Future Imperfect

by David Neilsen

The SUV ran the red.

Perhaps the driver was twisting around to discipline an obnoxious child, perhaps the driver was texting on their smart phone and not paying attention to the road, perhaps the driver mistimed the yellow. Whatever the reason, the silver Ford Expedition sped through the intersection and plowed into the short-haired blonde in the business suit. This caused the poor woman to whip her head against the hood of the vehicle before the force of the collision jettisoned her limp remains twenty feet in the air and fifty feet forward at enough of an angle to land her in the midst of oncoming traffic, where her body was summarily ground into paste under the squealing tires of a commuter bus.

Jerry Stanton watched this all happen in front of him: heard the too-late squeal of the Expedition’s tires, saw the woman’s head crack against the hood like a hard-boiled egg, watched her sail through the air over a school bus as if shot from a cannon, and felt the unsettling vibrations through the pavement as the tires of the commuter bus ground her into pulp. He was instantly sick to his stomach, the contents of which coated the sidewalk much the same way the woman’s brains coated the hood of the Expedition. All around him, people were screaming, horns were honking, and stomachs were emptying.

He sank to his knees in defeat, his eyes bulging as if trying to pop straight out of his head so he wouldn’t have to view the carnage around him, and allowed his voice to join in the cacophony rising from the intersection.

“Oh God, not again!” he cried.

#

Jerry woke in a cold sweat and immediately rolled onto his side to vomit. Nothing came up as it had been over 24 hours since he’d had anything to eat, but he heaved for a good while all the same. At the same time his left hand reached over to start the pre-set countdown function on his wristwatch. His hands worked mechanically–the basic routine so embedded into their muscle memory they could react without Jerry’s conscious input.

Eventually he fought to a sitting position against the side of the dumpster and closed his eyes, measuring his heartbeat and catching his breath. Only after he felt in control did he glance down at his watch.

“Twelve and a half minutes. Damn.”

He’d already lost nearly a minute. It was taking him longer and longer to recuperate from the visions. He remembered a time when he’d be up and about in ten seconds flat.

Of course, he also remembered a time when he didn’t have any visions at all.

As always, Jerry was immediately faced with a choice: to act or not to act. Each path had its positives and negatives. If he acted, then he could at least feel like he was taking a stand against blind chaos. He could console himself in his role as Cassandra of the world’s evils–ever-knowing, ever-impotent to do anything. Of course more often than not his actions were the instrument of fate, the flap of the butterfly wings that ended in tragedy.

Sitting back and doing nothing had its own torments. Inevitably, something would happen to bring him to wherever he needed to go–apparently in this case a street corner. He could curl up into a ball, run in what he thought would be the opposite direction, staple his feet to the ground. It didn’t matter. He would end up on that street corner to witness that woman pummeled into mush. Worse, there would be the obvious moment where it all could have been avoided if only he had done that one simple thing: asked the time, pushed the crosswalk button, grabbed her arm.

His was a life full of such choices, and this went a long way towards explaining how a bright, handsome, charismatic man from a middle-class background with all the opportunities in the world had ended up an unwashed, sickly, homeless wretch on the street. The deaths of countless strangers had worn him down over the years, each vision a new nightmare come to torment him once again.

It hadn’t always been this way. He had been happy once. Young. Carefree. In love. All that was long behind him. He was left clawing at his ever receding sanity, straining to keep hold of any connection to humanity before he became every bit as insane as the passersby who averted their eyes from him assumed.

Jerry looked again at his watch as it counted down towards twelve minutes flat. In the end, there really wasn’t any choice to make. If fate was determined to make Jerry a witness to the woman’s mauling, so be it. Jerry sat back down, leaned against the dumpster, and waited to see what improbable scenario destiny would concoct to fulfill its curse.

Because fulfill it would. The woman would die. Somebody always died. Somebody always died a shade under thirteen and a half minutes after he suffered through his vision. Thirteen minutes and twenty-four seconds to be exact. The calculation was, itself, a stab through his heart. A constant reminder.

He closed his eyes, trying to block the memories from his mind. They overlapped with the details of the latest vision, creating a mishmash of misery. A single tear eked out from under his eyelid and he absently wiped it away with the back of a finger. How much time was left? Eleven and half minutes? Eleven? He didn’t bother to look.

