Elysium

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Lenny Priest lives in a dystopian world ruled by time. Every person on Earth now wears a Chronos device on their wrist that tells them their 'expiration date', the day that they will die. With less
than a month left to live, Lenny must navigate life and love to decide what is truly important in his world.

Submitted: June 03, 2018

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Submitted: June 03, 2018

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Elysium

By E.S. Pope


 

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

 

I groaned, my head thumping as I convinced my body to roll over and slam my hand down on the snooze button. I turned back over, eager to get that extra five minutes of sleep.

Hell, who was I kidding? I would push that booby trap button at least three more times before I dragged myself out of bed.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the sounds building outside my small studio apartment. The whoosh of passing cars carrying people about their busy lives sounded like hurricane winds as they made my walls shake ever so slightly. Horns blaring, people yelling, dogs barking from two stories up. The beautiful, morning chorus of a busy city.

I often lay there in my bed like that, half awake, picturing what each person’s life looked like. What did their morning routine look like? What were their quirks, the little things that they needed to do every time they woke up?

I sighed and cracked one eye open. Five thirty-three AM.

Who else was even up this early?

Below the glaring red numbers, the date waited, quiet but insistent. It didn’t need to demand attention. It knew it would be seen.

You see, the date was everything to people nowadays.

For example, it was April fifth, five thirty-four AM. That meant I had twenty-three days, six hours, and twenty-six minutes until I died.

 

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

 

Make that twenty-three days, six hours, and twenty-five minutes.

I heaved my legs over the side of the bed, testing how it felt to be upright. The world spun and I gagged.

Way too much whiskey last night.

Stumbling home blackout drunk was becoming an all too common occurrence. I couldn’t even remember where I went out, just that I had drank my favorite whiskey and a lot of it.

A unapologetic burp blasted its way from my gut. Today was not going to be a fun day.

My body went into autopilot as I went about my morning routine.

Get the coffee pot running, first and foremost. Check. I knew I wouldn’t make it through another hour without some caffeine.

Throw together an outfit that passes for halfway decent by some lofty societal standard. Check.

Hop in the shower so I don’t smell like a dirty gorilla that bathed in cigarette smoke and booze all night. Check.

I gave myself a cursory glance in the mirror. Brown hair slicked back, eyes a little too small and close together, ears a little too big, and a lopsided grin topped off my dorky short sleeve button down and grey slacks. I was truly the image of the sexy, metropolitan man.

Excuse my over exaggerated eye roll.

 

BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ!

 

Another alarm. This one meant it was time to start walking to work. I guess you could call me a bit forgetful. Most people just call me an airhead, or say I have my head in the clouds, or some other generic euphemism for somebody who thinks too much and acts too little.

I tossed my coffee into a travel mug along with a random amount of cream and a whole lot of sugar before hurrying to the door. At the last second, a cool draft reminded me of the weather and I grabbed my coat. I threw my keys and wallet into the peacoat pockets and I was on my way.

I didn’t bother locking my door. While I lived in a rough part of town, I just didn’t have the time to worry about things like possessions and safety. I knew when I would die, what else really mattered beyond that?

The door to the stairs guilted me, it’s thin window staring forlornly, as I walked by it.

I just snickered.

The days of worrying about my health, my fitness were long gone. I was taking the elevator today and the next twenty-three days of my life, exercise be damned.

The automatic doors admitted me without judgement and whisked me downward. A few floors down, they opened again to accept another ticking time bomb, this one disguised as a woman with that everyday kind of pretty that I loved.

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

The woman shared a knowing look with me and blushed, brushing back her long, curly brown hair, as she shuffled into the elevator then lowered her sleeve and glanced down at the inside of her wrist. Everyone on Earth knew that dreaded sound. The chirping meant she had lost another day, that she was one day closer to her death.

But how close was that? I wondered. A week, a month, a year?

I couldn’t help myself, risking a peek while she seemed distracted. Just as my eyes found the light blue numbers glowing on her Chronos device, she shoved her sleeve back down and huffed in annoyance.

“That bad?” I joked, breaking the awkward silence.

She stared straight ahead, the resolve to keep silent clear on her face.

“I get it.” I said, carrying on a conversation with myself. “No one likes to talk about it. Showing your expiration date is taboo except in those weird universal religions where they do rituals and shit with it.” I waved my fingers about with wide eyes.

Her mask weakened by a fraction. Another floor flew by, only six more to go now. I just had to know her date for some reason. Maybe, my curiosity was why I died in twenty-three days.

“How about I start?” I offered and turned towards her. Rolling back my sleeve, I held up my wrist so she could see the the device, my personal Chronos, attached to the inside of my wrist, its glowing numbers ever ticking downward. “I’ve got…” I flipped it for a moment to read the numbers then turned it back towards the woman. “Twenty-three days, six hours and five minutes left to live.”

The woman’s big brown eyes widened even further and her mask cracked right down the middle.

There it was, the moment I had been hoping for. Now, I just needed to wait for the humanity to leak out from within.

She turned and locked eyes with me. Without a word, she pulled the long sleeve of her dress down to the elbow and showed me her wrist. Her Chronos read twenty-two days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-seven minutes. Only six hours and eight minutes less than I had left.

“Jesus,” I said, gaping.

“I’m not sure I believe in Him right now honestly,” the woman said finally. “I’m Jessica.” She offered her hand.

