"Willia...I mean...Bill...you can tell me to shut up if you want to, I've never been inside Brinkley Clinic before, but isn't that a cancer…" Jason was cut short.
"Yes, it's a cancer hospice. It's my final resting place, or at least it will be in a few days’ time. I don't have very many miles left on my clock, Jason. This body is just about used up."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Jason never knew what to say in these situations. In fact, he had an absolute gift for putting his foot in his mouth when it came to asking personal questions. He'd ask someone how their new job was going, only to hear they'd been fired that same day. He'd ask how someone was settling into their new apartment, only to be told it had burned to the ground the night before. The worst of these was asking a buddy of his about how he was getting on with his new girlfriend and getting the reply, "She's dead. I woke up, and she was dead beside me." After that, he became more of a listener and less of a talker. It was just a lot easier, and less embarrassing, that way.
"I'm sorry, too, believe me, but this has been coming for a long time and I deserve what's coming my way. We all pay a price for what we’ve done in the end. It doesn’t really matter who or what you believe in. There’s always a final toll to be paid."
Now your average taxi driver hears a lot of private conversations in the course of a given week, and sees a lot of crazy shit, too, but this was the first time he'd heard someone saying they basically deserved to die. That was a first. It was also unsettling because a dying man has nothing to lose, so they don't give a flying fuck about doing or saying whatever pops into their tiny, insane heads. Like pulling a gun out of their pocket, blowing your brains out, and then offing themselves once they're done. That's not a nice thought to have going on inside your head, especially when you can't make eye contact with the guy in the first place. At least then you might be able to guess his next move…if there was one.
"Umm...did you just say that you deserve to die?" Jason asked.
"There are some sins we can just walk away from, " the old man replied. "Some things that just wash away with time. We forget them because we choose to, and so does the Universe, simply because they don't disturb the order of things. But there are some sins that we need to pay the price for. Otherwise, the books don't get balanced and the Universe gets out of balance, just like you said."
He had a few seconds to think over what the old man had just said. A few seconds before replying. The caution he felt was struggling with a mixture of empathy and morbid curiosity. He knew that asking more questions meant going further down the rabbit’s hole with this guy, but he didn’t think he could stop himself wanting to know more. Could you blame him?
"What could you have done that was so bad that you deserve to die, Bill? Did you like kill a whole bunch of people or something?" Jason asked, hoping he was totally and utterly wrong.
"Worse. Far worse. I made sure one man died, believing that it might save the lives of millions of people. I was wrong."
There was a long, chilly pause in the air after the old man stopped talking. This was the first time in his life that Jason realized he might actually be more comfortable talking to a convicted serial killer than this strange old dude who had just appeared in his life tonight.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, trying to figure out what to say next. Tonight was going to be an interesting night, whether he liked it or not.
Their car drove slowly on through the rain.
He was keeping a watchful eye on the old man because the conversation with him so far hadn't made a lot of sense. He was claiming to have saved millions of lives by killing just one man. There was a really good chance that this guy wasn't playing with a full deck, plus he was also obviously dying, which added the wild card factor, too. He had to give him credit though, because he was 100% certain this was the only time he was ever going to have a conversation like this with any passenger.
Jason was still running through this particular mental assault course in his head when the old man started muttering to himself. It sounded like numbers, and something else thrown in for good measure.
"Are you okay back there? All good, buddy?" He was just hoping this old man wasn't going to croak in the back of his cab - that meant no fare, calling the paramedics, and lots of other unpleasantness.
The old man was looking down at his hands, quietly repeating, “I can't ever change it. It had to be done. It had to be. 11.22.63.”
Jason thought he heard just a tiny amount of sadness and regret in his passenger's voice. Despite how he looked, this guy was still very human underneath it all. This made Jason more curious than he really wanted to be. The question was already half way out of his mouth before his brain realized what his mouth was doing.
Jason asked, "Is that number special for some reason, Bill? It seems to mean an awful lot to you? It sounds like a birthday or something?" Empathy had gotten the better of him again. He’d always been a sucker for a sob story, and he heard genuine regret in the man’s voice. Maybe this had been his wife’s birthday or something. Whatever it was, it was important to him at a very deep level.
"It means more than you can probably ever understand. It's not just a number though. It's a date,” the old man explained. “Are you a fan of history by any chance?”
Jason replied, “Not really, Bill. I was never what you’d call an ‘A’ student, or anything close to that. I did what I had to do to get through high school and out the other side, to be honest.”
He quickly scanned his memory to see if there was anything important that came tumbling out in relation to that date, but, as usual, he was drawing a total blank. That was partly because of his ability to remember absolutely useless information, like the real names of every member of the A-Team and what movies scored on IMDB. The flip side of this was his total inability to remember things, like birthdays, anniversaries, and important dates in human history. You know…important stuff and the like.
"I'm sorry, Bill...it's not ringing any bells, should it?"
"Jason, the date is November 22nd, 1963. That was the day the world changed forever. It was the day the world took a step away from the light and further into darkness than it has been in many decades.”
He tuned his entire body into what his passenger was saying now. The old man wasn’t finished talking yet, and that thought filled Jason with a new sense of dread. He was really hoping this guy was just a random lunatic right now. At least that way, he could dismiss it once he was gone on his way.
“11/22/63 is probably the most important date in human history, young man. It was the day President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas.”
There was a just a split second of panic in Jason's mind, just enough to make him want to either slam on the brakes, or floor it and get the hell out of there. Get the hell out of where though? The talking, wheezing history lesson in the back seat would still be there no matter what he did at this point. Jason tried to figure out exactly just why he felt like he needed to escape really, really quickly, but came up with nothing. He just felt a sudden and very primitive urge to survive.