(***AUTHOR'S NOTE*** The following story is NOT based on any person, place, or event in my life. It is simply based on a dream I had several weeks ago where some friends who I have not seen since high school had shown up, like ghosts, at Thanksgiving but only I could see and talk to them. I had the dream around February 2014, began writing the story shortly thereafter, and finished it in early March 2014. Here is the finished product. It's my first stab at a short story and I hope you enjoy it for what it is; I'm a big fan of science fiction, supernatural, and horror books (think: Stephen King) so it's my first foray into that type of writing in a short story format).
It's my birthday today.
I hate this day.
Every year it's the same thing: a family get-together, food, drinks, cake, celebrations. I know that all sounds nice, and it is. That's not why I dread this day.
It's because of them.
My four best friends from childhood. We grew up together and we were always there for each other, through thick and thin. I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys to have grown up with and I'm pretty sure they'd say the same about me...if you could ask them. But you can't.
Because they're dead, you see.
Actually, you can't see them. But I can. I see them, every fifth year on my birthday. And that's why I get sick to my stomach every time my birthday is looming. My wife and kids think it's because I'm getting another year older and so they tease me accordingly. What else can I do but play along? If I tried to explain it to anyone, even my wife, they'd think I was crazy. Raised eyebrows, quick glances, and whispers about my sanity are not the sort of things I need in my life, especially at my birthday party; I'll gladly take the ribbing about getting older instead.
I woke up this morning after a very restless and fragmented night tossing and turning in bed...I refuse to call it "sleep." Even though this happens every five years, the anticipation winds me up as the day approaches and by the time I go to bed the night before, my stomach is in knots and I can feel my heart hammering in my chest as the sweat starts to bead on my forehead. By the time my wife crawls into bed an hour or two later, I'm calm enough that I can fake sleep until I hear her slip into slumber, at which point I just lay there and stare at the ceiling, turning every now and then as the hours go by. I've never understood why time can go by so slow when you want it to speed up, but when you're dreading what's at the end of your wait, those hours peel away like seconds. That's life, and that's my birthday eve every five years since I turned seventeen.
My wife has set the start time for the party for eleven o'clock so that everyone can arrive and mingle a bit before we have lunch. One of the curses of having a birthday in the middle of the winter is that we can't spend any time outside; not only does that mean we can't grill or enjoy the pool, but that means I have nowhere to try and escape to when they show up. My friends, I mean. My dead friends.
If trying to sleep the night before my birthday is always a waking nightmare, the morning hours leading up to my party are just as bad. I'm barely able to eat breakfast and I spend the entire morning putting on a front for my wife and kids, gamely smiling, trying to hide the cold sweat I'm breaking out in, and using some dodgy food from last night's dinner as an excuse to continually disappear into the bathroom to nurse my cramping stomach. Strangely enough, a sense of calm overcomes me around a half-hour before everyone is due to show up, and by the time the guests start arriving and I'm distracted enough to stop dreading what will eventually happen, I've forgotten all about it; I'm actually having a good time visiting with all of our friends and family.
It's around one o'clock and I'm standing with a plate of food in one hand, a cold beer in the other, and sharing some laughs with a friend from work when I hear someone call my name behind me from across the room. As I freeze up and my laugh comes to a dead stop halfway through, it's all I can do to not drop my plate as I feel my stomach drop. My blood runs cold and I'm sure I've turned as white as a sheet in front of my buddy since he gives me a quizzical look and asks if I'm alright. I do my best to assure him that I am and that I just remembered I'd left something in the kitchen as a lame attempt to extricate myself from the conversation. I turn slowly around and start to walk toward the stairs when I see them sitting there at the table. All of the food and drink is laid out on the table so no one else is sitting there except for my friends. Dennis, Patrick, Joey, and Nate are sitting there talking and laughing amongst themselves when Denny looks up at me again and calls my name, smiling. I skip a step when I see what they look like this time...I'll get to that later...