I took it, intending to give her a polite handshake. No need to get overly excited, after all, even if it was my first positive interaction with a woman in almost a year. To my surprise, she hooked her thumb around mine until our hands clasped and pulled me towards her as she put her other arm around my back.

I stepped back. “Wow, uh… hi. I’m Leonard but my friends call me Lenny.” I said, whatever confidence I had possessed earlier unarmed by her odd handshake.

I shot a nervous glance at the floor numbers. One more to go.

C’mon, Lenny, you chump.Buck up.

“So Lenny, what are you going to do before you die?” she asked. The mask of shy reserve was gone and in its place, her face showed eagerness, her eyes glinting with mischievousness.

“Probably gonna drink. That’s what I’ve done most of the last month or so,” I admitted.

She giggled, her laughter like tinkling bells. Whether it was at my pitiful state or because she thought I was kidding, I couldn’t be sure. Whatever the reason, I already loved her laugh.

She wiped the tears from her face then locked eyes with me again. “That sounds like a solid plan to me but with one addition,” she said. “You’re taking me with you tonight. Pick me up outside the building at ten and take me to your favorite spot to get wasted.”

The elevator doors slid open and she slipped out in front of me.

“Wait…” I said weakly.

Glancing back at me with danger in her eyes, she mouthed ‘ten’ and winked.

Then, she was gone.

What the hell just happened? I thought. The interaction felt surreal. Things like that just didn’t happen in real life, especially to me. Here I was, thinking I knew her type but Jessica… Jessica was unlike anyone I had ever met before.

 

RING! RING! RING!

 

Who could be calling me? I wondered absently, feeling like the airhead everyone thought I was.

‘Tom O’Hare’ was emblazoned across the screen of my Chronos.

“Shit.” I said, double checking the clock. It read five minutes past six. I was late. “Shit!” I yelled at my wrist, earning me a dirty look from a passerby in a full suit.

I took a deep breath, touched the green ‘answer’ button and prepared to get roasted.

“Priest, Leonard,” the voice on the other end said. It wasn’t a question. “You’re late.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. O’Hare. The elevator wasn’t working this morning and—”

“—save the bullshit excuses, Mr. Priest. You’ve already fulfilled that quota this month,” my boss said. He sighed loud enough for the receiver to pick it up. “Out drinking the night away again, I’m guessing.” His voice sounded disgusted. “Be here in five or you’re fired.”

The other line went dead and my Chronos showed ‘call ended’.

That could’ve been a lot more painful, I thought morbidly, picturing a cartoon caricature of an angry boss literally spinning me over hot coals like a pig roast.

A long draught of my piping hot coffee settled my nerves enough to start my mad rush down the sidewalk. I only lived a couple blocks away but recent construction always had me criss-crossing from side to side to make it there. It really was a pain in the ass but it was the only choice other than walking down the middle of the street.

Actually…

I swerved through the parked cars lining the street straight towards the middle yellow line. Angry car horns screamed from both sides as cars slammed on their brakes to avoid running me over. But I survived.

That was the interesting thing about knowing exactly when you were going to die. You didn’t know how or why you would die but you knew every choice, every risky decision before that wouldn’t result in your death. Well… your immediate death anyway.

My buddy, Matt, told me a story once about someone who jumped off a roof a week before his expiration date. I guess the guy thought he was invincible since he still had a week. He was right in a way. The fall didn’t kill him immediately. However, the resulting injuries and complications from it did take his life a week later.

I flashed my wide, lopsided grin at the passing cars as they laid on their horns and flipped the bird in my direction. I didn’t care. I still had twenty three days left to live, might as well live it to the fullest.

When else would I get to walk down the very center of one of the busiest roads in New York City?

Despite the confidence in my immunity, I couldn’t but imagine the gory scene of an unsuspecting driver looking up and seeing me too late. He slams on his brakes, skidding, but his bumper takes me out at the legs. My last sight is the shoes of the driver as he rushes from his car to check on me but I’m already fading away, blood pooling…

I shook the daydream from my mind as I arrived at the double doors to my office building in record time, clocking in at eight past six, only three minutes after leaving my apartment and two minutes before Mr. O’Hare wanted me here. Maybe things were looking up after all.

As I sauntered to my cubicle, still feeling the high of walking the yellow line here, I caught a glimpse of my boss staring at me through the cracked blinds of his corner office. The look said all I needed to know: ‘One more mistake and you’re fired.’

I nodded to him, smiling like an idiot, keeping my rolling eyes in check.

Hearing you loud and clear, chief.

A girthy middle-aged man dragged himself by my cubicle as I put my bag down and I nodded to him. I think his name was Bill, one of the assistant managers, though I had always been bad at names. He looked like he had ran a marathon, choked on a burger, then sat out in the sun far too long. To put it lightly, he looked like hell.

I pushed the image of his suffering from my mind and settled into my generic office chair to go over what I needed to get done today.

Three meetings, eight reports to finish, and if I was lucky, a lunch break somewhere in that mess. I dove into my work, losing myself in it. The faster I got this done, the sooner I could leave this white cubicle of death and get drunk again.

“Hey, what happened? You get caught in that construction on fourteenth again?”

The sudden voice made me jump and my pen went skittering under my desk. It belonged to Elliot, a thirty-something man with his hair gelled in all the wrong places and a fake smile plastered on his face. He hung over the top of my cubicle, his rank coffee breath way too close for comfort.

“Elliot,” I said with the most respect I could muster. It came out sounding like I was gagging on something deep in my throat.

