Authors: Siera Maley
Tags: #Gay & Lesbian, #Literature & Fiction, #Fiction, #Lesbian, #Teen & Young Adult, #Genre Fiction, #Lgbt, #Gay Fiction, #Lesbian Fiction
Copyright © 2016 by Siera Maley
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America.
“Welcome to Daily Fries, sir, what can I get for you?”
I feigned a smile at the overweight man who stood on the other side of the counter. His eyes scanned the menu on the dirty wall behind my head as my hands hovered over the cash register in front of me. Even as he began to give me his order, I couldn’t keep my gaze from darting to his forehead. The number 45 rested there, etched into his skin just an inch from his left temple. Or plastered, more like. It certainly
too big to avoid looking at, even as much as I hated seeing it. No, it couldn’t be on his neck, or chest, or somewhere hidden by clothing. It
had to be the forehead, where I couldn’t avoid it.
I chewed at my lip, mentally running through potential causes of death. Car wrecks were common, so that guess wasn’t particularly creative. Maybe it’d be cancer. Or pneumonia?
I finally settled on heart disease.
“I’ll take three burgers with an extra order of fries and a large coke, please,” he said.
Yep. Heart disease.
“That’ll be $19.32.”
I was what some might’ve called an enabler. Heart disease was the leading cause of death in America, and yet here I was, working at a fast food place on the outskirts of San Francisco, with the literal ability to see peoples’ age of death,
– in cases like this guy – helping make it happen.
From a moral standpoint, that might’ve seemed wrong. In fact, it almost certainly was. But I had a simple solution to this moral dilemma: to ignore it in hopes that it’d eventually go away. I tried not to think about it. I didn’t allow myself to care about the people I was serving. Knowing when they’d die made it inconvenient to get invested, to say the least, and if there was one thing I’d learned, it was that sometimes you have to let people make their own decisions. I didn’t know if Mr. Three Burgers would change anything about his life if he knew he’d be dead in a few years, but I did know that it wasn’t my place to interfere. I’d tried that once. It hadn’t worked.
Three Burgers got his food and left, and next up was a woman on her cell phone flanked by two small children – a boy and a girl, both about six years old. My heart dropped into my stomach.
Don’t look, don’t look,
” was my mental mantra as I took the order of the woman who’d die at age 81, but then she went back to her phone call and made her kids order for themselves, and I had to. The boy would live to be 72, but the girl would die at 51. I’d seen worse.
I gave the woman her total, and she distractedly handed me her driver’s license instead of her credit card. She was trying to balance her phone call and her two young children and was having some trouble. Before I corrected her, I glanced down at her date of birth. May 19
, 1979. The year was 2015. She was 36. About thirty years older than her daughter. That 81 and 51 suddenly became a lot harder for me to stomach.
I swallowed hard as we swapped cards, and then she paid, took her food, and moved on. So did I. It was the alternative to wondering if that mother and daughter would die simultaneously from the same cause or just a few months apart from different causes.
“Harper. Chill,” a voice murmured in my ear, and I felt a hand gently squeeze my arm. Robbie. I must’ve looked as tense as I felt.
Robbie was a twenty-two-year-old college dropout who worked here with me. He was the only person who knew what I could do, and that was because he could do it too. We’d spotted each other instantly when we’d met and just
. It’d been hard not to; we were both kind of obvious about our forehead obsessions. When I’d met Robbie, the first thing he’d done was to glance to mine even as I’d stared up at his. His arched eyebrow and my wide-eyed look in response had been all it’d taken to confirm we were both looking for the same thing.
Robbie would die at age 76. In the meantime, he made me promise not to tell him his number – in the irony of all ironies, we could see the number of every person we met, even when we didn’t want to, but we couldn’t see our own. Robbie also refused to tell me my number, which was probably for the best.
Neither of us could remember waking up one day with this awful ability. We’d both just always been this way. We had little else in common, but the side effects our special “quirk” had caused over the years – mild to moderate depression, extreme cynicism, and emotional detachment, to name a few – were enough to eventually bring us together. He was my only friend, and I wanted to keep it that way. Even people who’d die at 98 still had a visible expiration date – or at least to people like Robbie and me, anyway – and I wasn’t really equipped to deal with having multiple friends whose ages of death were constantly staring me in the face. My father and Robbie were enough.
But even the two of them would die eventually. Everyone did. It was inevitable. It was one thing to know that like a normal person did: to have it in the back of my mind, only to creep up every once in a while. And when it did creep up in the mind of a normal person, there’d perhaps be a brief moment of existential crisis, and maybe some of the momentary panic or fear that comes with being actively self-aware of our own mortality. When would it happen?
would it happen? Would it hurt?
But for normal people, that moment would fade, and life would go on. It wouldn’t for me. That moment
my life. It was one thing to know that we were all going to die, but it was another entirely to be reminded every time I looked at another person. Everyone was just a number to me, because that was all I could allow them to be. Anything more and I’d spend my life running around panicking about the impending expiration of the woman in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. And that was no way to live, really.
About three hours into my four-hour shift, Robbie and I took our fifteen together and sat outside in the alley behind Daily Fries, our backs pressed to the wall of the building as Robbie lit a cigarette.
“I got a woman, looked to be about early to mid-twenties. Age of death: 26,” he told me.
“Wow,” I murmured and ignored the wry smile he cracked. Robbie was trying to teach me to take this whole thing less seriously, so we’d started playing this awful game where we’d try to one-up each other every day. Whoever could get the most ill-fated customer won.
It was a little too morbid for me, but I humored him. It was his way of trying to turn those very real people with very real ages of death into characters. The goal was to trick ourselves into caring less.
