot more time here than at the apart—

His intercom buzzed. He quickly punched it on. "Yes?"

"Randisi, Johnny. Got the work done?"

"Yes sir. Be there in one minute."

"Make it thirty seconds." The intercom clicked off.

There was no time to check the work. His heart pounding, Johnny picked up the briefcase, quickly adjusted his tie and left his office. He walked down the corridor, turned to the left and faced Mr. Randisi's blond, streamlined young receptionist. Oh, the big guys really knew how to pick 'em! he thought. But then again, she wasn't prettier than Anne. Anne was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, and once all this rush died down he was going to buy her flowers and take her to dinner at a real four-star res—

"He's waiting for you," the receptionist said, and Johnny went in.

Mr. Randisi, thick and gray-haired and possessor of a blue-eyed stare that could chip flint, was parked behind his dark slab of a desk. "Got it for me, Johnny?" he asked in his hearty voice.

"Yes sir, right here." He patted the briefcase as he put it on the blotter atop Mr. Randisi's desk. "I stayed up pretty late last night, finishing it up, so that's why I came in a little tardy this morning. Sorry. It won't happen again." He unsnapped the briefcase and lifted its lid.

"Tardy? This morning?" Randisi's gray eyebrows knitted together. "I thought you were at your desk at eight-thirty."

"Uh ... no sir. I just got in a couple of minutes ago. Sorry." He took out the neatly-typed report and slid it across the desk. "There you are, sir. And, if I can be so bold as to say, I think Mr. Hammerstone's really going to jump at that program."

"Mr. Hammerstone?" The eyebrows had almost merged. "Johnny, what in the name of Hell's half-acre are you talking about?"

Johnny had been smiling; now he felt the smile slip a notch. "Well ... uh ... I mean ... Mr. Hammerstone's going to appreciate the work that all of us have put into this—"

"George Hammerstone had a heart attack in September, Johnny," Randisi said, and his voice had turned from hearty to a bit cautious. The blue eyes bored into Johnny's face. "We went to his funeral together. Don't you remember?"

"Uh ... uh ... well, I—" He found himself looking down at the typed title on the report; he saw it upside-down, and he reached out to turn it around.

The title was Proposed Program For Weston Electronics Multi-Media Campaign. And beneath it, in smaller letters, was By John Strickland.

"You look sick, Johnny," Randisi said, and he glanced at his own wristwatch. "Well, it's almost six now. You can go home if you like. If I have any questions about this report, I'll call you la—"

"Oh ... my God," Johnny whispered. He was staring at the large window that looked down on Fifth Avenue.

It was snowing outside. Big, spinning, dead-of-winter snowflakes.

He went to that window like a sleepwalker. Snow was collecting on the rooftops, and whirling in the wind. Down on Fifth Avenue, people were wearing coats, hats and gloves.

And he suddenly realized that he was not wearing the lightweight dark blue summer suit he'd hurriedly put on this morning; he was wearing a tweed coat that he'd never seen before, dark brown slacks and tan oxfords. The only thing he recognized about his outfit was his brown-striped necktie, a Christmas gift from his father-in-law two years ago.

"Johnny?" Randisi asked carefully. "Are you all right?"

"Yes ... I mean ... I don't know what I mean." He shook his head, entranced and terrified by the falling snow.

"It's August," he said softly. "August. I know it is. It ... can't be snowing in August."

There was a long, terrible silence. "Say it's August, Mr. Randisi," Johnny whispered. "Please, say it's August."

"Uh ... why don't you take a day tomorrow." It was a statement, not a question. "A couple of days if you like. I know the strain of working on three major accounts at the same time must be damned heavy. I know / wouldn't have shouldered it when I was your age. Anyway, if the workload overflows I can shift some of it to Fletcher or Manning—"

"No!" Johnny spun toward the other man, and he saw Randisi's heavy-lidded blue eyes blink. "I'm fine. Don't you worry about me, no sir! I can handle anything you throw at me, and I'll do it in half the time anybody else can!" He felt sweat on his face, and his legs were shaking. "I'm fine," he repeated. This time he sounded like he really meant it.

Randisi didn't move for a moment or so. His stare had returned to full wattage. "Are you and Anne all right, Johnny?"

"Yes. Everything's fine." He heard his voice tremble.