He leaned back, taking a measure of me. “Oh, I’d recognize that face anywhere. Another crazy, drunken night for Lenny, the least saintly Priest I know,” he said loudly, surveying the office like he was telling some grand tale of mystery and woe.

“Shove off, Elliot,” I grumbled. “Just got caught up in the elevator is all.”

Elliot whistled. “A clandestine affair, eh? I bet some security guard just got the best shift of his life. Lenny, you old dog!” He swung his fist toward my shoulder but stopped halfway as I flashed him a death glare.

I pretended to return to my work, burying my head in my reports.

“You hear about Bill?” Elliot asked, not giving up on our sad excuse for a conversation.

I shrugged.

“Word in the office is his time is almost up. You know–” He slashed a thumb across his throat and let his tongue loll out of his mouth.

“Jesus.” I muttered under my breath, wishing he would just go away.

“Anyway!” Elliot said, unfazed, then rambled on as my eyes glassed over.

Would this guy never shut up?

It was bad enough that he was the closest thing I had to a friend in this God-forsaken city. Now, he had to talk my ear off. I guess he didn’t realize how precious those moments were for me. I had never told anyone at the office.

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

Thank the Lord, saved by the bell!

An office door slammed open so hard I was surprised the glass window didn’t shatter. Bill staggered out into the hallway. His eyes popped out under his thick brow, his face turning purple and his veins bulging out of his balding head.

I had been saved by the bell. Bill, however, was not so lucky. I had a feeling what came next.

He keeled over right at Elliot’s feet, going down in a heavy heap of flesh and cheap cologne.

Elliot squeaked and jumped back.

Shaking my head, feeling strangely nonchalant, I swiveled my chair and knelt beside Bill. I didn’t bother checking his pulse, just more time wasted. Instead, I turned over his wrist.

The blue lights of his Chronos blinked four zeroes. Bill’s time was up.

I stumbled back into the scant safety of my cubicle. My own mortality lay at my feet, staring me straight in the face with those ghastly, still open eyes.

Bill was dead, just like I would be in a matter of weeks. My mind spun with the reality of it, grasping for calm as it continually slipped out of my shaking hands. I felt my eyes go vacant, letting myself become lost in my own head, escaping from the heavy weight of death lying at my feet.

Why did I even bother coming to work when I had so little time left? The question came with the immediate realization that I didn’t have a good answer. There was no reason to bother with such trivial pursuits.

So, without a word to Elliot or even my boss, I left.

By the time I made it to the ground floor, I was huffing, my breaths coming in wheezes. I had been afraid if I waited for the elevator that I would change my mind and walk back into the office, my tail between my legs, so I legged it down the ten flights of stairs.

That was a mistake, I thought as I tried not to puke from the sudden exertion.

I staggered through security and out into the open air.

A cool breeze blasted me in the face and for once, I was thankful for the still cold New England spring. I sucked in a couple deep breaths, wincing at the painful chill in my lungs.

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

Not again!

I groaned, eyes darting around for some other poor sucker to fall dead at my feet.

Then, I realized, everyone passing was staring at me, at my sleeve covered wrist.

Cursing, I stepped into the alley and unveiled my date.

It read twenty-two days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-nine minutes. In all the craziness of getting to work and Bill’s death, I had forgotten.

I lost a day, every day, at noon. Once again, I found myself with one less day left to live in a rapidly shrinking pool of days.

Part of me wanted to head directly to the Irish pub that I knew was a block away, get drunk before five o’clock, and not remember anything until tomorrow. A memory flashed through my mind though, stopping me as I turned in the direction of the pub.

The girl I met in the elevator, Jessica, what had she said?

‘Pick me up outside the building at ten’. I never even had a chance to say no. Luckily, she had just beaten me to asking in the first place.

Feeling a little lighter, knowing I wouldn’t be completely alone tonight, I hurried home to take a quick nap and make myself presentable as my mind swam with the possibilities.

 

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

 

The clock read nine fifty-five in the evening but I was already awake. I had only set the alarm just in case, to remind me I needed to get my butt off the couch by ten. I wasn’t going to miss my first date in a year by accidentally falling asleep.

Jessica sat on the stone wall just outside the apartment building, smoking a cigarette and watching the people pass. She wore a tight-fitting leather jacket over a flower-patterned, loose fitting shirt and skinny, maroon pants. Tight where it counted, the ensemble only accentuated her already apparent curves, making my heart race. I said a silent prayer to God, the Gods, any higher power really, for making this one thing go my way tonight.

“Those things will kill you, ya know,” I said as I walked up, throwing on my most charming smile.

Looking back over her shoulder, she just smiled and stifled a cough. “So, where are you taking me tonight?” she asked.

“You’ll see,” I said, hoping the air of mystery would keep her interested, at least long enough to sit down and have dinner with me.

She took the arm I offered her and we started off down the street.

 

I brought her to my favorite spot just like she asked. It was billed as a speakeasy with this cool atmosphere of a twenties saloon and a modern restaurant. The walls were original brick with those old copper ceilings, comfortable seating and dim but not too dim lighting. Part of the reason I loved it was the live music they had every night. That and the inexpensive, but delicious old-fashioned they poured.

Tonight, a guy with long black hair, loose fitting slacks and a t-shirt stood on stage with a guitar swung over his shoulder and a wide array of musical instruments around him, many of which I had never seen before.

I pulled her through the propped open door and grabbed us a seat, right in front of the stage. I had never been a very dominant or confident person but something about Jessica just made me want to prove myself to her, to take the lead.

