Seventeen Seconds

Jesse’s phone beeped in the middle of Chapter 15, right at the most exciting and difficult part, of course. He stopped typing, scribbled a quick note on the pad beside the typewriter, and grabbed the phone. Chet. He broke into a smile.

“Dude, good to hear from you.”

“Well, I figured it was about time one of us called. How’ve you been? It’s been eons. I thought you were, like, you know. Sick.”

“Huh-uh.” Jesse leaned back and propped his feet on the desk. He took out a cigarette and lit it, first putting the phone down. Chet looked strung out, but then, everyone did these days; wide-eyed and tense and constantly looking over their shoulders. “I’m fine. SSDD, y’know?”

“Always. Work OK?”

“I repeat; same shit, different day. Round and round.” Jesse thought about the office, where he spent six days a week composing public health information in a cubicle not much smaller than his apartment. Gray walls, fluorescent lights, and gray people in cubicles next to him typing up similar releases, many of them no longer even stepping out for lunch anymore. He couldn’t even remember the name of the guy who worked next to him, who he said hi to every morning. Bill? Bob?

“I hear you. I’ve been the same. Just chugging along until Sunday. Thought I’d go to the movies after church. What do you think?”

“Mm, I don’t know. Maybe. I’m still working on my book.”

Chet snorted laughter, his face twisting in a bemused smirk. “No one reads anymore, bro.”

“I beg to differ. If there are still people writing, there are still people reading.” Jesse glanced at the pile of paper to his right and sighed. “Not that they’re paying for it.”

“Exactly. You should get into something they’d pay for. The story of Sari’s latest breakdown, for instance. Or Todd Simms’s latest marriage. That celeb stuff is what sells.”

Jesse shook his head, taking a drag on his cigarette. “Fluff shit, man. I want to do something important.”

“OK, OK. Then don’t bitch when you give it away.”

“Mm.” Jesse looked around his apartment, as dingy and gray as his workplace, his cat sitting on the dresser by the alarm clock, twisting its tail and ignoring him in favor of a roach scuttling over the wallpaper. “I need a change of scenery.”

“There’s the movies this Sunday. Or go visit your mom.”

Jesse shook his head again, a twinge of pain going through his heart. “She’s dead, Chet.”

Chet’s mouth dropped open and his eyes widened. “Shit, I’m sorry! I didn’t know—Christ, it’s been too long since we talked. Did she—was she—”

“No, no, not that. She had a stroke. Six months ago.” Jesse sniffed, swallowing hard and picking up the phone, putting it to his ear so that his friend couldn’t see his face.

“God. I’m sorry, Jess.” Jesse heard a deep sigh in his ear. “Anyway, if you decide you want to see something, call me Sunday.”

“Sure. Stay safe.”

Jesse managed to get another two pages done before a call of nature forced him to the bathroom. Sitting there, he unfolded a local newspaper he’d found on the subway, glancing through the stories about restaurants and recent kills and murders and local hunters and religious services. It made him think of the ride that morning to work, surrounded by people reading papers just like this one and staring at their tablets and phones while posters screaming SEVENTEEN SECONDS and OBEY THE SIRENS and KNOW THE RULES loomed over their heads, slapped on the gray walls. SS, DD, over and over again, getting up and sitting here and then showering and having toast and riding to work and then home again, home again, being sure to get in before the siren went off, feeding Spot and himself and typing up the novel until time to shit and sleep. Round and round and round we go, where we stop I sure as hell don’t know.

Ten-fourteen. He’d better get to bed.


His phone went off at three-forty-nine that morning, startling him out of a dream. At first he thought it was the alarm, but then he recognized his ringtone. His heart sped up, and he picked it up to see a vaguely familiar number, audio only. Somebody he used to know, but he couldn’t quite remember.

“Yeah, Jesse here.” He stifled a yawn, and then before she spoke the memory flooded over him in a cold wave, causing him to sit up straight. The lake at midnight, cool in the summer’s heat on their bodies. A chill shivered down his spine.

