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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Five Minutes

Conor Powers-Smith grew up in New Jersey and Ireland. He currently lives on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, where he works as a reporter. His stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex, Scifia, Fantastic Frontiers, and other publications.
Sasha took what looked to be the third- or fourth-to-last sip of her Jack and Coke, still flirting with the idea of a second round. This was pure fantasy, she knew. After a shift and a half at the hospital, she was too tired to linger in the little roadside bar, neat and quiet though it was. And she didn't want her breath to get too boozy, in case the girls woke up when she snuck in for their belated goodnight kisses.
Someone--a man, she thought--slid onto the stool to her left. The bells over the door hadn't jingled, which meant the man hadn't just come in, but had probably been one of the anonymous heads turned away from her, toward the baseball game on the TV mounted above the far end of the bar; which in turn meant his change of position likely had something to do with her.
She kept her gaze casually but resolutely on the shelves of bottles behind the bar. She was definitely too tired for this.
Most men were perfectly capable of understanding signals, but some chose not to. Apparently this was one of those, because he said, "Hey, uh... can I buy you a drink?"
She turned, with a smile whose only message was its own purely polite nature. The man was extremely plain. She'd thought that adjective was reserved for women, but there was really no other word for him. He seemed unduly nervous, as if he were approaching some unattainable stunner, rather than a moderately attractive thirty-four-year-old single mother. He looked at least ten years younger than her.
"Thanks, no," she said.
"Something to eat?"
"No." She finished her drink in one quick gulp, not bothering to chew a couple of the half-melted chunks of ice that slid down the glass and clinked wetly against her upper lip. "Thanks."
"Then, listen. Let me tell you something about myself."
She smiled again. Would this be about his fabulous yacht? His adventures as a war hero? Or would he jump right to penis size?
"I can see the future," he said.
"Oh, God." She began gathering her coat and purse from the stool to her right.
"No, I can."
"Well, congratulations. Good night." She looked at him again, and stopped. He wasn't looking at her, but down at the bar. His hands were clenched. Had there been a hint of aggression in those tight little fists, she would've walked away without hesitation. But he wasn't trying to throttle whatever insubstantial presence his hands were closed around. He was trying to hold onto something: a rope that was unraveling by the second, or the last two handfuls of water on earth.
She sighed. Sometimes she was too nice for her own good. "Okay. Who's gonna win the Super Bowl?"
His head shot up. For a moment, he was too pathetically relieved to speak. Finally his mouth opened in a small, self-deprecating smile, and he said, "Couldn't tell you."
"Oh," Sasha said, feeling foolish for having indulged him.
"That's not for, like, six months."
"That's too far?"
"Way. I can only do five minutes."
She smiled back at him, waiting for the punch line. Apparently more was required from her, the straight man. She offered, "Five minutes, huh?"
"About. It's more like four minutes, forty-something seconds. Five minutes just sounds better."
"Uh huh."
"It's not as useful as you'd think. I mean, it's good for some stuff. You can do all right at the track with it, but... I don't know, those places are depressing."
"Vegas?"
"Yeah, that's true. I haven't tried it."
"You can see the future, and you haven't been to Vegas."
"I know. I went to Atlantic City one time. I'm from Jersey."
"Oh. What're you doing in Ohio?"
"Just driving around. Kinda... wandering. But, yeah, I felt like I had to try it, at least once. The casino gimmick. I did okay."
"Just okay?"
"Yeah, just okay." Now that he'd gotten the conversation he'd sought, the man seemed distracted; his eyes roamed the bar, paying special attention to the main door, and the side door that led out onto the deck. "Like I said, it's not as useful as you'd think. I tried it with poker, which was stupid. You never see everybody's hand, you know; it's not that big of an advantage. And then, most games--blackjack, roulette, all that--take less than five minutes. Per hand, or spin, or whatever. It's hard to time it out. I wouldn't want to make a living like that anyway. It seems like you should be able to do something better with it."
"You're gonna become a super hero?"
"Yeah. 'Five-Minute Man.' That doesn't sound too good, huh?"
"Ha. Yeah."
"I did try to do something with it. I got a police scanner, and I looked ahead while I was listening to it. That's how it works: whatever I'm doing at the time--five minutes later, I mean--that's what I see when I look ahead."
"Uh huh."
"So, when something popped up on the scanner, I called it in. Five minutes ahead of time, you know? Well, four minutes forty-something."
"Right."
"But it didn't really work. That stuff gets on the scanner because someone calls it in, and it doesn't get on right away. So I was really shaving off maybe a couple minutes. Calling in, say, two or three minutes before the call would've come in anyway. For most stuff, that's not gonna make a big difference."
"Hmm."
"And then, they didn't like it, either."
"They?"
"Yeah, the cops." As he explained, his eyes continued to move, rarely encountering Sasha's. She caught several clandestine glances at his watch. "They caller-ID all that stuff. A couple times I think they did get there in time to scare off whoever it was. You know, someone reports a guy trying to break into a house, and the cops get there, and, no guy. They're not big fans of that. It happens a few times from the same number, and they don't have a lot of patience for that.
"They swung by one day and explained all this. I didn't have the scanner out at the time, thank Christ. That really would've made me look like some kind of false-tip fetishist. But yeah, it turns out there're a number of very sensible laws about not making false police calls. State, federal, and local. I was strongly encouraged to, you know, not do that. So I stopped. Which is fine. The whole thing was pretty boring."
"Huh. Well, it was nice meeting you. I'm gonna hit the road."
As she'd thought, the man's full attention snapped back to her. "Wouldn't you wanna stay for, like," he glanced down at his watch again, not bothering to hide it this time, "just another minute or two?"
"Honestly, no offense. I was leaving anyway."
"No, I know. That's--listen, can I tell you something that happened to me tonight?"
"I really am tired."
"Or, I could show you. It'd just take a minute. Do you wanna go out on the deck?"
"I don't smoke."
"No, me neither. But it's a nice night."
She looked through the glass panels in the side door, not to check on the weather, but to see if there were anyone else out there. She saw a few human shapes: one small group or several couples. She shrugged, and reached for her things.
As he led the way outside, he said, "I was watching the game. You like baseball?"
"Not really."
"Well, Biondi was pitching pretty well until the sixth, but then he loaded the bases. Two walks and an infield single. Or, no, a walk, then the hit, then he beaned somebody. All with one out. Anyway, I wanted to see if he'd get out of it, or if Marshall was gonna bring in a reliever. If it was Suarez, you would've heard me screaming at the TV before it happened. I don't know why he keeps going to him in tight spots. He's a mop-up guy at best."
The night was clear and cool. Most of the deck lay in shadow, lit only by a few strings of Christmas lights, and the bug lights above the door. There was the quiet murmur of conversation from the others; one group, it looked like, one woman and three men, positioned at the far end of the deck, where the shadows were thickest. Only the bar's narrow parking lot separated the deck from the highway. The lot opened not onto the highway, but onto a side street a few dozen feet to the left of the deck, which met the highway beneath a set of traffic lights.
When she realized the man had stopped talking, she glanced over, and saw him leaning out over the deck's rail, craning his neck to the left to see as far along the highway as he could. "Should be any time now," he said. "Maybe this one?"
Sasha heard the sound of an engine off to the left. As she watched, a pair of headlights appeared.
"No," the man said. "Maybe? No. Too low."
The headlights slowed as they neared the intersection, where the light was red for the highway, green for the side street. The car was still a few dozen feet short of the intersection when the light changed. The headlights picked up speed, and the car itself--a blue or green sedan--was visible for a second or two as it passed.
Sasha said, "How about now?" Another engine was approaching from the left.
The man had turned away from the highway, leaning his back against the rail instead of his hands and stomach. He looked over his shoulder, at the traffic lights--green for the highway, red for the side street--and said, "No, not yet."
A few seconds later, something with higher lights than the last car came through; a black or dark-blue pickup truck, Sasha saw as it passed.
After a few more seconds, the man glanced again at the light, which had just changed, giving the green to the side street. He turned, not leaning over the rail now, but watching the highway intently. "I think now," he said. He looked at his watch. "Yeah. This time."
Another engine was on the highway, racing so loud and fast that Sasha couldn't immediately tell which direction it was coming from. Then the lights appeared on the left, growing rapidly in size and brightness. Sasha didn't have time to judge the moment at which the vehicle should've begun braking in order to stop at the red light, until that moment had come and gone. The SUV streaked through the intersection without slowing, and passed the bar in a bulky green blur. A moment later, it was gone.
There were dark chuckles from the men in the other group, a few low, angry words from the woman; different ways of expressing the same reaction, Sasha knew: the evil little shock of fear that buzzed its way up her spine and into her shoulders, where it spread out to form a pair of tingling internal wings.
She looked at the man, who'd turned away from the highway to stare at her. She said, "That was it?"
He nodded. A big, loose grin was taking over the lower half of his face.
