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Three Seconds To Midnight

Patrick could not wait for 2020 to end. He'd thought 2016 was bad – icons dying, the terrorist attack in Nice, where he'd been living at the time, and the land of his birth saying it wanted a divorce from the rest of his country. But 2020 knocked them all into a cocked hat. Not just for Patrick personally, but for the world. Pandemic, protests, and presidency. But here it was, the countdown to New Year. New Year in New York. Times Square at New Year. Was there anywhere better to say goodbye to the annus horribilis? He'd come to Times Square with a girl, he was almost certain about that, but he didn't know where she was now. She'd met a group of friends and they'd become separated, he supposed. He'd come to New York with a girl, for that matter, but he didn't know where she was now either. She had also met a group of friends and she too had allowed herself to become separated. Or he'd let her go. He wasn't sure which it was. Possibly both.

He was squeezed between eight people, a Pretorian guard, crushing him not protecting. He wondered whether the city had had a Thanksgiving Day Parade. Patrick hadn't been in New York in November. He'd been trying out Boston, but then he'd met a girl who lived in New York, so he'd thought he'd give the city a go. Turned out she was really strict about not getting too close to people. Well, not getting too close to him anyway.

In the last few weeks, normality had begun to creep back in. Creep for the cautious. Rush for the reckless. Patrick counted himself amongst the reckless.

The girl in front of him smelt of sweat, but it was fresh sweat, and she was very pretty; it attracted him. Less so, when he realised that the two young men with her were fighting for a prize. And the prize, far from being an inanimate trophy, was encouraging them both. She was having a great time, but it was tainted with such smugness that Patrick almost stopped fancying her. Almost.

He checked the zip on his phone pocket again. Someone had twice put their hand on his hip, and he didn't think it was a come-on. The man behind him was wearing a green beanie hat, and Patrick knew that the man was only wearing it so he could whip it off later and be unrecognisable. He'd have been more incognito in one of the sponsors' hats. A sway in the crowd and a third assault on his pocket. He turned quickly. His hand gripped the wannabe thief's wrist. The wrist and its owner were way too slippery for that though and when Patrick managed to twist his body round, Green Beanie Hat had bobbed off and Patrick was left facing two big white frat boys, college bomber jackets and bottles of water that were very, very, unlikely to have been water, and which were very, very, likely to have been sneaked past Security. They both sported the over-sized, ubiquitous sponsors' hats, with 'Above all else, be kind' emblazoned on them.

One of the frats stared at him. Patrick had the sense to look beyond them as if he was missing someone, which of course he was. Who'd be on their own at New Year's Eve in Times Square? Unless you were a pickpocket wearing, temporarily, a green beanie hat. He turned back and lifted his face to the ball ready to drop. He'd already had one run-in with brainless thugs this fall, shortly after arriving in Manhattan. He didn't need another. That last one was so bad he barely remembered recovering from it.

Less than a minute to go to the end of the year and the ball started to drop. Maybe he'd get a snog from the pretty, sweaty girl at midnight. Maybe he'd get his face punched in if he did.

The countdown numbers reached ten and he joined in.

'TEN NINE EIGHT SEVEN SIX FIVE FOUR THREE'

'TWO ONE,' he continued. Alone.

Hold on. What just happened? Or rather what hadn't just happened?

'They're waiting.' Laura made her voice as sing-songy, non-judgey, unprovocative as she could. A massive smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. Absolutely no condemnation or pleading.

'Just coming!'

The star was getting himself a vodka from the bar table. It was self-service at the moment. Strictly speaking, it was no service at the moment as the backstage area was supposed to be empty. Two minutes to midnight. Two minutes to 2021. And everyone was on stage or front of house. Everyone that is except the star of the show, the headline act, who was going to see them into 2021. Strike that. Everyone that is except the star of the show and her, both the shepherd and the sheepdog. The star was supposed to be on stage now, so everyone could get over their excitement. He would sing 'Imagine', start the ball drop, and finally lead the countdown at ten seconds to midnight.

And he was, 'just coming!'.

She had taken out her earpiece, so persistent had the one question become, 'where is he?' and variations on the theme, with stronger and stronger language. When the evening had started they'd all been comically formal. 'Senior Stage Manager to Headline Act Artist Liaison, over'. 'Headline Act Artist Liaison to Senior Stage Manager, receiving, over'. During the evening it had become, 'Rebekah to Laura, are you there?' And now it was, 'where the eff is he, Laura, why the eff isn't he on stage singing effing Imagine we can't hold effing midnight Laura'.

