“Seconds Remaining” by Albert Berg

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0 Seconds Remaining

 

Three bombs in three separate suitcases exploded simultaneously. The shock wave cut through the snaking lines of people waiting to be checked and scanned. The great glass ceiling of the airport shattered into powder.

Shrapnel tore through Michael’s chest and belly, perforating his heart, intestines, lungs and liver. The shock wave traveled through his body, scrambling his brain inside of his skull.

There was no time to scream.

There was no time to hurt.

There was no time to think.

There was no time…

 

10 Seconds Remaining

 

Michael fidgeted with his phone. He scrolled through his email for the fifth time, looking for something from Willig. So far nothing. He kept glancing up at the line ahead of him, and checking the time at the top of the phone screen. There was a rising sense in his gut that he wasn’t going to make it on time. He was going to miss his flight and all of this would be for nothing. The line inched forward one person at a time as glassy-eyed TSA workers checked various monitors, and inspected random suitcases.

He was almost there. Just a few more people scanned, and he could pass through those magnetic portals, shoeless, beltless, but free from this interminable limbo.

He heard someone yell something behind him. He turned to look, but then his phone vibrated in his hand, a text message from Jess. He swiped it open and-

 

423 Seconds Remaining

 

The woman in the row across from Michael looked tired, bedraggled. She had a sleeping kid up on one shoulder, a toddler of good size, weighing down her small frame.

“Long day?” Michael asked.

She nodded, tired. “I don’t know how I’m still standing up.” She smiled, like it was a joke, but her eyes looked ready to cry.

“It gets easier after a while,” Michael said. Except once he’d said it, he wondered if it was true. How difficult had these last years been with Jess? What would he give to be able to go back to the time when she was his baby?

“I’m just glad he’s finally asleep,” the woman said. “He was so tired, before. He must have screamed for an hour.”

Michael nodded. And the line moved again, separating them beyond speaking distance.

 

2058 Seconds Remaining

 

Michael wanted to scream or punch something or both. But he couldn’t because the nice old lady driving the Uber was talking about her grandchildren. The traffic up ahead was more congested than his old man’s arteries had been. They were stuck behind a semi that seemed to have moved fifty feet in the space of half an hour.

He was going to miss his flight. He was going to be late. He had made a fool of himself, and walked away from the biggest deal in his career and now it was all going to be for nothing. He gritted his teeth and tried not to scream.

“Children really are a wonder. Do you have children Mr. King?”

The words jerked him out of his anger and back into the world. He thought about Jess. “Yes,” he said. “I have a child. A daughter.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jessica.”

Named after Vera’s grandmother. Named in another time, a time he barely recognized. They had been so happy then. How had they lost that? How had he gotten here?

“What’s she like?”

“She’s…great. Smart kid. And athletic. She plays basketball actually. Her team is going to the finals.”

“How exciting!”

“Yeah, it is.”

She’d been so excited when she called him on the phone. He couldn’t see her, but he knew she was jumping up and down as she talked, just a little bit, bouncing on the balls of her feet just like she had when she was a little girl. She was always moving, physically, mentally, never content to stay in one place for very long. Just like her mother. That was why-

“Oh dear,” the woman said, and he looked up and saw what had caused the stoppage. A big SUV had wrapped itself around a piling. There was glass all over the road. There were police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck, a complete set of emergency vehicles lined up along the side of the road. There were two black plastic body bags laid out next to one of the ambulances.

The woman shook her head. “You don’t ever know how much time you’ve got,” she said as they pulled past the carnage and accelerated to highway speeds once again. “You have to make the most of every day.”

He looked back at the wreck one last time before fixing his eyes on the road ahead. “I plan to.”

 

14,569 Seconds Remaining

 

Michael paced back and forth in his hotel room, stopping only occasionally to gnaw his left thumb’s ragged cuticle. He kept doing the math. The amount of money the company would lose if he bailed on this client (235,000 dollars), the probability he would be fired (high), his chances of making the flight back to Virginia (pretty good if he left now).

But the math didn’t help him with his big questions. What did he want out of life? What would make him happy? What is the point of all this?

He could look back and see the events of his life falling like dominos. He kept pressing forward, kept trying to succeed, but he didn’t know what that meant anymore. He’d won so many little battles but he’d forgotten what the war had ever been about in the first place.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. His heart jumped in his chest, but when he looked down, it wasn’t Jess, it was the client. For a half a moment he considered not answering at all. Then he tried to think of a suitably convincing lie. Then he swiped open the call and held the phone up to his ear.

“I am so sorry about this,” the client said. “It was a madhouse at the airport. Something about a ‘credible threat’ on the news. Not like those TSA guys are doing anything about it except make themselves feel better, am I right?”

