“You can’t go downtown today,” Christine Parker told her husband from her seat at the kitchen table as George was zipping up his spring jacket.
“Says who?” he asked. He understood once he saw what was beside his wife’s bowl of Golden Grahams. “It’s in my horoscope, isn’t it?” Christine looked shyly down. They had had this discussion before. “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t—”
“See for yourself,” she said, handing him the newspaper.
George quickly read his Virgo horoscope. “So it says I should stay home today. So what?”
“So what?” she replied, astounded.
“I can’t believe how much stock you put into this stuff! If you checked ten different newspapers, you’d find ten different horoscopes for me. One of them would probably say that it’s a great day to run errands downtown.” He put the paper back on the table and asked, “Why do you believe the horoscopes in The Telegraph?”
“They’re very reliable,” she answered him. “Mother says they’re the best.”
“Your mother,” George said dismissively. “She didn’t want us to get married until such and such was in the something house and somebody or other was ascending.”
“Are you saying that we aren’t happily married?”
“No, but who’s to say that we wouldn’t be happily married if we had chosen any old date without consulting the stars?”
George sighed deeply and clarified, “I’m just saying that people shouldn’t let something so unproven as astrology run their lives.”
“Horoscopes are true.”
“Uh huh,” he replied sarcastically. “What does yours say?” He looked down at the newspaper and read, “Today will be a good day for you. Make certain to get to bed early, as tomorrow promises to be more difficult.”
“Sound advice,” Christine added.
“You’re going to bed early tonight?”
“I probably will,” she answered. “How about you and your superstitions? What makes them valid while my horoscopes are trash?”
“I’m not superstitious.”
Christine chuckled. “What have you carried around with you for years?”
George reached into his coat pocket and proudly removed a white rabbit’s foot. “It was a gift from my mother.”
“So you carry it solely for sentimental reasons?”
“Truce!” Mr. Parker pleaded, exasperated.
His pretty wife got up from the kitchen table and wrapped her arms seductively about his neck. “Can you please stay home?”
“This is my only day off this week. If I don’t run these errands today, they won’t get done,” he responded. “You can’t do them, can you?”
“No. I’ve got tons of computer work to do for Harrison and Brecht.”
“If I don’t get to the dry cleaners today,” George teased his bride, “you won’t have that dress to wear to Margie’s party Saturday night.”
“I know, but—”
“I promise to be careful.”
“When will you be home?” Christine quickly asked.
“Probably around 2:00.” He kissed her gently on the forehead. “I’ll be fine.”
* * *
The old man, who had come out of nowhere, clutched the lapels of George’s jacket with his filthy, calloused hands. He was stoop shouldered, and had wild white hair and glassy eyes. George tried to pull away, but the guy was strong. Parker turned his head as the old man began coughing and wheezing on him. George could smell the booze on his breath. “12,” he slurred at Parker. “You’re gonna die… at 12.”
The man swooned. George managed to catch him before he hit the ground. As a crowd began to gather, Parker looked about anxiously and saw a police officer not far up the street. “Officer! Officer!” he called.
Sgt. Crawford arrived quickly, pushing his way through the growing crowd of gawkers. “What’s going on here?” he asked George, who was losing his grip on the old man.
“I don’t know. I… I caught him before he—”
“Let’s lay him down.” George and the cop gently put the man down on the sidewalk. Crawford sniffed. “You can smell the hooch from here!” he remarked. He knelt beside the man and gently grasped his wrist. His expression quickly turned sad.
“What is it?” Parker asked anxiously.
“He’s dead.” Some people in the crowd gasped. Crawford let go of the man’s wrist, stood, and turned to George. “What happened here, Mr….”
“Parker. George Parker,” George answered. “I’m… I’m not sure. He grabbed me.”
“You don’t know him?”
“Never seen him before.”
“Any idea why he picked you?”
“I don’t know,” George continued. “I didn’t do anything to provoke him, if that’s what you mean.”
“Then what happened?”
“He collapsed. I managed to catch him, then I called for you.”
“Did he say anything? Anything at all?”
“No,” George replied too quickly, intent on saving face. “Not… not a word.”
Crawford bent and patted down the body. “Just as I feared: No I.D.” He called to the crowd. “Did anyone know this man?”
