Lights. Flashing lights. Not the happy kind, like you’d see on Christmas trees. The sort that indicated bad news.
The persistent wail of an approaching police siren pulled Max Keane away from his drug induced stupor. The morning air was hot and humid, and perspiration began to run amok his slanting forehead. The noise started to drum on his ears, now almost unbearable, and he felt like his head about ready to explode.
He stared blankly at his surroundings, reaping disbelief at every corner, unsure of what his mind seemed to be telling him. His meds weren’t doing what they were supposed to, and his head was throbbing wildly as if someone had smashed a vase on it. I need coffee or a large whiskey, he sighed. A quick check of the back of his neck felt wet, a dampness caused by the steady trickle of blood he’d earlier thought to be sweat. Shit! This can’t be good, he swore, flaunting a grimace.
The square around him was bustling with activity. The police had finally arrived, and officers began setting up a perimeter to cordon off their crime scene. Yellow tape marked a rough area labeled “Do Not Cross”, a cheap barrier intended to prevent bystanders from walking into this mess. Several ambulances and first responders had parked slightly up the street, with medical personnel hurrying out their backs. Some of the paramedical staff began making efforts to search the wreckage for unlikely survivors while others scrambled to prepare and setup a revival kit. News vans littered the periphery of this chaos, each one armed with high-resolution cameras and digital broadcasting equipment, trying to salvage whatever piece of the story they could. Reporters could be seen gathering witness accounts and scrounging obliging onlookers for any piece of testimony that would probably be used later to speculate how the tragedy unfolded. The scene reeked of death, casting a ghastly aura around the usually crowded street.
Max waved his arms around, desperately trying to flag a paramedic down and get some medical attention, but none of them seemed to care. For them, he had been taken care of, and in the current scheme of things, he wasn’t interesting enough. The morphine they gave him now started to kick in, and he smiled, liking the momentary high. This stuff was better than alcohol. He slumped down on the warm pavement, wincing as his rear made contact with the unforgiving concrete. He looked forward, holding his head in his hands, trying to recollect what had happened to him.
Something told him he’d woken up on the wrong side of his bed that day. The fact that his eyes wouldn’t open bore testimony to the fact that he should have still been sleeping. Drinking the previous night hadn’t helped his cause either, he knew he was hung over and had trouble standing and walking those three steps needed to enter his bathroom. His breath smelt a nasty fusion of alcohol and puke. His hands shook as he tried to shave, cutting himself repeatedly while he pressed the safety razor against stubble laced cheeks. His eyes opened minimally while he showered, dabbing those cuts with an antiseptic that stung as he applied it. Cleaning up was no use, he still looked like a mess. A hot, handsome mess, if you’d asked the girl ogling him as he dashed out of his apartment block.
Max would usually work from Joe’s, a local café situated just around the corner of State Street, and the place was extremely convenient since his rented apartment was only two blocks away. He was a freelance artist; his time spread out between doodling for multiple online comic strips, and doing odd artwork for the Tribune’s ‘Life’ section. It wasn’t the most interesting job in the world, nor did it pay well enough to pursue in the long run. He really loved art, and sticking around with these odd jobs allowed him to get as creative as he’d want. Not to mention the benefits of being self-employed, the ability to be one’s own boss and not having to follow a clock. The café’s owner, Joe Barriosi, was an old classmate and longtime friend, who had generously given him permission to occupy a table at his eatery for as long as he wanted.
Thursday morning; everyone in the Windy City needs a to-go cup of coffee, and none can be bothered to sit and enjoy breakfast. Joe’s served the best sandwiches in a twenty-block radius. Its prime location right in the middle of Chicago’s business district helped his business as well, a locality that saw thousands of footfalls every minute during rush hour.The place was almost empty if you’d discard the long queue of patrons waiting for their morning fix. Max took his usual seat at the café at nine thirty. He loved this spot; for the booth was secluded and quiet, making it the perfect place to work. The staff at Joe’s always took care of him, and he’d become friendly with everyone who worked there. As a daily ritual, Max would watch carefully and try to predict with certain accuracy what the folks standing in line would order. Something about the mundane inspired him, allowing him to keep his own life beyond the ordinary.
The café could serve about fifty dine-in customers at a time. Joe’s principal business was breakfast, so a lot of the crowd concentrated next to the server counters on the left side of the joint. There were six booths lining the main seating area to the right, and a bunch of chairs scattered around a wooden counter lining the walls for anyone wanting to grab a quick bite. With three booths occupied and a quick count of the handful staff serving the customers, Max had counted thirty-four people present at the café. His booth was right near the corner of the square, lined with a side of plate glass windows giving him a good view of the street outside. He could see people passing by both ways, neatly dressed and well, walking briskly because they were already late for work. He smiled as he watched the human rat race pass him by.
