When Janus shook the man's hand, he knew that his life would be over by the end of the day. He had no idea how he knew, it just popped into his head with a force unlike any he had ever known.
Janus felt like the world was spinning around him until he let the man's hand go.
"Thank you, Mr. Trelane," the man said, "I've always loved this shop."
Before Janus could answer, he had turned and left. Janus stared at the man's check. Bob Parker. He lived about ten blocks away from the store, and Janus just barely recognized him. He was of average height, had a dark, bushy beard, and shoulder length black hair. He had bought a deck of trick cards and a book on slight-of-hand magic tricks, and a book of English Love Poems.
Janus had to sit down, he was very light-headed. Most of the time, he was able to keep these sorts of things at bay, but the power of the feeling was more than he was used to. Jill, a teen-aged girl who helped out at the store, walked over from straightening the books to see how he was doing.
"It's odd," he said, taking a drink of his coffee and trying to shake the feelings that had popped into his head. "Every since I got back from California, I've had a lot of trouble keeping my mental shields up. Usually, though, I'm able to keep it from slamming me as hard as this one did."
"Why? Was he trying to draw you to the dark side of the force?" Jill asked, doing a bad impression of Alec Guinness from the Star Wars movies.
"No, it's because the feeling was so overwhelming. There are some people who's state of mind is overwhelming. Normally, it's someone who's just fallen in love, found out some bad news, or is able to project what they are feeling without even knowing it. This was different. I don't think he knows."
"Think he knows what?" Jill asked.
Janus explained the flash to her. He knew that the man's life would be over before midnight, but there wasn't a feeling of remorse in the man, or fear. Just the same feelings that anyone else would have as they went about their daily business.
"So," Jill said, "in other words, you are still having trouble keeping people out of your head, but this guy doesn't even know what's going on in his."
"It might not be going on in his head. It could be that I'm showing signs of precognition."
"Oh, that's great. Bad enough I have to believe in the fact that you can manipulate invisible kinds of force, know what other people are feeling and tap into some sort of astral plane, now I have to believe that you can tell the future. I don't remember any of this in the interview."
"You didn't have an interview, Jill," Janus said.
"Oh, yeah.....that's how I was able to get the job."
Janus grinned and sent her off to take care of the messy bookshelves and collected his thoughts. It had all been so hard trying to put things together after his little trip to California. The first time he was able to put all his mental shields in order, he was still learning about magic, and not really believing it as he did it. Now he was doing it, with all his prejudices and knowledge he didn't have last time in place.
In a way, now that he knew more about what he could do, it was harder to do it. He didn't want to erect his barriers so strongly that they filtered out everything, but also didn't want them so weak that he would be unable to keep everyone out.
Now, the big problem was, what was he going to do about what he knew? If the man didn't know his life was almost over, did Janus have the right to tell him? Would telling him cause him to do the thing that would end his life, or was it Janus not telling him that would cause whatever to happen to him to happen. Do I have the right to interfere in what was going to happen? Janus thought to himself.
He couldn't do much of anything for the next half hour, until the store was closed. For the next half hour, he kept going over the conversation in his mind. Replaying each little nuance, each feeling, each vocal inflection, trying to figure out if there was some clue, some hint as to how he should deal with this.
At six, when it was time to close, he was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he was startled as Jill yelled, "Journey Books and Magic is now closed. If you haven't found what you're looking for, you'd better hurry, because I sure don't want to hang out here on a Saturday night."
As he rang up the last few customers, Jill went around the store, putting books that weren't fortunate enough to find a home back on the shelf. On the magic card displays, she quickly and expertly sorted each kind of deck into its proper place.
After the last customer left, Jill locked the door and Janus breathed a quick sigh of relief. "Another day, another $1.75. I wish they'd raise the minimum wage so that I could go to a real movie sometime," Jill joked.
She switched the sign from open, come on in, to closed, come back later, and noticed that Janus hadn't made his normal response of "Hey, you make more in take-home than I do" to her little comment. She walked over to the counter and said, "Are you going to be all right?"
"What?" he said, startled by how close she was, "Sorry, Jill. This has been a pretty crazy day."
Before she could say anything, the phone rang. Janus reached over and picked it up, like a man in a daze, and said hello absent-mindedly.
"Oh, Lynn. I was just going to call you," Janus said, recognizing the voice on the other end.
