Marco De Stefani. Supply chain specialist in an important engineering company in the Turin hinterland. Married to Paola, his love from his university days. Two sons: Pietro and Sofia, nine and seven years old. Nothing else to say, except that he was late again. The usual emergency at the office. Emergency: a term whose literal meaning, at least in the company where he worked, was substantially detached from the universally shared one. Who knows, sooner or later perhaps they would adapt the dictionaries as well, inserting a specific definition: “a term used in working environments directed by people without a life, to justify to themselves and their subordinates the continuation of work well beyond the established hours; by extension, equating any work practice – even better one of little added value – to saving lives.”
Marco parked his car not far from the front door, along the street lit by old streetlamps’ yellowish light, turned off the lights and engine, and remained motionless for a moment. He looked at the hands of the watch he wore on his wrist: 11:27 p.m. Another day without Paola; without Pietro, without Sofia. He thought about all the nights he was late and all the weekends he had to work. He had tried to explain it to Paola: it wasn’t easy to get out of the tunnel. Probably the only solution would have been to look for another job, but he was not a kid anymore, and there was not exactly a queue waiting for him out there.
He did not know whether fatigue or melancholy had taken over, but he was overwhelmed by a sense of dizziness. He felt a stab in his chest and his breath seemed to fail.
“I just want to go to bed,” he whispered, leaning his head back. “It’s Friday: I just want to sleep, wake up without these thoughts, and spend the weekend with Paola and the kids.”
He closed his eyes and bent his head forward until it leaned against the steering wheel. He had no idea how long it had been when he heard the voice behind him.
“It’s time to go.”
Marco jumped, sat sideways with his back against the door, and looked towards the back seat. In the opposite corner from him, there was a little girl. Six or seven years old, perhaps eight, black hair and a white dress with flowers, which looked red in the dim light of the streetlamps.
“How did you get up here?” asked Marco, checking with his eyes that the doors were still locked.
The little girl smiled. “I don’t need doors; or invitations.”
Marco dismissed the thrill running down his spine. “Who are you?” he asked again.
“My name wouldn’t tell you anything. Nor does it matter. It’s time to go.”
“What do you mean it’s time to go?” Instinctively Marco lifted his wrist and looked at the hands of the watch: 11:27 p.m. “Go where?” he asked, almost dreading the answer he might receive. The little girl smiled.
Marco turned around and plunged into the seat, giving her his back. He stared at the clock again: 11:27 p.m.
“Who are you?” he pressed with little conviction, without turning back.
“You’re a bit repetitive, you know? Please take a moment. I am in no hurry. I am everywhere, at all times.”
Marco stared at the void beyond the windshield. Then his gaze returned to the clock: still 11:27 p.m.
“You can keep looking at it as long as you want,” continued the girl. “The time won’t change.”
“You’re just a child…” whispered Marco, as if to reassure himself.
“Are you judging me by the way I look? You did not seem like the type. Would you be more comfortable if I wore a black robe and hood? Perhaps you would also like a scythe. For choreographic purposes only, don’t worry.”
“Yeah, all right. Cool joke. Are you filming with your phone? Is there anybody else out here?” he blurted out, looking around. The little girl lifted her eyes to the sky. “Enough, this game has gone on long enough!” raved Marco, opening the door and getting out of the car. “And you get out too, come on!” he declared, turning towards the car; the door was still closed? Which, through the driver’s side window, allowed a glimpse of a man slumped over the steering wheel.
“It’s not easy to accept, I know,” the little girl’s voice echoed behind him. “That’s why I’m here.”
Marco did not react at all. He simply continued to contemplate himself through the window.
“How did it happen?” he muttered, after what could have been an instant or a lifetime.
“I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. You collapsed on the steering wheel and just slumped there. I couldn’t tell much else.”
“How could you not know? If you don’t know who the hell would know?”
“I already told you, I’m not a doctor. And to answer your next question: I am not the one who chooses. Although I do not deny, I would not mind, sometimes. I merely accompany.”
“You’ll find out once we get there.”
Marco remained silent, still staring at himself, lying on the steering wheel.
“Are you worried?” asked the little girl.
