Caring Is The Root of CourageBusiness
When the sun touched the western horizon, paused, then slowly started back up into the sky, Paul Peterson knew it was going to be a long day.
It had already been a long day. Paul had been standing at cliff’s edge for nearly an hour, watching the sun fi nish its daily arc and listening to the surf smash against the rocks below. This sunset would end a decade. Ten years of struggling to build his school, a safe place where sad-faced kids could fi nd refuge from a faceless system. On this tenth anniversary of the Shay’s Point School, that dream had been ended by the slash of a banker’s eighty-dollar pen.
Ten years ago it had just been Paul himself, fresh out of law school and determined to save young people from being crushed by the penal system for committing crimes they hardly comprehended to be criminal. Now it was him and the family, the mortgages, the school, the ever-increasing critics, and the fewer-and-fartherbetween backers.
This morning he had cared. For the three-thousandsix-hundred-fi ftieth day, he’d dragged himself out of bed after too little sleep, armored himself in a coat and tie, and set out for the fight. And lost. Everything.
Including the capacity to care.
Now he was leaning into a stiff shoreward breeze, waiting for the sun to disappear. Then he would take his last step.
“It’s a beautiful evening for fl ying, isn’t it?”
Paul started at the voice, which crept up from behind and slapped him on the back. Losing his balance, he twisted his body sideways, arms spinning frantically like the impotent rotors of a crippled helicopter.
As his feet left the ground, Paul felt the sensation of fl oating, momentarily suspended in motionless time. His eyes locked onto the faint pinprick of a star trying to burn its way into the darkening evening sky as he toppled back and began to accelerate earthward. Then, much too soon, he hit the ground.
After an agonizing moment of dark stillness, Paul drew what seemed an awfully lot like a living breath and opened his eyes to see the same star fi ghting for its spot in the twilight. There had been no tunnel of light, no fl ashing autobiography, no celestial choir or old friends at the gate. Just a quick fall, a sudden hard thump, and the dawning realization of pain. Real, human pain.
“Are you okay?”
It was the same voice, deep and rich. Paul looked to his side and saw a man of about his own age kneeling beside him. Long brown hair, thinning on the top, fl uttered like prairie grass in a summer breeze. His dark, weathered skin suggested a life on the fi shing boats. He wore the compassionate, bemused smile of a father trying not to laugh as he helped his child up from a spectacular tricycle wipe-out.
FEAR IS THE PARENT OF BOTH COURAGE AND OF COWARDICE. WHICH CHILD WILL YOU CHOSE TO RAISE?
“Here, let me give you a hand.” The man pulled Paul to his feet without apparent effort and brushed off the back of his coat. They were standing fi fty feet back from the edge of the cliff. At the spot where Paul had been standing was a tall, slender man with a brown trench coat just like his. He was watching the sun, now several degrees off the horizon. And rising.
A pair of sea gulls streaked by, fl ying tail-fi rst and emitting a bizarre squawk. Paul closed his eyes and struggled to dredge up a memory of falling, of being broken on the rocks. Nothing short of being dead could explain this craziness.
“No, Paul, you didn’t jump. At least not yet. Earthly time is moving in reverse. You might say that the drama that played itself out today is being un-acted.”
The sun was huge above the horizon, dwarfi ng the man on the cliff. A jet airplane moved backward across the sky, erasing the brilliant white contrail that a moment ago had punctuated the orange fi rmament. Paul saw the man in the trench coat watch the sun edge its way higher into the sky, igniting the furrowed clouds as if the world’s entire supply of fi reworks had been requisitioned for this occasion. The fi gure dropped awkwardly to his knees and remained for a moment with his face in his hands, then just as awkwardly rose and started walking backward away from the cliff.
The fi sherman put a hand on Paul’s shoulder and guided him toward the path. They followed the fi gure in Paul’s trench coat as he trudged backward down the hill, hands in pockets, eyes to the ground. At the parking lot they watched the fi gure unclose the car door, and stand there for a long while looking up the hill. He looked just like Paul—tall and thin, clean shaven, brown hair just a little too long for someone otherwise dressed like a middle-aged yuppie.
“You’ve had a bad day, my friend, and you’re about to live it again—twice, I’m afraid.” The fi sherman smiled, not looking at all afraid. “And what’s more, you’re going to watch yourself do it. Com on, climb in.”
The fi sherman stepped through the back door of Paul’s Chevy without even opening it, and motioned for Paul to follow. The trench-coated fi gure was backing his way into the driver’s seat. “Hurry up,” the fi sherman shouted, “it’s a lot harder to go through doors when the car is moving.”
Paul stood frozen as he listened to the oddly distorted but unmistakable backfi re of his old Chevy as the engine cut out. But the engine hadn’t cut out. It was now idling roughly and sucking white puffs of smoke back into the tailpipe. The fi sherman reached out from the car and yanked Paul through the closed rear door. He didn’t feel a thing.
The other Paul—Paul could see now beyond a doubt that he was watching himself—put the car in drive and started backing out of the parking lot, eyes straight ahead.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going, dummy, you’re going to hit something!”
“He can’t hear you,” the fi sherman said, “or see you. In fact only one of you is really real. By the way, why do you so often call yourself dummy?” He looked serious, as though he really expected an answer. Paul just snorted and looked out the window as the car accelerated backward away from the parking lot.
The car was out on Fontanella Avenue backing down the road at forty-fi ve miles per hour. Looking out the side window, Paul saw a big golden retriever leap backward into the air and spit a tennis ball out of its mouth; the ball instantly reversed course, hit the ground just in front of the dog’s feet as it landed on its hind legs, and then bounded back over its head into the hands of the young woman in the front yard. The dog raced backward and sat expectantly at her feet as she rubbed its head and put the ball back in her pocket. Paul vaguely remembered having seen this scene played out in a forward direction on the drive toward the cliffs.