"I hope so. Anne's a lovely, gracious young woman. I wish to God I'd found a wife like her when I was your age, and maybe I wouldn't be up to my neck in alimony right now. My ex-wives curse my name, but my cash sure keeps 'em living in high style! Oh, my ulcers!" He grimaced and put a hand to his belly, and it was then that Johnny saw the little day-by-day calendar that sat on a comer of Randisi's desk.

The date was Friday, January 8, 1988.

"No ... no," Johnny whispered. "It was ... August, just a few minutes ago ..."

"Take a week," Randisi told him. "Go somewhere. Relax. Forget about the accounts. I'll shift the workload to somebody else."

"I can handle it!" Johnny protested. "I said I'm fine!"

"And I said, take a week." Randisi's tone was final. He swiveled his chair around and busied himself—or pretended to, at least—with the report Johnny had just delivered.

Johnny walked out of the office and closed the door behind him. His stomach was churning, his head pounded and he didn't know what the hell was happening to him; his insides felt compressed but his skin felt stretched. But he couldn't leave it like this, couldn't let Mr. Randisi shoulder him aside and give more work—more opportunities—to Peter Fletcher and Mark Manning. No way! He turned abruptly and put his hand on the doorknob.

"Can I help you, Mr. Strickland?"

An attractive Oriental woman was sitting at the receptionist's desk, where the streamlined blonde had been a few minutes before. She lifted her eyebrows and waited for him to answer.

He'd never seen her before in his life. "How ... do you know my name?"

She hesitated, looked confused, then smiled. "You're such a kidder, Mr. Strickland! Really!"

"Listen, I don't know what this game's all about but you're not Mr. Randisi's secretary!" He turned the doorknob— and found the door was locked.

"Mr. Randisi's gone to lunch," the woman said, her voice cool and wary now. "You know he goes to lunch everyday from twelve until two."

"To lunch? Lady, I was just talking to him! I just walked out that door!"

She glanced at her wristwatch, her face impassive. "That door," she said, "has been locked for one hour and twenty-seven minutes. Mr. Randisi will be back at two o'clock."

He looked at his own Bulova. Whoever she was, she was right: it was one twenty-seven. But what day? He almost screamed and laughed at the same time. What day?

Because he'd realized the woman was wearing a summery pale blue pin-striped dress, and on her desk was a glass of purple flowers.

He shook his head dazedly, strode past her and into the corridor where the noise of clicking typewriters and teleprinters in the secretarial work area sounded like summer hornets. He almost collided with Mark Manning, tall and dapper, dark-haired and confident as always. "In a hurry, aren't you, John?" Manning asked him, but Johnny swept on past the man without answering.

Turning down another corridor, he faced a window that looked toward Central Park. He heard someone give a soft, strangled gasp and realized it was his own voice.

The trees were green in Central Park. It was a beautiful day—late May or early June, he thought it might be—and the warm golden sunlight glowed in the windows of nearby buildings. Off over the park, he caught the sight of a kite sailing up and up in the breeze.

Johnny staggered back along the corridor in the direction of his office. He needed a drink, a cigarette, something, anything to clear his head. He closed his door, sat behind the cluttered desk—again his gaze locked on the wicked, insane calendar. It had changed again: now it said Monday, October 23, 1989. He heard the sound of thunder beyond the walls.

He pressed his hand to his mouth. It was a joke! It had to be a crazy, evil joke! Oh my God, my God what's happening to me? . .

And then he saw the dates on some of the newspapers and magazines that were stacked around him: 1989 ... 1989 . . . '89 ... '89....

But there was something else on his desk too. Something even more terrible.

It was a Hallmark greeting card, and on the front were the words With Deepest Sympathy.

There were other cards too, and with shaking hands Johnny dared to open one of them.

The signature said Max and Carol Davidson. They were his parents' next-door neighbors in the little town of Harrington, Delaware. Just above the signature either Max or Carol had written: Your mother was a wonderful woman, Johnny. We're going to miss her very much.

Tears sprang to his eyes. He flung the sympathy cards aside and searched for the telephone in the jumble of papers on his desk. His hand came up with a framed photograph of Anne, buried for God only knew how long beneath a leaning tower of workpapers. He had never seen that particular picture before, and as he stared at it he realized that Anne's hair was cut shorter, and she somehow looked older, tired, maybe disappointed. He wiped tears from his eyes, found the phone and dialed their apartment.