Jill rolled her eyes and waved good-bye. Once Janus got on the phone with Lynn, his sense of time was completely gone. Ever since Janus got back from his involuntary vacation in California, they'd been running up some pretty massive phone bills. She waited for a beat to see if Janus would wave back, but he was engrossed in the call already. "You kids behave. I'd hate to have to hose the two of you down," she said as she unlocked the door and started home.
Janus didn't notice she was gone until he heard the front door lock from the outside. He looked up quickly and saw that Jill had taken care of the last closing tasks and was on her way. "I've just had a weird day, honey," he said.
"Can you tell me about it?" Lynn asked.
"Yeah, but it's not something I'm all together sure of. Can I ask you something?"
"Anything except for when I'm coming to visit."
"Cute. No, it's more a philosophical question. If you knew something was going to happen, and there was no way to change or stop it, would you want to know what it was?"
"OK....let's say you go to someone who you trust to tell you what's going to happen...."
"Which you know I don't believe in."
"Hey, this is just a question. I answered those ones you had about being trapped on a desert island, even though you know I would never go on a boat or on a plane across the ocean...."
"And they say I'm neurotic."
"Yeah, yeah.... At least when one of us tells the other they're crazy, we have documentation to back it up."
That one got Lynn to laugh. "OK, Janus," she said, "I give. What is the question about this infallible fortune teller?"
"If someone knew exactly how and when your life was going to end, and even if you knew, there was nothing you could do about it, would you want to know?"
"Why can't we ever talk about anything light and fluffy?" Lynn said, laughing softly, "Other people call up and chat about their job, or their family or their loser friend's latest lamoid boyfriend. We talk about things that would make Sartre get confused."
"OK, um......how are things going living with Ray and Rachael?"
"There's always a movie on the TV and they've been living together so long that they complete each other's sentences. How's the store?"
"Messy, barely profitable and badly in need of a good dusting. Is that enough?"
"Yeah, we've gotten the small talk out of the way. I think that I wouldn't want to know, Janus. But that's just because I would probably go nuts waiting for the day to show up. I would want to try and fit in so many things that I would frazzle myself. I would know way too much. Even if I could know the future, I wouldn't want to know it. How about you?"
"I already know my future," he said, as if he'd said it a few hundred times before.
"Yeah, you sure convince me of that when I hear you go on about how you don't know what you're going to do with your life."
"It's not as clear as this question. I know the general direction, and I know that things have to fall into place first, but I know, for the most part, what's coming. Sometimes I screw up, but more often than not, I'm close."
"Sorry, but I just don't buy it."
"I know," Janus said, a grin spreading across his face, "I guess that's one of the areas where we will agree to disagree."
"Number 187 in a series. Collect them all!" Lynn said with a phony, deep announcer voice.
They talked about how their last few days had been, and Janus decided that he wouldn't tell her about the handshake. Lynn had kind of asked, in a very round about way, not to really know the details when Janus's life took a turn for the weird. Not that he could blame her. He would rather not have to deal with it when his life took a turn for the weird. However, that's the hand he was dealt, and he could either play it, or drop out, and dropping out hadn't worked out too well.
After they had talked, and Janus felt a lot calmer about what he was going to do, they said good bye. Janus opened the register and took out the check the man had given him. As he held it, he could still feel the residual echo of the feeling he had been hit with when he shook the man's hand.
Bob Parker. Janus stared at the check for a little while, Lynn's voice echoing in his head. Could he just put it aside, go home, take a shower and go TC Billiards to shoot a few games of pool like nothing had happened?
Was he able to do that?
* * *
As Janus stood in the shower, he felt the hot water rushing over his body. Normally, this was the most invigorating thing he could do. It helped to clear his mind, and wash the day away. Tonight, however, he stood there, hands braced against the wall, letting the heat of the water work out the stiffness of his back, and kept going over and over the feeling from the handshake.
It twisted back and forth through his mind, not going away no matter how many times he told himself that he wouldn't think about it anymore.
On the drive home, he told himself that he was going to put on jeans, a T-shirt and a flannel over the T-shirt and go shoot pool in the dive he liked to call his own pool hall. There was duct tape on the floor to keep the carpet from coming apart, worn felt on the tables and cues that looked like they had been salvaged out of a biker bar. It had watered down soda, a busted jukebox and was Janus's best place for playing pool.
He tried to keep him mind occupied by the fact that he would see women with tilt-a-whirl hair and their boyfriends who kept their dogs and wallets on chains.
He couldn't get Bob Parker out of his head, though. He kept thinking that maybe there was some way he could save him. There had to be a way to keep what was going to happen to him from occurring, but a voice in his head, one he wasn't quite sure was his own, kept saying that there was nothing he could do.