Sometimes, for just a moment, it’d work, and I’d forget. I’d feel a little bit better. “Uh… mother and daughter who are gonna die within the same year. Possibly simultaneously.”
“51 and 81.”
“Ah, that’s not bad.” He took a drag from the cigarette and then rubbed it into the wall to put it out. A black, circular blemish was visible on the white brick when he was finished. It was one of many; Robbie and I came out here five times a week. “They’ll live a while.”
“I guess so.”
“Chill.” He repeated his command from earlier. “People die. It’s unavoidable. We’re just two of the unlucky ones who’ve happened to have gotten stuck being able to
see how much time they have left.”
“Don’t you ever think about whether or not they’d live their lives differently if they knew?” I asked him. It was the reason sometimes I wished I knew when it’d be my time to go. There were things I wanted to do. Places I wanted to see. It’d be nice to know when my deadline was. But the paranoia probably wasn’t worth it.
“Of course,” Robbie agreed. “But death is still inevitable. We can’t change the number; it’s never worked for either of us. You still lost your mother and I still lost my sister. So there’s no use upsetting anyone. And besides… they wouldn’t believe us if we told them. We’d just get locked up in some psych ward and ignored. It’s happened before to others.”
“That’s true,” I conceded, and tilted my head upward to stare at the sun above our heads. Summer was just beginning. I’d be starting my senior year of high school in the fall. My job here was temporary; something my dad had encouraged me to do to help save money for college expenses. In my more cynical moments, I sometimes wondered if I’d even live long enough to go to college. Or to finish college. Or to get a real job.
“Do you ever wonder why we all try so hard to live to age 80?” I asked Robbie abruptly. “What’s the point? You go to school, then you live to work and work to live until you retire, and then you die, either painfully or not. And that’s if you’re lucky. It all seems so pointless sometimes.”
“Hell if I know. They have an entire industry dedicated to making sure people don’t feel pessimistic enough to ask the questions you’re asking now.”
“Psychiatry?” I asked.
“Religion,” he corrected with a smirk, and I laughed and swatted at his leg. “What? It’s so true! Religion basically comes down to ‘Please don’t all off yourselves; we promise you’ll get rewarded for dying unwillingly instead as long as you aren’t a murderer. Or a homosexual.’”
I laughed again, harder this time. “So I’m screwed then?”
“I knew it! I knew you’d killed,” he joked and then moved to get to his feet. I checked my cell phone to see that we’d been outside for fourteen minutes now.
“Only indirectly,” I told him, not entirely kidding.
“Stop that,” he chastised. “It’s not our responsibility to monitor strangers’ lives. Look out for yourself, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
And I did. Whatever all-powerful being had chosen to assign the numbers on our foreheads – whether it was a God, or something evil, or just plain old fate – chose to give my mom a 41. She’d had me when she was 29, and she’d died four and a half years ago, when I was 12.
Before then, I’d spent years wondering how she’d pass away. In the end, it was a car wreck. I wasn’t sure how I could’ve stopped it. Robbie liked to say that there was nothing I could’ve done, but I was sure he only believed that because he was convinced fate was the cause of the numbers. He was also a staunch Atheist, which seemed counter-intuitive given that the religious were all about things being predetermined, but I hadn’t ever really asked him to explain further.
As for myself? I really had no idea why the numbers were there, or why I could see them. I’d done a lot of observing over the years, and I’d never seen a number change. But I’d also not developed too many long-term relationships, so it wasn’t like I was checking up on people I used to know to see if their numbers were still the same.
Maybe they’d be different if I did. Maybe my out-of-shape Uncle Wayne could decide to go on a run every morning and it’d change his 73 to a 74 or something. Or maybe he would die of cancer at 73 and there was no stopping it. Maybe he would die of cancer at 73 and there
a way to stop it. Or maybe it’d be a car crash, like my mom, and if I ever convinced Uncle Wayne to never leave his house, I’d see his 73 jump instantaneously to an 86.
It was easy to see how I could drive myself crazy with this stuff. Which was why Robbie’s advice was to just live life as though we weren’t special. His sister had died of cancer, and although he didn’t like to talk about it much, I’d gotten bits and pieces of the story over the course of the past few months. She’d been a couple of years older than him; only 21 years old when she’d died.
She’d had that 21 on her forehead for as long as he could remember, and he’d practically driven himself crazy trying to figure out how to change it. When she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer at age 20, he’d realized there was no way he could have. Cancer was so rare for someone her age that he wouldn’t have ever thought to suggest having her checked for it, and even if he somehow had, and even if
he’d managed to get the exact type of cancer correct, no one would’ve taken him seriously.
I was in a similar situation with my mom’s car crash. What could I have done? I’d spent the years leading up to her death trying my best. I’d told her to be safe every day when she’d left for work. If she’d gotten sick, I’d helped my dad nurse her back to health. I’d spent sixth and seventh grade having panic attacks in the night because I’d been so worried about her. And in the end, all I’d have had to do was convince her to stay home on one particular evening. But I’d had no way of knowing that for certain at the time, and now she was gone.
And maybe God/Satan/fate or whoever had known that I
know what to do, and maybe that was why she’d gotten a 41. And if that was the case, I had a hard time thinking well of that omniscient being. It was no wonder Robbie was an Atheist; the idea that something intelligent enough to design thinking, feeling, living creatures would then assign them unchangeable expiration dates was horrifying.
When my work shift ended, I said goodbye to Robbie and drove home to my dad. He was waiting with a plate of chicken tenders and fries and an only mildly reassuring 83 on his forehead. He would live for a long time, but I knew I’d wind up counting down the days after he hit about 80 years old. Assuming I was still around then, of course.