"Hey, why are you ignoring us, man?" Denny asks as I make my way slowly over to the table. They're siting on the side of the table against the wall and I'm standing across from them, thank God, so that my back is to the room and everyone else. If I stand still and talk quietly, I'll just look like I'm getting some more food or standing lost in my own thoughts. Please, God, let me get this over with quickly.
"Hello, Denny," I quietly say, almost under my breath.
"Hey, Wes, what's up? Long time no see, you're looking good!"
I often wonder what they make of me as a middle-aged guy at this point (this is my 42nd birthday, after all) while they're still stuck at seventeen forever. Do they even realize? No, they don't. That's part of what makes this so bizarre every time I see them again. I'm clearly older, a bit heavier, a bit balder, and a bit greyer than the last time they saw me five years ago, never mind the first time I saw them after they died. But they just keep on acting as if I'm the same seventeen year old Wes. It's been twenty-five years for me, but to them it's just like it was in the weeks and days before they ended up dying.
I know all too well why they torment me like this every five years. Maybe torment is too strong a word because all they want is to see me and act like they did when things were great and they were alive. No, they don't come to torment me. They come to remind me.
To remind me that I should have been with them.
To remind me that I should be dead...
...just like them.
Trust me, I know that I should be dead. Every day when I wake up, when I see my wife and kids, when I go to work and when I come home, after every run or game of pick-up basketball, the first thing I think of is "I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be alive...I should be dead." And it's all because these guys won't leave me alone after all these years. Why won't they? It wasn't my fault! Well, not directly, it wasn't. Here's what happened...
It was our junior year of high school and we were all planning on going to see our favorite band in concert in a few weeks...Pat had gotten the tickets through his older brother Jeff who was going to college in the city and would meet us there with his roommate. We lived a couple of hours from the city and were going to drive in and meet them at a pizza place for a quick bite to eat before heading to the arena for the show. The plan was to then crash on Jeff's dorm room floor and drive back the next morning. Since the concert was on a Wednesday, we'd have to leave school early to make it in time and we'd have to miss classes on Thursday since we'd be driving back. Sounds like no big deal, right?
Not to my parents.
They refused to let me go at first. We had gotten the tickets weeks in advance so I knew I had a bit of time to work on them. They put forth all of the usual arguments, all of them reasonable and all of which I very well may use on my own kids when they're old enough to try and get away with the same thing (although maybe not...I like to think I've learned to be a bit looser than my parents were, within reason). Anyway, a week before the show, after getting pressured by the guys, I finally convinced my mom and dad to let me go. Problem solved, right?
Not so fast. As is often the case, matters of the heart arise at a somewhat inopportune time. A girl I'd been trying to date for months, Maggie, who I'd had a crush on since junior high...she finally noticed me and stopped by my locker to talk after school as I was getting ready to head to baseball practice. Being the bold and cocky teenager I was, I asked her out that weekend and she said yes, she'd love to go out with me, but she was going out of town to her grandparent's house this weekend. She was free Wednesday, though. Would that work, she asked? Of course it worked for me; I'd been wishing for this moment since I was twelve years old, no way in hell was I going to blow this opportunity! As I watched her walk away, I suddenly realized I had just asked her out for the same night as the concert...how could I have been so dumb? However, I was so thrilled to finally have a date with Maggie that I didn't even hesitate to bail on my friends. This was the girl I'd been secretly in love with for five years, who was not only really pretty but had a great personality and who I wanted to get to know better. Our favorite band would always tour again and come back to the city...I could go see them next time. But a date with Maggie? This could be my only chance!
That night I got home and called Pat's house. He wasn't in, so I tried Denny. Same deal, he was out, as was Nate. Finally, I lucked out (if you want to call it that) and got a hold of Joey. Of the entire group of guys, the one I was least closest to was Joey. That's not to say we didn't get along; we got along just fine and considered each other friends. But there was always a slight bit of tension between us. I always chalked it up to two things: our slightly different personalities as compared to the other three guys, and the fact that he was sort of brought into our group by default since he lived next door to Nate and they'd known each other since they were babies. Of all the guys to break the news to, Joey was alternately the one it would be easiest to (because we weren't as close) and the most difficult (because we weren't close).