"Yes?" she answered.

"Anne! Thank God!" he almost sobbed with relief. "Oh Lord, I've got to tell you what's been—"

"Who is this, please?"

"It's me! Johnny!"

"I'm sorry, you must have the wrong number. Nobody named Anne lives here."

It was not Anne's voice. This woman's voice was deeper, harsher. "Wait!" Johnny said, before whoever it was could hang up. "Please wait! This isn't 554-0989, is it?"

The woman paused. Then, "Yes, it is. But I'm telling you, there's no Anne here, mister."

"That's my number, damn it!" he almost shrieked into the phone. "That's my apartment! What do you mean, there's nobody named Anne there! Listen, I know that place! The front door sticks when it rains, and there's a crack that looks like a dinosaur's backbone on the bathroom wall! The toilet makes a jingling noise when you flush it, and down in the front lobby, there's a mailbox with my name on it—John Strickland!"

The woman was silent. Then she said, "Strickland? I know that name. Yes, I used to get mail for the Stricklands. Magazines and stuff. I didn't know where to send them, but the lawyer came by one day and picked some stuff up for the woman. I believe her name was Anne."

"The lawyer? What lawyer?"

"Her lawyer, I guess. They divorced a few years ago. I don't know, I don't try to find out the life stories of the previous tenants. Listen, this is my apartment. You want to find somebody named Anne, call the Lonely Hearts Club." And she hung up.

He sat with the receiver clenched in his fist, his eyes seeing nothing. They divorced a few years ago. A few years ago. Years ago....

He could feel the calendar calling his eye. Could sense it there, waiting for him to look. He heard the steady ticking of his wristwatch, and he kept his neck rigid so he couldn't even glance at it. Time had gone crazy. Had jumped its tracks like a runaway train, and was carrying him on a headlong journey to oblivion.

On his desk was a copy of the New York Times. The headline read President Redford OKs Second Manned Space Station. And the dateline—the hated evil dateline—said it was Wednesday, September 16, 1992.

The sunlight of dying summer painted the walls of his office. Only his office had had no windows—until now, that is.

He swiveled around in his chair and looked out over Fifth Avenue.

A new building was going up, its sides shimmering with blue glass. He could see the workmen, high up in the skyscraper's iron bones. And higher up in the sky a blimp floated past with FEDERAL EXPRESS emblazoned on its side.

The intercom on his polished walnut desk buzzed. He turned toward it, as slowly as if locked in a nightmare. The buttons were different, and it took him a few seconds to find the right one.

"Yes," he said tonelessly.

"Mr. Kirby's waiting to see you, Mr. Strickland," said a bright, cheerful female voice.

"Tell him ... tell him I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Oh, no sir. He's right outside. Can I send him in?"

He thought he said yes. He didn't know for sure. Anyway, the door opened and Frederick Kirby—the commanding force of Kirby, Weingold and Randisi—came in, followed by a willowy and very attractive young blond woman wearing a yellow VASSAR pullover and a plaid skirt.

Mr. Kirby had had swirls of gray in his hair yesterday, Johnny remembered. Now his hair was totally gray, and receding in front. "Here's our boy wonder!" Mr. Kirby said; he was holding the girl by the elbow, and now he pushed her forward. "John, I want you to meet Kim. She's just back from Europe. I told her you'd have a lot in common, since you both seem to like London so much. Don't you think she favors her father?" He smiled, showing his perfect teeth; she smiled too, but her teeth looked sharper.

"Yes sir. I ... guess she does."

"Yes sir?" Kirby laughed. "So what's with the sir bit? Kim, this man before you has brought six new accounts in one year to Kirby, Weingold and Strickland. I ought to be calling him 'sir'. Now, isn't he as dashing as I told you he'd be?"

She smiled only with her mouth. Her eyes were very blue, but they were not warm. "I've always liked older men," she said.

"We want you to come out to the house on Saturday night for dinner. Seven o'clock cocktails. Kirn's in town for a few weeks before she heads out to Hollywood for a visit, and I'd like for you two to get acquainted. That suit you, John?"

Johnny nodded. Or thought he did. Nothing was real anymore, and nothing seemed to matter worth a damn.

