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Die Next
Author: Jonathan Stone

1.

 

At a crowded downtown GreenGirl Coffee, Zack threads his way through tables of patrons in their own little worlds. Hunched over laptops, earbuds in, Times or Journal or work files spread out around them, checking their smartphones obsessively.

Zack finds an empty stool at the counter by the window and sets down his muffin and his Americano Grande. The cute Latina barista had flirted with him a little as she took his order. “I’m calling you Red,” she said with an impish smile, writing it on his cup before he could give his actual name. No mystery there. His wildly curly red hair. His calling card all his life. Along with a warm, unguarded smile, which he deploys at the barista in return.

Zack takes a deep sip and looks out, waiting for his pal Steve, due in about twenty minutes.

Snippets of conversation rise above the GreenGirl din. A girl behind him gushing to her friend about her date last night. Two bearded techies discussing coding—like switching between English and a foreign language. Zack watches the businessman on the stool next to his dialing his cell phone to make a call and then turning his back to keep the conversation private.

When the businessman ends his brief call and sets his phone down by his newspaper, Zack sees that he has the same phone Zack does. A black iPhone. Same gray cover. Thousands in this city, Zack figures. He double-checks his own phone, there on the counter next to him, and sees no new texts while he sugars his coffee a little more, puts his napkin in his lap, and breaks his muffin in two.

He digs in. Mmmm. He’s soon so deep into its cranberries and chocolate chips—a surprisingly tasty combo the barista had persuaded him to try—he is barely aware of the businessman slipping out, but he does notice and welcome the sudden extra space on the counter beside him to spread out a little himself.

He reaches to shift his iPhone over.

It’s not there.

He looks where the businessman was sitting. The businessman’s iPhone is still on the counter.

Christ! No! Guy took the wrong phone!

Zack jumps up and runs to the door to try to catch the businessman. No one there.

He looks back. His muffin is on the floor, knocked over when he jumped up.

He goes back to the counter and picks up the guy’s iPhone. Yeah. Identical to his.

But without the guy’s four-digit password, this one’s pretty useless.

Except for one thing. One crazy, ridiculous thing.

He knows the guy’s four-digit code.

Jesus. He knows the guy’s code!

Because Zack happened to see him enter it when he made his call.

2 5 8 0

Because at that moment, seeing him stab in the code and being kind of a numbers guy, Zack had the passing thought that it’s the only four-digit all-number code you can enter in a straight line down. He’d had the thought—vague, passing—that maybe the guy couldn’t remember numbers? Had cognitive issues? So that’s what you’d do, just make it visual, a row going straight down.

Zack wouldn’t have caught the code otherwise. He’d thought no more about it because it wasn’t his phone.

But now, temporarily, maybe it is.

The businessman, wherever he’s heading, is getting farther away from the GreenGirl every second.

Straight down, Zack thinks.

He punches in each digit.

2

5

8

0

He’s suddenly looking at the home screen.

All those familiar colorful icons.

Holy shit. I’m in!

He’s giddy.

A flush of victory.

Only for a moment.

Zack takes a deep breath. He dials his own phone. Luckily you don’t need a passcode to answer a phone; if the businessman hears it ring, he can just swipe and talk.

“Hello?”

All right!

Zack can tell by the quick answer. The guy doesn’t yet realize it’s not his phone.

“Hello, sir, my name is Zack Yellin…Uh, were you just at the GreenGirl at Cross Street?”

The businessman is silent. Careful. Then, “Do I know you?”

“Sir, we swapped phones. By mistake. You’ve got mine, and I’ve got yours.”

Silence. A pause. The businessman obviously trying to process this. Maybe holding Zack’s phone out in front of him to look at it, seeing it’s indeed identical. “But…you’re not calling from my phone, are you?” the businessman asks. Still confused. “You’d…you’d have to know my code.”

Zack feels a flash of shame. The impulse to hide. To simply hang up right now.

He sees no alternative but to tell him.

“Look, sir, I…” No way around it. “I happened to see you enter it.” He doesn’t say how dumb it is to use that code. How easy to see. Or all his passing thoughts about cognitive issues, memory problems, or just the arrogance, the sense of invulnerability, in using that code. Zack keeps all that to himself.

More silence on the other end. Alarm? Fury at being spied on? A silence Zack feels compelled to jump into, to push past the moment. “But…look…I mean, now we can each get our phones back, right? Sir, I’m still at the GreenGirl. I can come meet you with it somewhere if that helps—”

The businessman cuts Zack off. “No. Stay there. I can be back there in…twenty minutes. Maybe less.”

“I can wait. No problem.”

“Just sit tight,” says the guy. Kind of aggressively, Zack notices. Then, sounding suddenly a little warmer and more appreciative—or at least trying to be—“And, hey, if I get delayed or have some problem, what’s your code so I can call you?”

Zack pauses for a moment. But what’s really on his phone that’s so private or important? Goofy texts from his new girlfriend and his old pals. Dumb pictures of him and his friends you can see on Facebook anyway. Nothing so special. And they’ve got each other’s phones anyway. It’s a moment of human trust, of common humanity, human connection. Each other’s phones, each other’s private lives, that they’re returning to each other in twenty minutes. The guy is just some straight-laced New York businessman, after all, who only wants to get his phone back.

So Zack gives his own code. “Oh, and hey, what’s your name?” Zack asks.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. See you soon.”

Click.

 

 

So Zack has about twenty minutes to cool his heels before the businessman gets back to the GreenGirl. No big deal. He’s waiting for Steve anyway. Who’s always late.

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