His mom put the receiver down and yelled for him. I could hear him shuffle over to where the phone was and pick it up.
"Hey, Wes, what's up?"
"Hey, Joe," I said, figuring if I just came right out with it instead of beating around the bush, it would be easier. Joey and I never had too much to talk about unless we were in the larger group with the other three. "I'm not going to be able to make the concert this week."
"What? Why not?" he asked, sounding irritated.
"Well, you'll never believe who finally agreed to go out with me Wednesday night?"
"A girl? You're ditching us over a stupid girl? Dude, we've been looking forward to this fucking concert for months!" He was almost shouting at me at this point
"Yeah, Joey, I know but Maggie Harris said that was the only night she was free and I can't pass up that opportunity."
There was a bit of a pause before he spoke again. "Man, I understand that but you've been after her since seventh grade...what's another week?"
"Joe, she came up to me to talk...I think she's finally noticed that I like her. Hell, maybe she likes me. I gotta take this chance when I can, maybe I'll never get another."
"Wes, we're seventeen, it's not like you're gonna marry her or whatever. Just push it back a week and let's go to the show. If she won't wait, then she's not worth it anyway. There will be other girls"
I don't know what about that made my blood instantly boil...maybe it's when he said there would be other girls. I know it's probably something that every teenager hears and thinks the opposite, but I really did think Maggie was special and didn't want to lose my chance.
"Sorry, man, my mind is made up. I'll catch them next time they tour. Give my ticket to someone else...I already paid for it so do whatever you want."
"Whatever, dude...you'll regret it. The other guys are gonna be pissed." I heard him chuckle under his breath and mutter "..for a fuckin' girl?" That sealed the deal for me.
"Hey, Joe, one last thing?"
"Yeah, what?" he said snidely.
"FUCK YOU!" I shouted it with as much bile and venom as I could muster and slammed the phone down. In that initial adrenaline rush of defiance, I felt great, especially since Joey was the one guy in the group who I didn't particularly care for either way. Sure, we'd known each other for several years but like I said, there was always a bit of a disconnect between us and if I could still stay close with Nate, Pat, and Denny, I didn't care. I didn't even bother to call the other guys up...Joe would call Nate as soon as he could since they were so tight and the word would get to Pat and Denny right after. I didn't even think about it...all I could focus on was getting to tomorrow night as fast as I could so I could finally go out with Maggie.
I didn't get a single phone call the rest of the night and it didn't bother me in the least. I'm sure all of the guys were pissed off with me. Go ahead and let them be angry, they could tear me apart all the way into the city on their way to the show...they had a good two hour drive to do it! I knew that the three of them that I actually cared about would forgive me because we were so close. This would blow over, I'd catch the band the next time with them, and I'd get to have my date with Maggie. Whether it went well or not, at least I had my chance and took it.
When I got to my lunch period the next day, the guys had already been dismissed early and were on their way to the city; I'd succeeded in avoiding them all morning. Whatever. I didn't care. I spent the last few hours of school daydreaming about Maggie and I spent baseball practice trying not to get hit in the head during batting practice because my mind was not on hitting fastballs. After getting home from practice, I took a shower, got dressed, and drove over to her house to pick her up at 7pm like we'd agreed. I met her parents, who were very nice, and Maggie came downstairs ready to leave. She was wearing jeans and a sweater, nothing too fancy, but I thought she was just the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, with long red hair and a smile that lit up the room. We said goodbye to her parents and walked down the path to the driveway, and when she grabbed my hand after we heard the door close, I just about died and went to heaven. We got in the car and commenced with our date. It wasn't anything fancy, just a bite to eat at the local pizza place and a lot of talking. I was supposed to have her home by 10pm (this was a school night, after all). We got to her house at 10 and she popped her head in the door to let her folks know she was home. Then we stood out on the porch talking for another hour before I realized I was going to be in deep trouble when I got home. We even had our first kiss that night before she went inside. Despite my best efforts at sneaking in the house, my mom heard me come in and she and my dad promptly grounded me for the weekend. I didn't give a damn, though...I was flying so high after that date and she had agreed to see me again the following weekend. I gladly took the grounding and I didn't give a second thought to the concert I was missing at that very moment.