I offered one of the seats with a good view of the stage, then plopped down into the one next to her. I had always hated ‘same side of the booth’ couples but I had twenty-two days left to live. I wasn’t going to waste time sitting across the table at arm’s length away from my date.

Jessica surveyed the room, her eyes drinking in the sights and sounds as I had so many times before. The place buzzed with energy, sort of like listening to the city at night but with its inherent negativity stripped away. People lined the bars, waiting for their drinks, and filled most of the tables on both the ground floor and upper balcony.

“So… what do you think?” I asked.

“It’s terrible,” she said, frowning.

“Seriously?” I yelled over the music’s climax.

She sniffed. “Nope. I love it,” she said, her eyes twinkling with mischievousness again.

The performer started up his next song with a guitar solo that he looped with a pedal then began adding other odd instruments, percussion and vocal sounds.

“He’s good,” she said.

I nodded. “He’s a regular. I love his music. He has like four CDs and donates all of the proceeds to kids in need throughout the city.”

She glanced at me with this unreadable expression, her eyes big and vulnerable, then it was gone. “That’s amazing,” she said and turned back to watch him.

We spent most of the night that way, watching the performer create his intricately looped and layered songs, drinking, eating, and making small talk.

Eventually, Jessica shifted her body so it faced me, staring at me until I noticed and turned towards her.

I raised my eyebrows, wondering what she wanted.

“Look. I think we can both agree that tonight has been lovely and all but we…” she trailed off, crossing her arms and retreating into herself. After a minute, she seemed to shake herself out of it and straightened. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste. So maybe we can speed things up a little.”

“You mean like… sex?” I asked.

She burst out laughing with that same melodic quality from the elevator, just louder and more comfortable.

“Maybe eventually, but no.” Her eyes twinkled. “Let’s talk about the deep stuff. Ask me a deep question. Something you’d never talk about when your superficial coworkers ask you, ‘How are you?’ and you reply with ‘Just fine, and yourself?’” she said.

I paused for a moment, thinking.

A deep question?This girl was definitely different than any other I’d ever met. Most of them were all ‘Call me pretty, buy me drinks, take me home, have sex, and we’re through’. Here Jessica was, on our first date, and she wanted to talk about our deepest… stuff.

“Okay, I’ll play along,” I said, searching her face. She really was beautiful. “Do you ever just wish you hadn’t gotten your expiration date?”

“Dates aren’t all bad,” she said. “Like this one, for example, it’s been pretty okay.”

I rolled my eyes. “You wanted deep, here’s deep! Stop deflecting the question,” I said, daring to take her hand in mine.

She looked up, surprise clear on her face.

Was she blushing?

I continued. “I mean, I’ve heard there are people out there that avoided the government mandate to get their date, just like people used to dodge taxes before the government found a way to put an end to that permanently with debt implants.”

Jessica considered for a moment, her fingertips lightly brushing the back of my hand. “I guess I do think about that a lot. Who would I be? Where would I go? Would I live my life any differently?”

“And what did you conclude?” I asked. “After all that thinking, I mean.”

Jessica snorted. “All hypothetical questions when it comes down to it. I am who I am. I have my date and I’ve got twenty-two days and seven hours to live,” she said, gripping my hand hard.

“So why are we wasting time talking?” I asked, feeling daring again.

What was this girl doing to me?

“My thoughts exactly,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”

I threw a wad of cash on the table, more than enough for the meal, the drinks, and a hefty tip without bothering to ask for the check. They trusted me enough there to know I would never dine and dash.

 

We made it back to the apartments in record time, less than half of what it took to get to the restaurant in the first place. Maybe because we were eager. Maybe because we were nervous. More than likely, it was a good helping of both.

Her hand still held mine as we walked up to the elevator, her grip tight like she was afraid I would change my mind and just ride the extra couple floors to my apartment alone. Our eyes met, exchanging the unspoken question, ‘Your apartment or mine?’

The elevator doors opened and I pulled her inside. Without a word, I slammed the button with the fading number nine.

My apartment was a mess but most of the women I had dated preferred to be able to leave quickly when they inevitably regretted their nighttime activities come daylight. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d woken up to an empty bed with my head pounding and bad decisions still poisoning my blood.

As the doors closed, Jessica wrapped her arms around me, resting them on the small of my back, then slammed me up against the elevator wall. The impact knocked breath from my lungs, but I barely noticed. I was already breathless, my heart racing.

Then, she kissed me.

Hard, passionate, furious. Mad at life and death and the too few moments in between. My lips fought back, scrambling for purchase. I knew the frustration. I felt the pain, and the passion, and the desire to live life to the fullest that came from having less than a month left to live.

I knew.

The elevator dinged and we barely paid it heed. We stumbled towards her apartment, my feet working with a mind of their own as I backed in what I hoped was the right direction. Tripping and giggling, we must have looked like a pair of drunken idiots. I usually would have cared, overthinking it until I turned myself off, uncomfortable and self conscious. But tonight, I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to be.

With a sudden turn, my back hit the wall with a hollow thud. No, not a wall. A door.

Somehow, she managed to fish my key from coat pocket and get it in the lock with hands trembling from nervousness and adrenaline. The door opened with a satisfying click. We practically fell inside.

The rest of the night felt like a blur. I vaguely remembering finding the way to my bedroom. My clothes came off at some point. So did hers. Our bodies melted into each other and became one over and over and over again.

