Thirty Second Birthday

by Chad Lutz

Two familiar friends order familiar drinks at a familiar café on a familiar street. Work, school, sex, money: the lay of the conversation. Then it shifts.

“Isn’t your birthday tomorrow?”

Blake sips his latte.

“And yours is the day after.”

“And?”

“And it’s just a number, Emily. Do we really have to go through this every year?”

“Through what?”

“My life.”

“Life? Who said anything about life? This is about two days. Two measly, insignificant days that happen once a year.”

Blake frowns.

“I just don’t like my birthday, that’s all.”

“Ya, well, I can think of a certain someone standing in a vat of whipped cream three birthdays ago that would beg to differ.”

Blake frowns more.

“Come on,” Emily says, “The future isn’t guaranteed. You might actually have fun this year. The past two were hiccups.”

“The future isn’t guaranteed,” Blake mumbles.

Emily sighs. “Maybe not for that guy,” she says, biting into a cookie and talking through her full mouth.

“Who?”

She stops chewing to speak.

“The old guy in the corner over there.”

Blake glances over his shoulder. A man with a cane smiles and waves. His face is wan and tight, like dough stretched over an irregular bowling ball; hair so white, it’s translucent.

“That man looks like a skeleton,” Blake says.

He turns to find Emily still munching. She says, “So do you.”

And it was true; in the past few months, Blake had slowly started losing his grip on things. He wasn’t sleeping, couldn’t concentrate, felt tired all the time. He was so tired that even essential things like eating had become chores.

Emily picks at the last few bites of her muffin. A few minutes pass. She offers the last morsel, but Blake turns it down.

The bell above the café door chimes. In walks a herd of South High’s finest juniors and seniors, grab-assing and snapping selfies and listening to their music without headphones. The sprightliest of the bunch breaks for the counter in a full-on sprint. He begins dancing and whooping upon reaching the counter.

“Can we at least go out tomorrow?” Emily asks.

Blake’s staring at the crumbs left over from Emily’s cookie. Emily wipes them clean.

Blake scratches his head.

“You didn’t have fun last year.”

“I had plenty of fun,” she says, pausing. “It just wasn’t my favorite time.”

“Wasn’t boring for me,” he says, crossing his arms and watching the old man struggle to navigate the group from South High. The old man makes it to the street, and through the window, Blake sees the man follow the flight path of a bird, smiling.

“I’d rather just not get my hopes up,” he says absently, still watching the man walk.

“We need to get you laid,” Emily says, taking a drink of her coffee.

He hears Emily, but there’s something about the old man Blake can’t place, and so his attention is elsewhere. It’s a feeling. A feeling of finality. Of time being short. And it reminds him of something he’s been putting off.

“Emily, can I tell you something?”

Her face lights up, but only for a moment, as Blake shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Gathering herself, she says, “Of course. Anything.” And then, not being able to resist, “Does your mom know?”

Blake wipes his forehead and fumbles with his drink, nearly knocking it to the floor.

“I…” he starts, but something keeps him from finishing his sentence.

Emily puts a hand over one of Blake’s.

“It’s all right,” she says, and Blake nods. He’s sweating. He can’t believe it but he’s sweating.

“I…I went to a psychic the other day,” he says, not looking at Emily, not watching the teens bouncing down the sidewalk in the opposite direction from the old man.

“And?”

“And she said I’m going to die on my thirty-second birthday. Tomorrow, Emily. Tomorrow.”

Emily takes a long, hard look at the man she’s known for twenty years, graduated high school and college with; the same man who organizes his sock drawer by color, weighs his food as he prepares it, gets a haircut every twenty-seven days and is never late by more than a minute.

“You went to a psychic, and she told you you’re going to die on Saturday. That’s what’s got you so worried?”

“She didn’t come right out and say, ‘You’re going to die on Saturday,’ but that’s what was implied, yes.”

Blake sits there silent, serious. Emily laughs.