“This is going to take all day if we don’t speed things up,” the fi sherman said as he pulled a pocket watch out and wound it. The world began to whiz by as if in timelapse photography, except that it was all whizzing by in reverse. The car raced backward down the exit ramp onto the interstate, with Paul wincing as the other “him” accelerated to seventy miles per hour without looking back. Just as quickly they were back on Main Street, fl itting tail-fi rst through city traffi c.
“You look bewildered, my friend.” Again that ancient, majestic voice. Paul almost expected to look over and see a statue of Moses, but it was still the fi sherman with the infi nite eyes. And that smile—was it heartrending sadness or bottomless joy? The man placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder, fi rm and reassuring.
“My name is Rafe. You’re taking this pretty well, but I imagine you’d like to know what’s going on.” The car was spiraling backward up the exit ramp of the First National Bank parking deck.
Paul nodded, so the man began. “How can I best explain it, this moving backward in time? Ordinary people see time the way a railroad engineer sees tracks—you pass over the cross ties one at a time: the ones behind you receding back into the distance, the ones up front always out of sight.
“When you enter a tunnel, you have no way of knowing when you will reach the light at the other side, you can only have faith that the tunnel won’t go on forever.
“But I see time the way an eagle sees the railroad looking down from the air. All at once I can see the tracks behind and the tracks ahead. Depending upon my own airspeed or direction, the train below can be moving forward, backward, or standing still relative to my own position. Like this . . .”
The car had backed into a stall—Paul remembered parking in a handicapped space this morning because he was running late for an important meeting—when suddenly everything froze in place. The other Paul had a furious scowl on his face, and his clenched fi st hovered about six inches above the dashboard. Paul rubbed the side of his hand, remembering the blow. Rafe clicked his pocket watch again, and the fi st slammed off the dashboard as Paul’s image stepped back out of the car, jammed the parking ticket under the windshield wiper, and banged his briefcase off the car hood.
They followed Paul’s image as he paced backward toward the elevators. “When a train goes into a tunnel,” Rafe continued, “the passengers may feel that they have been swallowed up by perpetual darkness, but from my vantage point in the sky I can see just how long they will be in there, and what awaits them on the other side.”
IF YOU LOSE HOPE, YOU’RE JUST NOT LOOKING FAR ENOUGH AHEAD.
As the other Paul pushed his way backward through the crowed bank lobby, people behind him glared angrily at his back, then looked shocked as the backs of their shoulders swung around to collide with the front of his, and then resumed their unsuspecting small talk as he steamed back toward the fateful conference room.
In the baroque elegance of the conference room Paul couldn’t help but laugh at the bank’s chief loan offi cer gesticulating madly while sounding like Alvin the Chipmunk speaking Russian. Two armed security guards walked backward into the room, looking over their shoulders as they entered. They turned slowly and stood at attention for a while as though just looking for an excuse to manhandle Paul’s image, then raced backward out of the room with alarmed expressions and hands on their gun holsters.
Papers spilled out of briefcases and across the polished table—papers that Paul knew would destroy ten years of hard work and sacrifi ce. The papers then spilled back into the briefcases, and Paul’s image walked backward out of the conference room. He didn’t look angry now, he looked scared to death. They followed him back to the car.
The sun was high overhead as they backed through the gate, and Paul’s image handed the ticket to the parking ramp attendant. Familiar landmarks fl ashed by as they drove toward Paul’s dream: the Shay’s Point Alternative School. A decade ago it had been a rundown warehouse. For ten years Paul and Joan had sunk every hour, every dollar, into building this school for troubled young people as an alternative to reform school or prison.
It was a fi ght from the beginning. Some critics wanted the school closed because the students were made to follow strict rules and wear uniforms. Others wanted it closed because rewarding lawbreakers by putting them in a special school wasn’t their idea of justice. And now all their wishes were about to come true. In about an hour, or an hour ago with time fl owing backward, the bank would shut him down for failing to keep up on his loan payments.
“He looks awfully lonely, doesn’t he?” Rafe watched Paul’s image at his desk punching away on a calculator and un-scribbling notes from fi nancial reports.
“Lonely and frightened—somehow the two always seem to go together.”
Paul’s image stuffed his papers back into the briefcase and retreated through the building toward the parking lot, nodding curtly at uniformed youngsters as they scurried backward through the corridors. The dashboard clock was counting its way back toward eight o’clock by the time they shot down the exit ramp onto the freeway toward the suburbs. Paul noticed a growing coffee aroma, and realized that his image was gradually un-drinking the cup on the dashboard.
The car slowed and came to a stop just past the driveway of his white Victorian home. No matter which way time was fl owing, Joan’s landscaping was beautiful.
The driver gazed at the house for a moment, put the car in reverse and, oblivious to the passengers in the backseat, twisted his neck to see the road behind while he pulled forward into the driveway. They followed him as he backed his way up the walk, said good-bye to the children, kissed his wife at the front door, and then backed into the kitchen.
“Even this morning, I knew.” Paul looked wistfully into the kitchen, wondering if he’d ever hold Joan again, and how she’d take the news of his suicide. Paul watched his double, on high-speed rewind, absentmindedly stirring cream out of his coffee. Then Joan and the other Paul jumped out of their seats, the light went out, and their footsteps retreated back down the hall. The bedroom light went out and for a few seconds it was dark and quiet—almost peaceful.
Suddenly, though, the serenity was shattered by the obnoxious klaxon of his alarm clock. It sounded very un-backward.
“Sorry, my friend.” Rafe laughed. “The current has changed, and time is fl owing forward again. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us.”
Paul saw Joan shuffl e into the kitchen and disappear behind the pantry door to get the coffee.