Eventually, we rolled away from each other in exhaustion, our bodies spent way past their normal limits. Suffice to say, I slept far better that night than I had in a very, very long time.

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

I sat bolt upright, disoriented.

Where was I?

The familiar faces of the Fellowship of the Ring greeted me from their sagging movie poster on the wall.

I was in my room.

Someone stirred next to me. Jessica, I remembered. The familiar sound of a Chronos had woken me but was it hers or mine?

Jessica let out a long sigh, her naked breasts heaving. It must’ve been hers.

I didn’t need to check the time to know it was early. An all too familiar darkness stained my windows ink black, though hopeful sparks of fire crept from the horizon.

Jessica sat up and struggled to her feet, trying to navigate my dark apartment.

“You leaving?” I asked. My heart sunk. Maybe she hadn’t been so different after all.

“I’m just going to the bathroom, dummy. Go back to sleep. I am having a hard time staying alive in this pitch black darkness though,” she said.

“Sorry, want me to hit the lights?”

“No, no. I’ll be fine. Just need my eyes to adjust.” Something crashed and she cursed. “Never mind…” she laughed. “I misjudged what a mess your apartment is.”

“Sorry,” I apologized again. “I know it’s atrocious.”

“You bring every girl up to this mess or am I just special?” she asked.

“Nope. Just you,” I replied honestly. “It probably helps that you’re the only girl that’s ever been up here, too.”

“Well, I-“ she stopped, comprehending what I said. “I’m really going to go pee now and then, we’re gonna talk.” A light switched on and the door closed behind her, leaving me in darkness again.

 

RING! RING! RING!

 

“Tom O’Hare” blazed on wrist.

Yeah, I didn’t care. I was done with that human factory of carpal tunnel and broken dreams. I refused to spend my last days as part of the machine.

My fingers found the red button to decline the call and I hid the fluorescent light on my arm under the sheets. Letting out a deep breath of satisfaction from the freedom of that simple action, I sank into my bed, basking in the morning stillness.

Last night had been the best of night of my entire life. I had only just met Jessica yesterday and within twenty four hours, my heart was full to bursting. Within twenty four stinking hours, I felt like living again.

Nothing and no one had managed that in over a year. Those hundreds of thousands of hours spent now felt wasted on worthless pursuits. And now, I only had twenty two days and a smattering of hours to enjoy that feeling more.

The toilet flushed and the light clicked off in the bathroom a few minutes later.

Jessica crawled back into bed, straddling me and kissing me hard before rolling onto her side with her head nestled against my bare chest.

She let out a content sigh and shifted her head, seeming to stare up towards the corner of the ceiling.

“Hey, you alright?” I asked, my anxiety getting the better of me like always.

“You know, those things still creep me out,” she said, shivering a little.

Then, I saw it. A camera sat affixed to the corner of the room, its single, reflective eye ever vigilant, ever watchful of everything that happened in the darkness of my bedroom.

It’s existence didn’t come as a surprise to me. I knew of it, just like every other citizen in the United States knew of their own government monitored cameras, installed in each room of their homes whether they wanted it or not.

“Me too,” I said, blushing as I considered what some government agent in a dark Washington office had just witnessed all night and most of the early morning.

“Sometimes, like last night, I forget they’re there. But they’re always there. Always watching.” She shuddered again and I pulled her tighter to my chest.

The cameras had been installed five years ago, a short time after Chronos devices to show expiration dates were mandated for all U.S. citizens. The government justified the cameras as a way to “prevent harm to persons within their homes and to the nation as a whole” after people began acting more and more wreckless in their daily lives. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had thought of things like walking in the middle of the road.

Tell a person exactly when they would die and they would react one of two ways. They would either go to extremes to live life to the fullest regardless of the danger or they would lose all hope, all cares in the world, trying to expedite their imminent demise. I suppose I fell more under the latter.

Against me, Jessica coughed and hacked, ripping me from my thoughts. Her chest heaved against mine as her breaths came in fast and shallow. I pulled back, sitting up.

“Jessica? Jessica, are you okay?” I asked, terror thick in my voice.

Her shortness of breath continued for a few more moments before stopping on its own. Exhausted eyes gazed up at me, vulnerable, weary, and scared.

“Are you okay?” I asked again, resting my hand against her face.

“I will be,” she rasped.

I waited, letting her calm down and hoping she would explain.

“I’m dying,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Well, yeah. Me too,” I said, thinking she was trying to keep things light.

“No, Lenny. I mean, I know what I’m dying from.” she said, burying her face more in the pillow. “I have lung cancer.”

“Jessica… I’m sorry. I joked earlier, but I didn’t know.”

“It’s not the smoking,” she said, her lips cracking in a rueful smile. “I do that because I figure, what’s the harm right? I have stage four fucking lung cancer anyway, can’t do much worse at this point. They think it’s just genetic or something, not because of how I’ve lived my life.”

“That’s kind of twisted, don’t you think?” I asked.

She smiled again. “A little bit, but it’s okay. Everything is fine. I’m going to survive this.”

I choked a little. “You what? Jessica, your date…”

“I know what my date says, thank you very much.” She sat up, hands on her hips. “Don’t you believe in miracles? Don’t you believe in fate?” she asked.

“I believe in what I can see,” I said. “What can be proven. I watched a man die at my feet today, his clock literally up. That’s real. Expiration dates and the system that created them are real. Those others things… I don’t think so.”

