Stroke of Midnight
We are each born with a clock ticking away inside our chests, resounding like a drumbeat. Each beat marks the seconds, the minutes, the hours left on the timer. For most, a lifetime is measured in the space of years. For me, circumstances were different. For me, a year is a lifetime; and as slight as that may seem, I have indeed managed to live a lifetime in the space of a year. Now though, that year is winding down, and so too is the vigor and vitriol with which I once lived it. It is with both great remorse and begrudging acceptance that I regard the fact that on this night, December thirty-first, I will die at the stroke of midnight.
It’s a rare, funny thing to be born knowing the exact second at which you’ll pass on. Aside from myself, there are only twenty-three other living individuals on this world who have ever experienced it. They are my brothers and sisters, each born exactly one hour apart, at exactly the same time. Unfortunately, I have only ever met two of them. I met the first, Alexander, on the border between Alabama and Georgia. I met Regina on the one between Alberta and Saskatchewan. We are each locked within our own slice of the world, unable to ever venture outside of it. As such, although I have met two of my siblings multiple times, I have never been able to touch either of them. The experience is, to put it gently, bittersweet.
It’s strange, actually. I’ve known my whole life that I would die today, but it’s never really bothered me until now. As the sun rises on New Year’s Eve, I sit and stare at my withered old hands. Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days ago, they were the hands of an infant child. Now, they creak as I move them. Every action I take is an effort. These hands…they bear the scars of age. What have I ever done with them, though? I have spent my long, short existence as a spectator. I am bound by an oath that I never took to watch over my fifteen degrees of Earth, guiding but never interfering. Although that oath was never mine, I have always felt compelled by something greater than myself to abide by it. But now…I find myself wondering.
It is 5:34 a.m. My first sibling will pass on in less than half an hour. As I let this sink in, so too does something else. As he or she leaves this word, what memories will pass through their mind? What memories will pass through mine as I do the same? I have seen so much. I have stared down at the world from the top of the Sears Tower. I have watched the sun set from the Alamo. I have explored the ghost towns of Mexico, and sailed the waters of three of the Great Lakes. But somehow, it all feels so hollow. Without being able to directly interfere in the affairs of the world, there is only so much that you can really do to help it. Humans are a willful species, and will often ignore their own best interests for the sake of their ideologies, or perceived notions. Perhaps this oath was made in error. Maybe it’s not the grand scheme of things that truly matters. Maybe it’s the little people, and the little moments that make all the difference.
I stand up and look out my window. Through it, I can see Houston, Chicago, Mexico City, Winnipeg, San Jose, and so much more. All these places are mine to visit as I please…but what have I ever really done for any of them? I’ve left politicians hints that they never notice. I’ve given people inspirations which they seldom ever follow. I could have done so much more. I can do so much more. I may not have much time left, and I can never make up for the time that I wasted, but I can make the most of it. I hurl my fragile old body out of my window one last time, and find myself standing on the rural streets of Waldron, Arkansas.
My jumps have always been random, but they have always taken me to places where my guidance was needed. This is not the same, though. I have made the conscious decision to defy my pact. I am not here to guide. I’m here to make a difference. It doesn’t take me long to figure out what that difference is. It’s still early in the morning. For the young, that’s sometimes indistinguishable from being late at night. I see a lady, both younger and older than myself, begin to make her way across the street. She doesn't have her wits about her though. She’s still intoxicated from the night before, and isn't paying attention to the roads. The man driving the beaten blue pickup truck doesn’t even see her coming. I do, though. I dive, and space and time take me where I need to be. One instant, my arms are around the stumbling girl. The next, we are both situated safely on the opposite side of the street.
The truck swerves, and screeches as it comes to a halt. The girl who I have just saved is scarcely even aware of what’s just happened. The driver is a different story. His face is colored with horror and confusion as he rushes from his vehicle to check on the young woman. I never get to see how that turns out. He's halfway to us before I vanish once more, and find myself Allison, Iowa. There, I rescue a young man from a mugger.
