Though he swore to himself that he would never ever in a million years be caught dead doing it again, Clayton Jacobson wound up working late. Nearly four and a half hours past his quitting time, according to the clock, whose disinterested face stared down upon him from its lofty perch above the office door. Which made it two hundred and seventy minutes since his co-workers abandoned him without a second thought, retreating to the comfort of their homes, leaving him to pick up the slack.
Traitors, all of them.
Experts claimed that it was impossible to put a dollar value on a human life. But Clayton knew that to be a lie. He was aware exactly what his life was worth at current market value between the weekday hours of nine-to-six, or better yet, nine-to-ten thirty. He was a salaried employee that wasn’t eligible for overtime pay, so rounded up, his life was worth twenty-six dollars and fifty cents an hour. That boiled down to forty-four cents a second that he collected as he sat at his desk completely inundated with work and wasting his life away doing something that held his interest not in the least. Forty-four cents for each precious second of his life that he had exhausted and could never reclaim ever again. And as he inched ever closer to his own inevitable demise, he couldn’t help but think how cheaply he’d sold a portion of his life to a faceless entity that wouldn’t be able to recall his name in the fiscal quarter that followed his inevitable termination date.
Clayton Jacobson was a corporate cheap date.
As a reward for his continued loyalty, he had been given what was considered to be the reasonable and customary stock options package, which made him the proud owner of five thousand shares of complete and absolute boredom. Every day at approximately this very instant, he cracked his investment portfolio wide and contemplated his stock, and as always, he came to the realization that he was wealthier than he thought. He personally owned more boredom than he knew what to do with.
Cursing himself for being a corporate lackey, he rubbed his tired eyes, yawned, stretched, and began the protocol for closing up shop. It’s not like he could simply get up and leave. His position as office manager included the responsibility of backing up the entire day’s work onto the server, which would cost him another half hour, at least.
While the backup chugged away at its steady pace, Clayton impatiently packed his briefcase with files stacked in his Incoming tray under the guise of finishing the work at home. But he knew all too well that once he stepped foot into his apartment, he would ignore the work like an overdue bill or a random bit of junk mail. Physically taking work home was just a force of habit. It made him feel like he was making a dent, which was the lie he told himself every evening.
After all the computers and office equipment were shut down, he shrugged on his coat, locked the front door and tripled checked that it was secure. That was the one and only OCD that Clayton had. Is the door locked? Did I lock the door? were the questions he would ask himself every time he left the building. And he realized that this problem of his wasn’t founded in reality since never once in all his years had he not successfully locked a door upon leaving a place, but still, he found himself constantly returning to check locked doors. Tonight wasn’t a particularly bad night. He only went back and checked the door three times. His standing record was twenty-seven, which was probably due to the fact that he was not only exhausted that night but also on a heavy dose of cold medication.
Clayton Jacobson did not take sick days.
On his fourth time exiting the building, Clayton lost his footing and hit the concrete pavement like a baseball player sliding home. The briefcase slipped from his grasp during the fall and popped open, scattering files and papers all over the sidewalk. Embarrassed, he looked around quickly to see if anyone caught his fall. Not a soul in sight. Good. He slowly got to his feet, dusted himself off and looked at the spot in front of the building where he had tripped. He half expected to see a patch of ice, grease or something, but there was nothing there.
That’s odd, he thought as he began scooping the papers back into his briefcase. Although it was a cold night, it wasn’t particularly windy, which was a good thing, since Clayton hadn’t fancied the idea of chasing paper down the street.
As he fastened the last latch on his briefcase, Clayton rose to see his bus pull away from the bus stop. He chased after it, hoping that the stoplight at the corner would turn red, giving him the chance to catch up with the bus and plead his way aboard. Usually, the bus drivers were more lenient about picking up passengers outside designated areas after ten o’clock at night. Unfortunately, the stoplight and Clayton were not in accord as it allowed the bus to escape him.
At the bus stop Clayton didn’t even bother reading the schedule because he knew the next bus was a half hour away and it was far too cold to stand out on the street and wait and if he went back into the office, he would get caught up in work and miss the next bus and most likely fall asleep at his desk. Since there were no open coffee shops at this time of night, he resigned himself to walk home. He lived close enough to his job so that walking wasn’t out of the question, which was the only real perk that was associated with his employment. Twenty minutes by foot if he hustled, a half-hour if he took a more leisurely pace. Theoretically, he could have been home before the next bus arrived, so he hoofed it.
At the corner, his nemesis, the streetlight, turned red and he was forced to wait his turn against the traffic. A man sidled up to Clayton’s elbow so silently he could have been a shadow.
“Excuse me,” the man said and Clayton tried to suppress the urge to jump out of his skin. “May I have a moment of your time?”
“Sorry. I have someplace to be.” Clayton didn’t even meet the man’s gaze.
“Surely you have a moment to spare, in one of your pockets, perhaps?” the man’s manner was polite and seemed completely genuine.
“Is this about money?” Clayton shot him a glance.
“Cigarettes? Because I don’t smoke.”
“Neither do I. Not for some time now.” A fact the man seemed to find rather amusing.
