7 Steps to Midnight

Richard Matheson

Forge Books

1
 
 
Most of them were wearing digit costumes. One through nine, completely out of order. Others had on letter costumes, caps or lowercase. Plus- and minus-sign costumes. Greater-than and less-than costumes. Parenthesis and bracket costumes. All milling around the stage like sheep.
He leaned toward Wilson, whispering, “How am I supposed to get them in their proper places?”
“Don’t ask me,” Wilson answered. “You’re the director.”
“What?” He gaped at the older man. “I thought you were.”
“Not this play,” Wilson said.
Chris slumped back with a groan. I’m the director? he thought. How could that be? He didn’t even know what play it was.
“Come on,” he protested. “This is insane. I’m not a stage director. I’m—”
He broke off, wincing, as Wilson grabbed his arm. “Time’s a wastin’, Chrissie-boy,” he said. He held up his wristwatch but Chris couldn’t see what time it was. “Now do it.” Wilson looked infuriated.
“I just don’t see how—”
Wilson made an angry noise and lurched to his feet. Chris twisted around to watch him striding up the aisle. He wanted to shout, I’m sorry, but I’m out of my depth here!
He didn’t though. He looked back at the stage and wondered what he should do. Time’s a wastin’, Chrissie-boy. The words repeated in his mind. He swallowed nervously. How much time did he have?
For the first time, he noticed an enormous clock on the wall of the abstract set. He tried to see what time it was but couldn’t make out the hands. He blinked, attempting to focus his eyes, but couldn’t do it.
He looked at the actors again. Were they actors? They had no faces. Just the digits, the letters, the signs, the parenthetical marks. He peered closely at a group of them. Were they forming a phase function of scattering? he wondered. He stood and started down the aisle. Maybe if he got a closer look.
Now those actors were definitely forming the optical thickness of a clearance zone-
“Hey, don’t!” he shouted as they began to switch positions. “Stay where you are!”
The actors started laughing as they walked around, changing positions.
“Damn it, stay in place!” he yelled. He started walking more quickly to stop them. He heard the clock on the stage ticking so loudly that the noise oppressed him. “Cut the clock noise!” he demanded. If he was the director, by God he’d enforce some discipline!
Suddenly, amazingly, the actors came together in a formula. “Now that looks promising!” he cried.
The lights went out. “Goddamn it all!” he raged. “Just when they look like they’re getting something right, you turn the fucking lights out?!”
“Chris!” somebody shouted to his left.
He jarred to a halt and thought he saw a figure sitting in the shadows. “What?” he asked, impatiently.
“The name of the play,” the figure said, “is Damocles.”
* * *
$$$ His cheek was pressed against a film of saliva as he slumped across the desk top. He looked as though someone had clubbed him on the back of the head, knocking him forward onto his cluster of papers.
Actually, nothing had struck him but exhaustion. The end result of working seventeen hours after a sleep of five hours following eighteen hours of work after a sleep of three and a half hours following nineteen hours of work…
He was thirty-seven but, sprawled on his sheets of penciled figures, in front of the humming computer screen, he could have passed for fifty. Pale. Dark circles underneath his eyes. Threads of white at his temples. Underweight, his shirt like that of a heavier man. Features pinched and tight, his expression one of anxiety.
“Time,” he said and sat up.
His half-shut eyes stared at the figures on the computer screen. Wrong, he thought. As usual. He switched off the computer and stretched, wincing at the crackle of his bones. I’m drying up, he thought.
He looked at the wall clock. “Christ,” he muttered. A memory flickered, a clock on a stage set. Then it vanished. He stood with a groan and stretched again. Why didn’t he just have a bed and refrigerator installed in the office? Then he’d never have to go home; he could calculate into oblivion.
He shuffled to the coatrack and pulled down his light blue jacket, slid his arms into the sleeves. He tried to close the zipper but couldn’t get it started. MATHEMATICAL WHIZ KID UNABLE TO CLOSE ZIPPER; he saw a headline in his mind. He’d like to see Wilson’s expression when he read that.