In Tuxtepec, I stop a violent stabbing from occurring. In Santa Domingo, a little girl needs help finding her mother. On and on I go. I quickly become exhausted, but there is no time for me to stop. I prevent a drowning in Grand Portage, a car crash in Downers Grove; at one point, in Clayton, Oklahoma, I even prevent a poor, bullied, teenage boy from ending his own life. For almost seventeen hours, I do more good than I have done in an entire year; in my entire life. Then, I have to stop. It’s almost eleven o’clock now. More than half of my siblings have perished, and Alexander is next. I jump to the place where we have always met and find him there, waiting for me.
“I was starting to think that you wouldn’t come, you wrinkled old prune,” he laughs. Though he puts on a brave face, I can see the fear in his eyes. He knows that in a matter of moments, he will breathe his last breath. Alexander has always been a stubborn one, though. Rather than lament the end of his time, he would rather sit here, reminiscing and telling bad jokes. I have no desire to soil his final moments, so I am compelled to oblige. “What took you so long, Arthur?” he asks me.
“Don’t get your cane in a knot, you daffy old loon,” I tease him. “I just lost track of time, is all. I am truly sorry for that.” At this comment, Alexander bursts out laughing. “I didn’t know I’d told a joke yet,” I say.
“It’s just amusing,” he says. “We spend our whole lives with the clock ticking right in front of our eyes, and somehow on the last day you forget all about it. Haven’t been hitting the bottle, have we?”
“No,” I reply, “I haven’t. Although I can’t say the same about you, can I? And it looks like the bottle has hit back a few times. You look awful, brother. What have you been up to?”
“Oddly enough, there was no liquor involved in the matter. I know, it’s as shocking to me as it is to you, I promise. I just…this morning, I saw the sun rise, and I had this epiphany. In less than twenty-four hours, my life was going to end. And what did I have to show for it, you know? I considered just drinking my last day away, so I wouldn’t have to think about it. That would have been the cowardly way out, though. I’m a lot of things, but I’m no coward, am I brother?” as he asks this question, he looks me firmly in my eyes. I can see his own starting to fog. I glance down at my watch. There are only three minutes left until eleven.
“No, Alexander. You’re no coward,” I assure him. I feel something welling up inside of me. Sixteen of my siblings are already gone, but this is different. To be born into this life we lead is a beautiful, but cruel fate. Oftentimes, things get dark and lonely. Alexander is not just my brother, he is the closest thing that I have ever had to a true friend. “You are one of the greatest men that I know,” I vow. To me, the fact that he is one of the only men I know is of no importance. He would be great even if I knew a million men.
“If only I felt the same about myself,” he snickers. “Those damned rules, though…Arthur, I did something I shouldn’t have. I made a mistake…and it was the greatest, most beautiful, most fulfilling thing that I have ever done.”
“Alexander…what did you do?” I ask him. A part of me already knows, but I need to confirm it. I need to know that I was not alone in my thoughts. It’s silly, but I feel as though the affirmation of my brother will validate my decision.
“I broke the oath, Arthur,” he chuckles. “And now, with the clock winding down, with my last seconds staring me down like a hungry jackal…well, I’d be lying to you if I told you that I was at peace. I feel fulfilled, though. I feel as though these last hours have meant something. Does that make me mad? No…no, I don’t care if it makes me mad. But…but does it?”
I see the tears begin to form in his eyes. As they do, I feel them form in mine as well. There is less than a minute left. “I already told you, you ball of wrinkles. You are one of the greatest men who I have ever known.” As I say this, I try to maintain a facade of lightheartedness, but my throat catches, and my body quivers. “I did it too,” I tell him. “I broke the oath. So if you’re mad, then so am I.”
As my last words to Alexander sink in, he grins broadly through the tears cutting down his cheeks. “If I’m as mad as you,” he says, “then maybe I’ve finally gone and done something right for once."
Then, he is gone. There is no bright light, or loud noise. He simply disappears, as he has so many times before at the end of our conversations. Every other time though, I knew that I would see him again. This time…this time he is gone. Somewhere, his next incarnation is being born immaculately into reality, the Baby New Year of the Eastern Time Zone. But that child is no longer my brother.
“Alexander?” I call weakly. I know that he can’t answer, but there is a growing ball of futile denial in my chest which refuses to accept it. “Alexander!” I shout. This time, I rush the barrier which I know I can never cross. I run headlong into it, and it repels me several feet back in the opposite direction. I land hard, but the physical pain is nothing compared to the emotional agony. Not only is Alexander gone, but I’m next. I have less than an hour remaining on my timer.