“Okay, so are you some kind of cop or something? Am I under arrest? Are you looking for sex? Are you initiating into a gang and need to cut a complete stranger? A serial killer cruising for a little late night murder?”
“No, no, no, no, and no.” the man smiled.
“Then what, for God’s sake?”
“As I said initially, a moment of your time.”
“For what?” Clayton spat.
“I think you dropped something.” The man said, pointing in the direction of the office building.
Clayton assumed it was a sheet of paper that he missed when he was scooping up his papers, but what he saw instead was— well, at first he thought it was a pile of garbage. But that wasn’t right. It was a body. Strewn on the sidewalk like a rag doll.
Convinced that his eyes were playing tricks on him, he walked slowly to the body that looked strangely familiar. Well, it ought to have looked familiar, it was wearing the exact same outfit Clayton had on, identical down to the shoes. Even the open briefcase was the same.
“Who is that?” Clayton asked.
“You know who it is.” The man was suddenly behind Clayton again, but this time he didn’t jump.
“But I didn’t feel anything.”
“Some people never do. Perhaps you were too preoccupied?”
“Oh come on, is this some kind of sick joke?” Clayton tasted the fear in his own voice. “I slipped and hit my head, didn’t I? And now I’m hallucinating, right? Or maybe I’m still upstairs in the office asleep at my desk, or better yet at home in bed having a bad dream?”
“No, no, no, no and no.”
“Then I’m–” he couldn’t bring himself to say the word.
“Well and truly dead, I am afraid.”
“And you are?”
“Your travel companion,” the man offered Clayton another smile.
“Oh, I get it! You’re going to point out all the wrong I’ve done and give me the chance to rectify it, that’s what this is, right?” Clayton hadn’t meant it to sound so sarcastic.
The man shook his head. “You have not done any wrong.”
“Then maybe there was something I was supposed to do, some potential I was supposed to live up to that I didn’t…”
“No, you lived your life accordingly.”
“So, this is it? No ceremony? No pomp and circumstance? Just heart attack, boom, I’m dead?”
The man seemed confused. “Would you prefer there be a penance? A punishment?”
“Not exactly, but something more than this.”
“Oh, but there is more. Your mind simply has not adjusted to your new reality just yet, which is perfectly normal in the beginning. You are clinging to the shadows of your old life, but all this will fade and you will begin to see anew, once you have accepted the fact that what is done cannot be undone.”
“So, what do I do now?” Clayton asked.
“Travel with me for a moment.” The man gestured at a car that Clayton could have sworn was not there before.
“You drive a car?”
“It is my conveyance. Your mind views it as a car, as that is what you are accustomed to,” the man said patiently. “For your comfort, you may wish to remove your coat.”
“But it’s freezing out here—” and as soon as Clayton heard the words, he felt foolish. “Oh, right.”
“Let me help you.” The man took Clayton’s briefcase, slid the overcoat off his shoulders, and let both items fall to the ground. As they landed, there was a deafening boom, which cracked the pavement and shattered the windows in the surrounding area. Or Clayton thought the windows shattered. When he looked up again, the windows were whole, as if nothing happened.
“I feel so much lighter now.” Clayton bounced on his toes like a little boy.
“You have just stripped yourself of your biggest encumbrances.”
“Labor and haste.”
This answer made Clayton stop bouncing for some reason and he turned to look at his body crumpled on the sidewalk. “Can we do something about this?” he pointed at his former shell.
“Like what?” the man asked.
“I don’t know.” Clayton scratched his head. “Rearrange it? Move it inside the building maybe? Something more dignified than this. This isn’t how I want people to remember me.”
“Those who remember you will do so in their own manner. You cannot change that,” the man said as he opened the door for Clayton, who looked at his lifeless body one last time with a twinge of regret for not having lived a richer more fulfilling life, before he slipped into the passenger seat.
The man entered the driver’s side and took the wheel. And they drove, so slowly that it seemed to Clayton they were not moving at all, but instead, time moved around them. Not through them, Clayton noticed, around them. There was no time within this conveyance. One moment, the time the man asked of Clayton, was the same as eternity in here.
“Where are we headed?” Clayton asked.
“The next now.” The man answered and said no more. And he hadn’t needed to because somehow Clayton understood. For the first time in his life, or more accurately his death, he understood perfectly.
Text and Audio ©2013 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys
About The Next Now: One night I was working on a short story that I’ve been toying with for the better part of a year. I was knee-deep in the rising action stage, typing away—and even happy with most of it—when it happened: The Click.
It’s a magical moment. Your pupils dilate. Your breathing slows. The fog in your head clears. Time slows to a crawl. And for one shining moment, everything is perfect. Every sinewy thread of plot comes together. It may be a mess, but it’s all there. It can be fixed and made whole—we have the technology.
And then the world speeds back up and it’s a race against the clock to type out as much as you can before the perfect purring of a well-oiled machine becomes a sputter and you lose something—or worse—the machine takes a great big dump.
That’s this one right here. A simple story about a wage slave that dies, unappreciated. No fanfare, no glorious reward for living his life correctly and doing no harm. A simple leave your things behind and move on to the next phase of your existence, or the next now.