This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The large crowd gathered below the nondescript building in the nondescript neighbourhood was extremely uncharacteristic for that time of the night. Especially, with the light drizzle falling in the last half-hour. Yet, no one had budged. It was well after hours for the tiny cafe nestled in the ground floor of the building, but the enterprising Indian proprietor, among the first to have witnessed the drama unfolding above from its very beginning – about two hours ago – had decided to leave it open, correctly anticipating the burgeoning viewing gallery that would soon form. Now, steaming Styrofoam cups of too milky, too sweet coffee were briskly making their way into the hands of the transfixed spectators.
Some of them, of course, were there to do their job, or, at least, try to. The police, the paramedics, the firemen; they were all there, ready to move, but not sure what that next move should be. Some from their ranks were moving traffic along, while one rotund policeman made soothing noises into a megaphone, directed above. Several TV crews were also on hand, cameras pointed fixedly above, their reporters speaking animatedly into microphones.
The rest were the residents of the neighbourhood, and passer-bys, all drawn into this tableau by the inexplicably irresistible fascination of a potential tragedy taking shape.
Six floors above, perched precariously on the ledge of the building’s terrace with his legs dangling over it, sat the centre of everyone’s attraction. A whisky bottle, half-full when he had first climbed onto the ledge, and begun screaming his intentions to jump off, sat next to him, now empty.
For a while now, he had lapsed into silence. His throat felt chafed, his voice was hoarse. This wasn’t surprising; he had done a lot of screaming in the last two hours. Between repeatedly announcing his imminent suicide, he had also issued warnings to the authorities below. That if anyone tried breaking open the only access door to the terrace, which he had locked, he would jump. If the firemen tried extending a crane towards him, he would jump. Basically, any attempts at rescue, and he would jump. Furthermore, he would jump anyway, but he just needed a little time, to finish his whisky, and to gather his last thoughts.
Now the whisky was finished, his thoughts remained scattered, but he felt ready. A warm bubble of detachment – courtesy the whisky – surrounded him, and he felt insulated from physical pain. It was time, he thought; time to pull the plug on his misery. He closed his eyes, felt the tiny prickle of raindrops on his face for the last time, and prepared to pitch himself forward.
‘’You aren’t meant to do this, Mr. Gibbons,’’ said a female voice from somewhere close behind.
He jerked in shock, his heart nearly in his mouth. Grabbing the ledge for support, he swung his head around.
The woman stood about five feet behind him. The door to the terrace was open, although he hadn’t heard the lock being broken. She looked in her mid to late twenties, blond, and reasonably pretty. A large black overcoat – with damp patches from the drizzle – covered her. She made no attempt to come any closer, just stood there, staring intently at him.
‘’Who the hell are you? And how did you get here?’’ he croaked, half-turning his slight body towards her. There was a distinct slur in his voice.
‘’My name is Carrie, Mr. Gibbons,’’ she replied, sounding perfectly calm. ‘’And how I got here doesn’t matter. What does matter is you getting off that ledge, and coming down with me. Like I said, you’re not meant to die tonight.’’
‘’No!’’ he expostulated, loudly. ‘’Don’t even try to talk me out of this; you have no idea what I’m going through. You don’t know crap about me. So, shut up, and don’t come any closer, or I’m going to jump right now.’’
The woman made no attempt to come any closer. But she didn’t shut up.
‘’But I do know ‘crap’ about you, Mr. Gibbons,’’ she said. ‘’I know everything about you, or, at least, everything that led you to this particular moment. Your full name is James Theobald Gibbons. You’re thirty-six years old. Two months ago, your beloved girlfriend of three years, Barbara, the only bright spark in your otherwise unremarkable, dreary life, left you for someone else. You tried everything in your power to change her mind, but to no avail, she stayed gone. And that broke you. You turned into a raging alcoholic. A week ago, you were fired, because of your frequent absences, and turning up drunk. That, for you, was the proverbial last straw. You were in a dark hole that you couldn’t see any way out of. Your life seemed meaningless and a constant, unbearable misery. And, so, you’ve decided to end it. Does that about sum it up?’’
‘’How the hell do you know so much? Who the hell are you?’’
‘’Who I am, and how I know so much is irrelevant, Mr. Gibbons. Here’s what is relevant: this moment is not meant to happen; you are not supposed to kill yourself. This is a temporal anomaly; they happen randomly sometimes, we still haven’t quite figured out why. But the point is things do get better for you, and soon. You turn your life around, and go on to live happily, with your family. You do not die tonight. And that’s not just important for you, but for the future of pretty much the whole world.’’
His brain was too fuzzy to process ‘temporal anomaly’, so he instead latched on to some of the other words that seemed less unreal.
‘’I’m happy again? I have a family? And this is important to the world? What the hell does that even mean? And, how can you know this?’’ he blurted.
She replied, apparently ignoring the last question, ‘’Look, I don’t know how much time I have here – this is only my second trip – so I’m gonna keep this short. You go to AA, get off the booze, three weeks from now you meet a woman there, and you guys fall in love. A month later, you get a job and are back on your feet. Six months later, you get married. You go on to have a beautiful boy who you both bring up to be a good and brave man. This man, your son, goes on to save the world from irreparable destruction. If you die right now, none of those things happen. Do you understand what I’m saying?’’
