There was a time when rain was considered an omen. John wasn't sure if those days had entirely passed, for the rain that fell befit an omen even an atheist could appreciate. The rain was cold and heavy, pounding on his car like the heavy hand of an angry god. The reason for the omen was unclear, but the meaning behind it was clear enough: something bad was going to happen today. There was death in the air, and John had the distinct feeling that it was going to happen very, very soon.
There was a long history behind his assumption of impending doom. John Bauer was a short, nervous man in a moderately important job with an almost prestigious accounting firm. He also happened to be an expectant father-to-be. It was their first child, and his wife was fed up with his constant worrying and protectiveness. "For God's sake, John!" she'd snap at him at least five times a day as he tried to care for her and make sure she was comfortable or healthy or generally unlikely to have problems. "I'm the one about to deliver here, not you! Go take your mind off it or something. I promise I'll let you know if anything happens."
His wife's assurances did nothing to ease his worry. He was, by nature, a worrisome man and extremely unsure of himself and his place in the world. His promotion from accountant to supervising accountant was largely due to the fact that he worried. His calculations were double and triple checked beyond reason before he submitted them. Being at ease was not something that came naturally.
A gust of wind brought the rain down on his windshield with sudden ferocity, and he immediately slowed down until his vision cleared. He had already passed three wrecks on his way to work, and he couldn't shake the feeling that he would soon be part of a hideously inconceivable accident. He felt his hands shake as he gripped the steering wheel. He kept his speed slow and his eyes darting everywhere possible, trying to foresee whatever it was that was going to happen to him.
A few cars passed him on the left and one beeped angrily as it went by. He kept his speed down on purpose, giving himself plenty of lead time before each stop so he wouldn't lose control on the slick roads. The car that beeped fishtailed as it settled into the lane ahead of him, but nothing else. He realized his heart was pounding in his chest, and he breathed deeply until he relaxed as much as he could. It wasn't much.
Beads of cold sweat dotted his forehead, but he never noticed as he concentrated on his driving. He had to get to the office intact today. He had the big meeting with the firm partners today, going over the Toranoka Account he was responsible for. If it was successful, the firm would earn millions. If it wasn't, he wouldn't last the week. Now, of all times, he couldn't afford that.
The sky rumbled threateningly; the dim, gray clouds loomed overhead like dark sentinels. Lightning flashed in the distance but no sound reached him. John shivered and tried to ignore the panic that gripped him. It was like ignoring a tiger gnawing on his leg. There was death in the air, and he was horribly afraid that the death would be his own. What was worse, he might even kill someone in the process. It was bad enough that it had to happen today of all days (God, what would happen to Sally, what with the baby overdue?), but to have someone else die with him . . . that was too much. He didn't want to die, and he didn't want anyone else to die with him. He remembered reading about the ancient Pharaohs who, when they died, made sure than an army of servants and slaves died with them so they could be appropriately pampered in the afterlife. John had no wish to take anyone with him into the Great Unknown.
Another car passed him, and although the driver didn't beep, he gave John an unmistakable look of disgust and annoyance. John didn't care. If the rest of the world wanted to kill themselves in this weather, he was going to take that much more care to not join them. He slowed down a little bit more, which brought his speed to fifteen miles an hour. No wonder everyone else looked like they were speeding by. It didn't matter. If going five miles an hour would keep him from having an accident, he would do it. So far, it didn't look necessary. He could only hope.
He had a sudden thought which startled him. He hadn't put together the playpen yet! He had promised Sally he would do it last week, but somehow it managed to not get done. He felt deeply ashamed at his failure, and vowed that he would put it together tonight. He failed to recall that he had made this same realization and the very same vow every morning for the past five days. Every day, the realization and the vow alike were forgotten by noon. Lunch was a very short and busy period for him, and the distractions of work tended to push out all other concerns. He thought himself to be a conscientious and reliable man, but the truth was he simply worried too much. Anything that wasn't of top priority got pushed out of his harried and overworked brain, coming up later to disturb him with guilty pangs. It was the pattern of his life, and there looked to be no change in it.
The light ahead of him turned yellow, and he slowed for the stop. In fact, he managed to stop in front of the crosswalk a good three seconds before the light turned red, but that was just safe driving. A car had come up behind him and was now beeping angrily, all chance of getting through the intersection before the red light thwarted. John didn't let it bother him.
The wail of an emergency siren caught his attention, and he looked up and down the crossing street to find the source. A moment later, the ambulance came into view, lights flashing and siren blazing insistently. The light turned green, but he didn't move until the ambulance disappeared around the corner, going back the way he had come. The car behind him pulled out and zipped past his unmoving vehicle, the driver shaking her fist at him as she went. Well, he thought it was just her fist, anyway. She left thirty seconds after the ambulance was gone, but he had no problem with that. God only knew what could have happened, had he started early.