The headline act's entourage had all disappeared at five minutes to midnight. They'd started peeling off two by two like Noah was in charge, and Laura was appalled to discover that she'd been left to wrangle the talent alone.

'You ready?' Again, sooooo nice: he couldn't possibly object to her tone.

'Sure, sure, I just need to put a splash of OJ in this. Lubricate the old vocal cords, don't you know? Ooh, and maybe a smidge of ice too.'

Lubricate the old vocal cords, don't you know? And they said the British class system was dead. This guy sounded like something from Downton Abbey. The fancy lot, not the staff. Though to be frank, they all sounded fancy to her mid-western ears. As there was now no time for him to sing his song, and he hardly needed lubrication for speaking ten numbers into a microphone, he didn't need the fricking drink. Laura had been brought up in a conservative household, and although she had camouflaged herself in New York, expletives did not come naturally to her.

'Got it? All set, let's go!'

'I wonder if this is enough. How long will I be out there for?'

'We really need to go!'

'Don't get your knickers in a twist, lovey. Ooh, maybe if you just point me in the right direction, you could be a poppet and follow on with another snifter?'

Like she was letting him out of her sight. Time to channel Rebekah.

'Right, here we go. No more delays. Your public is waiting.'

It worked.

'Where the hell have you been?' hissed Rebekah at Laura.

'Sorry we're late,' trilled the star. 'No-one told me I didn't have time for a drinky-poo.'

Laura washed a fresh gloss over the smile she'd plastered on. She pushed the headline act towards the sound girl waiting to do a final check. The sound girl turned the star around as if he was a puppet, flipped up his T-shirt, checked the antennae, spoke into a handheld mic.

'He's good to go,' she said, handing the star the mic. Laura envied her bluntness. You couldn't get away with that in Artist Liaison.

'Oh, hold on a moment,' said the star. 'Sweetie?'

Laura presumed she was 'sweetie', the identification badge obviously giving no clue whatsoever to her name.

'Yes,' she chirped.

'Take this, would you?'

He handed her the plastic beaker of vodka and orange, and she was just about to walk away with it when he put his hand to his mouth and pulled out some masticated gum.

'Couldn't get rid of that for me, could you, sweetie?'

This year. This year. When they had spent months keeping apart, sheltering at home, washing their hands, wearing face coverings, wiping down every shared place that hands had been, and had only just in the last few weeks felt safe enough to try and reclaim their old way of life. This year when her adopted, beloved city had lost more people than some whole countries had. When the star guest's own country had handled the whole emergency so badly it had almost lost its international status. At the end of this year, he was asking her to accept in her hand the thing that had been in his mouth.

'Sure,' she said.

The Emcee had given up looking into the wings for the guest. Along with the Mayor of New York, he'd done the ceremonial pressing of the button to start the descent. He'd not drawn attention to the absence of 'Imagine', nor the missing headline act. He just had to keep things running smoothly and keep spirits high. He glanced at the digital readout on his screen. It was time.

'TEN NINE'

The surprise guest walked out to delight and amazement.

'EIGHT SEVEN'

People stopped counting, started cheering.

'SIX FIVE'

There was even some fainting, oh God help us.

'FOUR THREE'

'…'

Laura hadn't joined in the countdown. She'd found some tissues on the Stage Manager's table and was disposing of the vile, germ-ridden gum, before sanitising her hands, thinking great way to start 2021, when she realised. The countdown had stopped. What was going on?

Not only had the countdown stopped, but the roar of the crowd had also become muffled. No, not muffled. Gone.

Laura pulled her earpiece out. There really was no noise. Had she gone deaf? She turned around and thought her mind was playing tricks on her. No-one was moving. What had happened? When she was a child she'd had a riding accident. As she'd flown over the head of the horse, the world had slowed down. This had been of no benefit to her: the extra time hadn't allowed her to change her position to lessen the impact of her landing, just to experience every second of terror. She was lucky to have come away with a broken wrist, a couple of cracked ribs, and a determination never to have anything more to do with horses.

But this moment wasn't quite like that. She was able to move freely, but everyone else was standing like a still from a film. At first, she had the sensation of being the child who fidgeted during the Pledge of Allegiance or the adult talking during the minute's silence – a sensation entirely unfamiliar to her as she was always a very biddable human. Then, alarm. Why was no-one moving? What was happening? What should she do? Well, first she was going to clean her hands. A nine-month habit wasn't going to be broken now. She squirted a large dollop from the bottle into her palm. She knew that she was doing the familiar so as not to have to confront the extraordinarily unfamiliar. She was quite happy to go on doing this until the world re-started.