"Keep up the good work, John," Mr. Kirby said as he and his daughter were leaving. "We're depending on you to bring in the Cartier account before September 1. Okay?"

"Okay," Johnny said, and his face almost cracked when he smiled.

Before September 1, Mr. Kirby had said. And then his eye was pulled to a gold-rimmed calendar that sat on the edge of the desk, exactly where it had sat when this desk had belonged to Mr. Randisi.

The date was Tuesday, July 15, 1997.

Rain was running down the window. The walls of his office sparkled with awards and plaques. The telephone hummed, and when he picked it up a strident female voice said, "Don't you hang up on me again! I swear to God I don't know why I put up with this! We're supposed to have a garden party and look at this weather! Did you order the champagne?''

"Who ... is this?"

"Look, you can play games with the other chickies around the office, but not with me! Daddy's right down the hall, and Daddy wouldn't like to hear how you've been treating his golden girl lately!"

And then he knew. "Kim," he said.

"Wow! Got it right the very first time!" she said bitterly. "I swear to God, I ought to go back to Hollywood! I could've been somebody out there! Now are you going to order the champagne or do I have to do everything?"

"Oh ..." he said, as tears spilled down his cheeks. "Oh, God ... I want to go back . . ."

"Cut the crap! Oh you'd like me to feel guilty, wouldn't you? It wasn't my fault! Maybe I ought to go to that closet and get that gun and put it to my head, and I'd curse you to Hell when I pulled the trigger. How'd you like that, huh?"

"Please ... please," he begged, and he squeezed his eyes shut when he put the receiver down.

When he opened them, he was looking right at the calendar. It was Friday, March 19, 2004.

His hands were shaking. A mound of cigarette butts lay in a green onyx ashtray on his desk. And suddenly he realized he was heavy, and his shaking hands were thick. Something pounded and hurt down deep in his stomach, and when he put his hand there he said, "Oh, my ulcers!" and his hand sank into a cushion of flab.

Time flies, he thought. And he saw the face of the pencil seller, from what seemed to be both many years ago and a flicker of time. He felt sluggish and tired, as if the gears of his brain were bogging down in dark mire. I need a drink, he thought, and he looked toward the little bar where the bottles were.

As he got up, cold sunlight sparkled on the face of his wristwatch and drew his eye there. It was no longer a Bulova;

it was a Rolex, with diamonds where the numbers should be. According to the watch, it was forty-one minutes after eight. In the space of time it took Johnny to reach the bar, the light changed. The sun went away, and sleet hit the window like a scatter of birdshot. Bottles emptied and multiplied under his hand, and he could never catch any of them. He turned again toward the window, saw the sun slanting through heavy winter clouds; he went closer, and saw a building fall like dead leaves under the crash of a wrecking-ball. More new buildings were going up, and other ones were falling. Down on Fifth Avenue, the cars looked weird. Off in the distance, a bridge in the sky pulsed with brilliant blue light.

Time flies, he thought. And he saw his own face, reflected there in the glass.

It was not a face he knew. It had heavy jowls and sunken eyes, and the curly hair on its head was going gray. And worst of all—worst of all was that he could see in those staring eyes so many things that had been lost a long, long time ago. Maybe long before he was twenty-five, and hustling down Fifth Avenue with dynamite ideas crammed into a black briefcase. He glanced over his shoulder. The calendar said it was November 9, 2011. He blinked. May 28, 2017. Blinked again. February 7, 2022. Time flies, he thought. Time flies.

"I want to go back," he whispered. His voice was harsh, used to giving orders. "I want to go back."

And down on Fifth Avenue, in the hot sunlight of mid-summer, he saw the figure pushing itself along in a child's red wagon.

His heart leaped and labored. Something was wrong with his lungs, and his hands would not stop shaking. But he knew then what he had to do, as he strode to the door on aching legs and . . . hurry, hurry ... out past the red-haired receptionist he'd never seen before ... hurry, hurry ... along the endless corridor that had STRICKLAND, MANNING AND HINES on it in iron letters ... hurry, hurry ... and down in the elevator ... hurry, hurry ... out through the glass-walled lobby and into the street where . . . hurry hurry hurry! ... a thin cold rain was falling.