“Well then, fuck the system!” She yelled.

I just looked at her, incredulous.

“No seriously, Lenny!” She insisted. “There’s got to be a way around it. The government isn’t religion. The president isn’t God. They don’t get to tell me how I live my life or when I have my death.”

“They kind of already do all those things…” I said, cringing back as I expected her to raise her voice again.

Instead, her voice was soft and kind. “Maybe… Maybe, miracles are what we make them. Maybe, we have to make our own miracles.”

“Maybe,” I said. “I’ve never seen proof one way or another.” I looked deep into Jessica’s eyes then and in the wane light, noticed the tears streaming down her face for the first time.

“I don’t want to die yet, Lenny,” she whispered. “I’ve only just found you.”

I wiped her tears away with a gentle hand and she fell into me. I held her like that until long after the light had won out over the darkness of my window and the day had passed late into the afternoon.

 

The next twenty one days were the best of my entire life. They flew by in a colorful, passionate blur. Jessica and I spent more time in the bed than out of it and that was more than okay with me. We’d order pizza in, sit around naked watching Disney movies during the day and drinking at night. I sang to her and she painted for me.

Only special occasions tore us from our warm, comfortable existence within the apartments. One night, we spent way, way too much money to buy a dinner cruise on the Hudson River. Open bar, a fancy five course dinner and sunset views over the water. I don’t even think we took pictures, so immersed as we were in the beauty and luxury of the night. Usually, it would have killed me to dish out that kind of cash but I wasn’t going to use the money when I was dead and any money spent on experiences with Jessica was always well worth it.

Another day, we spent back on the Hudson. This time, however, we were in kayaks, rowing down the river as the sun rose. The bright oranges and reds lit the glassy water on fire.

Jessica loved the water. It was where she found her peace and contentment in life. We got yelled at multiple times by the guide for PDA as we held hands across our kayaks or leaned over for kisses. Of course, he had good reason to warn us. One ill-fated kiss ended with both us flipping our kayaks and coming up sputtering river water betweens laughs.

All throughout our time together, we grew closer and closer. Our humor complimented each other perfectly. I don’t think there was ever a time that Jessica didn’t laugh at one of my jokes or that she looked at me confused as it flew over her head like it had for so many other women I had dated in the past.

Most importantly, Jessica kept me hopeful, cutting through my constant of depression with warm rays of sunshine and positivity. Whenever I started getting down on myself or our situation, she was there, reminding me that ‘fate’ had brought us together for a reason and that we would get out of this alive. I still wasn’t sure I bought all of what she said, but it still lifted my spirits, made me feel like not everything in this world was bleak and gray and pointless.

There wasn’t much that could bring us down. Except for Jessica’s illness.

Each day seemed to get worse, a new symptom infecting our lives, sapping Jessica’s strength little by little.

A week into our relationship, she began to have horrible chest pains. One night, they were so bad that she didn’t sleep more than a couple minutes at a time. I stayed up and by her side through the night, bringing her water and pain meds and keeping my Chronos at the ready to call an ambulance if the need arose. We stopped leaving the apartment after that.

Her shortness of breath worsened each day, too. First, she started to have trouble walking down the street, then it was to the elevator. Twenty one days in and she couldn’t walk from the bathroom to her bed without needing me to practically carry her, her breaths becoming violent and ragged by the end of the harrowing twenty-foot journey.

Blessedly, and I use that word loosely, I remained strong enough to care for her. No unknown illness racked my body. I didn’t have any sudden thoughts of jumping off the roof, at least, no more than usual. I kept them to a minimum.

Jessica was my world now and my world was slowly dying before my eyes.

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

That was it. The sound that marked the end of day twenty one. Jessica had less than twenty four hours to live now.

At first, I had these grand plans of how we’d spend our final day together. Go somewhere far away, high in the air, where we could see for miles and with a view of the water, of course. The water was Jessica’s favorite.

I walked over to the bed, setting down the drink I had fetched on Jessica’s bedside table. Her breaths came shallow, fast, and pitiful. Her tired eyes glanced up at me, trying to focus.

“Thanks, babe,” she said, her voice hoarse.

“Don’t mention it,” I said, plopping down on the side of the bed beside her. “Save your breath, okay?”

“Fuck that,” she cursed. “I’ve still got lots left to say and a lot of getting better to do in the next twenty-four hours.”

“Jess…” I trailed off, the lump in my throat making it hard to breath.

She slapped at me weakly. “Hey, lighten up. I hate when you’re sad.”

I just shook my head. My girlfriend was lying here, on her deathbed, and she was comforting me. I didn’t deserve this woman but the world deserved far more of her than a meager twenty-four hours and counting.

“So, how do we go about this whole making you better thing?” I said. “We’re kind of on the clock.”

Her eyes glistened and she turned her head away for a moment. When she turned back, her eyes had returned to normal, the vulnerability gone. Jessica hated being vulnerable.

“Can you… can you pray with me?” she asked.

I scrunched my nose like I smelled something rank. The last time I had prayed, I had been forced into a pew by my parents and smacked whenever I didn’t bow my head or show proper ‘reverence’ in church. It had been hard enough to not fall asleep, let alone be ‘reverent’.

Jessica looked up at me, hopeful, eyes searching my face for comfort.

I sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that for you.”

“Okay, just… bow your head and… say the words after me.” Her speech was ragged gasps now. She needed to pause for a breath almost every word.

“Dear God,” she said.

