Ultimately, all this was his fault to begin with.
As stunning as he was on canvas, technology had never been a close friend of Phineas Barnum. Handling a smartphone was something he would have liked to avoid entirely, but given the circumstances, all this had been unavoidable from the moment his plane touched down on American soil. He remembered it clearly: right as their bags were being hoisted from the carousel, Lettie – his publicist and trusted confidante – had unceremoniously shoved a weighty, cold rectangle into his hands.
<It’s your first time out of the country for something this big,> she had signed to him proudly after Phineas had briefly inspected the smartphone. <It has internet, GPS, everything. Also if you get lost, I’m right there on speed-dial.>
<But Lettie, I really don’t think I need this,> Phineas had signed back with his free hand, with much difficulty might he add. <If I get lost, I could just ask someone for help and all I’d need is a pen and paper.>
But Lettie was having none of it, then launching into a very maternal lecture on the reliability of cellphone technology, how he probably should start building his online profile, and to ‘get with the times’ or risk falling behind. To be fair, all these concepts were incredibly foreign to him, but PT - being a creature of trust - eventually found himself nodding in agreement and pocketing the phone without further rebuttal. Also, it was hard to sign to her while managing the slippery thing in his hand.
That was this morning.
Now, surely enough, ten hours and one cracked screen later, Phineas found himself nervously wandering, completely lost, in a very unfamiliar part of town.
‘In all honesty, Lettie,’ he thought as he watched the battery drain from his phone. ‘If this is what a fall can do to a screen, I feel that pen and paper may still be very relevant.’ Convinced, the dimming display then chose that exact moment to flicker once, twice and then die out completely.
Cutting off all communication he had with his team.
And leaving Barnum incredulously and utterly stranded on the unforgivably cold streets of New York.
A mile away, the screech of tyres sliced through the night; the yellow cab they belonged to skidding to heart-stopping halts at traffic lights and sliding dangerously across the icy roads.
The driver was but a young man, which was the first thing Bennet had cautiously noted when he entered the car. Unnervingly, the bright, laminated eyes of “Phillip Carlyle” had stared back at him from his profile on the dashboard, sending a wave of panic of having someone so young drive him back at one o’ clock in the morning. But before he had been able to give some shoddy excuse of having called for another cab, the doors were already safety-locked, the two of them speeding off into the night.
It was only at what seemed to be the fifteenth traffic light, when the bespectacled man gathered enough poise to open his mouth, a complaint already going through final redrafts in his head, “Excuse me, excuse me .” The acrylic separating driver and passenger was obnoxiously tapped. “Don’t you think you’re going too—”
“ Fast? ” Carlyle finishes with a chaste glare through the rearview mirror. Bennet couldn’t help but flinch. “Now look here, buddy. Before you say any more, I’d just like you to run me through a few things that happened tonight:”
Both parties were then jerked to the right as the taxi took a hard left around a corner.
“Tell me exactly who was it that got so rat-assed drunk, they ended up on the wrong side of the road, hmm?” the driver snapped, a complete juxtaposition to the bright blue eyes on the dashboard. “And then remind me again who was it that got that ridiculously large car ,” his accent spat the word ‘car’ out like a swear. “Sliding on all that ice and practically totalled the thing at Fifth Avenue.”
The older man inhaled deeply - in probably shame - as the Phillip continued his onslaught.
“And not only were you stranded in the middle of practically nowhere , but your hotel is what? Ten miles away?” At that, the car was shifted to a gear that really should not be used for cold roads and Bennet was bracing himself against the pleather cushions again. “And to top it all off, tell me exactly, who was it that dented Anne here without so much of a ‘sorry’?”
Bennet faltered, absolutely stunned by his words.
“ Well? ”
“You call your car… Anne ?”
Phillip grimaced. “That’s besides the point. The point is that the meter’s not on, my taxi’s occupied and I’m running on what you suits call ‘unpaid overtime’, all to make sure you get back safe.”
Phillip drew in a deep breath.
“I’m already kickin’ myself here for not calling the cops. When I saw you, I thought to myself ‘Hey it’s Christmas so why not do this poor guy a solid by not suing for damages and just makin’ sure he doesn’t wind up – oh, I don’t know – robbed or frozen in a dumpster tomorrow?’”
Another glance to the backseat. “So with all due respect, sir, would it kill you to show some appreciation and hold off any comments about my driving? Really, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Because if your totalled Merc was anything to go by, you really don’t.”
At this Bennet could only stare wordlessly at the back of Phillip’s head, the remainder of the journey taking on a silent tone. The timing was impeccable too, because after swerving around three more corners, the unlikely pair finally came to a screeching halt at the front doors of his hotel.