An older woman stepped forward. She was short, plump, and wore thick glasses. She had on a too-small flowered sundress and spoke with a thick Russian accent. “I knew him,” she said.
“Who are you?” Crawford asked.
“I am Madame Helga,” she announced proudly, “and that,” she continued, pointing at a shop behind her, “is my tea room.” She began pacing in front of the crowd, speaking loudly. “Fortunes told. Readings for everyone. All accurate. All true. Only the finest seers.”
“Enough with the commercial,” the cop told her. He gestured at the body at their feet. “Who was he?”
“I knew him as Barona.”
“What was his real name?”
“I do not know. He came to me looking for work, and I gave him a job.”
“Without even knowing his name?”
“One does not let a gift such as his wither because of trivialities.”
“Barona was an incredibly gifted seer. He did some readings for me that were frightening in their accuracy.”
“When did he start working for you?”
“Where did he live?”
“He had no home. I fed him sometimes and let him sleep in a small room in the back of my establishment when he desired.”
“Do you know of any relatives? Anyone who could come and claim the body?”
“I am aware of none. He never spoke of his past.” She looked down at the corpse and sighed. “So sad that he should die without a word of prophesy on his lips.”
“Well, he did,” Parker told her.
Crawford turned to George. “Would you be willing” he asked, “to sign a statement saying what you’ve told me?”
“Sure,” George replied.
“Great. Let me call someone to collect the body. Then we can be on our way.”
“Is something wrong with now?”
George noticed the clock in the church steeple over the officer’s shoulder.
“It won’t take long,” Crawford continued.
“We have done hundreds of readings for people. We can do one for you today.” George heard Madame Helga practicing her sales pitch behind him. “The stars are great harbingers, you know.”
“Sir?” Crawford prompted him.
“I’ll… I’ll wait here.”
“Thank you,” Crawford said, walking off. “I won’t be long.”
“I hope not,” Parker muttered as the crowd began to disperse.
* * *
The police station was very busy. George sat on a chair beside Crawford’s desk while the officer typed out the report on his computer. Parker snuck a peek at his watch.
The report complete, Crawford hit the print button on the keyboard. The pages came out of the printer beside him. He collected them and handed them to George. “If you’d just—” George grabbed a pen off the desk, hurriedly signed his name on the last page, and pushed the report back to the cop. “You didn’t read it,” Crawford said.
“I trust you.”
The officer chuckled. “Very well,” he returned. “The police department thanks you for your time.” Crawford gathered the sheets of paper, stapled them together, and dropped them in his outbox. For an uncomfortable span of time, George didn’t move. “Is something wrong?” Parker suddenly realized that he was safe here.
“Nothing,” he answered quickly.
Crawford pushed out his chair and stood. He held his hand out to George, forcing him to stand as well. They shook. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Parker.”
George knew he couldn’t sit down again. The cop would think he was nuts.
He gathered his courage and, very reluctantly, walked outside.
* * *
The door to the tea room was locked. George pounded on it several times. Alarmed, Helga came out of the back room. She walked to the door and opened it, but only as much as the chain would allow. “I am closed,” she told him.
“The hell you are! I need to talk to you now.”
“That is not possible.”
“What are you trying to pull?”
“I do not understand.”
“All that business with Barona. Trying to drum up a little trade?”
“How could I have known when he was going to die?” she asked. “Young man, you need some help.”
“Right, and you’re going to help me.”
“I refuse.” She quickly closed the door and locked it. “Leave or I will telephone the police!” she called through the glass and briskly walked away.
“No!” George yelled, pounding on the door again. “Come back! Come back!”
But she was gone.
* * *
Parker ducked into a building front and, with shaky hands, took out his cell phone. He nervously dialed Christine.
“Hello?” she answered. Her sweet voice made him feel instantly better.
“Hi, honey,” he replied, hoping he didn’t sound scared. “How’s… how’s the work coming along?”
“Slowly but surely. How are the errands going?”
“F-fine. Nearly done.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
A lump growing in his throat, George added, “I love you.”
“And I love you,” she responded, getting concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay? You sound… funny.”
“Bye bye.” Click!
With beads of sweat beginning to dot his forehead, George glanced up and saw the church. Yes, he thought, that’s where to go. He smiled and ran to it, bumping into several people along the way, all of whom gave him dirty looks in his wake.