'Hey!'

Laura jumped.

'You're still moving!'

She turned to the source of the voice.

Patrick's first thought was that this was an extremely elaborate joke being played on him.

'Ssshh, don't let him hear us. Let's all stop saying the countdown at three so that Patrick is the only one shouting it. It'll be hilarious. We'll put it on YouTube,' giggled a thousand plus people in Times Square.

But even that egocentric explanation made more sense than what was actually happening. Which seemed to be absolutely nothing. The time ball crystals that had been flashing an intricate pattern of lights were gleaming white above the minute countdown. The seconds were no longer moving. They had stopped at three. The billboards were in stasis. And no-one was moving. No-one was talking or laughing or shouting. Arms with phones were still outstretched to film the countdown, the time ball, and the tardy famous Brit who had just walked onstage. Mouths were opening and closing – the unison of number-counting sounding better than it looked. The two aspirant beaux in front of him had snaked their arms around the pretty girl's waist. And she was treating them each to an exact profile, though they were both leaning in, mouths agape, to try and get the first kiss of 2021. Patrick fleetingly considered stealing that treasure, but immediately dismissed the idea as unworthy of him. It was most definitely without consent. Besides, the world appeared to have stopped apart from him, so snogging a girl who couldn't snog back was a bit pointless.

What should he do?

For no reason he could explain, he started to weave his way towards the stage. His mind became crowded with what he could do with this gift of time.

He passed by Green Beanie Hat who was dipping his hand into a man's coat pocket. Patrick was just thinking that he could probably start with righting that wrong when a movement caught his eye.

To the side of the stage, there was a young woman. The stage lights were bright so at first, he wasn't sure of what he was seeing in the gloom. But not even the streamers that flared out from the enormous fans dotted around the periphery of the stage had any motion in them. The world had gone on pause. Except for him and this young woman.

Who was washing her hands?

A Roman Catholic upbringing and an enthusiastic drama teacher projected two images onto the screen of Patrick's mind. Pontius Pilate and Lady Macbeth. But this young woman really wasn't like either.

'Hey!' he shouted, without meaning to.

She jumped.

'You're still moving!'

She turned around. And stopped.

For a moment he thought she had also frozen, that somehow she was always going to freeze along with everyone else but had done so late. But then he realised that she was just terrified. Just terrified, 'cos that was such an easily dismissible thing.

He waved his hands.

'Over here!'

Laura focussed her eyes on the only moving thing in the whole of Times Square, perhaps the whole of the USA. The world? The universe? The man waving at her was black, or anyways of a heritage that was non-white. But his accent wasn't American, or at least not an American she recognised. She'd dropped her own long o's – acquired from her mother whose ancestors had settled the land that her father's ancestors thought was theirs – but it was only since she'd been working this last year in Artist Liaison that she'd really encountered a variety of accents. Languages too, for that matter. For those born and raised on the Great Plains multilingualism wasn't considered necessary. As soon as she'd turned sixteen she'd applied for a passport and had been widely derided for doing so. But she was absolutely determined to use it before it was due for renewal.

She waved back at the man who was approaching her.

'What's happening?' she asked. Why did she think he'd know? There was something confident about him, she supposed.

'I have absolutely no fecking idea.' Even declaring his ignorance lacked doubt. She could learn a lot from this man, but not, apparently what was going on. Nevertheless, if she was in some new weird situation – as if 2020 hadn't provided enough of those – then she could think of worse people to spend it with.

Everywhere they went – and they went everywhere – time had stopped. People on the edge of seeing out the strangest year in living memory had petrified – but not like a child's sudden movement on 'Freeze!'. These people were mid-flow: spit soared, eyelids hovered halfway, nostrils expanded; a child was being hoisted on to her father's shoulder and it was an extraordinary moment – his arms at an impossible angle, her fat cheeks being held back by gravity and pulled up by a smile, making her into a grotesque cherub. Up in Central Park, there were lovers and haters, trysts and robberies, faces full of lust or fear, emotions apparent even in suspended animation. Down at Ground Zero, the bereaved paid their respects, knowing their tragedy had been overtaken, that the unimaginable event they had survived, and their loved ones hadn't, was now history. She'd found out his name when they passed by the cathedral of his namesake. Through Little Italy and Chinatown, tourists and locals overjoyed to be able to mingle at last, forked spaghetti and noodles towards their open mouths; wine and beer sloshed out of raised glasses in gravity-defying arcs. The spittle as people sang or spoke or laughed was visible – the carrier of the thing that had disrupted the planet and now seemed to be over.

