Timeliness, and the Importance of Timing

“At three thirty-seven tomorrow, I’m going to get attacked by a dragon, and I need you to save me.”

The words were so strange that they actually managed to draw me out of my book.

I looked at Cliff and blinked a few times. As if I might wipe away the serious look on his face. As if I might blink, and he’d stop giving me that look that asked for promises.

But it didn’t work.

“What?” I asked.

He nodded, then repeated the statement.

“Tomorrow, at three thirty-seven, I’m going to get attacked by a dragon. I need you to save me.”

“…you’re joking.”

He didn’t have to say it because it was written plainly, all over his face.

He wasn’t.

Cliff Harbor was known for his foresight. Once, when we were in first grade, he told me our teacher would be absent half the year. I didn’t really give it much thought when he told me, but, come the end of the second semester, our teacher informed us she was going on medical leave.

I still didn’t think much of it then.

What good is foresight to a kid? None. Absolutely none. He’d tell me things, and I’d nod along like I cared, and then they’d happen and I’d just nod again. Not surprised, not unsurprised, just kind of… drifting. Accepting all his little predictions, not paying them much attention.

Not until seventh grade.

In seventh grade, he told me my neighbors dog would crawl up under our porch and die there. That we’d find him in three days. Go looking, but only because of the smell.

I didn’t believe him that time. Didn’t want to. I liked Mutt, a whole awful lot. He was one of my favorite dogs.

He went missing.

But still, I didn’t say anything. Didn’t want Cliff to be right.

After three days, my dad finally crawled under the porch.

I started paying attention after that.

When Cliff made predictions, I would still nod. Still acknowledge.

But I believed.

And I watched.

And never once had Cliff been wrong. Never once had he been off, or been joking.

Everything Cliff said came true.

So when he told me about the dragon, I was only a little skeptical.

“Dragon’s aren’t real Cliff,” I explained plainly.

“Neither is foresight.”

We shot off into a staring contest. Not unusual for us. It was more of a way for us to understand each other, more than anything. There were subtle details hidden in Cliff’s face that gave physical shape to his thoughts. That disclosed the feelings that were building in his mind.

I suppose I was the same way.

Either that or Cliff just participated for my sake.

That could be true, too.

After a moment, I sighed. “Okay, fine. Where are you going to be tomorrow at three thirty?”

“Three thirty-seven,” he corrected.

Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I conceded. “Fine, okay, three thirty-seven then—where will you be?”

He drummed his fingers on the table. It wasn’t that loud in the coffee shop. Not a noticeable sound at all.

But it was quite loud to me.

Cliff was searching. Sifting through whatever murky mist brought him images of the future. Diving deeper into the waters that showed what was to come.

“Someplace dark.”

“That’s all you got?”

He nodded. “Unfortunately.”

I yawned. “Well, I’ll just have to tail you then, won’t I? Don’t leave your house without me tomorrow.”

“Right.”

“By the way, what should I bring? To defeat the dragon or slay it or whatever.”

“Good question,” he said, face earnest, meaning it with all his heart.

His leg bounced and his focus shifted once more.

“Either a rifle, an ax, or a machete. The sword above the mantle at your place would do, too.”

I sighed.

Of course, it couldn’t have been something easier to cart around like mace, or garlic or something. No, of course not. This dragon wanted to be killed in a flashy or extremely aesthetic way.

Just my luck.

“I’ll bring the sword. We can say we’re going to get it appraised,” I decided. I’d have liked to have the rifle, but that was way too alarming.

Brightening up, Cliff added, “Or! We could say we’re going to a medieval fair!”

I gave him a droll stare. “The medieval fair isn’t until October Cliff.”

“Oh, right.”

I laughed cone. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then. We should meet up before you leave the house, so text me and let me know when you’re thinking about going out. Or, I’ll just show up at some point. Either way.”

He nodded. “Sounds good.”

Before I could walk away, he reached out and grabbed my hand.

When I turned to look at him, his face was earnest again. I could see the worry lines on his forehead, and how that open expression was keeping them at bay.

Dang.

Cliff was… kind of scared.

After just a moment, he let out a sigh and said, “Thank you.”

It wasn’t very like me, but I patted his hand, doing my best to be comforting. “Anytime Cliff.”

He smiled and relaxed, dropping my hand.

We didn’t see each other for the rest of the day. I went home and went to bed, and then, when I woke up the next day, I waited for his text.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Finally, around two-thirty, I was getting too antsy. Why hadn’t Cliff called yet? Why hadn’t he texted me? Where was he? What was he doing?

I’d had enough.

Grabbing my sword, I went over to his house.

And I was shocked.

Police tape ran along the side of the street, firemen were busy rummaging through the wreckage. Cliff’s parents were standing off to the side, his dad looking dire and his mom shoveling out tears.

Oh…

Oh no…

I glanced at the time.

It wasn’t even three yet.

Then how…?

I didn’t notice the reporter until I heard her speak.

“Last night sometime around three thirty in the morning, a fire broke out in the Harbor household…”

Oh…

Oh hell.

It wasn’t three thirty-seven in the afternoon.

It was three thirty-seven in the morning.

Oh no.

Despair set in like a cold. I could feel myself getting feverish, start to shake. My insides felt like they were boiling, burning up. Cinders and ash filled my head as I looked at the fire.

Cliff…

I failed him.

And now he was…

Unable to look at his house anymore—a grim reminder that I wasn’t there when I needed to be—I found my eyes lined up with the mailbox.

The flag was up.

Only, it wasn’t the red flag for the post man.

It was the white flag, the one he installed for me.

A secret code:

Cliff had a message for me.

I charged over to the mailbox, pushing through the crowd easily. Determined.

When I reached the mailbox, I put the flag down.

The hatch at the bottom opened up. The secret compartment that was for Cliff and I, and only Cliff and I.

There was a note inside.

Wrapped up in a tiny envelope.

Impatient as ever, I tore through the damn thing. Brought the letter out, and was graced with Cliff’s atrocious handwriting.

And his message.

Misunderstood. Sorry. There’s still a chance. Today, at five eighteen, be at the lake, near the sunken school house. When the light flashes, jump in. 

Oh, yeah:

You’ll want to bring the rifle this time.

The clumsily written note was signed with his scratch work hand.

The lake was an hour away.

Without even thinking twice, I ran from the scene. Ran away from the burnt house and his crying parents. Ran away from the firemen and the cameras. Ran back home to grab my rifle. Ran to get to the lake on time.

Dragon or no dragon, real or not, I believed Cliff.

And I was going to save him.

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