“Merry Christmas,” Phillip greeted tiredly, his hand still firmly on the wheel and not even turning around when Bennet exited his car on wobbling legs. As if on cue, a very concerned bellhop came shuffling out from the regal glass doors, gloved hands offering to take the man’s coat. Begrudgingly, it was at this moment that Bennet offered the simplest of nods and a barely audible “thank you” to Phillip, soon unceremoniously drowned out by the rev of the taxi’s engine.
And just like that, he sped off unapologetically into the night, red headlights a blinding beacon in the city that never sleeps.
Right, so I’m lost.
It was only when Barnum found himself in the middle of yet another unfamiliar junction that he finally accepted his fate. It was all so overwhelming, how the city seemed to be made of nothing but concrete mazes.
In a direct contrast to the city center, everything was so dead and lifeless here, with no signs of movement as far as the eye can see. Even after wandering around for what seemed like hours, he had not come across a single car. Which was probably why he had so carelessly crossed the street without bothering to look both ways.
And before he knew it, all he could see were stars, his back enveloped with a sensation that was so incredibly cold .
Phineas vaguely wondered whether this was what it feels like to die.
Without hesitation, Phillip’s hand grappled along the wall of his car in a desperate, blind search for the handle.
Oh shit. Oh shit ohshitohshit.
The ghost of his handbrake was still throbbing in his palm as he fumbled with the outline of his door. Upon hearing the characteristic ‘click’, it was immediately swung open, the cab driver squinting his eyes through the sting of winter air. Stepping out onto melted ice, Carlye slipped once, twice, and stumbled the rest of the way to the man sprawled across his hood.
Upon first inspection, there was no blood - a good sign - and just as he was about to flip him over, Phillip found himself vaguely recalling a safety video convincing him otherwise. Faltering, he then sidestepped around his car, trying to get a better look at the man. No good. His face was completely obscured by a mess of black hair, and the thick scarf did not help at all. Phillip sighed. He really didn’t want to fish through his wallet for an ID.
As if the moral ambiguity of the situation wasn’t already painfully skewed - it was undeniable that he had committed some sort of crime by running over a stranger - the very obnoxious shade of taxi yellow contrasting with the limp body did little to lessen the effect.
What if he’s dead? the disturbing thought entered his mind.
“H-Hey,” Phillip called out to the mess of trenchcoat and trousers, hastily trying to keep thoughts more optimistic. “Are you alright? I’m so sorry. I didn’t think you’d cross the road like that.”
“Hello?” he attempted again.
Suddenly, an odd sound came from the man, catching Phillip off-guard. It was soft and muffled, almost like a whine. Then, the injured man began to groan and from the sound of it, from very, very deep pain.
“Hey,” Phillip called out, a little louder this time. His hand was still trembling from shock but he reached to him all the same, eyebrows knitted in concern. “Do you want me to call the hospital?”
No answer from him. Only the soft sounds of him trying to control his voice.
Suddenly, the man’s breath began to shake, his breathing growing more and more shallow, as if he had just realised what had happened and the full intensity of his injuries were only registering now. This didn’t really help the worry that was rapidly flaring up in Phillip’s chest. As if possessed, the man then shot up into a sitting position, scrambling on top of his slippery car, only to slide off the damp surface and tumble onto the pavement below.
The heavy breathing continued and Phillip launched into action, lunging back into his car to pluck a blanket from the passenger seat.
“H-Hey are you alright?” he called out again, flipping out the blanket and draping it over the man’s shoulders. He knelt down so that they were on equal eye level, resting a placating hand on the stranger’s shoulder. He empathised, recalling a more innocent time when he was still in high school, and found himself on his back after a particularly bad schoolyard brawl. The pain was always the worse when it came all at once.
The man then chose that moment to look up at him for the first time and Phillip felt himself falter.
The stranger had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. Clear, pensive, as if he could see right into his very soul.
Carlyle felt uncomfortable from the feeling of vulnerability that had started surfacing the longer he looked.
It was as if he could see right through him.
A moment passed, and then two, and the stillness that followed seemed to calm nameless man and Carlyle as well.
He would need to break the silence though.
“Are you alright?” as much as he hadn’t want to, Phillip was the first to speak after that small moment. Even with the two of them being in an inactive part of town, he didn’t want to spend too long out in the open like this. If not a random mugger, the cold might get them before sunrise.
If he could somehow corral this man into his car, he would be able to drive him to the nearest hospital.
But the man still refused to speak, having simply stared at Carlyle the entire time. At first he was still looking at his eyes, and then - when he spoke - down to his lips, and then further down to his own hands. Testingly, he tried to move them and immediate hissed upon flexing his thumb. He tried to bend his ring finger and elicited the same response. Rubbing gingerly at a pressure point in his wrists, he then raised a trembling hand to his ear and made a gesture that looked like a “No”.
And that was when Phillip felt his stomach sink.
’I almost killed a deaf man,’ he realised in pure horror. ‘I am definitely going to hell.’