Grunting, Chris pulled open the door of his office. Weighs too much, he thought. His brain began to calculate the weight; he cut it off with a scowl. Enough.
The overhead squares of luminescent light floated back across him as he moved along the hallway. No one else in the department was around. Surprise, he thought. What idiot would work at this time of the morning?
“How do you do,” he muttered.
* * *
$$$ He stared at the place where he’d parked his car.
Too much, he thought. I work my noodle to the bone till after three A.M. and when I finally leave to go home, my car is gone.
He turned and looked around the parking lot. Had someone moved his car? A joke? No, he couldn’t see it anywhere. None of the few cars visible were his. He sighed. Too much.
Wait a second. His brain automatically sought an explanation. Did he make a mistake, exit into the east lot instead of the west? He groaned and rubbed the back of his neck. As always, it felt stiff.
He made a face then. Idiot, he told himself. He looked at the paving, at the slot marks and his name in white: C. Barton.
“Trouble is, C. Barton’s wheels are gone,” he muttered.
Another weary sigh. Now what? He eyed the distant guard shack. Now you walk a hundred miles to that shack and say, “My car is gone,” his brain provided.
“Thanks for the help,” he said.
His heels scuffed on the asphalt as he trudged toward the guard shack. He drew in a deep breath of air. He’d never liked the desert by day but at night it wasn’t bad. This time of year anyway; the air was cool and fresh. He leaned his head back, looking at the sky. Diamonds flung onto black velvet, he thought. “How friggin’ poetic,” he mumbled.
He looked back down. Now the guard shack was only fifty miles away. He’d make it by sunrise. “Shit,” he muttered. What son of a bitch had taken his car?
The dream was stirred by memory. Actors in number suits? He snickered. How obvious could a dream be? Freud could diagnose it with his brain tied behind his back. Numbers, letters, signs, parentheses and brackets? Kid stuff. And the big clock on the set, Wilson’s watch? “Get outta here,” he said.
He opened the door of the guard shack and went inside. The uniformed man behind the counter twitched-had he been dozing?-and looked at Chris’s badge.
Yes, Mr. Barton,” he said as though he knew Chris.
“My car is gone,” Chris told him.
“Hmm.”
Chris looked at the man’s badge. Number 9939. No surprise. Nines always made trouble. He could smell a problem in the works from F. Crain.
“What kind of car was it?” the guard asked.
Is it, Chris’s mind corrected; the car’s not dead. “A Mustang convertible; blue,” he said.
“Hmm,” said the guard.
Don’t say that again or I’ll get testy, Chris reacted. “Well?” he asked.
“No car like that’s been past here during my shift,” F. Crain answered.
Chris visualized his bed, the stacks of books on each bedside table. He was dying to be sacked out in the first and reaching for one of the second. He had no desire to be standing in this shack at almost four A.M., discussing his purloined Mustang with F. Crain, 9939.
No help for it though. “Where do you suppose it went then?” he inquired. F. Crain was fifty-seven, two hundred forty pounds, five foot seven inches, he estimated quickly.
“There is the back gate,” F. Crain suggested.
“I thought they always kept it locked,” Chris said.
“They do.”
Oh, well now we’re hurtling toward the solution, Chris thought. Any second now, he’d start to froth and F. Crain would be forced to call for an ambulance. “That doesn’t help me find my Mustang, does it?” he said.
“Not really,” said the guard.
Oh, Jesus, Chris heard his brain moan haplessly. He struggled for composure. “Listen, Mr. Crain,” he said. “The problem is, I’ve been working for seventeen hours and I’m exhausted. I live eighteen miles from here and I have to get home and go to bed. But I can’t do that without my blue Mustang or something to replace my blue Mustang.”
“Hmm,” said F. Crain.
* * *
$$$ Chris glanced at the dashboard clock as he turned onto the highway. It was almost five A.M. “Gawd,” he muttered. He could watch the moon go down as he drove. Or the sun come up. He groaned. His eyes felt like a pair of overheated billiard balls. He had to read, to sleep.