I jump again, and this time I land outside of a bar in Chicago. I look around, searching and scouring, but I don’t see anybody in need of help. It takes a few minutes for it to dawn on me that maybe this last stop is for myself. Maybe, now, there is nobody who needs me more than I do.
I walk into the establishment, and take a look around at the people inside. It is both painful and joyous to see them all raucously celebrating the coming year, a year which I will never see. I sit down at the counter. As I do, I consider going to meet with Regina in my last moments. Her and I have never really gotten along though, and I doubt that she will be there waiting for me. Instead, I simply think, and remember. The truth though, is that I cannot recall anything other than these past hours. Alexander was right. Breaking the oath was the greatest thing I possibly could have done.
My self-reflection turns out to be short-lived, as I hear a shrill scream come from outside the bar. I doubt that anyone aside from me notices it, because of the sheer volume in the room. I can always hear someone in need, though. This last stop, perhaps, will not be so self-serving after all. I walk out into the ally, and see a woman sitting against a brick wall. The man standing in front of her has obviously just pushed her down, and is in a state of utter inebriation.
“Wadd’ya think you’re doin’, sittn’ over there makin’ goo-goo eyes a' Johnny all night?” he slurs. “You’re my woman, 'ear me?” The young woman is sobbing helplessly. She is terrified, but there is something else in her expression. She is resigned. This is not the first time that this has happened.
I have already seen enough. As the drunken man raises his fist to make the second strike, I jump in. The next moment, the woman and I are on a nearby rooftop. I expect to jump once more, as I always do when my work is done. This time, I do not.
“Where am I?” the girl asks. She is in a state of complete shock as she wipes strands of disheveled red hair, and streaks of running black mascara from her face. “How did I get here? I may be a mess, but I know I’m not nuts! I was just in an ally! Jake was just about to―about to…” she trails off. “Who are you?” she asks.
I am usually gone so quickly, that nobody has ever had the chance to ask me that before. “My name is Arthur,” I say. As I sit there and tell her everything about my life, and about the past day, I can’t tell whether or not she believes a word that I’m saying. Regardless, she listens. She doesn’t’ know what happened, or how she got on this rooftop, but she knows that I had something to do with it. Maybe her staying and hearing me out is just her way of thanking an old man. I look down at my watch. I’ve spent more time up here than I realized. Only two minutes left. “I’m sorry, I’ve been so rude. What is your name?” I ask the girl.
“It’s Riley,” she tells me apprehensively.
“Riley…I need you to promise me something, okay? Please do bear in mind that I am quite literally on my deathbed, and this is likely my final request,” I say. She looks at me skeptically, but she nods her head. I give her a good, hard look for a few seconds, but then I realize that time is quickly running out. “You need to get away from that boy, Jake, before it’s too late. I want you to promise me that. Can you make me that promise?”
She takes a long pause, but then she responds. “I know that I have to,” she says. “It’s just…it’s so hard. I’ve just been waiting for the right time, you know?”
“Trust me,” I tell her, “when I say that you can wait for time all you want, but there is no guarantee that time will wait for you in return. I tell you that from experience. Now, can you promise me?”
“I…I promise," she says. She looks scared, but I can tell that she means it.
“Thank you, Riley, for making these last moments of mine mean something. I suppose...I have time for one last request after all. Can you do one more favor for me?”
“What is it?” she asks.
“Can you sit with me until midnight?” She nods. I am grateful to not be alone as the seconds tick by mercilessly, edging ever-closer to the end of the line.
We sit down on the roof, and gaze up at the starless city sky as the end encroaches. Once more, the day’s events pass before my eyes. Once more, Alexander was right. I am not at peace, but I am fulfilled. It’s not very long before I hear the city of Chicago begin to count down in unison. Tears run down my cheeks as I listen to the melody of the bittersweet chorus.
“Ten! ...Nine! …Eight…! …Seven! …Six! …Five! …Four! …Three! …Two! …”
And then, all of my thoughts simply cease. I vanish for the very last time, hopefully having left the world a slightly better place than it was this morning.