“Jesse, hi! I’m sorry, I know I woke you up, but I had to call. It’s been so long, and I’ve been so lonely.”

“Amy.” Her name still sounded like a flower on his tongue, soft and delicate, easily bruised. “I can’t…how long has it been?”

“Well, you know. Since…before.”

Before. What images that word still evoked. Before, when life was free and easy and you could stay out late and drink and go to clubs and dance and drive home unworried about anything except drunk drivers. Before. What was it, five years now? Five years and a million light years away.

“I couldn’t sleep, and I thought of you. I needed to talk to someone who’d understand.”

“Yeah, sure.” Jesse clicked on the light by the bedside, startling Spot into jumping down on the floor, stalking away with an arched back. He slid naked out of bed and grabbed his pack of cigarettes, listening to Amy as he sat down at his desk and lit one.

“It’s just…I was thinking of you, and how nice it was. Remember when we used to go out dancing?”

“Yeah. I was just thinking about that.” She’d had all the right moves. He pictured her in her black dress at Fifty-First, her long blond hair done up in a French braid, laughing and teasing him with her eyes as she swayed to the music. Ah, Christ, it had been fun. “You were a great dancer.”

“I still dance, sometimes, in front of the mirror. And Sunday afternoons sometimes I go down to one of the clubs. But it’s not the same.”

“No.” His heart stung at their loss. The world’s loss.

“We used to stay in bed all weekend and make love over and over. I really miss that.”

“Yeah,” Jesse croaked, his penis stirring at this memory. “I shouldn’t…it was my fault. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“No, it was me, too. I wanted to say I was sorry, but I waited too long. And then, after, I was too depressed to call…Jesse, I’m so sorry.”

“Me too.” His mind was still on snuggling with her in soft sheets, her warm body pressed next to his. His erection became more insistent, and he shifted in his chair, taking a drag and exhaling slowly.

“We had so many good times together. Like at the lake.”

“Oh, God, yeah. “ That night had been almost magic. They’d driven way out in the country, to this little place he’d remembered from childhood, and the moon had been full and the lake had been gorgeous in its light. They’d stripped and dived in, shrieking at the lake’s chill but then feeling the relief from the summer heat and playing like otters, splashing each other and laughing, relishing the smoothness of the water gliding over their skin. Amy had come out and stood on the shore watching him, silhouetted in the moonlight, her face in shadow but the light silver on her breasts and stomach, almost making the water droplets on her skin shimmer. He’d come out and embraced her, and they’d made love on the shore.

“I wish we could go back.” Amy choked, and he heard a sob in her next words. “I wish I were with you now, Jess.”

“I wish you were too,” he said without thinking. The phone light winked out, and he yelled, “Oh, FUCK!”, bolting from the chair, dropping his cigarette and lunging at his bedside table for the crucifix which always rested there (Rule Three), cursing himself for a fucking fool because he’d broken one of the most important rules of all, Rule Two, never, EVER invite anyone over after sunset, and as he turned to the door he knew it was too late, because the mist was drifting beneath the crack and coalescing into Amy standing taller than he remembered, her hair down and flowing over her shoulders, her face still in shadow as at the lake but her eyes glowing red like coals, her fangs glinting just like on the SEVENTEEN SECONDS poster.

Jesse held up the cross, the silver cool against his sweaty palm. Amy stopped in her tracks and bared her teeth at him. They began circling the room as Jesse tried to think what to do, feeling horribly exposed and damning himself for not wearing pajamas. Maybe that should be one of the Rules: Always protect your balls in case of a vampire attack. He heard Spot hiss from beneath his bed, where he’d taken cover.

“You know, technically, I didn’t invite you,” he said, inching around. If only he had some holy water (Rule Five). He’d been a cheapskate, thinking that nobody except an idiot would need holy water if he just followed Rules One and Two. Well, here was the idiot. He kept his eyes on her chest, not because he was turned on (he no longer was) but obeying Rule Six: If attacked, do not look the vampire in the eyes.