"Okay." She didn't want to tell him how unconvinced she was. She thought you could stake out any moderately busy intersection in the country for maybe an hour, and see someone do something monumentally unacceptable. The timing had worked out for him, but then, he'd been vague about what they were looking for. If someone had driven by in a classic car, or tried to enter the parking lot directly from the highway and bumped over the high curb, he probably would've pointed to that as proof.
She was trying to think of a way to disengage without hurting the man's feelings when he surprised her by saying, "Well, nice meeting you. Have a good night." He was still grinning as he turned away, and moved toward the door.
"Hold on," Sasha said. "I don't get it."
He turned, and moved back toward her. "What?"
"Why'd you want me to see that?"
"I didn't, necessarily. It was just the only thing I could think of. You were leaving."
"So? Now you're leaving."
"Yeah. It's fine now."
"What's fine?"
"I don't know if I should tell you." He spoke softly. She could hear him perfectly well, because he was very close, and leaning even closer. He seemed to consider this a secret. He smelled as plain as he looked: faded deodorant, fading beer. His grin was gone. "You drive a red Civic, right? And you live..." He gestured up the side street, past the intersection. "...somewhere in that direction?"
Another shiver ran up her spine; not the last of the night, not even close.
He saw her reaction, and hurried on. "I wanted to check the game. So I looked ahead. But I wasn't looking at the TV. I mean, five minutes later. I was outside, with everybody else."
"Out here?"
He shook his head, then cocked it toward the parking lot. "Out there. With everybody else."
She glanced in that direction, unwilling to take her eyes from the man for any longer than necessary. "There's nobody out there," she said.
"But there were. There would've been." He brought his voice still lower, leaned in still closer. "Are you one of those people who takes their time leaving a place? You know, savor the last few sips, chat with the bartender, let him half-convince you to have another drink, before finally deciding not to, hit the bathroom... I don't know, check your makeup or whatever?"
"Why?"
"It must've taken you something like five minutes to get out of here, originally. To get in your car, pull out on the street, head through the intersection; totally calm, since you had the green, since any... goddamn maniac on the highway would've had the big red light, glaring right in his stupid goddamn face."
His anger subsided as quickly as it had risen, and he grew hesitant, almost embarrassed, as one might be when speaking about a deceased stranger to one of the stranger's loved ones; or, somehow, to the stranger herself. "It's a good thing there aren't that many people in here," he said. "I was pretty sure it was you. There's no exit off the deck, and you were the only woman inside. I mean, I was pretty sure. But I had to keep an eye out. It was... you couldn't really tell. After. She was..."
"It was bad?"
In the dim light, his Adam's apple was no more than the smudgy suggestion of a distinct shadow, but she thought she saw it bob up toward his chin and stick there, as he tried, and failed, to swallow. That was all the answer she got.
Sasha said, "I don't--"
"It's okay," he said, beginning to move toward the door again. "You don't have to believe me. I'm sorry I bugged you." He turned, walked briskly to the door, swung it open, and disappeared into the bar, all before Sasha could come up with anything to say.
She was still staring out into the night a minute or two later when she saw him moving across the parking lot, resolutely not looking at her. She said, "Hey."
He turned, and took the few steps necessary to put him beside the deck.
Sasha said, "How're they doing?"
"Who?"
"The--whoever you root for."
"Oh. The Mets. The Reds're taking Suarez to task. He's crashing and burning." In the dim light, he appeared to wince. "Sorry."
She smiled, realizing all at once how good it felt to be able to do that, to be able to stand on the deck in the cool night air, having a casual conversation. "That's okay. I'm sorry they're losing."
He shrugged. "It's only the seventh. Still plenty of baseball left to play."
There followed perhaps five seconds of silence, and Sasha thought the man was on the verge of leaving when she forced out, "Thanks. Thank you."
Had he gone back into the bar, or asked for her number, or offered to drive her home, the delicate structure of her belief would've puffed out of existence, like a spider web put to a flame. Instead, his big, loose grin returned--he really wasn't so plain, when he did that--and he turned, raised one arm in a high, slow wave, and walked off across the parking lot to his car.
Out on the street, he waited several seconds at the intersection, though he had the green. Then he turned right, and disappeared up the highway.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 15th, 2013


What I like most about this story is the theme of doing one's best with what minor gifts or talents one is given. No doubt Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Superman have their own issues, but the rest of us must make do with less. I hope readers feel something of the man's past frustrations as his story unfolds, and also something of his triumph at the end.

- Conor Powers-Smith

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