On the last day of February, at nine minutes past seven in the morning, I received a phone call from myself.
I, the recipient of the call, had a mouthful of toothpaste and could only produce a handful of incoherent sounds.
“It’s really me,” said I, the caller. “I mean, you. Oh, this is confusing from this end as well as yours.”
I spat out my toothpaste. “What?”
“Listen, it’ll be all right. You’ve got about five minutes until it happens. Quarter past seven exactly. Get dressed and pack a bag — not the suitcase.”
“What? What’s going on?”
“There’ll be some travel involved.”
“But I can’t—”
“Don’t worry, I’ll go. I mean, you’ll go eventually.” The other me sighed and cleared their throat. “You’ll have three days. Don’t waste them.”
And without another word, the me who was calling hung up. I stared at my phone. I stared at myself in the mirror. Black circles under my eyes. Hair that hung in lank curtains. A dribble of toothpaste down my chin. Wrinkled pyjamas. Everything about me was grey and washed out and tired, too tired to think about what was going on. I needed to shower, wash my hair, grab that suitcase and leave.
Five minutes. I could afford to wait five minutes. I flung on a pair of faded jeans and an oversize sweater, stuffed some essentials into a duffel bag and sat down by the kitchen window while I waited for the clock on the microwave to change to 7:15.
The outside world was just waking up. A handful of early risers were already out, walking to work maybe, hunched down while the wind tugged at their coats and the drizzle blurred their outlines. I wanted coffee, but I didn’t think had enough time to make any.
Then the pattering of the rain on my window stopped. Out on the street, the pedestrians froze and faded away. A cat slunk backwards around a corner. I held on to my bag with one hand and the kitchen counter with the other. Around me, the world turned black and silent.
A moment later, I became aware of the sound of my breathing. I was still gripping the kitchen counter, but it looked different. The piles of dirty dishes were gone. Instead of grey morning light, the sky outside blazed with orange and pink. The clock on the microwave showed 17:58.
I nearly dropped the bag.
This couldn’t be right. But outside, the sun was setting, and a glance at my phone confirmed that it was indeed six o’clock in the evening. It was also three days ago.
You’ll have three days. Don’t waste them.
I knew exactly what to do.
I left the apartment and took a roundabout route to the station to avoid bumping into myself. It was rush hour, and I doubted I would have been able to spot myself if I tried. I elbowed my way through the crowd and headed to the ticket office, where I paid an outrageous amount of money for the last bunk on the night train south. It didn’t matter.
My bunk was the middle one. The person above me snored, the person below me kept their night light on, and the three on the other side of the aisle were chatting about all the pubs they were going to crawl to. That didn’t matter either. I don’t think I could have slept even if they had all been quiet, even if I hadn’t been suffering from this weird jet lag. A couple of hours ago, I had crawled out of bed in the early morning three days from now. And now here I was. It was around four hours after my argument with him. I couldn’t even remember what we had argued about, just that I had been angry. I had hung up, ignored two calls and deleted one voicemail without listening to it. Stupid. I could call now, I suppose, but I didn’t think I could handle it.
I must have fallen asleep eventually, lulled by the rocking motion of the train, because suddenly there was a rapping on the door. The train conductor slid the door open and announced we would be arriving within an hour. I crawled out of the bunk bed and headed to the restaurant car. They were selling stale bread rolls and crumbly croissants pretending to be breakfast. I ordered a double espresso, which helped settle my queasiness. Night trains, I thought, exist in a parallel world where nothing is real and everything flickers like a thunderstorm at night. How else to explain the alienating feeling of waking up in another place, while the world moves under you?
I ordered another espresso and watched the train wind its way through the suburbs. This far south, spring had already arrived. A green haze clung to the trees. The early morning commuters cycling by wore their jackets open. I felt vaguely disoriented as I stepped onto the platform, duffel bag in hand. I knew the way by heart and my feet walked down the sunny streets of their own accord.
I arrived at his house just as he was leaving. He stopped with his keys still in his hand.
“Hey,” he said. “What—”
He didn’t get any further because I flung my arms around him and buried my face in his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sobbing all over his shirt. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!”
He put his arms around me. “It’s okay. It was just a stupid fight. I’m sorry too.”
I pulled back a little and wiped my nose and my eyes on my sleeve.
“You should have called,” he said. “I didn’t know you were coming. I’ve got work…”
“Take the day off? Please?”
“All right.” His smile was infectious. The corners of my mouth moved up of their own volition. I hugged him again, and slowly the strain of the last few days faded away.
We spent the day doing everything and nothing. There was a park not far from his house, and we walked there the entire morning, looking at budding trees, ducks, clouds, flowers. So many flowers, peeking up through the grass. The world was coming alive. I clung to his arm and I talked. I told him some of the thoughts that had been tearing around in my head. Everything I liked about him. What he meant to me. There were so many other things I wanted to say. Don’t leave the house tomorrow. Or if you do, avoid that busy intersection. But I couldn’t form the words. Life doesn’t work like that. So I told him again and again that I loved him, because it was the only thing I could do. We watched the sunset together. At night, I curled up beside him in bed and listened to the beating of his heart.
“I can’t take today off,” he said the next morning. “That project deadline…”
“Yeah,” I said. I walked him to the door and hugged him. My voice was hoarse. “I love you. Always have. Always will.”
“Love you too.”
He gave me one last wave, then disappeared around the corner. A moment later I had packed my bag and left too. I found a secluded bench in the park and sat waiting for events to unfold. It had happened at a quarter past eight, and I had been called an hour later. Perhaps I hoped it wouldn’t happen this time. But at some point, I became aware of sirens in the distance, and a little after nine I saw that I had received a call. The other me must have answered it. Then a short article appeared online on some local news site. And that was that. The sun still shone and the birds still sang in the trees as spring settled in.
I went home, travelling on slow trains that stopped at tiny stations where no one boarded and no one alighted. The sun disappeared behind thick grey clouds. Rain splattered on the windows, the droplets streaking down the glass. I found a cheap hotel where I spent the night dozing fully clothed on the bed. I left before sunrise and sat down in a shabby cafe near my apartment. Just after seven, I called my own number.
“Mbhello?” My voice on the other end sounded muffled. Of course, the toothpaste.
“It’s really me,” I said. I rubbed my eyes and tried to think. “I mean, you. Oh, this is confusing from this end as well as yours.”
My apartment was a mess. There were dishes all over the kitchen and piles of laundry on the floor. Toothpaste stains in the sink. Pajamas crumpled on the floor. I took a quick shower. At eight, I was by my apartment door, suitcase in hand, waiting for my parents to pick me up so we could drive to his funeral.