Ghosts ebbed and flowed around him, moving to spectral pulses. Things that no longer resembled cars purred and whined along the avenue. The drizzle stopped, the sun came out, a cold wind blew, a fog swept past, the sun burned hot, sleet cracked against the concrete—but ahead of him, through the hurrying ghosts, was the figure in the red wagon. Offering people pencils from a tin cup.

Johnny could feel himself aging with every step, could feel the clothes dissolving and reforming on his now-thickening now-thinning body. Hours, days, years streaked past with every footstep. His heart felt like it might explode, and he gasped for air and prayed that he would not die of old age before he reached that figure in the red wagon.

Cold wind lifted him off his feet. Someone shouldered him aside, and he fell to the pavement. He lay there, his hands— skinny and spotted with age—thrust out before him in the ice-crusted snow. His heart kicked and pumped and his lungs wheezed like an old steam furnace about to blow.

And over the sound of his own rapidly-approaching death came the squeak of wagon wheels through the snow.

Then silence, but for the muted keening of the freezing wind.

Johnny slowly lifted his head, and looked up at the figure in the red wagon.

The old man wore a ragged green overcoat, and on his head was a cap with N.Y. Zaps on the front. But the grimy, angular face was the same, and so were the cataract-covered eyes. When he smiled, the old man's teeth were the color of mud. He rattled the can in front of Johnny's face. "Pencils, old fella?" he asked softly.

"Please ... please ... let me go back ... please ..."

"Let you go back?" The old man scowled. "Well, you were in a hurry to get here, weren't you? Lord A'mighty, you only get one trip! So here you are! Ain't you pleased at the destination?"

"I'm dying," Johnny whispered, snow caked to his face. "Please ... I'm dying."

"Like I said, time flies. Oh, something in you was dead way back then, mister businessman! Figured you'd be happy if the rest of you was the same way, too! Time flies! Don't you understand that yet?"

"Yes ... I do understand. Please ... I've got to get back ... to my wife. To the way it was ... before. I've got to get back—"

"Why?" The old man's eyes narrowed. "Why do you have to get back?"

Johnny's eyelids were beginning to freeze together, and he could hardly make his tongue move. "I've got to get back," he whispered through numb lips, "so I ... can make the trip the way it ought to be made. Not in a hurry. Not by hurting. Just ... knowing that ... time flies."

"Right you are." The old man nodded, shook the can again. Johnny could feel his heartbeat stuttering, getting slower ... slower ... slower....

"Well," the old man said, "take a pencil, then." He offered the can to Johnny, then suddenly drew it back as Johnny's gnarled fingers reached for it. "Uh, uh," he said. "Not yet. First gimme that pretty watch."

Johnny took off the diamond-studded Rolex, and the other old man slipped it on his wrist with the rest of the wristwatches. "Nice, real nice. Don't keep time worth a damn, though. Now you take a pencil. Do it quick."

Johnny reached up. His groping fingers found one, and he pulled it from the metal can.

And in a sweeping swirl of time the snowy avenue was gone. It was hot August again, and a twenty-five-year-old Johnny Strickland was standing on the crowded sidewalk with a pencil in one hand and a briefcase in the other. The old man in the red wagon was still before him, but now wearing the Mets cap again.

They stood staring at each other, and the crowd of people moved around them as if they were islands in a fast-rushing stream.

"Well?" the old man asked. "What do you have to say now, young businessman?"

Johnny looked past him, toward the Brennan Building. It occurred to him that he hadn't had time to really look at Anne today, to smell the perfume of her hair, to kiss her and hold her the way he had when they were first married years—no, minutes!—ago. And suddenly he let go a joyous whoop and he flung the briefcase into the air, and as it soared higher and higher it came open and all the papers, the report, the notes, and the outlines, all of it tumbled out and sailed upward like the kites of children who know that it's never—never—truly too late.

"There you go," the old man said, and he smiled.

"Thank you!" Johnny told him. "Thank you! Thank you!" He turned and started to run along Fifth Avenue, but this time in the direction of home. A sudden thought struck him, and he turned back toward the old man in the child's red wagon.

Johnny held up the pencil. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Write your life story," the old man told him, and pushed himself and the red wagon into the jungle of legs.

Johnny ran home laughing, and he did not look back again.

Copyright © 1987 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology Night Visions IV, first published in 1987 by Dark Harvest. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2020 Robert McCammon Last updated 2020-07-17 00:17 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha