Brandon must risk what he cares about most to rescue a girl he only knows through visions.
“Open the door!” he demanded, banging on the driver’s side window with his palm.
“It’s not wise to exit the vehicle at this time, Sir.”
“I don’t care, Walter. Do it!”
The Tesla One slowed to a stop, its electric door lifted, and Brandon Norrie sprinted to the edge of Seattle’s 520 bridge.
Two hours earlier, he was fully reclined, watching the Mariners blow a two-run lead on the windshield. Last year, they had won the World Series for the first time in team history, but now, after one parade-filled off-season, they were struggling to capture the same magic of that fateful year.
He didn’t really care if they won or lost; he was desperate for something to help pass the time. He had the entire month of August to travel back and forth on this now familiar bridge, searching for the accident that would drag him to a watery grave at the bottom of Lake Washington.
And few things seemed to dull this impending doom as much as watching the predictability of baseball. Strikes, balls, the occasional home run, the confidence of an umpire calling an out, and the smooth sound of the announcer’s voice worked like anesthesia against any feelings he had about death.
Baseball was real. And present.
He settled in.
Walter, his personalized intelligence, would have to care about his future for the rest of the evening. “Eighty percent opacity,” Brandon grunted.
Walter darkened the windshield.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the game tied and the winning run about to enter the batter’s box, the Tesla abruptly decelerated. The game and Brandon’s comfort disappeared. He gripped the untouched steering wheel and pulled himself up. “I see it,” he said, still thinking about the low batting average that had flashed across the screen. Too low for a walk-off home run, he convinced himself, thankful that Walter had left the volume on.
“Black SUV, two cars ahead, Sir.” Walter calmly advised.
They watched as it slowly drifted into the left lane. It’s heavily tinted windows, rusty tailpipe, and air-filled tires looked familiar to Brandon, but, then again, it wasn’t underwater.
“What percent?” he asked. “And stop calling me Sir.”
“There’s a sixty-three percent chance this is the vehicle in Number Nine,” Walter reported. “And I thought we agreed it was acceptable when I really needed to get your attention?”
He was right.
But the tone and how it was emphasized as the last word in the sentence made it feel like Walter was trying to usurp authority or mock him or call him by some pet name. Brandon wasn’t sure, and he couldn’t have his PI acting all defiant.
So he didn’t reply—he’d deal with it later, when it wasn’t a death month.
With the sun about to set and twenty-eight days still to go, he figured they’d end up at home in time for a late dinner. And maybe tonight he’d finally be able to tell Samantha about the visions he’d been having for the past eight years and how his heroic, sometimes terrifying efforts to survive had actually worked.
It felt good to lie to himself. Yes, maybe tonight he’d break through. Maybe he could finally share this part of his life with her. Maybe his intentions could overwhelm the convincing logic that these periodic death visions were best kept to himself.
He hated having secrets.
And Walter wasn’t much help either, which was strange since if Brandon died, so did Walter. But his software simply didn’t allow for self-preservation. Brandon assumed it was like any other private moments in his life—Walter was supposed to temporarily shut down and stop recording. But he had quietly overwritten subtle aspects of his software before, seemingly insignificant things like voice inflection or interpreting rules in his own favor or subversively using the word Sir.
Brandon wished he could do the same to his visions.
He wished Walter could help.
For the past three years, he had been trying to explain his morbid visions to Samantha, but it felt like telling her that she had purchased a faulty husband who could die at any moment. He didn’t feel faulty, but, still, he wasn’t sure if he was broken or not. And who wants to tell the person investing their hopes and dreams in your reality that she might want to rethink her commitment?
Each time he survived, he felt more confident in his ability to live and, perhaps more important, to not disappoint Samantha.
It was true that after avoiding Number Three his visions forced him to participate by taking over his consciousness, and maybe one event in his future consistently dictated months of his present, and, yes, maybe it felt like he possessed his own fanatical religion that twisted its seemingly helpful roots deeper and deeper inside of him. But he was still alive. That had to mean something about his brokenness.
With so many details happening exactly as the visions predicted, he had no other choice but to believe. He had to accept each vision as reality. And what could he possibly tell her that wouldn’t make her think he was crazy? He had swallowed this same question on their wedding night and every other day he felt completely overwhelmed by his future. And each time he tried to come clean, he almost always found himself speaking in generalities, sounding like a mixture of confident mortician and starving life insurance salesman. Then he’d give up and ask if he could be her massage therapist. She never refused.
The amount stood at the door of his mind like an unexpected house guest. None of his other visions happened so early in the month. It didn’t make sense to give the percentage more attention than it deserved. The next evening, he and Walter were supposed be back on the 520 bridge, with less time, higher stakes, and the same sobering questions: Was it his death day? Would he be able to save the drowning girl?