“Jesus, Blake. I thought you were going to tell me you had cancer or something. You know those things are loose interpretations. Hell, for all you know, she means I’m going to die. We’re turning the same age.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t go to the psychic; I did.”

A couple sitting two tables away looks over, annoyed.

Blake turns crimson.

“I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”

“No, no,” Emily says, trying to stifle her laughter. “It’s all right, I…. It’s…it’s just, I’ve known you for almost twenty years now, ever since middle school, and not once have I thought you’d meet me for coffee and say something like, ‘So I went to a psychic the other day….’ It’s just not like you, is all.”

“And just what ‘is me’?” he says, almost shouting.

“Blake, I…”

“You must have me all figured out, huh?”

Blake stands up and shoves his chair. Without speaking, he tromps toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Emily asks, still laughing.

“I’m going home to die.”

The night is quiet. So quiet, Blake can hear the whirring of his computer’s internal fan. He hits Shuffle on his iTunes to drown out the silence, but it only makes things worse.

There’s a Word document open on his screen. He’s typed the words the psychic said:

A thirty-second birthday; the one you fall dead.”

Over and over and over he reads the words. One by one. Together. Separate. Rearranges them, like puzzle pieces, a strange equation leading to one thing and one thing only.

Blake pushes away from his desk. The wheels on his chair sound like thunder against the hardwood. He looks around. Everything in its right place. Nothing as it shouldn’t be.

But the psychic.

Circled on the calendar on the far wall is a single date in red. January 13. Birthday. Saturday.

He exhales what feels like all the oxygen from his entire body and walks over to the calendar. He stands and stares at it, thinks of Emily, laughs.

“Stupid bitch,” he mutters, but doesn’t mean it, and goes to the kitchen for a beer. He examines his hair in the window reflection above the sink. He thinks, Almost in need of a trim. He turns for the fridge and bumps into something on the counter. It falls to the floor with a sharp, decisive thunk.

It’s the eight-inch kitchen knife, and  it has landed vertically less than half an inch from his right foot.

Twenty minutes later, rain rolling in heavy sheets off his windshield, Blake parks his smart car outside of a small, comely-looking building on the east side of town. The building is painted orange with a purple neon sign blinking in the one window.

What little exhaust the car emits looks like smoke pouring from some cigar enthusiast’s lungs. Cancerous. Blake gets out of the car and hunches his shoulders, rubs his hands together, blows on them. Within seconds, he’s doused. A cat cries as a bitter wind picks up.

The building is just up ahead. He can see a single light on inside.

The neon bulbs spell psychic, to which Blake mutters, “We’ll see about that.” He knocks. Waits. The rain falls harder.

“Hello?” an older man says from behind a screen door.

“My name’s Blake. I’d like to see the psychic.”

“You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” the old man says. “We’re closed.”

“Please!” Blake says, just as the door begins to close. “You don’t understand. I think there’s something wrong. I just…I need another reading.”

The old man opens the door again and flashes Blake a queer smile.

“You know, we get a lot of people like you, thinking we’re some hack-job operation. In fact, you’re the third person to bother us this late in the last five weeks. You have any idea what time it is? And look at you,” he says before Blake can get a word in edgewise. “You’re drippin’ wet. Must be crazy.”

Blake looks down at himself. His clothes are sopping. Steam rises from his body.

“Listen,” the old man says. “You seem reasonable enough, not like the others. Why don’t you just go on home and we’ll say this never happened.”

Something the old man is holding catches the light from the street and makes the hair on Blake’s neck and arms stand on end.

“Hey, I don’t want any trouble,” he says, backing away.

“Good,” the old man says, “neither do we.”

The door closes, the light in the window goes out, and Blake is left alone on the rainy street.

“Blake? Blake, is that you?”

“Emily! I’m on my way over.”

“Blake, no. Don’t come here.”

“I’m outside. Let me in.”

“Blake, you can’t be here. It’s two thirty in the morning.”

