In my head, a mental timer ticked – eleven hours fifty-two minutes
A half dozen times over the past two weeks I begged, “Nothing special, please.” And today was no different.
“Why so sad?” she asked, dancing across the kitchen floor, a light hum spilling from her lips. After sixteen years of marriage, she was still stunning, and the tactic of using the hum to drown out my pleas. Well, I’m familiar with that ploy. But unbeknownst to her, I spotted the iconic yellow Post-it notes. And when she wasn’t looking I dug them from the trash. Written in her familiar handwriting, were names, numbers, and a recurrent date. That date was today. So, I knew she was up to something. And who could blame her, it was a special day. It was a day for celebration. “See you tonight,” she said, pushing me out the front door with honey-do-list and a soft peck on the cheek.
As I drove to work, regret over my lack of assertion grew, but the rational part of me knew how important this day was to my wife and my teenage daughter who has lived her entire life without famine, illness, or war.
Eight hours twelve minutes
After the twenty-minute commute, I arrived at the office, met by the well-wishing’s of several coworkers, who sprung from their cubicles; an odd game of human whack-a-mole as each returned to their seat when tossed a soft-spoken thank you. I knew they weren’t so much happy for me as for themselves. And though I couldn’t blame them, I didn’t get a single; I’m sorry to see you go. It’s this falsity that’s never sat well with me. How we’ve let the value of life become mundane.
Other than arriving at the office, my morning was painless and slow, though I struggled to manage the swell of nervousness in my stomach with a pinched, repetitive smile. At noon, after a brief overhead announcement, everyone gathered in the lunch room. There was a short speech from my boss and a cake made by Alice in human resources. It was in the shape of an hourglass, with gold fondant borders, and no time remaining. It made my nervousness flourish.
After the cake, the day was a blur. And before I could blink the clock read 4:45 p.m. and my final work day ended. So, I tidied the items on my desk; loose papers found their place, mementos stacked in a cardboard box marked with scotch tape and my name in sharpie. Outstanding messages returned, and sales prospects passed to another associate. I put my official call into human resources; telling them today was my day and to thank Alice for the cake.
“Congratulations again,” she said. “And on a Friday, what a fantastic end to your week.” I winced and said, “Thank you” as stomach acid flashed up my esophagus.
Four hours seven minutes
On the drive home I hammered through my to-do-list with half-hearted attention while examining the how, when, why of my life.
How had I arrived at this point? And why does no one else feel the same way I do? The thought of questioning how one celebrates their day made me flinch inward. I’ve been to a few celebrations – a good many people surrounded themselves with family and friends; while others kept to themselves. But, I wanted nothing more than to be alone, to hide from the spectacle. If there was a wrong way, I might have found it. And someone needed to know. After forty minutes of running around town, I made it home. Before going inside, I sat alone in the driveway and let the world settle. The house needed fresh paint. The grass, mowing. Cockeyed shutters straightened, and several broken spindles on the porch needed repair.
I climbed the front steps, crossed the porch, and with an unsteady hand on the front door said, “Honey, I’m home.” Something I hadn’t done in sixteen years of marriage but felt compelled to give everyone inside the chance to maximize their surprise. It worked. “Congratulations,” erupted as I entered. A swarm of hugs and handshakes followed. I wondered if any else felt as uncomfortable as I did.
The charade lasted less than an hour. Mindless chatter, fleshy mannequins, pretenders, and cowards spilled into the dusk with fixed smiles. In three hours, I become a straw dog among billions. Once the house emptied, I settled on the couch with a plate of food and a fleeting appetite. My daughter joined, with cheese dripping from her lips and a plate of nachos in hand.
Two hours nineteen minutes
“Tell me again Daddy. How was it when you were young?”
“No need dredging up the past,” I said, but her excitement surged.
“Please Daddy, one last time.” My wife rifled a glance across the table of leftovers as if she knew.
“Well, when I was your age people were sick and unhealthy. But human engineering changed everything. The common diseases cured. People grew old, the population exploded, and resources became scarce. People killed each other over food and water.”
Her eyes widened. “The water wars,” She said.
“But they fixed it.”
“I suppose,” I said. There was a moment after the words passed my lips, a fracture in time, which my daughter stiffened. So, I continued.
Yes, “An end date, a genetic switch programmed into the DNA of random individuals over the age of eighteen, a lottery of sorts, to keep the population under control.”
“And people are happier now,” she said, punctuating her words with a fistful of nachos as if the world was a perfect place in her mind.
Two hours four minutes
Fear, guilt, embarrassment, shame; a lifetime of feeling unsettled, I collapsed into myself. “I found a way out,” I blurted, my hands resting on her knees.
She drew back and cocked her eyebrow, “What do you mean?”
Even though I never told another living soul, end day had been on my mind for years. And I had prepared. For as long as I can remember I’ve felt defective and unable to embrace my expiration.
One hour thirty-nine minutes
“I have these pills,” I said, producing a small glass vial from my pocket containing two fluorescent blue pills.
My wife, now outside fighting with the overstuffed trash, was out of earshot.
“It’s your responsibility,” she sobbed. “It’s the law.”
In my mind, I’d worked through this scenario a million times and settled on eight words. I gambled they’d be enough. And I took a deep breath before I spoke.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I said.
It was three weeks ago that I picked up the pills from a friend of a friend after providing a copy of my DNA. I paid ten thousand in cash.
“Designed to work,” the stranger said with conviction. I’ve been carrying them in my pocket ever since, along with the burden.
As my daughter’s face screwed itself into disbelief, my soul retched. As her emotions shifted she drew back, and the frankness of her mother, she said, “Daddy, it’s your day. We’ve celebrated.”
Her tone flattened with matter-of-fact words that torpedoed my courage, and I sank in shame. And in my moment of disgrace, distracted because love was the strongest thing I could offer her and it wasn’t enough, she snatched the vial from my hand.
“No. I won’t let you. I won’t.” She said, opening the bottle and downing the pills in one swift motion, swallowing dry.
My daughter had known one existence, become that person, a pretender, and smirked as if she had won. I felt nothing but sadness for her. “I love you too much Daddy. It’s your responsibility. I couldn’t let you do it. ”
Her words rose past her vocal cords with a hard gurgle, softened, and died on her lips, as did she, in my arms.
Author’s Note: When I wrote the short story “Sixty-Six Minutes,” as with many of my works, one eye lingers on the present and one considers our potential future. The human race is approaching a tenuous precipice with the rapid development of technology and the correlating social and cultural implications. I have a deep fascination with how we will merge such divergent processes into a prosperous and cohesive human species.