And that asshole Joey was wrong; there wouldn't be another girl. Maggie and I have been married for twenty years at this point. If iPhones had existed back when we were in high school, I would've called him right then and there and told him to go fuck himself.
In any event, my wonderful night took a hairpin turn for the worse because after my parents grounded me, my mom told me that Patrick's older brother Jeff had been trying to get a hold of me all night while I was out. He'd left the number of the pay phone in the arena lobby, as well as the number for his dorm room, and told my mom to have me call him no matter what time I got home. I started dialing the arena pay phone and got no answer. I called his dorm room and woke his roommate (it was close to midnight by now) who told me he was still out. I kept calling the number at the arena, not wanting to wake his roommate again, when finally there was an answer at about 12:30am.
"Wes?" a frantic voice asked as soon as he picked up. I could recognize it as Jeff but he sounded pinched and worried.
"Yeah, Jeff, what's up? How was the show?"
"I don't know, man, I barely saw any of it. My buddies were in there but I spent the entire show either in front of this phone or checking the front of the arena. Where the fuck are Pat and the guys?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing...was this a joke?
"What do you mean? I don't know! Last time I talked to them was yesterday at school...they didn't show up?"
"No, they didn't. They were supposed to be here by three/three-thirty but they never showed. My mom is a fucking wreck and Nate, Joe, and Denny's parents don't know what's going on either. My dad has spent the entire afternoon and evening driving back and forth between home and the city trying to find them. Man, this is bad."
I felt like I'd just gotten kicked in the balls and I couldn't speak. I had to remind myself to breathe at one point because the whole world felt like it was spinning. Faintly, I heard Jeff call out, "Wes! You there, bro? Fuckin' A, answer me!"
I'd dropped the phone in my moment of disbelief. I picked it up and whisper-croaked "yeah, still here."
"My dad called the police a few hours ago so they're looking for them. I gotta go now and get back to campus but if you hear anything, anything from them, call me right away. I don't give a fuck what time of day or night, CALL ME. I'm gonna skip my classes tomorrow and camp out by my phone so call my room if you hear anything. I'll do the same for you if I hear something. Alright?"
"Yeah, you bet. Christ, where are they?" I almost wailed into the phone.
"I wish I knew, bud, I wish I knew. Anyway, talk to you tomorrow. Later." Click.
"Yeah, bye," I said into the phone belatedly. I'd heard him hang up already but my mind was working in slow motion. I just stood there like a statue for what seemed like all night. I hadn't even heard my mom come into my room when she quietly asked me, "Wes? Everything okay?"
"Sure, Mom, everything's fine..." but I turned to look at her and I could see on her face that she wasn't buying it. I took a deep sigh and sagged onto the side of my bed. "No, it's not. The guys never made it into the city for the concert. No one knows where they are. That was Jeff, he's worried sick and so are their parents."
"Oh, God..." my mom trailed off. "Denny's mom and Nate's dad both called after you went out on your date, but neither of them said anything. They just asked if I'd heard from the boys and I said no. Before he hung up, Nate's dad asked me if I knew where you were, and when I told him you were out on your date, he asked me to have you call him in the morning. Then he hung up. I had no idea what was going on..."
She sat down on my bed next to me and wrapped me in her arms the way only a mother can and comforted me as best she could. Eventually, she left and I laid down and tried to get some sleep but the best I could do was toss and turn and doze in small spurts...sort of how I slept last night before my birthday, as a matter of fact. I ended up getting out of bed around 5:30am because I figured it wasn't worth laying in bed not sleeping any longer. The first thing I did when I got into the bathroom was turn the radio on the listen to the news while I was showering and getting dressed, to hear if there was any information on the guys. Maybe the cops found them? Maybe they had decided to goof off in the city last night instead of going to the concert and had lost their way? Boy, were their parents going to be pissed off with them when they got back home! I was trying to think of any and every possible reason for them to be missing that could end happily.