Despite his lack of acquaintance with death, its forboding feeling had become strangely normal for Brandon. When he was younger, he figured it might not be totally unusual to experience the details of how and when he was supposed to die. But after a few conversations with Mrs. Crankshaw, his high school biology teacher, she put him on a suicide watch—he should have never trusted her. After that, he felt unequivocally unique. He learned to be quiet about his visions; he would survive by himself, without anyone’s help.
Walter became the exception.
Shortly after the so-called suicide scare, Brandon’s parents had him get personalized intelligence installed. They wanted to monitor his thoughts, but Brandon quickly modified the software. Walter easily defected and gave his parents regular, faulty reports about his thoughts and feelings. After three months of collusion, he and Walter became an unstoppable force of adolescence.
That is, until Number Four happened. Neither of them anticipated that the guy on the train would have a second knife. With some quick thinking on Walter’s part, Brandon survived. But for the first time, maybe because he was no longer a teenager, he felt the gravity of his clairvoyance. He started to question if his visions weren’t coming from deep inside him. Maybe they were part of some existential game that had him at the receiving end of a divine joystick?
Or maybe he really was suicidal?
Then, during his sophomore year at the University of Washington, he boarded a bus wearing the bullet proof vest Walter had recommended. When the bullet hit him in the exact spot Number Five had predicted, he became convicted to the accuracy of his visions. Wherever they were coming from, he could trust that they were in control of his future.
The next year, Brandon spent his time studying, playing pool, and rebelling against his condemning lack of control. He would avoid Number Six completely. How hard was it to not be on a train in March? But three weeks before the allotted death month, his future morphed; it had the same outcome, just different circumstances.
He was about to apply to business school, and he couldn’t stand the thought trying to avoid death by becoming a hermit or kicking against the demon inside him, only to sacrifice his hopes and dreams. He wasn’t even sure seclusion would work. So he made a bold decision to embrace his gift: he would become Number Six.
After he survived Numbers Seven and Eight, he was a true disciple; it was as if the more he committed his time and energy to his visions, the easier it became to survive.
But this last vision, Number Nine, which had captured his consciousness over three months ago was different. He was confident he could manipulate the outcome with stalwart obedience up until the final moment before he was supposed to die, but none of his visions ever included saving someone else’s life. That was new.
The SUV shot back into their lane.
“Ninety-eight percent!” Walter blurted out.
The batter swung and connected, and by the roar of the fans, the Mariners had finally won a game.
Brandon zeroed-in on the SUV. “That’s good enough for me,” he admitted, reaching into his pocket to retrieve the car safety hammer he had purchased six weeks earlier.
The SUV whipped back and forth like the driver had just woken up and couldn’t figure out which lane was his. And, instead of slowing down, he was speeding up.
Adrenaline dropped into Brandon’s veins.
Walter was quiet.
They watched in slow motion as the drifter’s left front wheel caught pavement and buckled. Momentum lifted the SUV’s back wheels—the right one followed by the left—and twisted it into a side-over-side roll.
Number Nine was about to happen.
It would be the first vehicular accident in the Northwest in six months—a local record shattered almost exclusively by old-timers that refused to stop manually driving their out-dated, gas-powered hobbies. Brandon thought it would be hard to spot one of these dinosaurs on the road, but as soon as he started looking, he noticed them everywhere. It was as if their drivers refused advancement for the way things used to be, just so they could be the ones who manually killed themselves.
He gripped the plastic hammer, running his thumb over the solid steel ball. The SUV was in a full roll, and then, like a parkour athlete from the turn of the century, it leapt over the side of the barricade, leaving it completely undisturbed.
A surge of confidence pulsed through Brandon’s six-foot-one, athletic frame as he ran toward the barricade. He would dive in, use the steal ball to break the rear-passenger window, find the little girl wedged between the second and third rows, push her through the passenger window, and watch as she kicked her legs toward the surface. Then, like a giant middle finger to the face of Number Nine, he would use the built-in razor blade at the other end of the hammer to free himself from the seat belt that would somehow wrap itself around his ankle.
He skid into the barricade and felt the grit of molded cement dig into his hands. Lake Washington was further down than he expected. Suddenly, he felt like he was ten-years-old again, standing at the top of the local high dive. Then he remembered feeling the frigid water on her skin, tasting her fear, watching her silently drown.
Straddling the barricade, as if out of his own body, he took in the frothy scene below. It looked to be about a forty-foot drop.
Forty-four feet, Walter corrected, using the microchip hardwired to his cerebral cortex.