* * *
Parker nervously entered the brightly lit church and sat in one of the pews. He knelt, clasped his hands together in prayer, and rested his forehead on them. He was shaking and sweating even more.
An older, salt- and pepper-haired priest wearing a long black robe and a large crucifix about his neck slowly approached him. “May I help you?” he asked in a quiet voice, noticing George’s bad state.
Parker was startled. “Who… Who are…”
“I’m Father Doyle.”
“You work here?” Parker asked, growing more nervous with each passing second.
The priest let out a little chuckle. “I never really thought of it that way, but yes.”
“M-m-my name’s George Parker.”
“How may I help you?”
“I need… need you to perform the Last Rites.”
The priest clutched at his crucifix. “Dear me!” he exclaimed. “Someone is dying?”
“Yes, someone is dying.”
“If you’ll give me just a few minutes to gather my things…”
Doyle took a couple of steps away, but then stopped and turned. “Where is the individual who is to receive the sacrament?”
“You’re looking at him.”
“You want the Last Rites?”
“Is this a bad joke?” Doyle asked after a moment’s thought.
“It’s no joke. I’ll be dead shortly.”
“How do you know that?”
“He told me. A man—an old man. He said that I was going to die… at 12:00. Now, will you please—”
Doyle glanced at his watch. “Why, it’s 12:00 now.”
The echoing church bells started loudly chiming the hour. “Nooooooo!” Parker screamed. He fell from the pew to the floor at Doyle’s feet, his hands jammed over his ears, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Mr. Parker?” Doyle said urgently as the bells struck a dozen times and then went quiet. “Mr. Parker?”
Red faced, George slowly removed his hands from his ears and looked up at the priest. “What… What time is it?” he asked.
“12:02.” Doyle held out a hand and helped George to his feet.
“You’re certain about that?”
Parker wiped the tears from his cheeks and grabbed Father Doyle’s right hand, which he shook vigorously. “Thank you!” he said, incredibly relieved. “You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.”
“You’re welcome,” a befuddled Doyle replied. “Perhaps someday you’ll… explain to me what just happened?”
* * *
George whistled a happy tune as he walked to his car, Christine’s party dress slung over one shoulder. He was embarrassed by what he had allowed himself to believe. Never again, he thought.
The screech of the truck’s brakes came suddenly. He was hit and sent flying several feet, landing in a bleeding heap on top of the dry cleaning. His still, outstretched hand reached unsuccessfully for his blood-stained rabbit’s foot, which had been knocked from his jacket pocket and now lay beside him.
A woman screamed, and a crowd began to gather.
The truck driver, a bald man with a cigar clenched between his teeth, leapt from his vehicle and ran to George’s crumpled form. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed.
“He doesn’t look like he’s breathing!” a woman said.
“It wasn’t my fault. He came out of nowhere. I… I couldn’t stop in time!” He nervously took his cell phone from his pocket and called 9-1-1. “Hello, I need an ambulance right away… Summer Street… What?… No, I don’t know the number… I realize it’s a main drag. I drive on it almost every day… Well, I don’t want to take the time to… Alright. Hold on.” He put the phone down at his side and called out, “Does anybody know what number Summer Street this is?”
A creaky door opened behind him and a short, pudgy woman made her way to the front of the crowd. “Twelve,” Helga said. “This is 12 Summer Street.”
For several years, Mike Murphy has been primarily an author of audio plays. He’s had over 150 of them produced in the U.S. and overseas, many for Audible. In 2016, Mike won a Moondance International Film Festival award for his TV pilot script “The Bullying Squad” and a finalist award for his audio play “The Forever Pill.”
His prose work has appeared in Dime Show Review (including in their second “best of” anthology), Gathering Storm Magazine, Zeroflash, Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, and The Flash Fiction Press.
In 2015, Mike’s script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title Dark Chocolate. In 2013, he won the Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
More of his stories will be published shortly in The Fifth Di… and the Inwood Indiana/Prolific Press Anthology The Pop Machine.
He keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “12”
We receive a number of stories with surprise endings, but too often the story itself is little more than padding for the surprise ending. Mike Murphy’s “12” is an excellent example of how to pull off a great surprise ending while at the same time telling a good story and building suspense along the way. We certainly did not see that one coming.