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Before The Clock Runs Out
"You really need to get back to work."
James pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back into his swivel chair. It was a nice swivel chair, he noted idly, twirling the phone cords between his thumb and pointer finger. "I know."
"No, really, when was the last time you wrote something?"
"My point. You can't just throw away your career like this! At least try!"
The speaker on the other line sighed. "You're playing with that chair again, aren't you? I can tell. I'll shut up now." A pause. "But before that, the boss wants something done by the end of the year.”
It took a few seconds for the words to register in James' brain. “What.”
“Boss said —”
“I heard you first time. Does that mean —”
“Yeah. Jamesie-boy has a deadline!"
James cursed and looked around for something to bang his head against. Hard.
“Such is the life of a writer…” the voice on the other line said dramatically.
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut. Up.”
“Shutting up.” The phone was silent.
Two days later his laptop screen remained blank and stubbornly empty.
It was mocking him. Well, he reasoned, he'd show it. He'd write something that would skyrocket to the top charts so quickly, the page would stop looking so damn blank. He flexed his fingers and began typing furiously.
Fifteen minutes later, James' efforts culminated into a grisly narrative in which he’d decapitated his boss with a chainsaw. He let his head fall down to the keyboard in despair. Lifting it again, he saw that the page was blank — his head, apparently, had been resting on the backspace key.
James snorted. Good riddance.
A year ago, he would've been able to come up with a mind-blowing book easily. Now it was a struggle to even get started. Because ever since Michael —
No. Think of the good stuff. It’d help Michael live on in his heart. His counselor had told this; she recited it like a broken record. James had snorted and glared balefully at the plump woman who’d insinuated that she knew the workings of his mind better than he did.
Now, he dared to think about Michael, remembering the night they’d first met.
It began when a young boy, a street rat in every sense of the word, dashed around a tight corner and disappeared into an alley. A bottle smashed into the place where his head had been, thrown by a fat old baker. The boy allowed himself a grin, dashed along the path —
And smacked straight into a twenty-something-year-old man turning the very same corner.
"Watch it,” the man growled.
The boy tried to sidestep, but the alley was narrow. The sounds of plodding feet and wheezing breaths, steadily catching up to him, drifted into the boy’s ears.
“What’ve you got there?” the man frowned. “Stolen something? If you’re gonna steal something, at least make sure they don’t know it’s gone.” He turned and walked away. The boy gaped.
“Well, come on,” the man said as the baker’s figure became visible. “He looks like he could lose some weight, anyway.”
Still in shock, the boy fell in step beside him.
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
“Michael, if you gotta steal, someone might as well teach you how to do it properly. I’m James.”
It was a chance meeting... a burden, initially, that later started growing on James. Growing like a weed, he’d used to say, from an accident to something more. A ward. A responsibility. A son.
James hadn’t noticed the transition, at first. It would only be a couple of days, he’d told himself, he’d only take the boy in for a couple of days, and that would be it. But the days had turned to weeks and James couldn’t bring himself to follow through.
He’d come home from work at nights and find, more often than not, that the boy was waiting for him with a cup of hot lemonade. James would grumble at the boy for leaving dirty tracks on his floor.
He’d never been the best at expressing himself, but somehow the boy knew what unspoken words lingered in the air.
James barked out a laugh. A writer and a street rat... who would’ve thought? Call it luck, fate, or divine intervention... a street rat, Michael, had made him happy, and for a while that was all that mattered.
But then the diagnosis came, and they said Michael had two months.
James stopped writing after Michael was gone, and a piece of his heart died alongside the boy. Sometimes he caught himself wishing that he’d never met Michael at all. What good would opening yourself to someone be if they all leave you in the end?
He slammed his laptop shut. He needed fresh air.
Now he wandered around with no clear destination in mind, finally arriving in an old-fashioned clock shop. He strolled through the aisles, enjoying the rhythmic tick-tick-tick of the clocks and the solitude.
“What are you here for?”
