The Last Minute

by Lisa Liel

 

PART ONE

Kara never felt the bullet hit her. What she did feel was more like a hammer blow to the side of her head that sent her reeling to her knees. So this is what they mean by seeing stars, she thought, blinking. There was a ringing in her ears, but that was fading, as were the stars and other shapes obscuring her vision. She closed her eyes for a long moment, then took a breath and opened them. The room still looked dim, but at least it was clear. She stood slowly, making sure she hadnít hurt herself, and looked around to see what had fallen on her. She froze. Standing where she had been just moments before was herself. Or rather, a statue of herself. Kara frowned. Something wasnít normal, she thought. That wasnít there before.

She approached the statue and reached a tentative hand out to touch its face. As her hand passed through the surface, she uttered a little yelp and snatched it back. Kara stared. She hadnít felt a thing. She reached out again and touched the thingís arm. She felt the cloth of the blouse she had picked out that morning, but it was stiff as iron.

Is this a dream? she thought. A thought nagged at her. It was like the movie Ghost. She was dead. "No," she shook her head. "Things kept moving for him. They didnít freeze like that." She realized how stupid that was and flushed. It was just a movie, after all. They might have guessed part of what happens when you die, just by coincidence. And what a boring movie it would have been, she thought with a half smile, if no one in it could move except for Patrick Swayze.

"Figured it out yet?" came a voice from behind her. She spun around and backed up sharply, almost falling again. "Shit," she gasped, "you almost gave me a heart attack." The woman leaning against the door shook her head, her eyes smiling. "Guess you didnít. A heart attack would be a little redundant."

Kara studied the newcomer. She was tall, maybe an inch taller than Karaís 5í7". Slender, with light brown hair that fell in soft curls to her shoulders. She was wearing blue jeans and a sweater and, Kara noted, she was very pretty.

The woman took a long stride towards Kara and held out her hand, "Elise," she said. Kara returned the handshake, murmuring, "Fair Elise." She was immediately annoyed with herself. Aside from the lame pun on Für Elise, this was quite possibly the dumbest situation in which to be flirting. Especially when she didnít even know... But from the pleased smile on Eliseís face, she saw that there at least she hadnít been mistaken. She had always been good at sensing that. The first person I meet in the next world, she thought wryly, and sheís gay too. Maybe straight people go somewhere else? Her eyes widened. Was this hell? Were all the fundamentalists right after all?

Elise shook her head and laughed, as if she could read Karaís mind. "There are straight people here too," she said. Kara stared for a moment, and released Eliseís hand. The woman had a firm grip. "Okay," Kara said slowly. "Since you seem to be up on whatís going on here, mind telling me where exactly here is?"

"Here," Elise gestured, "is the same place you were before you were shot."

"Shot?!"

Elise pointed to the side of the Kara-statueís head. About a foot and a half away from the side of the statueís head, a bullet hung in the air, defying gravity. She spun back to Elise with fear in her eyes. "Bullshit!" she blustered. "Who would want to shoot me?"

Elise shrugged. "I imagine youíd know better than I, donít you think?" She walked over to the bullet and took hold of it. She tried to wiggle it, but it wouldnít move. "Dead, you see? Anything living, plant, animal, whatever, is totally immaterial to us. And anything not living is tangible, but immobile."

Karaís thoughts raced. "Then how can we be breathing?" she demanded. Elise shrugged. "Maybe gases donít count," she suggested. "It doesnít matter much, because you canít make anything to take advantage of it. The only physical things we can affect are our clothes," she fingered her sweater, "which Iím not sure arenít an illusion anyway. And other deaders."

Kara sat on the sofa. It was like a rock, totally unyielding. "Why donít you start from the beginning. For starters, why do you know so much?"

Elise thought about that for a moment. "Probably because Iíve been here all day. Such as days are here. As near as I can figure, weíre in a sort of cut-rate afterlife. Maybe they had to trim the budget or something, but itís only a day long."

Kara made a face. "A day long," she repeated blankly.

"It means that the only people around are people who died today, the ninth of November. It means that we can go anywhere we want physically, but time-wise, we exist between one midnight and another. Come here." She took Karaís hand. Kara ignored the almost electric feel of Eliseís hand on hers. Elise turned towards the window and focused. Kara felt a dragging motion, as if she were moving through a viscous fluid, though as far as she could tell, they werenít moving at all. After a moment, light began to glow through the window, and became brighter, until it was daytime outside. Elise continued this until the light began to dim and the room grew darker again.

"Come with me," she told Kara, leading her outside. The two walked out of Karaís apartment and down the three flights of stairs to the street. In the middle of the street, Elise stopped and held Karaís hand with her arm stretched out.

"What are you doing?" Kara asked, totally lost.

"Oh, this doesnít matter, just so long as we stay in contact. I just like the dramatic effect," she grinned disarmingly. She focused her eyes again, and this time, the scenery flashed, and they were standing in a subway station. Elise released Karaís hand and walked toward the track. She went up to one of the still figures waiting and put her hand on its back. "This," she looked at Kara, "is me. Was me," she corrected. Kara walked around and saw that it was indeed Elise. She looked at the living Elise blankly. No, she shook her head, the one thatís not moving is the living one. The one Iím talking with is the dead one. Jesus.

"Give me your hand again," Elise said. As before, she focused her eyes, only this time looking at her doppelganger. After a moment, Kara noticed that people and things were moving. Slowly and with a dead silence that gave her the shivers, but they were moving. "Watch," Elise whispered.

Kara didnít know which way to look, but as she turned, she saw a teenaged boy with a walkman shaking his head to the rhythm of whatever it was he was listening to and bopping towards them, eyes screwed shut and mouth moving with the music. Over the boyís shoulder, Kara saw a light as the D train started into the station. The silent Elise- statue, no longer a statue, had stepped towards the track and was leaning over to see if the train was coming. Kara saw what was coming and yelped. She moved toward the boy, but Elise pulled her back. A moment later, the boy had collided with the other Elise, who was falling in slow motion onto the tracks. Karaís throat tightened. She clutched at Elise and looked away. Elise stood rigid, watching as her previous self was mangled silently by the train.

They stood that way for a long moment. Then Elise said gently, "Youíre hurting me." Kara realized that she was gripping Eliseís arms too tightly and released her. She started to look towards the track, but stopped herself. Everything was motionless again.

"Kara," she said vaguely.

"Excuse me?"

"My name is Kara."

"Kara mia?" Elise asked playfully.

Kara jerked away from her, her eyes wide, "How--" she choked. "How can you joke after...watching..."

"After watching myself die?" Elise asked softly. She shrugged. "Iíve seen it before. Thereís only so many times you can watch something like that before it has all the emotional impact of a television rerun." Kara knew she was lying. She had felt Eliseís tension during the accident.

"How do you travel like that?" Kara asked irrelevantly.

"You just focus on something and think about seeing it after, and you move forward. Or you think about seeing it before and you move backwards. As far as places are concerned, you can walk. The only place you can jump to like I did before is to where your real self is. If you donít concentrate on staying in one place, then whenever you move forwards or backwards, you get drawn after your real self like a magnet." Kara flinched both times Elise said "real self." She was real!

Grimly, she asked, "So I could jump back to my apartment? Where we were before?"

"Sure. So long as you were there now. Otherwise youíll jump to wherever you were. You can also move forwards or backwards in one place if you focus on staying in that place," she added.

"So... why..." Kara fumbled for words, her mind trying to take all of this in, "why didnít we see you pop out when you fell just now?"

Elise shrugged. "Why donít we keep running into ourselves when we go to see the same event? Iíve watched myself fall there about a dozen times now, and I never see myself here watching." She cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. "I donít think weíre moving in time, really. Itís as if the other world is like a video that we can run forwards and backwards. A recording."

In a daze, Kara walked over to a bench and sat down heavily. This is ridiculous, she thought as Elise sat down in the seat next to hers. I donít know anyone who would want to kill me. And burglars donít just come in and shoot. Do they? "Elise," she grabbed Eliseís arm and said urgently, "I need to see who killed me. Will you help me?"

Eliseís eyes twinkled. "Well..." Kara looked at her beseechingly. "Oh, all right," Elise laughed. "I was going to catch a movie, but Iíve never been all that hot on reading lips." Kara shook her head. She couldnít see how Elise could find any humor in this situation.

"Listen," Elise turned serious, "you need to lighten up. If this is all the Ďlifeí we have any more, we might as well make the most of it. Being dead is bad enough without having to be depressed all the time."

"God--!" Kara exploded. "You havenít been dead for a day, and itís like you donít care!"

"Itís been a lot more than a day, Kara. Itís been more like months. Time doesnít work the same here, remember? How do you think I know so much about moving around here? I mean, Iím bright," she grinned, "but Iím not that bright." She took Karaís hand. "Iíve been roaming around here for all this time, but youíre the first person Iíve seen pop out like that. I must have missed all the others."

"Where are all the others?"

"Around," Elise gestured vaguely. "Think about the number of people who died here within walking distance in one day. They can be anywhere or anywhen. You run into people now and then, but otherwise itís pretty lonely. She looked meaningfully at Kara, who was suddenly very conscious of the feel of Eliseís hand on her own.

She pulled her hand free from Eliseís and gestured with it. "So I can jump back to my apartment?" she asked.

"Here, think about finding yourself," Elise explained. "Thatíll pull you to wherever you are now. Then you can follow yourself through the day until youíre back getting shot." She grinned and Kara glared at her. "But keep contact with me, or Iíll get left behind. Itíll be difficult to connect again if that happens."

Kara hesitated, but Elise had been very helpful. And, she thought wryly, in any other situation, I wouldnít need another reason to stick close to someone as attractive as she is. She took Eliseís hand and thought of finding herself, and--

flash

--she was in Julieís room. Along with her earlier self and Julie. Still in bed, but not asleep. "Shit," she breathed, yanking Elise into the hallway.

"Wha-at?" Elise laughed as Kara almost pulled her off balance.

Kara blushed deep red. "How the hell early were you at the subway?" she demanded.

"Early enough," Elise returned, amused. "Canít I go look?" she pleaded jokingly. "Pretty please? Sheís cute."

"Dammit, Elise! This is not a joke. Things have been rocky between me and Julie and they were finally starting to work out and now I... I..." she faltered, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.

"Hey," Elise said gently, moving to hold Kara. Karaís tears turned to moans as she held onto Elise. She cried for long minutes, deep sobs of grief wracking her.

They stayed that way until Kara cried herself out and her breathing had become calmer. Slowly, Kara disentangled herself from Elise and walked into the kitchen. She sat at the table and rested her chin in her hands. After several moments, she looked up at Elise. "Okay, I know what Iím going to do. If you want to come with, hang on."

She stood up and Elise put her hand on her arm. Kara looked at the clock hanging over the kitchen table. "Wheníd I leave?" she muttered. The clock began to advance slowly. "Letís see how fast this can go," she gritted, and the clock sped up until it was whirling. Blurred figures, presumably of Julie and living-Kara, flew in and around the kitchen and were gone. "Whoa, too fast," she said, and the hands stopped and began turning backwards.

"You donít have to do that."

Kara stopped her concentration. "Do what?"

"You donít have to move back. Just think yourself to wherever you are now and you can follow along until... she shrugged, "until you know."

Kara nodded. And then they were outside. Her earlier self was headed west, toward the subway. Kara furrowed her brow and the world went into a blur. She and Elise were yanked back and forth faster than they could see, buildings and walls and subway trains and tunnels whipping by dizzyingly. Elise gasped, and Kara told her, "Remember, weíre staying still. Think of it as a three hundred and sixty degree movie. Or just close your eyes." Elise moaned and closed her eyes. Kara felt a small satisfaction. At least Elise wasnít laughing now.

The daylight faded, and Kara slowed down for a moment, long enough to get her bearings. They were just down the street from Karaís apartment. She remembered that she had gotten home from work late that night. She sped the world up again, and they drifted after Karaís double as she entered her apartment.

Kara watched herself heat up leftovers from the other night and eat. A chill passed through her as her earlier self sat down with the food to watch TV. She was alone that night because Julie was visiting her sister in Jersey. Would Julie have been shot as well if sheíd been with Kara that night?

"I always fast forward through the commercials when Iím watching tapes of shows," she commented to Elise without turning her head. This is the first time Iíve actually been able to do it live. So to speak," she corrected. She remembered getting up in the middle of Letterman to fix some hot cocoa. That was the last thing she remembered before being hit on the head. Shot, she reminded herself. And there was Letterman now, grinning gap-toothedly out of the screen.

The world slowed down to normal speed. Kara turned to Elise, "Iím going to watch what happens, if you donít mind. I want to see if it was at least quick." Elise looked as if she was going to say something, but thought better of it. As the two of them watched, doppel-Kara stood and turned to pick up her dishes to take them into the kitchen. And everything froze.

Kara stared at her double for a moment. Then at Elise. "Whatís going on?" she asked finally. "It wonít go."

Elise walked to the frozen Kara-figure and bent over, craning her neck up to see the watch on the figureís wrist. "Your watch is wrong," she said, straightening up.

"Itís not wrong," Kara corrected automatically. "I keep it two minutes f--" She looked puzzled. "How do you know that?"

"Because it says 12:02. And as far as weíre concerned, the world ends at midnight. You canít go past that."

"But... Kara stared, "that means Iím not dead yet!"

Elise looked uncertain for a moment, then smiled. "Sure you are. Youíre here."

"No," Kara insisted, "donít you see? It hasnít happened yet. I can still prevent it." Her voice rose. "I can save myself, donít you see?" She started towards her motionless self and Elise grabbed her. Furiously, she yanked her arm free. "No!" Kara grabbed at the bullet, hanging in the air. It refused to budge. "No! No! No!" she cried, hitting the bullet as hard as she could. She grabbed the bullet again, pulling with all her strength. Trying to pull it down, all she succeeded in doing was lifting herself up off the floor.

Elise looked at Kara hanging in the air. "Brava," she clapped approvingly. Kara dropped to the floor, sobbing. "I am not dead yet. Iím not." Elise knelt and put her arm around Karaís shoulders. "Kara--" she began.

Kara jumped up. "Who did this?" she demanded angrily. She strode to the doorway and saw a man standing just to the side of the door, gun still aimed at his victim.

"Who are you, you bastard?!" Kara slapped at the man and crashed into him as her hand passed through his face and she lost her balance. "Ow, shit!"

"Youíre lucky you didnít try to kick him in the balls," Elise observed. "You might have broken a toe. I tried pushing Mr. Bebop off the platform," she added helpfully. "No luck."

Kara stared at the man. "I donít know this guy," she said. "I donít think Iíve ever seen him before." She thought for a long moment. "Iím following him back. If you want to come with, hold on."

Elise had barely touched Karaís arm when they were off. This time, Kara went more slowly, but going backwards made it at least as disorienting. They passed through a bar, where the man had three drinks, and an afternoon showing of Independence Day. "Definitely better in reverse," Elise quipped.

"Huh, watch this," Kara pointed to where the killer was headed. Or where he had come from, but was backing back into. The idea gave Kara a headache.

"A gun shop?"

Kara stopped the motion. "Think about it. He buys a gun, goes to a movie, has some drinks and shows up in my apartment and shoots me. That sounds like it was pretty premeditated, donít you think?"

"But you say you donít know him."

"Never saw him before." Kara shook her head. "Why would a perfect stranger want to kill me? Unless maybe he thought I was someone else..."

"Letís go see," Elise suggested. "If it was a spur of the moment thing like youíre suggesting, whatever set him off probably didnít happen all that long before he bought the gun."

Kara nodded and they followed him into the store. Sure enough, the gun heíd shot Kara with was back behind the counter before the killer backed out of the store. Kara and Elise floated after the man as he walked backwards down the street. Kara began to get a strange look on her face as she saw where he was headed.

"No," she said slowly, shaking her head.

"What no?"

Kara said nothing as the killer entered the building on Eleventh Street. She stopped and stood very still. Elise looked at her, puzzled.

"This is Julieís building." Kara stared bleakly.

"Um, Kara? There are dozens of apartments in this building."

Kara closed her eyes and thought. She looked again at her killer. "Okay, Mister Man. Take us to your leader." He walked backwards towards the elevator, which opened at his approach. As he backed into it, Kara pulled Elise ahead and they got in before the door closed. "I didnít feel like being pulled through ceilings and floors," she explained.

As they came to a stop, Kara looked at Elise.

"Her floor?"

Kara nodded. The doors opened, and the killer slapped at the button marked "lobby" and backed out of the elevator. Kara followed him into the corridor, Elise trailing behind. Reaching behind her, Kara suddenly grabbed Eliseís hand and zoomed backwards in time far faster than either of them could see. When she stopped, there was her other self, walking down the hall towards the elevator on the way to work, oblivious to what the day had in store for her.

"I want to see this normally," Kara said coldly.

"Kara...?" Elise said carefully.

"Shut up. You donít have to stay here if you donít want." She watched, unblinking, as living-Kara--foolish- Kara! she thought wildly, sucker-Kara!--entered the elevator and the doors closed. She set her jaw and sped the world up until the elevator door opened again and a man stepped out. It was the killer, all right. Of course it is, she thought grimly. We know he was here.

The man knocked on Julieís door and stood waiting. Julie opened the door and smiled at him. The two of them entered and the door shut. "Shit," muttered Kara, looking at the impenetrable door. She reversed the action until the door was open, and ducked past Julie. She would have tried walking through her, but Julieís clothes blocked her way. Once inside, she let events move forward again.

Julie tilted her head up and kissed the man, and Karaís hand tightened until Elise gasped in pain. Kara stopped the action and released Eliseís hand. "Bitch," she whispered. "Fucking, lying, unfaithful bitch!" she shouted. Then something broke in her. "Oh damn... she breathed. "I thought... She looked at Elise, begging with her eyes for this to be a mistake. "I thought everything was okay. I really did." She sagged and Elise took hold of her.

After a while, Elise asked, "Did you know she was bi?í

Kara nodded. "But she hasnít... she trailed off. "Hasnít for years," she completed bleakly.

Elise looked at her sympathetically. "What do you want to do?" she asked.

Kara laughed bitterly. "Do? Whatís to do? The woman I love had me killed. I donít even exist any more. Do?" Elise said nothing. After a moment, Kara looked into Eliseís eyes. She nodded her head. "I have one idea, though," she said.

Elise turned to see where Kara was looking, and saw Julie and the man finish their kiss and walk down the hall to Julieís bedroom. The same room Kara and Julie had been in that morning.

Kara watched as they undressed each other and moved to the bed. Elise winced. "You donít have to do this, you know."

"Yes. I have to do this." Kara said desolately, her voice sounding as dead as she knew she was. She watched until the couple in the bed had finished, saying nothing, doing nothing. When they had closed their eyes and fallen asleep, she stopped the motion and pulled Elise out of the bedroom, down the hallway and into the living room.

She turned to Elise and placed her hands on the other womanís shoulders deliberately. "What do you want to do?" she asked. Elise looked at her questioningly. Kara pulled her close and kissed her. Elise pulled back and said carefully, "Are you sure...?" Kara answered her with another kiss, and this time Elise responded.

They made love in Julieís living room, using their clothes, the only soft objects they had, as bedding.

 

PART TWO

Why? The question nagged at Kara as she lay spooning with Elise. Why kill her? Jesus, people break up all the time. What on earth would Julie have to gain from her death? If sheíd decided to leave her for a man, why not just leave her? It made no sense.

"Penny for your thoughts," Elise murmured.

"Iím thinking about why Iím not falling asleep."

Elise turned over to face her. Brushing a lock of hair out of Karaís eyes, she said teasingly, "Because Iím so good you donít want to miss a minute?"

Kara tickled her and she jumped, yelping. Kara smiled "Youíre... not bad," she said appraisingly. Elise glared at her with a mock dangerous look. "But thatís not the point. Iíd been up all day when Tarzan in there killed me. Itís been at least that long again since I got here. And Iím not even tired."

Elise sighed. "Youíre dead, sweetheart. The last time I slept was the night before I played chicken with a subway train. And itís been months for me subjectively, remember?" She shrugged. "I donít think we can sleep." There was silence for a moment.

"Elise?"

"Hmm?"

"Why do you think..."

Elise looked at Kara questioningly.

"Why would she have him kill me, do you think? She canít possibly have hated me that much without having shown it at least a little."

Elise sat up, her legs crossed Indian style. Resting her hand on Karaís side, she asked, "Does it really matter why? Kara," she said earnestly, "Iím not going to say anything against her, because thatís not my place. But Ďwhyí doesnít seem like much of a question. Maybe she was scared youíd make a fuss. Maybe she said something as a joke and Rambo in there took it seriously. Maybe... she trailed off.

"Maybe, maybe, maybe," Kara said impatiently. "Come on." She stood up and started to get dressed. Elise followed suit. They went back into the bedroom. Julie and her lover were as Kara had left them. Kara stood with her hand on the small of Eliseís back. Elise could see that time was moving forward by the motion outside the window. Shortly, Julie woke and slipped out of bed.

"Youíre sure thereís no way to lift objects here?" Kara asked Elise, looking longingly at the heavy base of the lamp next to the bed and the unprotected head of her killer.

"Nohow," Elise answered.

"In Ghost... Kara began.

"That was a movie, Kara. This is reality."

"Some reality," Kara said absently. "Letís see the end of this movie." She sped the action up and Julie came back in the room, moving very much like a character in an old silent movie. She jittered over to the side of the bed Karaís killer was lying on and shook him awake. He grabbed her and tried to pull her into bed. Julie batted his hand away and moved to her dresser. It was eerie watching them like this, Kara realized. She almost felt like an intruder, but she steeled herself. She wouldnít be here if that... man hadnít killed her. She had a right to know why.

The man got out of bed and put his arms around Julie from behind. She turned and tried to break free. He kissed her and she shoved him away violently. Or did she?

"Too bad we canít hear what theyíre saying," Elise commented.

Kara stopped them. Shit, of course she could. Sheíd been fairly good at reading lips ever since she was little. She moved the action back to right before Jocko got out of the bed and started it again, this time at normal speed. She moved closer so that she could see what they were saying.

I told you you werenít no dyke, she could make out his words.

Julie laughed. Donít bet on it, Brian.

Brian came up behind Julie and put his arms around her. Kara had to move around them to see his lips move, because his face was so close to Julie. Why donít you come with me this weekend? he asked her.

She turned. Because Iím spending the weekend with Kara. I told you that.

Elise moved closer to Kara. "What are they saying?" she whispered.

"Shh... Kara waved her to silence. Brian kissed Julie and she shoved him away. I told you thatís enough, she said angrily.

Youíre going to spend a weekend with a girlfriend, Brian made a face, rather than with me? It was the most ridiculous thing heíd ever heard.

Julie replied hotly, I love her, you moron.

Brian looked as if heíd been slapped. You canít love her, he said. You love me, you mean.

Julie laughed derisively. Love you? she widened her eyes incredulously. You were an itch, Brian. I scratched it. You donít mean anything. Now get out. She pointed towards the door.

Julieís words hit Kara like a blow and she stopped the scene. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Elise asked hesitantly, "Whatís wrong?"

Kara shook her head. She was thinking back to their discussion, months before...

Julie looked embarrassed. "Sure I think heís cute," she admitted. "You know Iím bi."

"Do you ever want to sleep with them?" Kara asked.

Julie shrugged. "Sometimes. Does that bother you?"

"Honey, wanting is one thing. Actually," she said after a moment, "if you really feel like you need to scratch that kind of an itch, I donít think it would bother me. Sleep with another woman, though..." she glared with mock anger.

"Okay," Julie laughed. "Well, if I ever do feel that kind of itch, Iíll clear it with you first."

Kara pulled Julie toward her. "Babe, you do what you need to do. But if you do, and it means enough to you that you think I need to know, then Iíll worry."

"She... Kara opened her eyes and looked at the still figure of Julie through tears. "She didnít do anything at all."

Elise looked confused. Kara pulled away and started Julie and Brian again. Brian had turned red and was advancing on Julie menacingly. That bitch has you hypnotized, he growled.

Julie backed away a step. You better leave now, Brian, she said angrily. And in case youíre curious, itís behavior like this that makes me prefer to be with a woman.

Brian glared at her and strode angrily out of the room. Kara and Elise followed and saw him leave the apartment. The door slammed silently behind him.

"She didnít?" Elise asked.

Kara shook her head. "No," she said quietly. "No, she didnít."

Elise looked sadly at Kara. "So what now? You know why he killed you. But itís over. Thereís nothing you can do about it."

Kara shut her eyes tightly. Opening them, she said, "You donít know that."

"But Kara," Elise said, shaking her head.

"You donít," Kara insisted. She thought. "Whereís the nearest hospital?"

Elise looked at her blankly.

"I need to find someone who died today without getting shot up or mangled." She winced at her own words.

Elise looked uncertain. "Thereís St. Vincentís," she said. "Thatís not far from here."

"Letís go then." She held out her hand, but Elise hesitated. "Whatís the matter? Are you coming or what?" Youíve been here for months, dammit, she thought. Why wonít you let me try what I can?

Elise sighed resignedly and took Karaís hand.

After a few false starts, they managed to work their way over to the hospital. Signs pointed to the emergency room entrance. The two women stood there and moved the world backwards until they saw an ambulance arrive. Or rather, leave in reverse.

"Letís see what we have here," Kara moved to the back of the ambulance. The doors to the emergency room opened, and a pregnant and very live woman was carried back into the ambulance.

The next three ambulances also delivered live patients. But the one after that did not. Kara watched as the paramedics wheeled the stretcher in with the still form covered head to toe by a white sheet.

"Deader," Elise said callously. Kara made a face. They climbed into the ambulance before the doors closed, or rather, Kara thought, after the doors opened. She hated this backwards view, so she sped it up until it was a blur, focusing on staying with the form under the sheet. Soon they were out of the ambulance and in a tall office building in the center of town. Kara gritted her teeth as they rose up through the floor. She slowed things down marginally, but it still looked as if she were using the scan rewind on her VCR.

They reached the floor that the dead person had apparently come from and zoomed down a hallway, turning dizzyingly at the corners. Finally, they came to stop in a large office with plush carpeting and a gorgeous view of the city. Kara kept the action moving until they saw the sheet pulled back to reveal an overweight man who appeared to be in his fifties. The paramedics jittered about him, dumped him on the floor and ran backwards out of the office. Kara couldnít help giggling at the sight. Not long after, the man began to twitch on the floor and soon was convulsing madly. He jerked back and forth, flew up into his chair and clutched his chest. Then he reached out and a pen flew off the desk into his hand and he began calmly to write.

Kara stopped the action and looked at Elise with raised eyebrows and a look of amusement. Then she grew serious. As funny as it had looked, she didnít imagine it had been much fun for the man.

Elise looked back at her. "Okay," she said. "Now what do we do?"

"Now, we wait."

"Wait for what?" Elise looked puzzled.

"How many times did you say you watched yourself get pushed off the platform?"

Elise frowned. "A dozen or so. Why?"

"I imagine most people here come to see their deaths periodically. So now we sit and wait for Mr. Businessman... excuse me: the late Mr. Businessman, to show up."

Elise nodded and they looked around for somewhere to sit. The office sofa looked well padded, but they knew that it would be hard as a rock, and it was too rounded to be comfortable like that. They settled for the carpet, which was worn enough that it wasnít a bed of nails. Kara didnít want to think about how it would have felt new.

Elise sat down, her knees touching Karaís. "Do you want to explain what you have in mind?"

Kara sighed. "The only thing I can think of," she said. "In Ghost--" Elise rolled her eyes, but Kara ignored her. "Remember how the dead people could jump into the bodies of live people?" Elise nodded. "I figure that if a person were to jump back into her own body exactly at the moment of death..."

"Oh, boy," Elise said sarcastically. "And wouldnít that be wonderful. I can just imagine it. Iíd get to actually feel the train run over me." She snorted. "And then die again."

"Fine," Kara persisted, "but thatís because the way you died didnít leave you any chance. This guy had a heart attack. Suppose he had a mild one, but it freaked him out so badly that his pulse went crazy and made it worse?" Elise shook her head uncomprehendingly. Kara leaned towards Elise and said intensely, "Think, Elise. This guy has had plenty of time to calm down. If he jumps back in, heíll still be having a heart attack, but if he can stay calm this time, it doesnít have to be fatal."

"And that will help you how?"

Kara sighed. "Elise, Iím not dead yet. Iím just not. If I can get back in time to move out of the way of that bullet..."