“I’m outside, Emily. Let me in. It’s freezing.”

“Blake, I can’t do that. I’m with someone.”

Blake hears stirring through the receiver.

“Who is that?”

“Blake, go home and get some sleep. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Blake looks up and watches Emily’s apartment light go out as the line goes dead in his hand. Rain pelts his face in fat drops as he watches.

Morning. Soft light streams in through the curtains. Blake’s eyes open. Calendar on the wall. Dresser. Desk. Desk chair. Bureau. Bookcase. Books.

He peels back the comforter. Legs. Feet. Torso.

He raises his arms. Hands. Fingers.

He looks down. Chest. And…that too.

Everything in its right place.

The floor creaks as he puts first one foot, then the other, down on the hardwood. The cool sensation sends a pleasant little shiver up his spine.

He yawns. The apartment still smells like chana masala. He thinks maybe he’ll make pancakes. Farts. Makes for the bathroom.

Washing his hands in the sink, he can sense something, but he isn’t sure what. Something watching him. He flicks his fingers and reaches for the towel. He’s about to look in the mirror but stops, looking down at his hands.

His phone rings, and instead, he leaves the vanity open and turns out the light.

“Hey there, birthday boy!”

“Hi, Mom.”

“How’s my big man today? You’re, what, seven thousand?”

Blake laughs. He swirls his fork in a saucer of agave nectar and takes another bite.

“And so that would make me older than the earth?”

“Lord Supreme,” his mother says. “Any big plans for the day?”

A thirty-second birthday; the one you fall dead.

“No, nothing big. I thought about going for a run.”

“Running? My god, are you sick?”

“No, Mom,” he says, smiling so hard it hurts. “I just…I feel good.”

“Well, don’t get hit by a car. I know how much your body means to you. All that pounding can’t be good for it.”

“I won’t, Mom. I’ll be careful.”

Traffic. Busy intersection after busy intersection. Cars flying by, familiar roads in a familiar town with familiar songs blasting through old, familiar headphones. A slight rain has begun to fall. The roads, slick.

“Watch where you’re going,” Blake shouts at a couple of kids on bikes.

“Eat boners!” they shout back. Blake laughs. Looks back. Yelling at kids: what next?

Up ahead, a red Ford takes a wide turn and crosses over onto the shoulder. Blake doesn’t see it, and when he returns his gaze to the road, he sees the driver’s face, wild and neon with color. He’s motioning with one hand for Blake to get out of the way. But Blake can’t react. His legs move in perpetual motion forward, right along the berm. The truck swerves. The Ford’s tires scream, frame rattles. Blake leaps, but his feet slip and he lands in the ditch on the side of the road. The Ford comes to a stop, and the driver leaps out.

“Goddamn, son. I could’ve killed you. What the hell are you doing running on the side of the road like that?”

But Blake can’t hear him. Blake can’t think. Blake can only smell, and the air smells like the soft scent of mist and burning rubber. His heart thunders in his chest.

“Son!” yells the driver in his face.

Blake brings his gaze around and nods. “I’m sorry,” he says, not the least bit sincere.

The man waves a hand at him and storms off toward his truck, leaving Blake in the muddy ditch staring around at the world as if it were brand new.

“Emily, I beat it.”

“You what?”

“I beat it.”

“Beat what?”

“Can you come over?”

The lights up the street come on one by one.

“I don’t know, Blake. I feel kinda weird after last night.”

“Forget about last night,” he says. “Water over the dam, under the bridge, whatever. It’s my birthday, and I want to celebrate.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure I’m sure I’m sure. Never been more sure in my entire life.”

Emily laughs. “I must say, I’m impressed. I thought you wanted to be alone?”

“I’ll tell you all about it over drinks at Laroix.”

Laroix is boisterous and busy. Someone’s put Britney Spears’ entire discography on the jukebox, and everybody has to wait it out.