“Yeah. Listen-”

The client started talking again, but Michael wasn’t listening. He was doing the math again, taking the longer lines into account. He would have to take a later flight, but he could still make it.

“I’m not going to be able to be there,” Michael said.

The client stopped, mid-chatter. “What? Why?”

“Something came up. A family emergency.”

“What about our meeting? This is a time sensitive kind of-”

“This is important.” More important than you. More important than me. “I’m sorry.”

Michael hung up before he could reconsider.

Okay, he thought. I’m doing this.

 

17,599 Seconds Remaining

 

“The team is really clicking lately,” Jess said. “It’s like we know what each other are going to do before we do it.”

“That’s great honey,” Michael replied, only half listening.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like hitting that last shot. I mean the ball was literally in the air when the buzzer went off. Mom got video of it with her cell-phone. It’s on her Facebook if you want to see.”

“I’ll definitely check that out.” Michael closed the email he had been reading.

“Listen, dad, there’s something I wanted to ask you.”

“What is it?”

“Well, we won that game, so that means we’re going to the final four in our division tomorrow. We’re going to be playing the Tigers, and they’re really good so we probably won’t win, but-”

“Hey, don’t be like that. You can beat them. All you have to do is score more points, right?”

“Anyway, I was wondering if you might be able to come and watch.”

“Um…” Michael’s brain buzzed into high alert. There was no way he could miss this meeting. This was the kind of meeting that could make or break his career. But he didn’t want to let Jess down too hard. “Listen, Vera is going to be there right? Get the two of us in the same room you’re going to have a war on your hands.”

“I already talked to mom about it. She said she promised to be civil if you showed up. She also said there was no way you’d be there. You can’t tell me you don’t want to prove her wrong.”

“I…listen, I can come to a game, okay? But, just not this one.”

“Okay.”

Something about the way Jess said “Okay,” hit him hard. She wasn’t crushed, she wasn’t even really sad. She’d been expecting him to say no. “Listen, I promise when I see you next time we’ll do something really special together, okay?”

“Okay.”

There was that okay again. Not angry. Just resigned, defeated.

“Listen I’ve got to go. Good luck with your meetings and everything.”

“Good luck with your game. You can do it.” And he truly believed she could.

After the line went dead, he stood there staring at the wall, thinking about the meeting, thinking about the game. He imagined walking into the gymnasium, unexpected, unannounced, still wearing his wrinkled suit.

He could almost see the smile on Jess’s face.

And he realized it could be more than a daydream. He could make it. He could be there for her. There was still time…

 

 

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Albert Berg lives in Florida where the humidity has driven him halfway to madness, and his children have finished the job. He is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.

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2 Comments

  1. The decision to play things out in reverse was a great one here. It, obviously reversed the mystery of the story. Who and why there was a bombing became irrelevant as we dug deeper and deeper into why Michael was eve at the scene of the explosion to begin with.

    My biggest complaint is that we’re treated to a great structural flip and Al’s usual quality prose, but the hook was a little…I don’t know…Disney Afternoon-ish? Sometime more complex than a lousy father trying to make it to his daughter’s big game would have been welcome. Granted that whole sentiment is just being used to ramp up the consequences of the end/beginning. And the last line (first line) of “There was still time…” does land nicely.

    Overall great stuff and another wonderfully unique tale from Albert.

  2. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    There’s so much I loved about this story. At its core, being about an attempt to reconnect a frayed parent/child relationship after a lifetime of misplaced priorities this narrative goes right for the heart, and it does so by creatively reversing the timeline. We know what happens right from the very start, but surprisingly it works quite well, because as it moves second by second, minute by minute back in time we starting learning more and more of the personal importance of what is lost. It becomes all the more powerful in this way. I love how the concept increasingly hits home with each passing circumstance as the main character is confronted with the presence of loved ones in our lives and the importance of valuing them. And we see this as the main character see it, only after he his decisive intent to make changes in his life, but because we are reading a reversed narrative we already know it is going to be too late, making his attempt at redemption all the more tragic.

    What didn’t work for me, however was the lack of a more focused revelatory pivot point for the main character, his moment of epiphany. The final conversation over the phone was a nearly perfect in the way it characterized the dynamics of this father/daughter relationship. You could almost feel the unspoken heartbreak coming through the phone line. But I also get the sense that it was almost exactly like perhaps dozens or even hundreds of similar telephone conversations over the years. What was it about this one, or his processing it afterwards that completely changed his focus, motivation and priorities? I felt something more was needed at that point to bring him to the transformative crossroads.

    But I still loved the story. It is powerful, heartfelt, human, and very creatively told. Amazing piece of work.

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