Max ordered his regular; strong black coffee, no cream, single sugar, alongside a blueberry muffin. He needed the caffeine to wake up fully, then kick off his creative juices. He switched on his laptop and rubbed his hands in anticipation as he waited for it to boot up. He made a mental note that he needed to pick up laundry from his dry cleaners on the way home. His coffee arrived, and the server flashed her best smile at him, engaging in the usual small talk. He acknowledged the woman with his own friendly smile, still too groggy to respond, and she turned to attend to her other customers. He stirred the dark, steaming liquid and watched as the bubbles dissipated off the surface. He pulled out a roll of paper and his pencil holder and laid it to rest in front of him while his lips gently sipped his hot brew. Morning ritual now complete, he was ready to take on the world.
The old Victorian clock sitting on the corner wall indicated that it was now nine forty-seven. Max hated that clock, the artist in him considered it an eyesore. Joe would always argue that the clock gave a sense of history to his café. And Max would advocate his love for digital dial timepieces, which he felt were deadly accurate, glowed in the dark, never lost time and rarely needed a battery change. Max now looked at the gleaming ivory clock face and something made him feel uneasy. The time, nine forty-seven, gave him a weird sense of déjà vu. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but everything about this very moment seemed extremely familiar. His gut kept telling him to leave, get out now! As though something was about to happen –
Crash! The windows shattered, showering a hail of glass all over his body. Almost as an unexplained reflex, he’d braced himself, already expecting all hell to break loose. His torso was pinned to the booth walls by a giant object that had come out from nowhere. A silver Volvo; its driver had burst out of its windshield and now lay sprawled unconscious on its bonnet, face first, face to face with Max. The car had sped down from the north, jumped the curb and crashed through the café’s plate glass window, like an arrow aimed directly at his chest. The chassis of the car lay bent, its rear jutting precariously over what was left of the café’s wall. The driver seemed to be a Caucasian male with short, jet black hair, who was wearing a white and blue flannel shirt that was slowly turning crimson. Max tried to move, but couldn’t budge against the weight of the car pushing against his abdomen, its wheels dangling yet still spinning from the aftershock. His gaze dimmed as it darted away from the driver towards his half-sipped coffee cup, now cold and covered with broken glass fragments. As darkness overpowered his eyelids, his vision faded away until he couldn’t feel the tug trying to pull him away from the wreckage.
Snap back to reality. Here Max was now, sitting on the sidewalk, nursing his bruised head gingerly. A vague recollection came charging back as he took in another deep breath. He understood why the incident felt familiar. He began to comprehend why that moment, nine forty-seven, seemed so recognizable. He was here, sitting in his booth, last night, in a dream. He grew disturbed at the level of detail predicted by the dream as the reel played on in his mind. The shattered booth, the clock face, the broken glass, even the crashed car and driver, everything matched with incredible precision. Yet something wasn’t right. Now that he thought of it, his dream from last night had started differently. He let the dream replay in front of his eyes in slow motion. He recalled that he’d taken his place at the booth, ordered his coffee and waited for his laptop to boot; remembered looking at the clock, its ornate arms indicate nine forty-seven. He’d then turned his eyes to the window to watch the passing crowd. A figure stood out of the black and white masses of suits and dress slacks commuting in front of him. A gorgeous woman with auburn hair, wearing a red silk evening gown complete with matching, high-heeled shoes. She was overdressed and clearly an outlier in the banality of the unfolding scene. She looked at him, deeply into his eyes as she walked past. He brought to mind her look, the naughty glint in her hazel eyes that seemed to study him closely, look into his soul. She had a mysterious air to her, and her beauty was simply breathtaking. She looked like a lost bride wandering around the bustle of the city. He felt compelled to follow her gaze, engrossed, entranced until the windows shattered. In exactly the same way, they did today.
Max attempted to stand for a second time, unsuccessful yet again, his legs refusing to bear any weight. He stumbled as a paramedic held his arms, offering to help. A sideways glance revealed that the man appeared to be middle-aged, sporting a mildly wrinkled face with wiry but dull, gradually graying hair. With the man’s assistance, Max tested his footing, ensured that he could hold his own weight, and turned around to thank the man for his help. Max looked into the man’s face and froze in utter horror. His stomach cringed as he tried to fight back an overpowering urge to vomit. He swore he’d seen this man before, probably also in his dream last night. But not like this; instead, only his limp body covered in a pool of his own blood at the other end of the street. He felt his heart pounding wildly against the walls of his chest, going so fast that he feared that it might give up and stop at any moment now.
Of one thing he was most certain – this man was about to die.