The light was turning yellow again before he moved, but this time he ignored it. John managed to bring the car up to only ten miles an hour, making his way cautiously through the rain-drenched streets. The waterfall that beat down on his window disturbed him, and he fervently wished that this nightmare were over.
For some reason, it occurred to him that this might actually be a nightmare. He was prone to having them, and Sally frequently complained that his tossing and turning at night kept her awake. Just for the sake of argument, he tried pinching himself to see if it would wake him up. For a brief instant a rush of hope ran through him, but all he got was a sore arm. This nightmare was his reality. If it really were a nightmare, he would end up in a wreck no matter what he did. He shivered and prayed for release. His speed dropped imperceptibly.
A bottleneck of cars appeared in the distance, and as he watched, one car tried to pull into the left lane without regard for the others. There was a moment of doubt, then the side of the car collided with the right front corner of another car, and both went skidding off in opposite directions. Everyone immediately in front and behind them slowed to a halt, finishing off with a deadly silence punctuated only by the beating rain. John stopped not too far from the scene and anxiously watched the drivers for signs of injury. Both sat in their cars for a while, until one of them -- the one who had caused the accident -- got out and started yelling angrily. The other driver immediately joined him. John realized that they were both all right, simply shook up. He joined the other cars in making their way around the accident.
So far, no problems. He hadn't gotten into any accidents, although if he'd been part of that bottleneck . . . a chill ran up his spine. Suppose this was the source of the impending doom he'd been feeling? Suppose he had been going faster and had been the one to get hit? A new ray of hope shined in his heart, but it disappeared shortly. He felt death in his future, not a simple fender-bender. That accident hadn't been fatal, and he knew something deadly was going to happen to him. He knew there was no escaping it.
Half an hour passed without great incident. John saw the tall office building which was his destination and felt a shudder of dread. If it was going to happen, it would happen now. He signaled for a right turn and inched into the parking lot. No one else was around. He pulled into the parking space with his name on it and gathered his belongings before making a dash for the front door. Instead of stepping out into the lot itself, he went between the cars and the building to make sure that nothing could approach him. He reached the doors of the building a little wetter than he might have otherwise, but he was alive.
John walked up to the great row of elevators and pressed the button to call for the nearest car. As he waited he realized that he still hadn't shaken his feeling of death and doom. Maybe, just maybe, death awaited him in the elevator? He wondered when they had last been serviced, and if maybe there wasn't a cable up there ready to snap and let him plummet to a grisly demise. Perhaps today it would be good to take the stairs.
The concierge at the lobby desk looked at him curiously when he opened the door to the stairwell, but John ignored him and started up. His office was on the eleventh floor, but eleven flights of stairs wouldn't kill him. An elevator dropping eleven flights might. Hollow footsteps echoed back at him as he pounded his way up, taking two steps at a time to begin with, slowing to one step at a time by the second floor. By the fourth floor he was out of breath, and by the sixth floor he was gasping. He paused at the seventh floor to recover, then continued on. His vision fuzzed and swam, and his shirt was dotted with sweat under the arms and along his back. His briefcase felt unbearably heavy in his hand, and he switched to the other hand. It didn't do much good. He felt like a great weight was bearing down on him, crushing him to the floor. Avoiding the elevator wouldn't do him much good if he got so exhausted that he fell down and broke his neck on the stairs. He made frequent stops to rest, and finally made it to the eleventh floor only an hour and forty-five minutes late for work. His meeting was in fifteen minutes.
He stepped into his office and collapsed into his chair. He was alive! He had gone to great pains in order to stay that way, but he'd done it! He'd cheated the omens of death and doom, and he'd make it through the day to finish the account and make his bosses rich. In gratitude, they'd probably give him a raise, and maybe even a promotion. He swiveled in his chair to put his briefcase on his desk, and noticed a flashing light on his phone, indicating a message for him. He pushed the intercom to reach his receptionist. "What messages, Kelly?"
"A Dr. Olbren called, sir. He left his number."
"That's all right, Kelly. I know his number. When did he call?"
"Twenty minutes before nine."
"Thanks." John broke the connection and dialed the obstetrician's office. His secretary said that Dr. Olbren was at the hospital, and gave him the number there.
He dialed the hospital, wondering what the good doctor was doing there. The receptionist put him on hold while she sent out a page. John cheerfully suffered through a few minutes of canned Muzak before the doctor's quiet voice came on the line. "John, I'm glad you called."
"Doctor, I just got your message. How's Sally?"
"John, your wife . . . Sally went into labor shortly after you left for work. We couldn't reach you, and the ambulance picked her up half an hour later. I'm afraid that with the rain and the traffic . . . ."
"Doc? Doc, what are you saying?" John shouted. It couldn't be, it just couldn't . . . .
"Sally lost the baby at 8:22 this morning. We lost Sally three minutes later."
John hung up without another word and slumped back into his chair. The rain beat on his window just as fiercely as before, but he didn't hear it. In numb silence he reached for his drenched coat and put it on. He would go home and put together that playpen if it was the last thing he did.