“Dear God,” I repeated by rote.

“It’s been a long, long time. A long time,” she said.

I raised my eyebrows but continued to repeat after her.

“I haven’t asked for much lately, or ever really. I think the last time I prayed was when my brother Ryan died. I prayed for you to bring him back to life. Do you remember that?” she chuckled softly. I let her continue without repeating this time. It felt like I was intruding on a private conversation, something intimate and sacred.

She continued. “Look - I’m dying. You probably already know that though, huh? All I’m asking is that you give me a little more time. You see, I’ve met this man and he’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met.” Jessica looked at me out of the corner of her eye, her trademark mischievous smile playing across on her lips.

I clamped my mouth down on a retort.

‘Really?’ I wanted to say. ‘This is how you’re going to waste your prayer, talking about dumb old me?’

“He makes me laugh. He makes me smile. He makes me happier than I’ve ever been and I’m dying!” She laughed again. “God, all I’m asking for is a little more time to spend with him today and then, will you please take care of him for me? Please, God, if you’re out there. Take care of Lenny Priest. He deserves more from this life.”

I was crying now, the tears flowing down my face freely. Damn it, I hated crying, especially in front of other people. My chest heaved and I crumpled down against her shoulder.

“Amen,” she finished. “Shhhhhh. It’s okay. I’m here, Lenny. Everything is fine.” One hand stroked my hair lightly while the other rubbed my back. “Everything is going to be fine. God’s got you.”

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

Jessica died on April twenty-eighth at five fifty two in the morning. Twenty-three days after I met her on the elevator. Twenty-three days after she asked me out before I could ask her and first flashed me that beautiful, mischievous smile of hers.

After she had finished her prayer, she had slipped into unconsciousness, her breaths coming shallower and shallower. She never woke up again. She just kind of… faded away.

I think it was better that way. Once I had cried my eyes dry, I had just held her, stroking her hair, telling her how much I loved her, how I wished we could spend just one more day together. As a sort of last rite, I pried the Chronos from her arm, its sharp probes coming away from her skin easily now that she had ‘expired’. That was the word the government used, ‘expired’, like we were all just loaves of bread sitting on a grocery shelf to either be eaten or start growing mold until we were thrown away.

In a sick kind of way, God did answer prayers. My time was going to be up only six hours and eight minutes after hers. Then, I wouldn’t have to hurt anymore either. I wasn’t going to kill myself though. I wasn’t even planning on drinking at this point.

I was going to die but I still didn’t know how.

A freak accident, some large object falling on me, the building collapsing? A terrorist attack, a wayward plane crashing through my window, a bomb going off in the lobby?

My mind went wild with the possibilities, my imagination carrying me outside my body. I felt like I was looking down on myself as I dry sobbed, rocking Jessica’s lifeless body in my arms and entertaining far fetched dreams of death.

I stayed that way, holding Jessica and lost in my thoughts for what felt like days.

 

CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!

 

Finally, this was it: my time to die. Take me, oh great all-knowing government machine in the sky!

Distantly, I heard a lock click and my apartment door swung open.

My heart raced. This was it. My Chronos read four zeroes. A home intruder was going to kill me, I was sure of it now. Break down my door, pull out a pistol, put a couple shots in my chest and then my head, rob me for what little I was worth. No use fighting. I relaxed back in my recliner and closed my eyes, awaiting my fate.

Heavy boots sounded in my hallway, multiple pairs of heavy boots. They moved with an orderly, measured sound like they were well trained or maybe just in sync. No one spoke. I don’t think I even heard breathing.

I sucked in a deep breath of my own and risked opening my eyes.

Men in black surrounded me, arrayed in a perfect circle amongst my living room furniture. I don’t know how they had gotten so close so quickly. They just… stood there, watching, waiting.

I lifted my head from the cool leather of my chair, moving to stand.

Why wasn’t I dead yet?

Just as I opened my mouth to ask what the hell was going on, the man in the very center, indistinguishable from the rest of the group stepped forward. In a swift, businesslike motion, he punched me across the face.

I saw stars, my body slamming back into the chair. My head lolled to the side where Jessica had laid but she wasn’t there. I struggled to focus, to sit up.

Where the fuck was Jessica? Where had they taken her?

Rage filled my blood and my body urged me to fight back despite the logical decision I had come to earlier. Most people didn’t want to die when it came down it. The body’s main motivator was to continue living; eat, sleep, and reproduce. It was all about living. And these fuckers had touched my Jessica.

Energy crackled through me as I jumped to my feet to face my attackers. I glared at the three men in front of me as they stood motionless as if waiting for something. Just as I remembered the other two men flanking me to the side, something heavy collided with the side of my head and everything went dark.

 

BEEP… BEEP… BEEP…

 

I awoke to a steady beeping. Bright fluorescent lights made me wince and I shielded my eyes.

I laid in a hospital bed, an IV in my arm, dripping God knows what into my veins, and a heart-rate monitor hooked up to my chest. Instead of the expected sterile smell, odd scents of hot metal and seared steak greeted my senses. I wasn’t in any kind of hospital I had ever seen.

The events from before I had lost consciousness came rushing back in. Jessica dying, lying limp in my arms. My Chronos expiring and me waiting to die. Men in all black surrounding me and attacking.

But… I was still alive. How was that possible?

I cricked my neck to look at my wrist. Two small, crimson holes like snake bites adorned my arm where had Chronos had lived for the last five years. It felt all at once freeing and terrifying. My Chronos had been my entire life, especially for the last year. I literally lived and died by my Chronos. Maybe not though.