The thin vestige of sobriety left in him was screaming at him to dismiss this entire ridiculous, impossible notion. But something about this narrative was so warm and inviting, and her voice so compelling, that it made him ignore the absurdity of what she was saying.
Instead, he asked, ‘’My son saves the world? How?’’
She took a deep breath before responding. ‘’On December 12th 2052, Afghanistan and Russia go to war, after a terrorist attack on Russian soil by Al-Qaeda, which killed hundreds. The attack was allegedly funded by Afghanistan, although they deny it. India, England and the United States align themselves with Russia, while Pakistan, Iran, and China support Afghanistan. The war escalates quickly, and soon everyone is preparing to deploy nuclear weapons. Public pressure on America to unleash their arsenal first mounts, the Vice President and all major political parties urge the President to do it. But the President refuses to go to nuclear war. He takes a stand and doesn’t relent. In the end, not only does he not launch himself, he talks the other world leaders out of doing so too. In fact, he somehow brokers a peace treaty between the Soviets and Afghanistan, and stops the war. Long story short, our President prevents unprecedented nuclear destruction of the world.’’
He gaped at her. ‘’My unborn son is the President of America?’’
‘’No. A year before that, a man posing as a White House intern attempts to assassinate the President. He manages to shoot at point-blank range but a Secret Service agent gets in the way, taking the bullet and saving the President. That agent is your son. Without him, the man who saves the world would be dead. And before you ask, your son survives too. He is a hero in my time.’’
She looked him straight in the eyes, unwaveringly. ‘’I think part of you already knows what I’m going to say. I’m from the future, forty-five years in the future. Three years ago we found a way to stimulate rifts in the space-time fabric, doorways through time, if you will. We also found a way to monitor the past for temporal anomalies – events that could drastically change the future – like this one. Anytime one appears, someone travels back to fix the aberration, restore normalcy. In your case, I was sent back.’’
He blinked twice, then asked, ‘’A space-time rift, like in the movie ‘Terminator’?’’
‘’I don’t know ‘Terminator’, but if you’re looking for a pop culture metaphor, ‘Doctor Who’ is close.’’
‘’You still have ‘Doctor Who’ in the future?’’
He absent-mindedly swung both legs inside the ledge, now facing her completely. He couldn’t tear himself away from this preposterous but fascinating picture she was painting. Thoughts of his misery – and death – were suddenly distant.
‘’Tell me more about the future,’’ he said.
She shrugged again before responding, ‘’We’ve established a colony on the moon, all transportation is solar-powered, we had a gay President, Kanye West won an Oscar, We finally won the World Cup last year – ‘’
He interrupted. ‘’America wins the football World Cup?’’
‘’No, cricket. Cricket becomes big here in the next decade.’’
He rubbed his head, where a killer ache was developing, and said tentatively, ‘’I’m not sure I believe any of this.’’
She replied, with sudden urgency in her tone. ‘’You don’t have to. All you need to believe is that you do have a happy life ahead, that things will get better. Can you do that?’’
He looked skywards for a while, and rubbed his head again. Then he slowly got up from the ledge and walked unsteadily towards her.
As the two cops led him to the police car, Gibbons looked around for her. She had held his hand all the way down the stairs, but when the throng of curious spectators and relieved authorities had engulfed him at bottom, she had faded away into the background. Now she was nowhere to be seen. He wondered if she had gone back to her time. As they drove him away, he wished he’d asked her the name of his future wife.
Detective Joe Morrilo watched the car leave the scene, dropped his half-filled cup of disgusting coffee into a trashcan, and walked to the corner of the building. In an alleyway there stood Detective Carrie Morgan, smoking a cigarette, and brushing the raindrops off her bulky, black overcoat.
‘’Nicely done, Morgan. Another great save, your fifth in the last year,’’ said Morrilo, as he walked up to her, smiling.
She returned his smile, and then fished out a sheaf of papers from the cavernous pocket of her coat, her hand brushing past the lock pick she had used to open the terrace door noiselessly. She handed Morrilo the papers and said, ‘’Thanks for the quick work on getting me all the background info on Gibbons. That, with a few measured embellishments, really helped me get through to him, grab his attention.’’
‘’No problems,’’ replied Morrilo. ‘’Which yarn did you spin this time?’’
‘’Oh, the ‘I’m from the future and you have an important life ahead’ one.’’
Morrilo snorted laughter. ‘’That’s the second time you’ve used that one. Beats pretending to be a psychic, I guess. But, seriously, how the hell do you convince them?’’
She shrugged. ‘’You’ve got to sell it to them right, I guess. Make it sound real, maybe even too outrageous to be made up. And you’ve gotta look like you really care – which I do, so that’s not hard for me. To be fair though, this one wasn’t too difficult, he was so hammered I could have convinced him of anything.’’
She paused, took a long drag of her cigarette, and then continued. ‘’The thing is, most of these people that are on verge of ending it all, have just run out of reasons to live, to fight. I try and give them a reason, sell them some hope. Inside all of that crazy packaging, that’s really all I do.’’
Morrilo considered her, then asked, ‘’But tell me, what happens when the happy future you sold this guy doesn’t materialize?’’
Carrie looked in the distance. ‘’We just hope that by then life gives him another reason to stay alive.’’
To their left, the crowd at the foot of the building was dispersing. The curtains had come down on the drama life had paused to see, and now it was moving on.