Elise made a sound of disgust, "Oh, right, Kara. Right. Youíre going to dodge a bullet. Gee," she went on caustically, "I didnít realize. Why do you suppose the bullet didnít just bounce off of you? Say, maybe it was a Kryptonite bullet, huh? Díya think?"

Kara jumped up angrily and turned away from Elise, bumping into a figure that hadnít been there a moment before.

"Excuse me," the man said.

"Oh, shit." Kara stood still and let the anger at Elise drain out of her. "Iím sorry," she apologized. "I didnít see you there." Then she recognized him. "Youíre--" she pointed to the still figure behind the desk, "him."

The man inclined his head. "That I am. Or was," he added lightly. "Russell Thomas." He held out his hand and Kara took it. "Iím Kara," she said, "and this is Elise," motioning to Elise, still cross legged on the floor.

Russell walked over and shook Eliseís hand. "So," he said, looking at each of the women in turn, "what brings you here? Surely you donít need to have a loan approved?" He smiled with infectious good humor. He sure seems at ease about being dead, Kara thought. He may not be willing to go along with the idea.

"We want to try something," Kara said, ignoring Elise, who was shaking her head to indicate that it was no idea of hers. "If youíre willing."

Russell raised an eyebrow. "Something new?" he asked. "Here? How marvelous." He seemed delighted.

"It may be a way to get back to there," Kara gestured at the office.

Russell didnít say anything. Damn, Kara thought. I knew it.

"Are you privy to some sort of secret information?" Russell asked finally.

"No," Kara explained. "Itís just a theory." She explained to Russell the idea she had outlined to Elise only minutes earlier. He nodded once or twice while she was explaining the concept. When she had finished, he was silent again for a moment.

"Have you read The Langoliers?" he asked.

"God!" Elise exploded.

Kara looked confused. "What are langoliers?" she asked.

"This is not Ghost!" Elise expostulated. "And itís not a Stephen King story either." She explained to Kara, "Thereís this story by Stephen King, where a plane full of people... she trailed off and looked at Russell. "God, how would you explain it?"

"If you imagine that time is a wave, these people went through some kind of rift that left them behind that wave." Elise nodded. "So theyíre in this world," Russell continued, "much like ours, where there are objects, but no people. The langoliers are a kind of... celestial clean-up squad. They eat the remains of the world once time has passed it by. Conservationists," he smiled. "Theyíre like big Pac-Man creatures, gobbling until nothingís left."

"None of which has anything to do with us," Elise shot at him. Russell just shrugged. "I donít know that, and I donít imagine you do either, young lady." Elise glared. "But my point was only that it seems unlikely that we will be left here forever. If there is a way out, I would be willing to risk it."

"And if something happens?" Elise challenged.

Russell looked at her calmly. "I am a dead man, my dear. What on earth could happen to me that would be worse than that?"

Elise fell silent. Kara walked over to the Russell sitting at the desk. She waved her hand through the figureís head, which offered no resistance. "Alive," she pronounced. "All we have to do is find the exact moment it goes from immaterial to material. Right?" she looked at the other two, who nodded. "So," she continued, "Elise, Russell, hang on to me." They joined hands, and Kara began moving the scene forward. The Russell-figure jerked and dropped his pen. He clutched at his chest, and Kara stopped the motion. She touched the hand of the other Russell. It was solid.

"I donít recall any pain at all," Russell commented. "I imagine I died fairly quickly. All the flopping around must have been reflex action."

Something about that idea disturbed Kara, but the reason why eluded her. She moved them back very gradually, tapping at other-Russellís hand rhythmically. After a moment, her finger went through his hand and she stopped. "Come on, come on," she muttered. She pushed forward for the barest moment and tried again. Still nothing. Another moment--solid!

Kara turned to Russell. "Do you have any idea how to do this?"

Russell was thoughtful. "Iím afraid Iím not built for taking a running jump, like the gentleman in that film did." He eyed the motionless form of his seated self. "Perhaps if you kind ladies were to help me up onto the desk, I could drop down into my... er, cadaver." He looked at Kara and Elise expectantly. Kara turned questioning eyes to Elise, who shrugged. They stood beside Russell, and helped him climb up on his desk. He stepped forward to stand before his double and looked back over his shoulder at Kara. "It may surprise you to hear that I rarely indulge in this type of physical activity."

Kara smiled back nervously. Would this work? There had to be some way out. She wasnít dead. She was sure of that. Not unless she gave up. "Hey, Russell," she said softly, "you might want to consider changing that once youíre back."

Russellís mouth twitched in humor and he turned to face himself.

"Russell." He looked back again. "Remember to stay calm," Kara reminded him. Russell nodded and took a deep breath. He moved as if to take a step forward, hopped up and--

Russell hit himself like a diver slicing through the water. Kara and Elise watched as his large form dropped through his other large form. There was something like a ripple in the air around him, and Russell was gone.

Kara waited a moment, and turned to Elise excitedly. Her eyes were glowing.

"I donít believe it," Elise said, amazed. Then she swallowed. "Are you still going to..."

"Try?" Kara finished for her. She took a deep breath. "I have to, Elise. Donít you see that?" She took Eliseís hands.

Elise looked down, quietly. "Yeah," she said finally, looking up at Kara, eyes wet. "I guess I do." She laughed weakly and wiped at her eyes. "I guess Iíd try too, if I wasnít spread all over the track like that."

Kara pulled Elise into a hug. "Thank you for understanding," she whispered.

Elise sniffled and broke away. "Damn," she said. "I wish Iíd had a tissue in my pocket that morning." She laughed. "Iím going to have to spend eternity wiping my nose on my sleeve."

"Gross," Kara complained, as Elise did just that. "Listen, I want to see what happened to Russell. Just to be sure."

Elise nodded and they joined hands. Kara nudged them forward very slowly, and they saw Russellís body jerk backwards in the chair. Funny, Kara thought. I donít remember him doing that when we saw this before. But as before, Russell dropped his pen and clutched his chest. He looked up at them, Kara could swear, with panic in his eyes as he began to convulse.

"Relax," Kara urged him in a low voice. "Oh, Russell, you have to stay calm."

But Russell couldnít hear her, and he was past paying attention in any case. He thrashed around wildly, managing to hit his intercom button before falling to the floor. His secretary opened the door and leaped back out in a panic, presumably to call 911. Kara and Elise stood helplessly watching, until with a great strain, Russell arched his back and--

pop

With an audible sound, Russell flew out of his body onto the floor. He was gasping and moaning, and it took him several moments to stop convulsing.

"Russell, omigod," Kara ran to him and knelt at his side. "What happened?"

"I-- I-- oh, dear... Russell closed his eyes, trying to bring himself under control. Kara looked up at Elise desperately, then back at Russell. "Donít talk," she told him. Russell took a deep breath and then another. As his respiration slowed he relaxed visibly. Finally he opened his eyes again.

"I think," he said hoarsely, "that I was better off dying without feeling it."

Kara asked again, insistently, "But what happened? We saw you go back..."

"And I tried to calm myself. Iím afraid years of sedentary life simply caught up with me. Kara," he explained, "Sometimes itís just time." He coughed and sat up gingerly. "Iím truly sorry," he repeated.

Kara said nothing, but turned away. She didnít want him to see her tears. She was dead, she realized. Truly and finally dead. And all because of one asshole man who couldnít accept--

"No!" she jumped up, eyes blazing. "God damn no!" Elise looked at her, shocked. "I will not accept this! I will not allow that stinking scum to just... she looked for a word, "extinguish me, like Iím nothing!" Spinning around, she moved back in time, sounds of protest from Russell and Elise cutting off suddenly as she left them behind.

She was so upset that she overshot at first, but she came back the second time to exactly where she wanted to be. Russell was sitting at his desk, pen in hand. She stood at the desk with the palms of her hands flat on it and stared at him. Okay, she thought. Move, damn you. She shifted very slightly forward, watching intently. Russell jerked backwards in his chair and she stopped. Backing up, she watched it again.

"Yes!" she crowed. "You felt that!" She ran the scene backwards and forward again. She was sure of what she was seeing. Russellís jump back into his body had moved him. Very slightly, but Kara knew he hadnít fallen back like that before they tried her experiment. Now, if only--

She closed her eyes and zoomed forwards. If she had opened them, she would have seen nothing but a white blur as paramedics and other office people came in and out of Russellís office in the wake of his death. Finally, she opened her eyes. Nothing was moving, even though she was still exerting the same forward pressure. Checking the clock on Russellís desk in the now deserted office, she saw it read 12:00.

"Right," she nodded. Concentrating on her own presence, she blinked, and was back in her apartment, a bullet inches away from her image. She moved to the bullet and stood behind it, sighting past the deadly piece of metal, trying to gauge where exactly it would hit her. The bullet had lost its shape, and it was hard to tell what angle it was moving at, but as near as she could figure, it was going to hit her just above her left ear, angling backwards.

"Damn," she muttered. The thing would probably take the back of her head off. But... she breathed impatiently. There was no way to tell. If she were to shift forward and to the right by the barest fraction of an inch, the bullet might miss her. It might. If she had to move herself, she knew sheíd never be able to get out of the way fast enough. Elise was right about that. But if her jumping in pushed her automatically, and if she were to jump from the right angle...

"Donít."

Kara jumped in surprise, spinning around to see Elise. "How--?"

"It was your idea," Elise told her. "I figured youíd come back to the last minute here eventually." She stepped towards Kara. "I thought I might have a longer wait, though."

"Donít try and stop me," Kara warned fiercely.

"Why are you doing this?"

Kara looked at Elise blankly.

"Think, Kara," Elise said calmly. "Please." She put her hands on Karaís shoulders and looked into her eyes. "What if it doesnít work? What do you have then? Youíll have the chance very few people get to actually feel what itís like to have your head blown off." Kara winced. "And then youíll be in tomorrow. At the beginning of the day. Do you know how long I wandered around here without seeing another soul? Do you?" She was speaking calmly, but Kara could feel the sense of desperation welling up inside of her.

"But it might--"

"And even," Elise went on as if Kara hadnít spoken, "even if you manage not to die, you could still be hit. You could wind up brain damaged. Or stuck in a wheel chair for the rest of your life, controlling it with a straw."

Kara flinched at that. She hadnít considered that possibility. Life or death, she had thought. Win or lose. She hadnít thought about how much she could lose even if she won. She looked at Elise, as serious as she had ever seen her, and it occurred to her that maybe there was something to be won even if she lost. She could do far worse than Elise. Even if sheíd slept with her almost as an act of revenge against Julie, it had been good. There was no guarantee that sheíd find anyone like that the next day, if this didnít work, and even if everything went as she planned it...

She turned away from Elise. Could she and Julie make things work? Oh, brilliant, she thought. As if thatís all there is to life. But think, she insisted. Death, life, they were only words now. There was Brian, standing like a statue, incapable of laughing or enjoying himself. While she was alive, at least in some way. If she and Elise could enjoy each other as they had, surely there were other possibilities in this new world. And Elise would never leave her, certainly not for a man.

It occurred to her that Brian would probably get caught. He didnít seem smart enough to get away with murdering her like that. And it was quite possible that the police would think Julie had been involved. If Kara had thought so...

But that wasnít her fault. It was Julieís bad judgment, getting involved with Brian. She was innocent, and sheíd just have to convince the police of that.

And as she thought that, a wave of sadness passed through her. Is this you? she asked herself. Are you really going to just quit? Accept your death? Accept the end?

Slowly, she turned back to Elise, pain in her eyes. Elise gazed at her for a long moment, and then nodded. "Yeah," she whispered. "I guess I knew that."

Kara took a deep breath. "Elise--" she started to apologize.

"No," Elise stepped backwards. "Donít. I was wrong to ask." She crossed her arms and hugged herself as if she were cold. "You donít know how lonely itís been." She closed her eyes, then opened them and looked at Kara. "I hope you make it." She laughed sadly. "Iíll never know if you did." Kara couldnít think of a response.

Elise walked to Kara and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Good luck."

Kara looked at her through tear-filled eyes. "Iíll always remember you," she promised. "And if this is like some kind of way station that you go to before moving on, Iíll see you again some day. I promise."

Elise smiled. "I know you will," she said. "It doesnít look like anything ever stops you when youíre determined."

Kara walked over to her motionless body. She faced herself at the angle that was necessary, and took a few steps backward. Well, she thought, what am I waiting for? She ran at herself, trying not to flinch as she neared what seemed to be a solid object, and--

blam!

Kara went flying to the ground, off balance, as the loudest sound she had ever heard exploded next to her ear. Focus! she screamed at herself. She rolled with the fall and landed behind the stereo cabinet to the left of the door. She shoved the cabinet at Brian as he tried to position himself for a second shot.

"Brian!" she screamed at him as he dodged out of the way of the wheeled cabinet.

"What the hell--" he hesitated momentarily, puzzled at her knowing his name, which was what she had hoped for, and his gun wavered. She ran across the room, diving behind the sofa just as another shot rang out.

"Bitch!" he bellowed. "Pervert bitch! Iíll kill you!" He ran at her and she pulled books from the bookshelf behind her and began throwing them at him. He ducked, blocking the books with his right arm, which kept him from taking aim at her again. But he was moving too fast, and he was furious, with a madmanís strength. He leaped at her and held her with his left hand, trying to bring the gun down to strike her. She grabbed his wrist, trying to keep his hand from coming down, but she could feel how much stronger he was. God! she thought wildly. Did I come back from the bloody dead just to have this gorilla beat me back to death?

Frantically, she tried to knee him. Brian clamped his legs together and bent over to protect that tender area, losing his grip on Kara for a bare moment. She backed away and grabbed the bookshelf from the side, pulling it down with all her strength.

It was almost as if she were back in that strange after-world again, she thought, watching the shelf tip in slow motion, Brian reaching up to keep it from falling, fear in his eyes. Kara jumped up over the back of the sofa as the shelf crashed down in the space between the sofa and the wall.

Kara crouched there, panting, waiting to see if Brian would crawl out and continue his attack. When a long moment had passed with no movement, she climbed down and circled the sofa to see what had happened. Somehow, Brian had managed to jump backwards, trying to escape. If he had been a little slower, Kara thought, seeing Brianís head poking out from the top of the shelf, neck at an impossible angle, he might have made it. Good! she thought viciously. Let him think about that.

Kara went to the telephone to call the police, and paused. Setting the handset back in the cradle, she crossed the room and opened her desk drawer, taking out a piece of paper and a pen.

You lose, asshole, she wrote. Everyone there comes back to where they died eventually, and you can come here and see this for the rest of eternity. Then it will be tomorrow, and Iíll go on. You never will. She looked at the note and thought about whether it was crueler than even Brian deserved. She shrugged. It was already written, she realized. There for him to see for as long as that other-world lasted. Sighing, she put down the paper and called the police.

 

EPILOGUE

"Thank you for your cooperation, maíam," the detective said, stepping around the desk in the crowded stationhouse. It was after four in the morning, and Kara was dead tired. She grimaced. Bad choice of words, that.

She looked again at the newspaper on the policemanís desk, which was open to page three. She read again, The woman has been identified by papers in her purse as Elise L. Parker, 26, of Manhattan. Subway officials say she appears to have slipped off the platform just as the downtown D train was entering the station. Subway service was suspended in both directions for over an hour yesterday morning after the accident which took her life.

Well, Elise, she thought. You got more than just an obituary. Too bad youíll never see it. She looked sadly at the picture accompanying the article. Elise was smiling, but still. Kara realized that this was the last sheíd ever see of her.

The police detective had assured her after seeing the marks on her front door where Brian had forced his way in and the bullets heíd fired at her that it was a clear case of attempted murder. He showed her to the door and told her, "If we have any additional questions, weíll be in touch." Kara nodded. The detective went back to his work, and Kara walked down the hall towards the street exit.

The door opened and two uniformed policemen walked in, followed by a familiar face.

"Julie," Kara breathed.

Julie walked quickly to Kara and pulled her into a hug. "Oh, God, Kara, are you okay?" Kara had called Julie as she was finishing up with her statement. She hugged her lover tightly and then took her hand as they left the stationhouse. It was cold in the early November morning, and Kara shivered. Julie put an arm around her to keep her warm.

"I missed you, hon," Kara told Julie, who looked puzzled. She had seen Kara just yesterday. Kara shook her head.

"Listen, Kara... Julie started. "That guy... the one who attacked you..."

"Yeah, Julie," Kara said quietly. "I know."

"How--?"

"It doesnít matter."

"Kara," Julie turned to her. "I want to discuss things with you. I want so much for us to be together, but somehow we never talk. When I heard what happened, I absolutely freaked. You could have been killed." She looked earnestly at Kara. "We really need to work things out," she said. "Not keep putting them off until the last minute."

Kara laughed. "The last minute... She shook her head. "Iíve spent enough time there lately, thank you very much." She touched Julieís face. "Weíll make it work," she promised. "Youíre the best thing in my life. Believe me, even if he had killed me, I would have found a way to come back."

Julie smiled at that. "Thatís sweet of you to say," she told Kara, as they started home together. Kara just smiled.

 

THE END

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