Nothing he could do.
He had once said that the way he lived his life was the old credo, learn to do nothing if you don't know what to do. Then, the weirdness had hit. After he was thrust into the world of deeper perceptions and greater powers, he was unable to do that, because even his inaction had consequences.
Janus turned around and let the stream of hot water hit him square in the face, and it was both relaxing and invigorating at the same time. He imagined that it was washing away all the doubt and indecision as well as the dirt and oil from the day.
He turned the water off and grabbed the towel he had thrown on the sink. As he dried himself off, he stepped out of the shower and stood in front of the mirror. It was covered with steam, and all Janus could see was the vague outline of himself. When he finished drying off, he wiped the steam off the mirror and looked at himself. Not just to see if he needed a shave or not, but really looked at himself. He saw the gray coming into his hair at the temples and the slight start of lines around his eyes.
For a moment, he stood there, breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth, just like he'd learned years ago when he had to keep the world at bay. Each breath, he used to take away some of the indecision and tension. Each breath, bringing him back to himself, his racing mind under his control so that he could shut out thoughts of Bob Parker and his fate.
Janus tried with all of his might to get rid of the image that another man's life would end, and he knew when.
He tried as hard as he could.
* * *
When Janus knocked on the door, he really expected no answer.
"I'll knock on the door, and he won't be home and I will have done all I could," he said to himself over and over, like a mantra.
However, the door opened, and Bob was standing right in front of him. Janus hadn't practiced anything for this eventuality. He knew that it was a possibility, but he thought that if he only planned for what he would do if he wasn't home, that would make it so.
"Can I help you?" Bob asked.
Janus could see behind him that his apartment was small, cluttered, but radiated a feeling of warmth. As if the man who lived there was a warm sort of person, himself. Janus stood there, stunned for a beat (although to him it felt like an eternity) and then finally said, "My name is Janus... I own the bookstore you dropped by today...."
"I know. I've been shopping there about once every three months or so ever since you opened it. It's the only place I can find decent used hardcover books at the price they should be at," Bob said.
Janus felt awkward, and really didn't know what to say next. Before he could say anything, Bob said, "I'm sorry, my mind's been a bit occupied today. Won't you come in?"
Janus walked in and saw that the apartment had books scattered on every horizontal surface. Some were left open, laying on a table with a bunch of other open books, some were just stacked in neat piles. There wasn't much in the way of furniture, a couch, a chair, a TV and a small table in the kitchen with a couple of chairs.
"I would say that the place isn't normally like this, but I'd be lying. I always seem to have a lot of things lying about. I finally decided a few years ago that it's all part of the decor. I would ask you if you'd like to join me in a bit of supper, but I finished a little while ago, and the cupboard is quite bare," he smiled as he said this, and Janus could feel the warmth coming from this man grow just a tad bit. Almost as if he'd made a joke that was very funny, but just for himself.
"That's OK. I'm going to grab a bite to eat a little later. I've gotten in the habit of eating late," Janus said.
"I see," Bob said, sitting down on the one chair. I was a gray, short, functional chair, not fancy, and it didn't look altogether comfortable, but when he sat down in it, he looked like he was, "Go ahead and sit down, take a load off. You see, I know why you're here."
Janus started to do as Bob asked, but decided not to, "What do you mean you know why I'm here? I just dropped by to...."
"To tell me of my impending fate?" he said with a slight nod of his head and a knowing smile, "You are a bit of a celebrity around in certain places, Mr. Trelane. At first, when I heard about your exploits, I thought it was all something made up to get people to come into your store. You know, kind of like how car dealers have big search lights? You drive to see where the search light is and you end up at Rudy Luther's where he's going to sell you a shiny new Oldsmobile?
"Except maybe you sold herbs and oils, tomes and secrets like a warlock of old. But, you don't. You sell books and trick cards. The books have developed their own groupings, with people bringing in what they've found, or what they've already read. The tricks? I still don't know why you sell them, unless it's to keep that part of you that thinks it's all a slight-of-hand hustle alive.
"I came in for the celebrity and left with a very nice collection of Shakespeare printed in the year I was born. I'm kind of sentimental that way.
"Did I tell you when I left that I've always enjoyed your store?" Janus nodded, and Bob went on, "I feel it's very important to tell people when they are doing a good job. We hear so little about when we do things right and so much about when we do things wrong.