Voices turned into the alley and Jerry sighed. Here we go, he thought. He stole a glance at his watch before looking down the alley at three poorly-dressed teenagers bouncing forward excitedly. Christ, thought Jerry. Kids?

They were laughing and swearing up a storm, brimming with the vigor of indestructible youth. Jerry hunkered down in a ball, knees pressed tightly to his chest, desperate to be ignored. Just let them walk by, he prayed. Don’t let them see me.

“Oh, Man! What is that smell?” Jerry had gotten his wish. He hadn’t been seen, he’d been smelled.

“Christ! There’s a guy sitting in puke!” The tallest of the three jabbed a finger in Jerry’s direction while covering his nose and mouth with the back of his hand.

“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?” A red-headed thug was looking around at his two friends as if this were their fault. Jerry just scrunched down even further into himself.

A scrawny kid wearing a baseball cap stepped towards Jerry. “Hey Dude! What the hell is your problem?”

Don’t answer. Don’t say anything. Don’t even look at them.

“Hey! You in there?” repeated Baseball Cap.

Tall Kid started to panic. “Is he dead? Christ, is that a dead guy?”

Red Head danced forward and kicked Jerry in the side, causing him to moan and turn his body away from the attack. All three teenagers jumped back.

“Dude’s alive!” yelled Baseball Cap.

Red Head regained his composure first and quickly channeled his energy into good, old-fashioned rage. He jumped forward again and gave Jerry a kick in the shins. Jerry whimpered and his reaction only spurred them on until all three were taking turns kicking him. As the beating continued, Jerry wondered if this was his ticket out. He could just sit there and let them kick him. Let them kill him. That would stop the visions.

Baseball Cap landed a heel to Jerry’s head, toppling him over into a fetal position. They were really into it now. Jerry wasn’t a person anymore to them–even if he’d ever been one. He was an object. A stand-in for the people they really wanted to be kicking–father, police, old girlfriends. Jerry willed himself to remain strong and take the punishment, God knew he deserved it.

But then something in him snapped. Somewhere down deep, a voice cried out–a final, primal scream rising to the surface of Jerry’s consciousness. He found himself on his feet, and he found his feet running. The teenagers jeered and laughed as he ran away, not bothering to give chase, already embellishing the story in their heads into something nobler than ‘we beat up a defenseless homeless guy.’

#

Jerry ran and ran and ran. Out of the alley, down the sidewalk, across the street. He had no idea where he was going, he only knew he had to get out of there. Get away from those kids.

Soon enough the irrational instinct to flee drained and Jerry slowed to a stop, leaning against the side of a wall to catch his breath. He was now in a strip mall, half the stores available for lease and the other half soon to follow. He cursed his cowardice. Why did he always run? Why did he allow fate to egg him on, forever twisting the knife in his gut?

Because he deserved it.

Breathing normally once again, Jerry peeked at his watch. Just over nine minutes left. He took stock of his surroundings—-the strip mall, the street corner. Nothing looked familiar. This was not where it was going to happen.

Then he saw the Ford Expedition.

The silver SUV sat in the parking lot gleaming in the smoggy haze. It was the one. In about nine minutes, the hood of that SUV would be covered in blood.

Jerry froze, struggling with himself. There had to be a way out of this. If he did one thing and it caused the events he’d seen, then he could do something else and change them. Deep down he knew it was a futile hope, but he couldn’t help himself. What was the one thing he’d normally do? What did he have to do differently? The internal struggle threatened to overwhelm him. Action or inaction?

His instinct was to walk away. Have nothing to do with the Expedition. Curl into another ball and force fate to intervene. So that’s what he wouldn’t do. He’d act. He would make sure that SUV didn’t leave this parking lot for another nine minutes.

Decision made, he lurched over to the vehicle. He still had no idea how he was going to accomplish his task, but at least he had a goal. His first thought was to slash the tires, but he didn’t have anything sharp. He spent a few moments scouring the ground, searching for a wayward nail or screw before giving up. Then he focused on the windshield. He could shatter the windshield. He looked around for something to smash it with- board, brick, large rock- but came up empty.

Fine. He didn’t need a tool, he could just ram it with his elbow.

He approached and gave the windshield a tentative knock with his knuckles, getting a feel for the glass. After a second light tap he steeled his courage, raised his elbow, and pounded it as hard as he could against the windshield on the driver’s side.