Having a constant companion hardwired to your brain had its drawbacks: you can never be alone with your thoughts.
Be quiet. Let me think.
Scolding the emotionally immune Walter was a cherished pastime; it helped him focus.
Brandon had about two minutes before the vehicle completely submerged. The sun was falling into the Olympic Mountains, and directly above him wispy orange and pink clouds wondered if he had the courage to jump. The driver had gotten his window down, which, after three weeks of studying water accidents, Brandon had learned was the first thing you want to do if your vehicle is sinking. It’s counterintuitive, but letting water rush into your sinking vehicle is often the only way to survive.
His preparation also taught him that most people think they have more time than they actually do. And some more sophisticated victims think they can open their door after the pressure in their car equalizes with the outside water pressure. But this rarely happens because the car is constantly sinking, and they end up disoriented and drown in the unexpected blackness before they can escape.
Brandon lifted his other leg over the side of the barricade. Both legs dangled with anticipation, while the rest of his body leaned back toward the pavement.
The SUV pitched forward, its heavy engine pulling it further into the water.
Jump already! he commanded himself.
He was in the shower when he first saw the girl in the backseat drown. Shampoo ran down his forehead and into his eyes as he watched her tiny body convulse. Then, gazing at him with lifeless eyes, they both went limp. He woke up on the shower floor, a vulnerable pretzel of arms and legs. It turned out not to be a full session, only a flash—a preview of the more intense sessions that would soon take over his daily life.
Being familiar with the pattern of flashes turning into full sessions, he carefully planned each moment of his day, building in enough free time to allow for spontaneous vision breaks. Could he collapse at this very moment and not injure himself? Would Samantha notice that he had locked himself in the bathroom for so long? If he was in public, could he recognize the signs beforehand and get himself somewhere private?
“You have less than one minute before the vehicle submerges. If you are going to jump, now would be the time,” Walter suggested in a calm voice.
After impact, the girl, still conscious, would have unbuckled herself and climbed into the back seat—mostly to escape the frightening side airbag. She would have crouched in between the second and third row seats and waited for her father to save her.
Brandon had no images or feelings from the drifter, who he assumed was her father, only the sense that he would somehow survive. Maybe after seeing his daughter’s empty booster seat, he convinces himself that she escaped on her own. Or maybe his personal intelligence tells him to save himself. Either way, she doesn’t get out on her own, not without Brandon’s help.
Soon, water will fill her shoes and climb up her shivering body. Desperate to breath, she will open her mouth, and a final, cold memory of water filling her lungs will register on her consciousness.
Seconds ticked away and Brandon was still staring trancelike at the sinking SUV. His eyes widened and questions—the kind Walter couldn’t answer—rushed in. He couldn’t help it. What would happen to Samantha if he didn’t survive? If he died, would she recover in a normal way? He didn’t even know what that meant. Sitting there, seconds feeling like hours with the speed of his thoughts, all he could think about was Samantha.
He thought about how she looked earlier that morning, smothered in blankets and slivers of sunshine that crept through their block-out curtains. He didn’t want to wake her before he left. Now, he wished he had. He loved her more than he thought was possible—a fact that was conspiring against his will to jump.
They met at the end of his sophomore year, in between Number Four and Number Five and just before he was accepted to business school. Their ten months of exclusive dating unexpectedly eclipsed the previous twenty years of never knowing each other. Two and a half months later, they had found a church and the thick Somalian pastor performed the ceremony.
Everything felt so natural: getting married, honeymooning to Victoria Island, feeling miserable when one of them experienced something without the other. They settled into a routine: she went to work and he went to class. She paid the bills for three years, and he eventually graduated from the University of Washington with his business degree. Now that they had just bought their first house, she was planning on going back to school to get her master’s degree in nursing.
They were told that the first year of marriage would be the hardest. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Maybe it was because they both came from less-than-involved families—there were no generations of family members holding a safety net. Instead, they were largely on their own, storming the island of marriage through the smoke of their burning boats.
When the ashes finally settled, two realities began to emerge: First, Samantha was the grounded realist. If the dishwasher broke, she would spend hours learning how it worked. Brandon, on the other hand, had a prioritized, color-coded HANDYMAN LIST that he promised himself every week to start doing. He was, after all, a homeowner now. But actually cleaning the gutters was akin to gauging his eyeballs out.
Yet, for some reason, he pretended this wasn’t true. He figured Samantha knew he wasn’t keen on being the stereotypical fix-it husband. As the hopeful optimist that needed hoards of variety, he preferred ideas to manual labor. He couldn’t help it. And battling at least one vision per year didn’t help either. Where did scrubbing the bathroom sink fit into figuring out how to not drown? Or how about believing in something greater than himself? If he didn’t believe his visions, he risked his own mortality.