James groaned. Just when he wanted to be alone... he turned and locked eyes with a boy, about fifteen years of age. “You the owner?"
James grunted. "Looking for clocks, obviously.”
"Do I look like a damn human clock to you, brat?"
Unfazed, the boy took it upon himself to answer the rhetorical question. “You have," the boy said slowly, as if talking to someone with a below-average IQ, "a phone." He pointed at said object sticking out of James' pocket. "Besides, most people go to the supermarket instead of an antique shop like this."
"I'm a writer with a deadline. I need better time management. Happy now? Why are you here?"
The boy fingered a clock with intricately carved leafy designs. “Because I won’t be here much longer.”
"A month," the boy answered to the unasked question and picked up an hourglass. “I think they’re nice. Clocks, I mean. The ticking... it’s reliable. Always there. It can go on forever as long as you replace the batteries. Too bad you can’t just replace us with batteries, right?”
“What’s your name?” James said abruptly.
The boy told him, and James swore at that moment he felt the stars burn out and the world stop spinning.
He went to see the boy the next day, offering a simple “You remind me of someone” as explanation.
“Your son?” the boy inquired doubtfully.
“No. Well,” James started unevenly, “not biologically, but he might as well be. I took him in. An orphan from the streets. He had cancer like you. And I lost him."
James paused and snorted. "Y'know, I'm a writer. I string along words for a living, and yet I can't find the right words to describe it. The feeling... it’s like someone’s torn a hole right through time and space, and you can’t breathe. Like the ice is breaking under you but there’s nothing you can do. And everyone’s telling you to move on because so-and-so wouldn’t want you to suffer, but you can’t. You can’t move on. You’re stuck in this stasis and you can’t function...”
James sucked in a breath. “I loved him. And he’s gone now. How do you hold up? How do you stand knowing that you’re going to die?”
The boy pondered for a bit. “Well, I’ve got a bucket list.”
James laughed at the sheer absurdity. “A bucket list makes it all better?"
The boy shrugged. "I just need one more thing to finish."
"What’s that, then?”
“I want to be remembered,” the boy answered without hesitation. “Not just remembered for a couple of hours during my funeral, and then everyone forgets about me. Not like that.”
“Looks like you’ve saved the toughest one for last,” James remarked.
The boy hummed in agreement. “Listen here, mister. I’ve got a thousand things I want to do and there are only thirty on that list I’ve finished because I haven’t got the time for everything. I thought I would live forever. Did you know that teenagers’ brains are wired differently from adults? That’s why we think we’re invincible and we’ve got all the time in the world.
“But we don’t. I’ve got a thousand things I want to do and I haven’t done them. Kept putting them off, and I regret it. You won’t believe how much I regret it. I was angry at the world, at myself. I didn’t make the most of my time when I could. I was so angry... and then I wasn’t anymore, because I realized something that helped me get through my days. You want to know my secret?”
James hadn’t realized that a traitorous tear had wound its way down his face and he leaned forward.
“I’m not angry anymore,” the boy continued, “because you know what? It’s not too late. I didn’t make use of my time before, but right here, right now, I can do that. I’ve still got time, and I intend to make the best of it while I still can. It’s not too late. It’s never too late to live your life.”
James choked back a sob, burying his head in his hands.
“And you,” the boy looked at James, “you’ve got your life ahead. You’re not sick like me, so don’t wait until you become like me. Don’t let your drawers be filled with unsent letters and what-if scenarios. Whatever you have to do,” he said fiercely, “you have to do it now.”
James had gone back to the hospital a month later and asked about the boy, all he’d gotten was a sad look from the nurse at the front desk. The room had been emptied, surgically stripped clean of all traces of the boy. But after meandering around the cemetery, he’d managed to find the one grave he was looking for.
James looked down at the grave. The boy wanted to be remembered, and James wanted to do that.
He dropped to the ground beside the tombstone, zipped open his backpack, and took out his laptop. He flexed his fingers, started to type.
'Thirty-one days ago,' he began, 'I met a terminally ill boy in a clock shop. His name was Michael.'