Pain erupted up his arm and into his brain as he shattered his elbow against the glass. He didn’t care. He’d caused a crack. Not a large one, nothing debilitating, but it was proof of concept so he took a second swipe, hoping to further the damage. Cries of rage, helplessness, and fury burst forth from his lips as Jerry ignored the pain and worked against the windshield with all his might–willing it to explode into a thousand shards, each of which was welcome to embed themselves deep into his face.

“Stop that! What are you doing? Help!”

Jerry paused his barbarism to identify the owner of the cry. Behind him, the windshield was a spider’s web of cracks, but still holding together. Still denying Jerry his due. He was momentarily thrown by the pattern of cracks in the glass. One more reminder…

An elderly woman hobbled towards him, a bag of treasures from the 99-cent store crashing to the ground behind her. “Police! Somebody!”

Jerry stared at her. Of course. It all made sense. The driver ran the red, because the driver was this old, frail woman who had no business behind the wheel. He had to stop her. He had to delay her.

He gave up on the windshield and met the woman half-way. She realized too late that the crazy man attacking her Ford was now coming for her and had barely turned to flee when Jerry caught up with her and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Help! Somebody help! Police!”

Jerry held on to the terrified woman with a vise grip. “I’m not going to hurt you! I just need to hold you here! Just a few minutes!”

She continued to scream, flailing about within Jerry’s grasp, but there was no way he was letting go. He could stop the impending accident right here, right now. He just had to hold on. He closed his eyes and tried to block everything out, to just find an inner serenity in which to ride out these next few minutes. But then another voice forced its way into his consciousness.

“Mom? Mom!”

Jerry opened his eyes as a big, burly thirty-something man raced towards them. At the same time, the old woman’s flailing turned to spasms, her screams turned to desperate gasps, and she frothed at her mouth. Horrified, Jerry took his hands away and she flopped onto the ground, shaking.

“Mom!” The guy raced to her side as Jerry backed away, eyes wide in horror. What had he done? What had he just done?

“Somebody call 911!” Screamed the son, cradling his mother in his arms. “Call an ambulance!”

For the second time in less than five minutes, Jerry broke into a run.

#

His feet pounded pavement and he darted down the street, burning with shame. Finding it more and more difficult to catch his breath, he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and gasped for air. He was hyperventilating and the anxiety was threatening to burst his heart. He’d just killed her. He’d just killed an innocent, old woman. Somebody’s grandmother. He’d killed her.

Jerry dropped to the ground and punched the concrete. Every other time his actions or inactions had caused someone to die, but he hadn’t been the instrument of their death. He’d never killed anyone before now. He’d never murdered anyone.

Slowly, logic pierced his self-loathing. He hadn’t killed her. Somebody would call 911. An ambulance would come for her. She’d be alright. She’d live. They’d get an ambulance and…

No. Not an ambulance. Jerry looked at his watch in horror. Six minutes and thirteen seconds. An ambulance wouldn’t come in time. The son would stop waiting, put her into the SUV, and drive her to the hospital himself.

That’s why he would run the red.

Jerry’s eyes whipped back and forth as his fragile mind attempted to trace the Expedition’s impending route. The fastest way to the hospital from the strip mall. Down Beekman, across Wayland, left on Purchase…

Purchase! By the new office complex! The corner of Purchase and… what was it? Jerry wracked his brain in desperation. Purchase and… Purchase and… Billings! The corner of Purchase and Billings! That was it! That’s where fate would strike!

He looked down at his watch. A shade under six minutes left. He could be there in four.

#

Jerry took to the street–biting the bullet and crossing into oncoming traffic. Horns blared, brakes squealed. Jerry ignored them.

Again on the sidewalk, he pushed past people clogging the way, running as fast as he could convince his bruised legs to pump. Hitting a second intersection, Jerry ran on, his personal tunnel vision allowing him to dodge traffic without a care in the world. In the back of his mind was the realization that once again, he was going to be at exactly the one place at exactly the one time that his vision had predetermined, but it didn’t matter. He could stop this. He could save the woman.

Down the street, around the corner, down the next block. Jerry’s legs were ready to give out. They hadn’t been tested like this in ages. He ignored their complaints, fueled by adrenaline, reached the end of the block, turned the corner again, and came to an abrupt halt.

He had reached the doomed street corner.

He checked his watch. Over two and half minutes remaining. He’d made excellent time. He observed the mass of humanity puttering by, oblivious to the coming calamity. Where was she? Where was the woman?