Over time, their relationship became an amalgamation of his hopeful optimism and her stoic realism. He hated small talk, and she was deeply introverted. More importantly, the feeling that they were going places, becoming their best selves, creating something amazing together—maybe even a few beautiful children—permeated their marriage.
“If I died, would you remarry?”
He blurted it out one night when they were laying in bed, conversing with the ceiling about anything and nothing at all.
She didn’t say anything.
He tried to convince himself that married couples asked each other questions like that. But, then again, maybe he had crossed some invisible marital line? Or maybe she had already fallen asleep? Probably not, since she slept like she was in a foxhole so that—he couldn’t even get up to go pee without her noticing a change in the bedroom air pressure.
He was about to convince himself that it was an inappropriate question when she rolled her thigh in between his legs and squared her face to his. “If you died, I would not marry again,” she protested.
“Shut up!” he said, playfully pushing her away, then pulling her back. “Really? You’re serious?”
“Yes!” she affirmed, sounding stoic and convincing. “And it’s pretty obvious what you would do.”
“I don’t believe you.”
She rolled away from him.
“Besides, there’s no way you would be able to stay single,” he demanded, mostly debating with himself.
“Guys hit on you at the grocery store, while I’m pushing the cart.”
It was a convincing argument and one that she couldn’t just fain away with rolling her eyes.
“Oh, so you think that just because some guy in a grocery store ogles me, that I’d marry him. I don’t need a warm body next to me just to be happy.”
He kissed the back of her neck, grabbing her thigh and pulling her into his waist. “I’m a warm body.”
“Not the adjective I would have chosen,” she hissed.
“I know it feels like we’re talking to our insurance agent or something, but your answer surprises me,” he said, sounding too serious even for his taste. “You really wouldn’t marry again?”
She made a sound to let him know that the neck thing was working.
“I would want you to be happy,” he confessed. “I mean, I don’t want you to be with anyone else, but I also wouldn’t want you to be alone.”
Guilt swept over him. He realized the gravity of what they were talking about—he was the only one who knew how close she might be to actually living alone and facing this question at some point in her future.
He would do anything to prevent that.
But let another person die so he could live to fight another day?
Shouldn’t have brought it up.
Everything about their marriage revolved around the idea of progress, of growing towards a worthy, mutual goal. It was stupid to ask her what she would do if their plans didn’t work out. What was she supposed to say?
Still, what she said surprised him.
“Brandon?” She said his name carefully, deliberately. “What if death is the end? What if when we die, everything you and I have together just goes away?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what if there’s nothing more beyond us? What if our marriage ends with our consciousness?
Normally, he welcomed philosophical pillow talk—the more, the better. Instead, he felt the weight of every one of his previous visions pressing against him. How had he survived so many times before and not told her about his visions? They had talked about death before, but never in the context of their marriage.
Maybe this was a predictable conversation—who doesn’t feel euphoric in a relationship and immediately think, “What can I do to make this not end?” All Samantha had to do was play with his hair while they watched Netflix and all Brandon could think about was how to get the moment to last forever. What show can we binge watch next?
He settled with a vague reply. “How can we really know if there’s life after death?” He ran his fingers through her hair. “I mean, how can anyone know?”
“It would have to be discernible?”
Her answer was quick and deliberate. She had thought about this before.
“What do you mean?” he asked, still trying to figure out what she meant by discernible.
“I don’t know,” she grumbled. “To believe in progress after death, the evidence would have to be as strong as, if not stronger than, my current reality.”
Her reasoning was impressive.
There was just enough light coming through the curtains that he could see her eyes searching his face.
“I’m still waiting for that evidence,” she added
If Brandon died like Number Nine predicted, he couldn’t help thinking that she might fall into a hopeless reality. The thought was ridiculous: Samantha was the stalwart one, about life and responsibility and truth. She was more faithful about spirituality and God than he could ever imagine being. Could she really go off the deep end?
Forty-five seconds, Walter interrupted.
A boat was approaching. It was a white yacht, on the small side, with tinted windows and chrome railings, exactly the kind he and Samantha dreamed about owning someday. “When we’re rich and famous,” he would joke. Three concerned boaters perched on the bow. He couldn’t see their faces.
What if there really was nothing after all of this? What if he had to save Samantha from Number Nine, too?
The SUV’s rear tires were almost completely submerged.
He felt hollow. Number Nine was here, and it might tear them apart.
I can’t let her drown.
The horn of a boat bellowed.
He took a deep breath, leaned forward, flattened his feet against the side of the bridge…and jumped.