They stared at the alien landscape, at people in paralysis, midnight never quite being achieved. And they saw no-one else move, not a dog, not a rat, not a flag fluttering or a video flickering. Nothing buzzed or creaked or screamed or sang. It was just the two of them in New York at a perpetual three seconds to midnight.

'It's like something out of a disaster movie,' Laura reflected.

'We've certainly had our fill of that this year.'

'Or we're the last survivors of an apocalypse.'

'If it's the end of the world, I'm glad to see it with you,' he said. She could recognise a charmer, but sometimes it's nice to take things at face value.

And they almost got used to it. Enough for it not to be the only thing they talked about.

Laura, whose world had expanded enormously this year, despite the months of lockdown, was readier than she'd ever been to confront the new.

'You're not American?' She'd learned not to assume.

'You should be a detective.'

'Not British either?'

'We-ell…'

'Really? Where from?' She knew she wouldn't know where he was about to say, but it seemed the next question.

'Carrickfergus. Northern Ireland. You might have seen it on TV. We used to be quite famous. They wrote songs about us.'

'Northern Ireland? As in Ireland? But I didn't know they had any…' Laura tailed off, embarrassed.

'Any what? Leprechauns? Supermodels? Go on, finish your sentence without using the word 'black'.'

'People of colour,' she said defiantly. 'I didn't know they had any people of colour in Ireland.'

'Apart from the leprechauns, you mean? To be fair, there aren't many of us.'

'And there's one less now, as you're over here.'

'Been one less for a number of years. I'm not fresh off the boat, you know.'

She was blushing. She'd heard about British irony. Well, it was a year for the new. She liked this Patrick. He was different from anyone she'd ever met. He was Irish, he was black, he was interested in her – though to be fair, right now there was zero competition – he was fun and spontaneous, and he liked risk.

When they'd first spoken she had wanted to stay put, but Patrick had said they should go explore. That they should seize what was left of the day, the month, the year and walk and look and talk. She'd protested, albeit mildly, what would happen if the world came back to life and she wasn't where she was being paid to be?

'Lie,' he'd said.

Patrick had perceived the timidity of this mid-Westerner. But he'd also seen that she was trying to overcome it. Just as well, looking out for the shy was not his forte. Persuading them to do something he wanted them to do, well he was the man for that. He found confidence attractive: life was so much easier that way. But – and this wasn't because she was the only living breathing girl in the world – he liked her.

'We have to talk to his people about what happens next.'

'There are no 'his people'. He's on his own.'

'No-one?'

'No-one. He's no I.C.E. in his phone, just a load of people here and in Europe who all say, 'we weren't close'.'

Overhearing the doctors, the nurse realised that she'd never seen anyone visiting this man. He'd admitted himself, unaccompanied, five or six weeks ago, collapsing on the floor as he'd stepped out of the wheelchair that transported him from the doors. He'd been admitted with severe bruising and a bloodied face, possibly a broken nose, possibly some internal bleeding from the kicking. He'd not even been attending the protest downtown that his attackers had disrupted. He'd just been in the area.

When he'd collapsed, she had been the one to spot the knife with no hilt in his back. He'd been oblivious to the specificity of the pain and the blade still being in had stemmed the blood flow. Sitting in the wheelchair being transported to triage had forced the knife in further; it was a quarter of an inch from penetrating his lungs when the nurse had seen it. She'd probably saved his life, but that was a frequent occurrence and as she said, 'it's what I get paid for'. He'd had insurance through an annual travel plan, and fortunately, he had all the information to prove this, stored on his phone.

Her duties hadn't brought her near the emergency room for a while. And then she'd gone back south to her family for Christmas and had just returned today.

She was surprised to find that he was still in the hospital. Turns out he'd contracted the virus: the knife damage so close to his lungs had meant he'd been dangerously susceptible. He'd been on a ventilator for three weeks.

