It had all been so simple in the end. She had assumed initially that something or someone would have eventually stopped her. The universe would surely have sent her some kind of sign, a warning not to continue. But it didn’t. And when that happened, Susanna realized that if the universe didn’t care, then neither did she.
She had done her duty of course. She played through the scenarios, tried to find an alternative. She talked to medical professionals and made peace with her family. But nothing had helped. Nothing had stopped that hollowness she felt, the way her words echoed and rattled around inside her meaninglessly. And so, that afternoon, she had made her way to the Monarchy Bridge. She swung one leg, then another, over the railing, still waiting to feel something, anything, some sense of significance.
And then, she had jumped.
Or had she? The bitter taste of the polluted water had vanished, the burning in her lungs gone. Now, she was in a large, white-walled room with a desk and a single occupant. It was this occupant, the only other person in the room, who spoke first.
“Well, come forward please. I don’t want to shout.” The voice belonged to an older man, and as Susanna approached the desk, she felt that “older” was an understatement. The gentleman appeared to be on the far side of eighty, his beady eyes peering at her through the folds of his face. The only other distinguishing trait to the man was the few slivers of hair combed across his balding head. He didn’t smile. Instead, his eyes nearly disappeared as he squinted at her.
“Are you Miss Susanna Parks?”
“Um…Yes,” said Susanna. She shook her head and brushed her hair out her face, trying to focus on the man and not on the fact that her hair was somehow dry. “I’m sorry, but where am I?”
The man frowned up at her, practically swimming in a pale blue suit that was at least two sizes too big for him. “Oh dear,” he said. “In a bit of denial, are we?” He pulled closer in his chair and consulted the papers on his desk. “Right then, let’s get this done: Susanna Parks, you agree that on November 16th of this year, you committed suicide.”
The bluntness of his words coupled with his unfeeling tone made Susanna wince. “Yes,” she said, “I did.”
“And you understand that as a direct result of your actions, in conjunction with paragraph seven, article thirteen of The Treaty of Life, you are now considered dead.”
Susanna shrugged. Apparently she had been successful after all. “I guess so, yep.”
“Good, that’s done then.” The man stamped one of the pages and shuffled them on his desk. “Thank you for not crying and making a fuss. People always do at that part. It does wear on my nerves after a while.” He stuck three of the pages in a drawer and pulled out another two. “Now then, the next question, of course, is what to do with your extra days.”
Susanna frowned. “I’m sorry,” she said. “What extra days?”
The man stopped and looked at her. “Why, your unused days, of course. The ones you would have lived had you not…Has no one told you about this?” Susanna shook her head, causing the man to sigh. “In choosing your own death, you waive the right to use any of your remaining days for yourself, but you are allowed to select a recipient. Understood?”
Susanna shook her head.
The man sighed again, and this time, he stood up. “Right then,” he said, tugging on his blue jacket. “Come with me.”
The man pressed a button on his desk, and a part of the wall opened to reveal a doorway. The two travelled down a long hallway past other doors, each with a different number. Before Susanna could ask about them, they had come to the door at the end of the hall. This was the last door, and it was here that the man stopped.
“Just a few things before we go in,” he said, his eyes nearly disappearing under his furrowed brow. “These people are professionals and their work is very important. It requires a lot of precision and concentration. You’re welcome to stare and ask me questions, but don’t interrupt them.”
“Interrupt who?” said Susanna.
“The Assigners,” said the man with a small smile. “And I see the questions have started already.”
The man opened the door and the two stepped in. A cacophony of sound met Susanna’s ears as her eyes surveyed the scene below her.
To call the scene busy was like calling the Titanic’s damage a scratch. It reminded Susanna of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Hanging from the center of the circular room were monitors and flat screen televisions, showing lists of names and news footage from an endless number of channels. A group of men and women stood underneath, all in black suits, all carrying clipboards, and all of them paying considerable attention to the monitors. Every so often one of them would leave, and Susanna’s eyes would follow him or her to one of the many cubicles and desks that circled in two rows around the center of the room. Dozens of people filled these workstations, and were shouting to one another. Susanna felt that she and her guide were the only two people in the room not talking. That was until her guide spoke.
“Welcome to the Intervention Room,” he said, with a sweep of his hand to the scene below. “We believe in one thing here: never waste a moment. These are the guys and girls who make sure that it happens. We keep close tabs at all times on ongoing events. Then, we analyze the data and come up with multiple lists of people who may need the extra time. And then we give it to them.”
Susanna frowned, her green eyes narrowing. “Let me make sure I understand this. You pick and choose people at random, and you extend their lives? That’s playing God. You can’t do that.”
The man looked at her. “How long did you wait?”
“How long did you wait before you jumped?”
Susanna imagined herself back on the bridge as the man continued. “Five seconds? Thirty? A minute? Most people don’t know because to them, time doesn’t matter. But to us, it does. It’s not always about saving someone’s life. Sometimes it’s about giving a dying father a few moments to say goodbye to his daughter, or to give the doctors one more minute to save a patient. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But think of what the world could do if we just gave it more time. If people stopped wasting their time. That’s what the donation of your unused days does. Gives us, all of us, more time.”