Jerry grew anxious. Just his luck to get here in plenty of time only to miss out because she wasn’t here herself. He closed his eyes and concentrated, thinking back to his vision.

He watched the commuter bus grind her body into pulp, walked the premonition back, saw her head explode against the hood of the Expedition. He flinched at the thought but forced himself to concentrate. Before the crash. Where had she come from? What was she doing? Images jumbled about in his mind. He saw her step off the sidewalk into the street in the middle of a call, her cell phone in one hand, a disposable cup of coffee in the other.

Jerry opened his eyes. A coffee cup. He looked down the street and sure enough, three storefronts down was a Coffee Jive franchise. She was probably inside right now getting coffee. If he kept her there for another two and half minutes he’d save her life.

#

The Coffee Jive was crowded with average people drinking average coffee in the midst of their average lives. Jerry rose up on his tiptoes, scanning the crowd for a short-haired blonde in a business suit. His singular aroma of eau-de-vomit attracted attention in the enclosed storefront, even as it meshed surprisingly well with the heavy scent of Guatemala Dark Roast lingering in the air.

The blameless crowd, confronted with one of the faceless members from the underbelly of society standing in the middle of their middle-class haven, did what they did best in such situations–they ignored him. Jerry found himself staring at the back of heads no matter which way he turned as each coffee fiend fervently wished not to become dragged into this homeless person’s Hallmark TV Movie Moment.

For his part, Jerry returned the favor, his glance brushing from one head to the next, searching for the woman who was about to be spread all over Purchase Avenue. Where was she? Time was winding down, she had to be in here!

Then he saw her. Sitting in the back, chatting with two similarly dressed and coifed friends. She was oblivious to his presence, the three women so caught up in their own world, they hadn’t picked up on the awkward vibe permeating the room. Jerry shoved his way through until he hovered over the them. A moment passed before one of the doomed woman’s friends with a red scarf draped over her shoulders looked up. Conversation ebbed away until all three sat staring uncomfortably at Jerry. This was fine, as far as Jerry was concerned. Let them gawk at him in silence for a couple of minutes. That’d get the job done.

Finally, Red Scarf could stand it no longer. “Can we help you?” she asked in a rather condescending tone.

Jerry only had eyes for the woman from his vision. He peered down at her, trying desperately to communicate the urgency of the situation. “I need you to stay here.” He glanced at his watch. “For two minutes.”

Vision Woman cringed away from Jerry, visibly upset at the attention. Throughout the coffee shop, others noticed that the crazy man had centered in on a target, and craned their necks around to watch the show.

Vision Woman’s second friend, wearing so much mascara that her eyes appeared to droop from the weight, tilted her head like a confused puppy. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“What do you want us to do?” asked Red Scarf carefully.

“Just her. Just sit.”

The entire coffee shop held its breath in anticipation, expecting someone to erupt. Maybe the crazy guy, maybe one of his targets.

Vision Woman squirmed in her seat. “OK. Uhm…” She looked around at the shop, looking for someone to come to her rescue. “Who are you?”

“Just sit there!” A quick glance at his watch told Jerry he had all of 90 seconds to waste. His whole body shook from the tension of the moment.

Unfortunately, his actions had the exact opposite effect from what he’d intended, as she suddenly rose from her seat. “OK, that’s enough. Will somebody get this creep away from us?”

Jerry’s arm lashed out before he even knew what was happening, grabbed her tightly on the shoulder and shoved her back down in her seat. “Don’t move!” he screamed. “You’re going to die!”

It was as if everyone in the shop unfroze at the same time. Jerry had crossed the line from entertaining to dangerous and events launched into motion. Random guys called for Jerry to leave, mothers stood to push strollers out to the street, cellphones dialed 911.

At the table, Vision Woman gave a scream of fright and Droopy Eyes immediately jumped up to put herself protectively between Jerry and her threatened friend. At the same time, Red Scarf erupted out of her chair, grabbed her coffee and tossed it into his face, screaming, “Leave her alone!”

The coffee doused Jerry in the face. He screamed in agony and clawed at his eyes as the still-scalding liquid burned into his cornea. Vision Woman sprang from the chair, cell phone in hand, and rushed through the chaos. As she passed Jerry, rocking in agony on his knees, he could just make out the beginning of her call.

“Is this 911? Help! Please, help me!”