In the partitioned area next to him were a middle-aged man and woman, distraught, over-tired, over-worried, and out of their comfort zone, sitting by the bed of their daughter who'd come to New York and caught a virus that had hardly touched their small town. A riding accident that cracked her ribs in her early years had left her with a tendency to respiratory issues, a perfect target. They knew they were lucky to be able to sit near her. They were grateful for the exception to the rules. But they didn't feel lucky.

The chimes were about to ring out the old, ring in the new, but the hospital only acknowledged the passage of time when shifts changed, or when times had to be recorded on legal medical documents.

The tubes had been taken out and the two young patients now had oxygen masks. Both remained sedated. Whilst the medics were convinced that their lungs were healing and that their immune systems were fully operational – neither of these young people had had a cytokine storm and in fact, they no longer tested positive for antigens, just antibodies – they weren't coming round.

The girl's parents had flown in ten days ago. They'd spent Christmas beside their daughter, discussing what she would have been doing if this hadn't happened. Despite her being new to Artist Liaison, she'd already bagged a big one – one of a team looking after the headline acts at the Times Square New Year celebrations. A lost opportunity.

The countdown for new year would begin any moment now.

In their hiatus, their Manhattan moment, Patrick and Laura held hands, still sitting on the bench by Brooklyn Bridge.

Laura had had crushes, had had relationships, but was, accidentally, still a virgin. Patrick would find this remarkable if he'd known. Laura had dated a couple of times since she'd got to the city. Single women in the city were not expected to be happy without a boyfriend or husband she'd discovered – no different from home. But she'd never been in love. She didn't think she was falling in love now.

Patrick was certain he was falling in love. This was not unusual for him. Staying in love was, but that was future Patrick's problem. What he had now was an urge to kiss. That strange, joyful, form of communication. That dangerous exchange of bodily fluids. He was a great one for planting a kiss on an unsuspecting mouth, trusting to his charm to carry off the moment. He'd never been rejected – well, not during the kiss anyway. But he wanted this Laura, this young woman of the American plains, this woman who was animated when everyone was a comic strip, he wanted her to want to kiss him.

Laura did want to kiss him. She wasn't accustomed to taking the initiative in these things. But then she wasn't used to the world stopping while she carried on.

She looked into her fellow adventurer's brown eyes. He did that thing of lowering his gaze to take her all in and raising his eyes again up to her face. She felt her stomach flip, even though she knew it was a trick.

She didn't say anything, but she realised that what she was about to do would be brave and risky and possibly the best thing she'd done since moving to the East Coast.

He squeezed her hand, she squeezed back. She tilted her head, he tilted his. She moved her head closer to his, he responded likewise. Just before their lips met, she closed her eyes, no way of knowing if he did the same. This is the moment where you trust. You've closed your eyes, they could be doing anything. Your lips may not meet theirs. You are at their mercy. But you don't hold back.

'TWO! ONE!

DING-DONG-DING-DONG!!!! DING-DONG-DING-DONG!!!!

As midnight rang out, the ventilation ward went into the nearest thing a hospital comes to panic. Two young patients wearing oxygen masks had spluttered and coughed, sat up, and pulled away their masks, breathing unsupported for the first time in twenty-one days. Some mysterious adrenaline had surged through and jerked them into 2021 and into life.

Six days later, Laura's parents helped their daughter to her feet. She was not going to be able to stand without help. Even though she'd lost pounds, her light frame would still be too much for her enervated muscles. But this had to happen sometime, and January 6th, 2021 was as good a time as ever to try.

She put her hand on the sheets, delirious at leaving them without being manhandled. She saw her mother and father's hands reach out. Having had so many strangers' hands on her in these weeks she thought she'd have no sensitivity left, but theirs was a loving warmth that she could feel through her battered flesh.

She had had no opportunity or desire to take in her surroundings, but now she saw that she was in a ward, but each bed was partitioned off for safety. There were low fibreglass walls topped with Perspex screens. And there was an occupant in the bed in the next area.

As she rose unsteadily, she saw that it was a young man, pale but not white; untamed hair and weeks' worth of stubble not hiding his agreeable face.

She stayed upright for a moment.

He looked right at her.

Laura felt warmth and strength course through her. The man in the bed seemed to experience something similar.

They held each other's gaze for a moment before Laura's strength ebbed and her parents lowered her back onto the bed.

Patrick smiled at the girl in the next bed. I wonder who she is, he thought.

END

Aspiring screenwriter also excelling as Deputy Stage Manager in theatre. Dedicated to crafting feature film screenplays while contributing to live theatre.