Amy circled with him, keeping well back from his crucifix. “It was implicit.”

“We could debate that.” His heart pounded, and he wondered if he was going to hyperventilate. The sharp tang of smoke filled his nostrils, and he glanced over at the desk to see the smoldering cigarette butt lying atop his unfinished novel. As if in response, it began to catch, flames crackling in an orange circle lined with black.

“There’s no use in resisting, Jesse,” Amy said, her every move mirroring his, her voice now emotionless. “Your icon won’t hold me back forever. Let me do it. I’ll be quick.”

“Seventeen seconds.” Jesse knew exactly how long it took for a vampire to drain your blood and turn you. Hadn’t he typed out enough copy for the government?

“That’s right. Would you rather die in the fire?”

He glanced back at the desk, drawing in his breath. Any minute now, the wooden surface would start to burn. The smoke had grown thicker, turning the room hazy, and he coughed.

“Come, Jesse.” Amy smiled, holding out her arms. “Let’s end this. Toss that aside, and be mine.”

“Remember the lake?” Jesse said, stopping at the edge of the kitchen. Did he even have any spices? He couldn’t think.

Amy froze, and although he didn’t dare look at her eyes, her smile vanished in what looked like a pensive frown.

“We swam for hours,” Jesse went on, inching over the linoleum toward the cabinets, keeping the crucifix in front of him. “The water felt so good, with that heat. I remember how gorgeous you looked in the moonlight, when you got out.” She’d been almost as beautiful as she was now, but more human, laughing on the shore, both of them thrilled with the beauty and safety of the night. Now, five years later, all he had was a dead-end job, gray days and long subway rides, and a novel now turning to ashes.

“You know what?” he said, halting beside the cabinets and staring down at the crucifix. Jesus’s body shone faintly in the almost total darkness, like Amy’s body had shone that night. “You’re right. Fuck it. Let’s do this.” He flung it away, hearing it crash and Spot wail, dashing from under the bed to the other side of the room.

“Seventeen seconds,” he went on, coughing again and lifting his chin, his nostrils tingling from the smoke. “Come on. Then we can be together.”

To his surprise, Amy didn’t move, remaining silent. She drew back her arms, and then said, “I remember watching you swim. You looked so handsome.”

Jesse knew he shouldn’t, but he had to; he glanced quickly at Amy’s face. Her eyelids drooped, and he almost thought he saw a tear there.

“Do you know what it’s like to be a vampire?” Amy went on, measuring her words. “Every night, you go out and look for victims. And they’re harder and harder to find, because everyone’s locked in, with garlic around their windows and doors and their icons ready in case of an accident. And no one ever invites you in. You have to find drunks and drug addicts, and it gets harder and harder. And it never changes. Night after night, the same thing.”

Was that another catch in her voice? Jesse thought so. Then Amy shook her head.

“I can’t do this to you. I remember the lake. I want it back.”

Flames roared up between them, snapping and crackling, and Jesse knew he had to do something or become barbecue. He flung the cabinet open, pawing through the spices, and grabbed a bottle, flicking the top up and flinging the garlic at Amy (Rule Four). She hissed, like Spot, and vanished into nothingness.

Jesse clutched the faucet and spun it, water thundering into the sink. He seized the spray hose and aimed it at the flames, dousing them long enough to grab a dishtowel and beat out the remainder. At last it was out, his book a charred, soggy mess beside his seared typewriter, and he slid down to the floor, coughing hard, his hand reaching out and finding the icon and curling protectively around it. Spot crept forward and joined him, licking his palm and mewing.


When the sun rose and the all-clear siren sounded, Jesse packed up what few clothes he had and left, carrying Spot in his carrier, the abandoned typewriter and soot-smeared kitchen untouched. He couldn’t change the Rules, or bring back the night. But he could still do something about the day.


I wrote this for an online contest a few years ago, following a video prompt. The judge liked it. Hope you do too.

Here’s a video link for those interested: