The Thirteenth Traveler
by Dave Ervin
Table of Contents|
chapters: I, II, III, IV,
V, part 1; V, part 2; VI
Alone at night in a strange forest, Travis Burbage witnesses a terrifying scene. Meanwhile, Malachi Linklater discovers that he is engaged in an ironic mode of transportation: he may discover where his journey ends, but where did it begin?
Life wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t. Call it fate playing tricks, call it God having laughs, call it plain old rotten luck; if Travis knew one truth over any other, it was that things rarely go as planned. Just ask Zachary Dean. And yet he couldn’t help but wonder what if ol’ Zach had taken a look at that disk a few years back. Would he have had the inside track on his own death date? Could he have planned ahead a little better? Taken up yoga while he had the chance? Travis had been thinking thoughts like these for three nights now and all the logic in the world got him nowhere.
Immediately following the burial, he returned to the hotel room he’d rented in town and called his wife. He got her voicemail.
“Hannah? Hey. I booked a flight this morning. Leaves out tomorrow at noon. See you tomorrow night. The funeral was nice. I guess. Dammit if Zach didn’t look 80 years old. Kiss the kids. G’night.”
He hung up and stood still in the middle of the room. The black disk lay staring up at him from atop the hotel bed, where he had last left it this morning, after two straight days and nights of fiddling it through his fingers, closing his eyes and resting it on his forehead, lying it on his open palm and struggling with the decision whether or not to close his fingers.
What good would it do? Who knew if the thing would even be able to tell him his own death date. Wasn’t it likely it only revealed Zach’s because he was already so close to the other side? But in his heart Travis knew better. Lying before him on the bed was a simple trinket that could change his life for better or worse, if he only chose to use it. What would it be like to know the date of your own death in advance?
He glanced at himself in the mirror by the bed. Headlights shone through the closed blinds as a car passed by in the parking lot. The glow cast a strange momentary light over his features making him look, for just a moment, like some disfigured creature scarred by shadows.
The rain pattered the windows. The room fell still. Travis moved his gaze from his own reflection back to the disk. A small black circle in the middle of a white, neatly made king-sized bed. A little, innocuous black hole. He was still holding his cell phone. It rang, startling him out of his trance. He answered, glad for something else to think about.
He stared at the phone, unsettled. Must have been a wrong number. Travis checked the screen on his Blackberry. Caller unknown.
The blue light cast by his phone’s LCD screen was all too reminiscent of another blue light display that had been playing nonstop in his mind. He shoved his phone into his pants pocket, and his fingers fell around a litter of loose change. He pulled the coins free and dumped them on the nightstand as he sat on the edge of the bed. He put his head in his hands and wiped his eyes. He was exhausted. He was wired. He looked at the disk. It was as still and unassuming as ever, yet strangely ominous. A black pit in a sea of white.
He lay on his back, hands behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. He searched desperately for something else to think about. The room was too silent. Too dark. The distant rumble of thunder reminded him of a bowling alley. He loved bowling.
There, that was good. Bowling was good for taking your mind off things. He had met Hannah at a bowling alley. She was eight frames into a perfect game, and Travis, like the rest of the crowd that had gathered, was impressed that a girl so pretty could also be such a good bowler.
When she lost it on the last frame, Travis was the first to offer her congratulations: Not “too bad” or even “you’re a really great bowler” but a flat-out, genuine “Way to go!”
“But I blew it,” she had said.
“Yeah, well, most people never get a chance to blow it like that.”
They hit it off right away and soon found themselves trading vows, ready to spend the rest of their lives together. The rest of their lives. Now how long would that be anyway? Travis looked down his nose and eyed the disk. Damn. There it was again.
His lay his arms at his side, the disk an inch from his fingertips. He reached and touched the edge of it, without moving from his reclined position. He gained it and held it delicately between his thumb and pointer. He lifted it to his face and stared deep into the obsidian-like surface. He placed it on his palm and blew a long, slow breath through puffed cheeks. He closed his fingers. His heart beat a rapid rhythm. Sweat rolled down his cheeks though the room was cool. The blue light emanated from between his fingers and he opened his hand:
Name: Travis Burbage. Human ID: 13597.
Okay, so it still worked. It identified him correctly. Great. He closed his fingers again. This time the light pulsed right away.
Birth Date: December 12, 1976
He stared at these words a long time. The disk was two for two. He knew what was next, and his mind froze in indecision. He sat up. He stood. He paced. He picked up his keys and headed for the door. He’d buy a pack of cigarettes, that’s what he’d do. He hadn’t smoked since college, but he’d buy a pack of cigarettes tonight and think about it. Weigh the pros and cons. But that was just delaying the inevitable.
He stopped with his hand on the knob, the black disk pinched between his fingers. He raised it to his face and caught a close-up reflection of his own eye in the glassy surface.
You know you’re going to look, don’t you, Travis? Of course you do. Not because you really want to know. Hell, you probably don’t want to know. But you’re a human being. And human beings are born snoops. We check our spouse’s email “just for fun” or peek in the neighbor’s mailbox “by mistake”. Curiosity’s a bitch.
His birth date stared back at him, mingling with the image of his reflected eye. How long until the disk reset? Would he have to go through the agony of reading his ID and birth date again before deciding whether he wanted to see the next date revealed? Now or never, Travis. Just do it.
But what about fate? What about God’s plan? Wasn’t this something he wasn’t meant to know? Oh shut up and do it.
Could it be dangerous? Just do it.
But... Do it.
The room lit up with a brilliant camera-flash of lightning, and Travis impetuously closed his fingers around the disk. A moment later, the blue light shone through. He lifted his fingers. The disk read
Date of Death... A blinking cursor stood ready to reveal his fate.
Travis couldn’t breathe; his eyes stayed glued to that flashing cursor. What was taking it so long? Was it unable to tell him after all? He felt flooded by a strange mix of disappointment and relief.
He resolved to toss the disk back on the bed, then at the last moment, a set of numbers appeared on the screen. Without thinking Travis turned his head and hurled the disk across the room. It hit the wall and bounced off, spinning across the floor and slowing in a veering, stooping roll as it neared the dresser, just clearing the space between floor and furniture. Then it dropped, as innocent as a discarded coin, hidden in shadow.
Travis hadn’t seen the date clearly. But a date it was. He was sure of it. The blue light glowed faintly from underneath the dresser. The answer to the question “When will I die?” lying face up, ready to be pulled out and read.
And then what? Travis went through the possibilities. Suppose the date was sixty years in the future. Would he be free to do what he wanted, live how he pleased until that date? Could he eat high cholesterol foods and drink like a fish and smoke his lungs out until he was 98 with no fear of death?
And what if the date was sometime much sooner, say five years? Then what was the point in making healthy choices? Would it matter if he paid his taxes and kept his car insured and clipped his toenails?
If he peeked at the date, could he quit his job and tell off his boss guilt-free? Could he cheat on his wife with a Siamese twin and post it on YouTube? Not that he wanted to, but the idea of living with no rules fascinated him.
In the grand scheme of things, Travis supposed, he could do any or all of these things any time he wanted. But every act would involve risk. Not knowing that date, that was the grand balance. That kept him, like all men, in check. Free will, yes, but no guaranteed outcomes. So if all choices came with risk, and death could strike anyone at any time, was free will really free? But glancing at that disk could change all that, couldn’t it?
The other question that nagged at him was whether the date on the disk could be changed. Was it set in stone? If it couldn’t be changed, then what was the point of anything? If his death date were fated like that guy he read about in college that did his mom and offed his dad — Eddie Puss? — then why even bother? Why play a game in which you knew the outcome?
Before he knew it, he was on his hands and knees pulling the disk free into the open space. He deliberately kept his eyes on the dresser, so as not to accidentally see the reading too soon. This had to be done correctly. There was ceremony involved. When he was sure it was right in front of him, ready to reveal its secret, Travis lowered his eyes.
It was as if God had placed a vacuum down his throat and turned it up to 11.
The disk read, Date of Death: April 13, 2013.
A cold shower of panic washed over him. It had to be a mistake. The way the car radio blinks 12:00 when it resets. The disk was displaying today’s date by mistake, not his death date at all. What a futuristic piece of crap. He wondered for a moment where he might get a replacement battery.
Then someone knocked on the door. The report shocked his body as though the lightning storm outside had jumped in through the window and struck him in the head. All at once he knew who was there. The same one who called his cell phone earlier. Someone he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Someone who was supposed to be dead.
The silence in the wake of the knock was electric. Travis knew then that the disk was in proper working order. There was no malfunction. His mind grappled for some sort of loophole. If none existed, he had less than three hours to live.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Ervin