F. Crain had not exactly been a whirlwind of efficiency. Chris had finally been compelled to call Wilson’s home, apologize for rousting him from sleep, explain his plight. A grumpy Wilson had instructed the guard to find out which of the people working in the plant was going home the latest and see if Chris could borrow his or her car. He’d have the car returned by the time it was needed and, if Chris’s Mustang wasn’t found by then, he’d be provided with a rental car until he could purchase a new one. All this information had proved excessive to F. Crain’s IQ, and, by the time Wilson had imparted clarity to the guard, Chris could hear him screaming on the other end of the line. Better him than me, he’d thought.
A Scotty Tensdale wasn’t scheduled to go home until noon so Chris had driven the guard’s electric cart to Tensdale’s department and gotten the car keys. Crain could not desert his post, of course. National security.
Now he was driving along the highway in Scotty Tensdale’s amber Pontiac sedan and hoping that he’d make it to his house before he passed out cold.
The moon was full tonight, casting a silver sheen across the desert. Interesting sight, Chris thought. Stark and oddly menacing, marked by dark outlines and glistening sand. He stared at the highway unraveling ahead, pressing down on the accelerator. Seventy-two. He’d better hold the speed to that; his attention was a little blurry.
Even so, he did briefly try to calculate what might have happened to his car.
He didn’t know anyone at the plant well enough for them to play a joke on him. What kind of joke would it be anyway? It couldn’t have been stolen. Why bother? It wasn’t worth it; there were nicer cars on the lot. Anyway, a car thief wouldn’t go to a government plant and try to steal a car from a guarded parking lot.
Some emergency requiring the use of his car? Wouldn’t they have told him?
Every possibility seemed blocked by logic. Yet the car was gone.
He had to let it go. His brain was just too muddled. He’d have a go at finding a solution after he’d slept.
Time, he thought. Was that what he’d murmured, waking up? Why? Chronology, that’s why. Everything separated by time. Him and his bed. Him and the answer to his project. Him and his car.
“Forget it,” he growled. I refuse to bring it home with meR2 (x, y, z), his brain tried to slip in. He cut it off. Drop it, he ordered himself. Wetting the end of his right index finger, he rubbed it over his eyelids, the momentary coolness providing him with the illusion of wakefulness.
He looked at the intersection sign as he sped by it. He should have hung a right and headed for Las Vegas. If he was going to stay up day and night, he might as well enjoy it.
“Sure,” he muttered. He wouldn’t go to Vegas, that was obvious. He’d go home and take a shower as he always did. Get in his pajamas and clamber into bed. Look to his left, suspense and mystery paperbacks; to his right, science, fiction, fantasy and horror—and wonder which one he would gulp down as a sleeping pill this time.
* * *
$$$ He had almost passed the man without noticing him. Then his head turned quickly and an impression flashed by him. Old in age and clothes, a baseball cap on the man’s head.
By now the car had sped past him; the man’s figure was receding quickly.
“Oh…shit,” Chris muttered. He exhaled loudly, fluttering his cheeks. An old guy stuck out in the desert at this time of night. His foot lifted from the gas pedal and the car began to slow.
Or should I? he wondered. He visualized the old man gabbing at him, driving him insane. He visualized the old man reaching for his groin, a toothless grin on his face. He visualized the old man pulling out a hatchet and burying it in his skull.
The vision faded in a recollection of how the old man had lifted his head, hopefully, as though to say, Ah, rescue from this dreadful spot.
Chris groaned and pressed on the brake. All right, all right, he thought. He pulled over to the shoulder, slowed down enough to make a U-turn and twisted the steering wheel to his left. Can’t just leave the poor old guy alone out here, he thought.
If only, it would occur to him later, he had never thought that.
 
Copyright © 1993 by RXR, Inc.