I struggled to rise, my head swimming. Not an unfamiliar feeling, I thought, wishing that it was just from a hangover. My head thumped with its own pulse where I had been clubbed into unconsciousness.

Just as I tried to stand, the door to my sterile white room opened, admitting a man and a woman dressed in black and grey, skin-tight jumpsuits.

“Mr. Priest. Good, you’re awake,” the man said.

That voice… I knew that voice. Tom O’Hare, my boss, stared back at me.

How…?

“Ah yes, I see you recognize me. Good. You can call me Homer now. I’m glad to the see the forceful blow to your cranium did not inhibit your cognitive functioning,” he said. The timbre of his voice was still low and gruff but it seemed so much more intelligent now, more articulate than it ever had been.

“W-where am I?” I managed, my throat feeling dry. And I was cold. Why was I so cold?

“You are in the Chronos facility, Mr. Priest. My name is Moira. Welcome to the next life,” the woman said. I didn’t recognize her at all. I was okay with that. This was already uncanny enough.

“Alright, what the fuck is this all about?” I asked, confusion and fear turning to frustration. “What are you talking about?”

“Do you know what the population of the Earth was at your expiration date, Mr. Priest?” My boss or Homer or whoever he was asked.

“Uh, like eleven billion or something like that. Right? What does it matter?” I said through gritted teeth.

“Eleven point two billion to be precise. In five years, the total world population would have been half that. In fifteen, there would have been less than a hundred people left living on Earth,” he said.

I gaped. Of course, I loved to think of what if scenarios like this. It was part of being the ‘airhead’ that I was always accused of being. But, this was unreal. And what did he mean by ‘would have been’?

“Yes, I had the same reaction,” Homer replied.

The woman, Moira, stepped forward. “You’re wondering why you’re not dead, why your Chronos was wrong when every else’s in your life expired. We will explain everything in due time, Mr. Priest. But for now, you need to know that you have been recruited for humanity’s next life.”

I nodded dumbly.

She continued. “Your Chronos as well as a small number of the population were designed with a special protocol that would track you, observe you, and ultimately, give you a deadline to show your appropriateness for our program.”

“You’ve been spying on me?” I asked. Fucking government.

Moira and Homer both looked down their nose at me like I was a naive child.

“Of course, we’ve been spying on you. Everyone in the entire United States has a camera installed in every room. Why do you think that is?” my former boss asked.

“To ‘protect’ us, right?” I said sarcastically.

“Yes, actually, ultimately. We needed to observe people. To narrow the options that give humanity the best chance at survival,” he said.”

“And you chose… me? Why in the hell would you do something like that?” I asked.

“You are a dreamer,” Moira said. “Your imagination is full of untapped potential and that kind of ingenuity will be needed should humanity survive its next stage of life.”

“Why wait so long then? Why not take me away before I met Jessica at least? You could have saved me so much pain, so much heartbreak,” I said, a tear creeping from the corner of my eyes as I remembered her smile. Even amidst being told I was the next best hope that humanity had for survival, which was bullshit by the way, Jessica was still my world.

“We needed to make sure you could love, that you could maintain a relationship and mate even in the face of your partner’s inevitable death. This next life, it won’t be an easy one. People will die often. You will be forced to make hard choices, to forsake those you love to death for the betterment of the human race,” she said, her voice icy with cold, hard logic.

“Will you do it, Lenny?” Homer asked. “I know I’ve been hard on you all these years, but I needed to test you, to make sure you were ready. For that, I am truly sorry.”

Moira looked on expectantly, her lips pursed.

“I…” Jessica’s smile lit up my mind like a bonfire, her last words ringing in my ears.

‘Please, God, if you’re out there. Take care of Lenny Priest. He deserves more from this life.’

Was this what she meant? ‘More from this life’? Was this God’s response?

“I’ll do it,” I said, confidence only like I had ever experienced when interacting with Jessica clear in my voice. “Jessica would’ve wanted me to,” I added.

“I’m so glad you accepted,” she said, irony shining in her eyes.

I thought I caught her mumble, “Not that you have a choice.” But that could’ve been my overactive imagination.

Homer placed his hand on a panel beside the door, a light scanning it then blinking ‘accepted’. The door slid open automatically and they gestured me forward.

“This may come as a bit of a shock–” he warned. “–it’s been a long time since you were last conscious… a hundred years to be exact.”

I stumbled across the room, my legs feeling like jelly, but righted myself as I passed through the door.

Moira ushered me to turn left in the hallway to a metal railing.

Below me, the floor dropped off. I jumped back in reflexive shock, bracing myself for the impact. When I didn’t fall, I took a moment and realized that no, it didn’t drop off, it was made of glass as was the walls and the ceiling.

Darkness surrounded us with pinpricks of light, stars I realized, shining from billions of miles away. Beneath my feet, I saw Earth. Or at least, I thought it was Earth. But instead of the browns and azure blues I knew and loved, this planet glowed faint purples and greens covered in swirling blue clouds. Then, I noticed not one but two suns shining above the alien planet, one large with an odd, green-gray hue and the other smaller and more normal yellow-orange.

My mouth dropped open in utter awe at what I was witnessing.

“Mr. Priest, welcome to the next life,” Moira said and smiled. “Welcome to Elysium.


© Copyright 2018 E. S. Pope. All rights reserved.

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