“Great music selection tonight,” Emily says, ducking as a waitress in some skintight purple top passes with a stack of empties.

“I know,” says Blake, beaming. “No one is the wiser.”

“That was you?” she exclaims.

Blake nods.

“You punk-ass bitch.”

“Takes one to know one.”

Their drinks come, and Blake raises his glass.

“To my thirty-second birthday.”

“Hear, hear,” she says, and their glasses clink. She sets her glass down and checks her watch.

“So, what is it you were dying to tell me?”

“Let’s not spoil the evening just yet,” he says.

He raises his hand, and the waitress bounces over.

“Two Jamesons and pickle backers.”

“Pickle?”

“Yeah, pickle,” says Blake.

The waitress gets bored and wanders off, brings back the two shots, pickle juice, two empty glasses, and wanders off again. Blake bobs his head to the music.

“You remember when Britney went crazy in 2007?”

“You mean like how you’ve gone crazy the past two nights?”

Blake divvies the shots and pours the pickle juice.

“Here,” he says, lifting the Jameson.

Glasses clink, throats burn.

“God,” Emily says. “I forgot how much I hate that shit.”

“Drink the juice,” says Blake.

They drink. The salt diffuses the burn.

“Where in the hell did you learn that?”

“The internet.”

“Naturally.”

They switch back to beer. Britney does it again.

“So, what’s going on? Or do I have to wait till Britney goes crazy one more time?”

Blake leans in close, motioning for Emily to do the same. He looks around.

“I beat it,” he says, a hair above a whisper. “I beat the curse.”

The admission is like an electric jolt to Emily’s entire system. “The psychic!” she shouts. “That’s what this is all about?”

Emily howls, can’t stop laughing

“Oh, God! Oh, man. This is too funny. You were really shaken by that, weren’t you?”

Blake clears his throat, then gets up to pee. He can hear her call after him, but he’s disappeared around the corner.

The bathroom smells musty, dank. There’s graffiti and stickers everywhere. One of the sinks has no faucet, and Blake laughs. Must’ve happened between this time and last.

He washes his hands in a sink that has no faucet and is about to dry them on a towel with no rack when an older man in his fifties or sixties walks in howling with laughter. He’s by himself and walks up to one of the urinals holding his sides.

“Laugh riot going on?” Blake asks, feeling himself begin to laugh.

“Oh,” says the man, still peeing, “there’s this chick outside. She…she just can’t stop laughing.”

“Laughing?”

The man clears his throat. “Yeah, laughing.”

Blake dries his hands and gives the man, who’s still snickering, a final look.

He thinks, What’s the big deal about someone laughing?

And then he sees who the man was talking about.

It’s Emily.

She’s doubled over the table and laughing. Laughing and laughing and laughing. She pounds at the table, laughing. She’s laughing so hard, she can’t breathe.

“Emily,” Blake says, finding it hard not to laugh himself, “ what’s so funny?” He checks his watch: a minute to midnight. “It’s almost your birthday? Is that it?” He puts a friendly hand on her back and gives her a pat.

“Happy birthday,” she squeaks, but she’s turning blue. Tears stream down her face in thin crystalline lines. She tries to lift her head but can’t. Smack! right down on the tabletop.

“Emily?”

Blake shakes her, trying to revive his friend, but Emily isn’t moving.

Someone in a corner booth shoves past him, says he knows CPR. He moves her to the floor and begins compressions. Blake checks his phone. The clock turns midnight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. Breath. Breath. “Nothing,” the man says, after checking her pulse, and stands solemnly.

The Good Samaritan says there’s nothing more he can do, and looks at his phone.

“It was her birthday,” Blake says, almost too stunned to speak. “Thirty-second.”

“Well,” says the stranger, “that’s exactly how long she lasted.”

 

Chad Lutz was born in Akron, Ohio in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. Alumna of Kent University’s English Program, Chad earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College and currently serves as an editorial intern for Pretty Owl Poetry.

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