All around Jerry, people were yelling, running, reacting. The anarchy boiled within the shop, spreading out like spokes of a wheel from the hub that was Jerry. He was aware of none of it. For him, time stopped.

He had failed. Again. Just like every other time. He had tried to do the right thing and what had happened? The woman was running out of the coffee shop as in his vision. She was on her cell phone as in his vision. The Ford Expedition would come barreling through the intersection in moments as in his vision. The woman would die as in his vision. Yet again, he would be forced to relive that moment, that soul-crushing moment, of watching someone die. It was all he ever did. Watch.

Because all he had done the first time was watch.

#

She had been smiling and laughing when the cracks appeared in the ice.

Neither of them had noticed initially, each lost in the other’s presence. Then they heard the cacophony as the surface gave way and the world shifted beneath their feet. Without the time to even let out a cry of terror, she had been sucked down into the pond to her death. Jerry, standing not two feet from her, remained above ground and alive.

Then the agony began.

She struggled against the death’s grip, clawing at the ice, dragging her self partly out of the water time and again before losing her grip and slipping back under. Finally, she found herself trapped beneath the ice, holding her breath and pounding against the underside of the ice, desperate to break through and rediscover the sweet taste of air. Her efforts proved fruitful, but only to a limited degree—-she managed to shove her lips through a small hole and suck life back into her lungs once, twice, a third time.

But her body had slowed: shut down by the cold, her strength draining, her eyes open and staring up at the meager sunlight, desperate for salvation.

And Jerry had just stood and watched. He hadn’t run for help, he hadn’t reached out when she lurched her body halfway out of the frozen water, he hadn’t jumped in, he hadn’t tried to break the ice and free her. He’d watched. In horror. Frozen in shock. For thirteen minutes and twenty-four seconds.

Until she died.

#

Not that he’d had any idea how long he’d stood there of course. He had picked up on fate’s cruel hint after the first few visions. This was his curse–to relive those thirteen minutes and twenty-four seconds of hell over and over again. And now he’d sent Vision Woman racing into the street to her death.

Technically, he’d need to be outside the shop to see the final act. Time started up again and two tough guys took it upon themselves to rid Coffee Jive of the unwanted disturbance. Jerry went limp and let them drag him out without complaint. He looked at his watch as they hauled him off–less than thirty seconds to go. Everything was going to work out exactly as he had foreseen.

He took a last look at the table, at Droopy Eyes glaring at him and at Red Scarf staring at the empty coffee cup in her hands and at two other cups sitting on the table that would never be fully enjoyed. Make that one cup of coffee, since Vision Woman had knocked hers over when she rose to run out of the…

Jerry’s eyes widened. Her coffee. She didn’t have her coffee. That was different. That was new. SOMETHING HAD CHANGED!

He jolted into action, shoving the two toughs away and running for the exit. Everyone dove out of his way as he dashed into the glare of the sunlight.

He spun towards the corner. Sure enough, there she was, on her cell phone, agitated, paying no attention. Ready to step into the street. Jerry’s watch said he had ten seconds to go before the Expedition roared through the intersection. It was now or never.

With an inhuman howl, Jerry leaped at the woman, grabbing her by the head and yanking her backwards to the ground.

“Get down!” he screamed as her feet flew out from under her and she crashed onto the concrete, the back of her head smashing against the pavement. The force of the slam actually caused her to bounce back up towards a sitting position, and Jerry took hold of her hair and flung her skull back down against the ground. “Down!”

There was a squeal of tires and the silver Ford Expedition ran the red and raced into the intersection. Without a pedestrian to interfere with its progress, the driver–a grown man desperate to get his elderly mother to the hospital but having difficulty seeing through a spider web of cracks on his windshield—-kept his foot on the gas and slammed directly into the side of a fully-loaded school bus, causing the SUV to erupt in flames and neatly sawing the bus in half.

The driver and his mother were reduced to cinders in moments, and the tragedy of the school bus would be national headlines for weeks.

On the sidewalk, Jerry stared uncomprehending at the true slaughter in front of him. He looked down at Vision Woman and took his hands out from under her head-—they were covered in blood. Her eyes gazed up lifelessly at Jerry as her life drained slowly into a pool at his knees.

All around him, people were screaming, horns were honking, and stomachs were emptying.

Jerry allowed his voice to join in the cacophony rising from the intersection.

Basking in his triumph, he laughed as he had never laughed before.

The End