“No. I’m bitter. I suppose my life can be summed up in that word. Paola and I had a fight tonight when I told her I would be late again; she hung up the phone without even saying goodbye. And I have not seen Pietro and Sofia all day. I left while they were still asleep, and I did not even get home in time to put them to bed. I am bitter and angry because I spent my last evening in the office and not with them. Like almost every other night. I should have left; I should have gone home!” The little girl listened in silence. “It can’t be over,” continued Marco. “Not like this. There are so many things I thought, sooner or later, I’d find time to do.”
“Are you sorry for the time you took from yourself?”
“No. I’m sorry for the time I didn’t devote to them.” Marco turned his eyes to the ground. “Can I at least go up and say goodbye to them?” he then asked, as he turned towards home.
“I’m sorry, it’s not allowed. They wouldn’t hear you anyway.”
“But what about all those things you see in the movies? Talking to them while they sleep, touching them with a caress?”
“Nonsense, that’s not how it works. Your time here is over. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t understand. I do not want to see them one last time. I must see them one last time.”
“You’re not very original. Give my wife one last kiss, hug my kids one more time…”
“Don’t take it out on me. I’m not the one who wasted their time.”
“But, I thought I’d be able to find the time, one day.”
“Everyone thinks so. Except that day was yesterday. I am sorry, but tomorrow no longer exists.” The little girl reached out her hand to Marco. “Come with me,” she said.
Marco turned towards home again. Then back to the little girl. Then home again. He did not need to open doors or climb stairs. He found himself directly in his room.
“My love, I’m sorry,” he whispered to Paola, lying in bed, touching her cheek with a hand that did not perceive or transmit anything.
“She can’t hear you, I told you. Nor can you touch her.” He heard the little girl’s voice behind him.
One blink of an eye and Marco was in Pietro and Sofia’s room. He knelt between the two beds. “I’m home, my little ones. Daddy’s home,” he whispered, without even trying to hold back his tears.
“It’s pointless; you’re only hurting yourself. Which is why it’s not allowed.”
The tolling of a bell was heard in the distance. Bong…
“Come with me,” said the little girl. “We really have to go now.”
Marco slowly lifted himself and laid an intangible kiss on Pietro’s forehead first and then Sofia’s.
“I’m sorry, my pets. I’m sorry,” he murmured through the sobs.
Then he turned to the little girl. He took the hand that she offered him, and immediately they were on the sidewalk beside the car. One last look at himself through the car window, then they set off slowly as the bell tolled closer and closer. Bong…
“So, where are we going?” asked Marco, trying to regain a glimmer of self-control. “Can you tell me?”
“I told you, I don’t know. But does anyone know, after all?” Bong…
“It’s different for everyone,” continued the little girl. Then she moved her lips again, but the ringing of the bell became deafening, and Marco could not distinguish the words.
“What?” asked Marco, covering his ears with his hands at the same time. “Where are we going?” he shouted as the bell’s chimes overcame each sound, and a tremor shook the sidewalk. “Where are you taking me?” Bong… Bong… Bong…
Marco opened his eyes and lifted his head off the wheel. On the passenger seat, the company phone vibrated and simultaneously emitted a sampled ringing of bells, a ringtone that Marco had found very amusing to associate with his wife’s number. The sunlight blinded him for an instant. Bong…
The ringtone, the mobile phone: it was Paola. Marco turned around and rejoiced at the emptiness in the back seat, then greeted the dawn through the windscreen. He lifted his wrist and looked at the watch: 6:53 a.m. He burst out laughing. And he laughed like he could not remember ever having laughed before.
“I’m coming, my love! Pietro, Sofia, Daddy’s coming!” Bong…
“I’m coming. I’m right downstairs!” said Marco, finally answering the phone. “I fell asleep in the car after I parked. I’ll be right there, and I’ll tell you all about it!”
Then he got out of the car and ran as fast as he could, continuing to laugh, without even bothering to close the car door. He opened the front door, went through it, and let it slam behind him without looking back. He did not notice the little girl who, peeping from the corner of a nearby building, had meanwhile been watching him in secret— a little girl about six or seven years old, perhaps eight; black hair and a white dress with flowers, which in the light of dawn shone a bright red.
“We have arrived,” she murmured with a smile. Then she leaped away.
Loredano Cafaro lives in the hills of Turin, Italy, with his wife and two children. In the little free time left to him by his work as a computer scientist, every now and then he imagines stories. Sometimes he writes them down.