Susanna was about to speak, but a loud beep began to sound behind them. All eyes went up to the monitor, where there was a breaking story about a shooting. One of the men in black suits quickly consulted his chart and shouted to someone in a nearby cubicle.
“Eight-year-old girl is bleeding out from a stray bullet. Sarah Jenkins of Kawassa, Ohio. Get her up there.”
Susanna watched everyone begin to quickly move and scatter like ants. Her elderly guide tugged her arm.
“Come on,” he said, pulling her towards the stairs. The two stopped on a lower landing, giving them a clear view of a specific cluster of monitors.
Susanna’s eyes scanned the monitors as a live video appeared on the center screen. It was a young girl, and she looked as though she was in pain. Beneath her picture was an odd line pattern that Susanna recognized immediately: her heartbeat.
“What’s going on?” asked Susanna.
“Someone needs more time,” said the guide, squinting at the screen. “Looks like there was a shooting on her street. A stray bullet has hit her. If she doesn’t get help soon, she’s going to bleed out.”
Susanna felt her heart race. “We have to do something. What does she need?”
“She needs a lot of things,” said the guide, “but what she needs most is time.” He motioned to the screen, where her picture had been pulled to the front. Various numbers were flashing, and the Assigners in front of the screen were studying them carefully. “Those,” said the guide, motioning to the numbers, “are the worst and best case scenario times that she needs. The first time tells us that unless we can get her more time, she’s going to die in…seven minutes,” he said, checking the clock. “And the police will probably find her two minutes later, judging by our estimates.”
“So she needs two minutes,” said Susanna.
“She needs more than that,” said the guide. “She needs at least five for the police to get her to the paramedics in time, and even then we don’t know if they can save her. That’s the worst-case scenario. But if we can give her ten, twenty, thirty minutes? Her chances of stabilizing and surviving go up. Now, maybe she dies in surgery. Maybe she doesn’t. There’s no real guarantee. But for now, the only thing standing between her and definite death is us.”
“So save her.”
The man looked up at Susanna. “Why?”
Susanna blinked. “Because—because she needs help!”
“So do lots of other people.”
“But—she’s—” Susanna fought for words. For the first time in a long time, the hollowness in her chest had vanished, replaced by the desperate thumping of her heart. “You need to save her. You have to.”
The elderly man peered at her through the folds in his face.
“Now who’s playing God?” he asked.
Susanna looked at the picture of the little girl, the clock ticking down next to her. Her hair was in pigtails with those beaded elastics that Susanna remembered from her own childhood. Somewhere, that girl needed help. Susanna felt something ignite inside her.
“Give her mine,” she said.
The guide turned. “What?”
“My extra days,” said Susanna. “Give them to her. All of them.”
The guide began to speak, but a shrill bell overpowered him, and a cheer went up throughout the room.
“Sounds like she’s covered,” he said, smiling. “We’ve got enough minutes in the system to get her to the paramedics.”
Susanna looked at the screen. The girl’s picture had disappeared, but on one of the monitors in the center, a reporter was capturing the discovery of the girl live on camera. She was in critical condition, but she was still alive.
“I take it that you’re ready to discuss your unused days now.”
Susanna turned to the guide. He was watching her with a curious eye. She nodded.
“Tell me what I have to do.”
Beneath all of the papers that the man had on his desk was a calculator. He managed to find it after a few moments, and was punching in numbers and cross-referencing them for a long time. Finally, he looked up at Susanna.
“According to our predictions, you have seven thousand, eight hundred and thirty unused days.”
Susanna’s mouth dropped slightly. “Really? That long?” she frowned, “I mean, I thought that…” she found herself unable to put her thoughts into words. For the first time, she felt that she might have made a terrible mistake . He noticed her reaction and gave her a sympathetic smile in response.
“You’re not the first person to come across my desk with that response,” he said. “And you’re definitely not the worst case I’ve seen. I can’t help but think that we’d all be happier sometimes if we quit letting ourselves get in the way.” The man turned the sheet around so that Susanna could read it from her seat on the opposite side of the desk. “In any case, that’s how many days you have, which works out to two hundred and sixty-one months, or just short of thirteen years. Which,” he said, motioning to the page, “in hours and minutes, works out to this.”
“Wow,” said Susanna. “That’s…”
“Intimidating,” she said. She slid the page back to him.
The man smiled at the thought, but noticed that Susanna didn’t. In fact, her expression looked sad, her gaze still focused on the paper she’d slid away.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
Susanna looked up and did her best to smile, but the pain was evident. The man waited a long moment and, when she failed to speak up, ventured a guess.
“You want your time back,” he said, not sounding entirely surprised.
Susanna didn’t respond immediately. “No,” she finally said. “It’s just…” she floundered for a moment. “It was seeing that girl, her house, her neighbourhood…I never had to worry about all that. I’ve always had a roof over my head, had family and friends…and all it took was one little hitch, one stupid thing for me to give up on all of it. I couldn’t cope. But that girl, she’s going through agony, and it’s going to make her stronger. Seeing her suffer…it just makes me wish that I hadn’t given up.” Susanne wiped at her eye quickly before letting out an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t even know if I’m making any sense.”
“Some,” said the man, sitting back in his chair. “You know, I’ve been on this side of the desk for so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like on the other side.”
Susanna blinked. “So you…you did too?”
The man nodded. “Can’t remember why I did it, but I did. And I thought it was such a waste, my time. I didn’t do much with it. But when I got here and I saw what these people did, well…I thought this was it. This is what I was meant to do.” He looked thoughtfully at Susanna. “We all walk around, impacting others every day with what we say and do without ever fully realizing it. You let someone get in line ahead of you. That changes things. Maybe now they leave the parking lot sooner and they get into an accident at the intersection instead of you. Maybe they don’t. We can’t know things like that, but accidents happen. We’re so connected that if one of us falls, we all, in some way, feel the ripples. That’s why I’m here—to stop as many of those accidental disconnects as possible. And the only way I—we—can do that is with the help of people like you.”
Susanna was quiet for a moment. Finally she lifted her head and smiled at him through puffy eyes, her face moist. “You’re a good salesman,” she said.
“Well, I have put in the years,” said the man with a gentle wink. He waited a moment before continuing. “So, what will it be? Donating it back into the system? Or have you got someone in mind?”
Susanna leaned forward. “Is that little girl okay now?”
“For the moment,” said the man. “We can’t predict how long someone will need, what with the human element. But just to be on the safe side, I can set aside some time for her. If she doesn’t need it, it’ll go back into the system when she passes.”
Susanna nodded. “That sounds good.”
The man consulted his pages. “A few days are okay?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The man jotted something down. “That’s been noted. Now that only leaves us with…seven thousand, eight hundred and twenty-seven days left.” He gave her a look that was mutually amused and exasperated. “This could take a while, breaking it up into individual recipients.”
“No,” said Susanna. “Put it all back into the system. If people can use it, let them. But,” she said, leaning forward, “is there any way to make sure it’s used for kids first?”
The man smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Oh, and just one more thing,” said Susanna. “I was wondering if you could look up someone for me.”
The next hour was a blur, with the two poring over files and signing papers. When it was all done, the man stood up from his desk. Susanna followed suit.
“Well, Miss Susanna Parks of Dormant Street, it was a pleasure meeting you. And on behalf of, well, everyone…I want to thank you for your donation.”
“I just hope those minutes are put to good use,” she said, “and I have a feeling that they will be.”
The man nodded and pushed a different button on his desk. Another part of the wall slid open with another doorway. Susanna looked from the man to the door and back.
“So I guess that’s my next stop,” she said. Despite her best efforts, her voice was shaking. “Where does it go?”
“I don’t know,” said the man. “Got recruited for this job immediately after arriving. Apparently there’s no accounting for taste around here.”
Susanna laughed, her eyes wet. “Any chance you need an assistant?” She swiped quickly at her face. “No, never mind,” she said. “It’s about time I did something brave.”
She made her way slowly across the room, finally stopping just shy of the door. Turning back, she gave the man at the desk a nod. “Thank you,” she said, “for everything.”
“No, Miss Parks,” said the man with a slight bow, “thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Susanna, and before she had the chance to change her mind, she stepped through the doorway, and the wall closed behind her.
The man sat back down in his chair and began to tidy up the papers on his desk. He gave a small sigh as he looked at them, the signatures, the recipients. He tried so hard not to get attached, but somehow they always got under his skin. He would just have to try harder.
He had no sooner cleared his desk when the familiar sound of a ‘pop’ echoed through the room. A file was on his desk, and the man looked up to see a man in his forties standing there. The man at the desk straightened his back, toughened his resolve, and spoke.
“Well, come forward please,” he said. “I don’t want to shout.”
It was a miracle in the midst of a tragedy, the six-month-old baby who had managed to survive. It wasn’t the fact that she had survived the collapse of a seven-story building. Nor was it the fact that she had managed to stay alive for more than three days. It was the fact that when the firefighters found her, she was completely unharmed, except for some dehydration. It was something you didn’t see often.
The paramedics really couldn’t believe it. The two-year-old had fallen from a second-storey balcony into the pool below, and had been pronounced dead on the scene. Now they heard that he’d been found breathing in the morgue, right on the examiner’s table ready for the autopsy. Things like this just didn’t happen in small towns, but the paramedics weren’t about to complain. Having to give bad news any day was hard. But this boy had been given more time, and that was the best kind of news.
Sarah Jenkins woke up before her alarm, like she did every morning, and got dressed for work. Only today, she had to be careful of her shoulder. An altercation with a suspect had left her with a long, jagged cut down her right arm. Soon it would be a scar. Still, it could have been worse. She’d had time to move back before he attacked. If she hadn’t, she’d have been sent to the morgue instead of the hospital emergency room.
She started to put on her uniform shirt, but stopped on the last button. Looking in the mirror, she let her fingers find the familiar spot below her collarbone. The scar was still there. Even after all these years, she could still remember that day—being eight years old, lying on the floor of her living room, and hoping that someone would find her. Thankfully, someone did.
With a small smile, she buttoned up her shirt and reached for her badge. Time to start another day.