He stopped talking for a moment and smiled, "I'm going on again, aren't I? That's one of my flaws I never really worked out. Once I start going, it's hard to get me to stop. You were here to tell me something important, weren't you."
It wasn't a question. It was a statement of fact. Janus decided that Bob already knew, but he had to tell him anyway. "This is going to sound weird," he began, "but when I shook your hand, I got this feeling. It was almost as if it popped into my head of it's own volition. I though that..." Janus paused, knowing that to most anyone, what he was about to say would sound crazy. Hell, half the time he thought it was crazy himself, "That your life will be over by midnight tonight. For some reason I don't think it can be avoided.
"But, if I tell you, maybe you can do something about it..."
Bob cut him off, "Don't work yourself up, Mr. Trelane. I already know what you felt. It's odd, now that I understand a little more, I can tell that there are some people who can feel it too. They don't know what they are feeling, just a little sadness, or some kind of dark mood that strikes them for no reason. I wish it wouldn't make them sad. I mean, I'm not upset about it. I feel kind of liberated and free for the first time I can recall."
"I understand how you can feel that, but if there is some way to prevent it, I want to help."
"There's nothing either of us can do," Bob said, gently.
"There's always something," Janus said, softly, but as firm as he could be.
"Not always, Mr. Trelane. If you are at a stop light and your car stalls, you will start it again. Or, at least try. Sure you can just get out and abandon it....oh, this analogy isn't working as well as I would like.
"I guess I have to tell you the whole story. Anyone else, I would have to change it all around, because they would think I'm mad. But we both know that I'm not. At least I know, and I hope you do too.
"You see, I really shouldn't be here now. Last week, there was a horrible accident. I was driving my car and it was hit by a semi. There was nothing anyone could do but get me out. I was firmly entrenched in a coma, and they rushed me to the hospital.
"I was placed in the ICU ward and hooked up to the finest technology money could buy to keep me alive while they tried to piece me back together. But it was no good. I was in a 'persistent vegetative state' as they call it. Brain dead.
"However, at the moment of the accident, my mind, or if you prefer, my spirit was set free, in a way. I could see what was going on all around me, just without the benefit of having that old overcoat of a body around to keep me warm. At first I stayed in the hospital, hoping that they would figure out what they had to do to make me whole again.
"But, after a few days, I found that no matter what they did, I would not be rejoining my body. My brain couldn't hold me anymore. Do you understand?"
Janus thought for a moment, and then nodded. Every time he'd found himself doing something that seemed like astral travel, it always seemed that his body was calling him home when he had been away for too long.
Janus thought for a moment, and then nodded. Every time he'd found himself doing something that seemed like astral travel, it always seemed that his body was calling him home when he had been away for too long.
"Then, I saw the doctors talking about how they'd found a provision in my living will. I had one. Must have done it back when they were in the news all the time, but I barely remember. I said that if there was no hope of revival, they were to notify all my significant others and let them decide. My brother is the only one still around, and he decided to unhook the machines, tonight at midnight. So, you see, your feeling was correct. Tonight, they will turn the machines off and...." he made a gesture with his hand that explained everything and nothing all at once.
Janus had so many questions, he didn't know where to start. He opened his mouth to speak, but Bob stopped him, "I can't answer any of your questions. I don't know how others are able to see me when I am like this. They couldn't yesterday, they can today. The only thing I can figure is that I've been given a gift. A chance to spend one day doing whatever I wanted to do.
"Most people have grand visions of what they would do if they had one day left to live. I have heard people discuss calling old lovers, mending broken ties to family or friends, or indulging their fondest desires. I must be a bit of a boring person, because all I wanted to do was visit a few of my favorite paintings, read a few favorite poems, eat a nice dinner, and later, listen to the music that made me feel the most emotion.
"I have lived my whole life thinking that there was going to be something more, something bigger, while missing the little things that give pleasure. I find that with one day left, I just want to spend a few moments with those little pleasures."
"Isn't there some kind of hope? Some chance that you could recover from the coma? It all seems so final," Janus said, unaware that he was still standing. The man's voice had enraptured him, almost as if he were transfixed by his words.
"There comes a time, Mr. Trelane, when fighting will get you nothing, and take what you have. Now, I understand why you came, and I am sorry that what is going on with me has bled over into your life, but there really is nothing you can do. I thank you for your concern."
Janus started to say something, but then thought better of it. He walked to the door and paused before he left. "I hope that," he stopped, trying to find the right words, "I hope that this has been a good day for you."
Bob smiled, and his smile lit the entire room with its glow, "It has been."