There was nothing about them on the news...they hadn't been missing long enough yet for the police to really be concerned; you needed to be gone twenty-four hours before the alerts went out...at least that's the way it was back in those days. I got on with my morning and drove myself to school early. I was pretty down all the way there but instantly perked up when Maggie called my name and ran up to me at my locker and hugged me, right there in front of everybody. She took my hand again and we walked down the hall towards our first period class (we both had English). On the way there, just being with her and talking to her improved my mood and caused me to forget about wondering where my friends were. I made it through the morning in one piece and couldn't wait to get to the cafeteria for lunch to see Maggie again...after English, she and I didn't have another class together until history in the afternoon. I found her sitting at a table with her friends and sat down next to her. We were talking and laughing when I noticed little by little, everyone at all of the tables around us started murmuring quietly and glancing over at us. Finally, some kid I barely knew, I think his name was Brian something-or-other, came up to me and said "hey Wes, sorry about what happened to your friends." He looked down at his shoes when he said it and shuffled away before I could ask him what he meant. Just then, I heard my name over the loudspeaker, asking me to please go to the principal's office. I knew I wasn't in trouble...I was a good kid in school and never crossed any of the teachers, so I knew it had to be something else. As I stood up and started walking down the aisle, the entire room got awkwardly silent and I felt like I was on stage as every pair of eyes traced my path out to the hallway. I was about halfway down the hall when I heard Maggie yell my name.
"Wes! Wait up!" she called as she ran up to me.
"What are you doing?" I asked her.
"I'm coming with you," she said. I couldn't believe that we'd been in school together for years but only really connected on a personal level the night before, yet she was coming with me for support. It's one of the many reasons I love her as much now as I did all those years ago. This time, I took her hand and we walked to Mr. Switzer's office. I knocked on the door and went in while Maggie waited in one of the chairs in the reception area. When I came out of his office not more than five minutes later, she must have seen the look on my face because she sprang out of her chair and caught me as I fell into mine. I just sat there sobbing into her shoulder for a good ten minutes while she tried to soothe me. Eventually, I was able to gather myself and make my way to my locker. Switzer gave me the rest of the afternoon off and told me to go home. Maggie came with me and drove me in my car to my house and insisted on coming in. Normally, having her over while both of my parents were at work for several more hours would have been a dream come true...but I was so upset that all we did was watch sitcom reruns on TV while I laid on the couch with my head in her lap and her arm around me. My parents found us like that when they got home at eight and didn't say a word except to thank Maggie for staying with me and telling me they were so sorry. My mom drove Maggie back to the school to pick up her car and my dad sat down to talk with me.
I'm sure you've guessed by now why I was so upset. They eventually did find the guys. They were dead. All four of them. Worse still was how they died and how the police found them. My friends went to the city to attend a concert and they ended up dead.
And I was supposed to have been there with them.
Call it survivor's guilt from a distance, but I felt sick to my stomach when I heard the news report after they recovered the bodies, and I mean that literally. I spent an hour in the bathroom hunched over the toilet throwing up my insides and crying uncontrollably.
They had been driving in Pat's car, with Nate next to him in the front and Denny and Joey in the back. The car was found at the bottom of the river; they'd driven off of the bridge on the outskirts of the city, right after the toll booth. Nate had a single bullet hole in his forehead. Half of Joey's head had been blown off. Pat and Denny were alive when they hit the water and drowned trapped inside the car. The medical examiner had figured that out by all of the water in their lungs, as well as their bloody hands and knuckles where they'd tried to break through the windows and claw their way out of the car. The worst part was when they fished the car out of the river...since they'd all been sitting in there for a day and a half when they found them, they were all white and bloated.
In the days that followed, the police pieced together what had happened based on witness accounts and circumstantial evidence. The guys had been driving toward the city, and in order to get into downtown from the direction they were coming from, you've got to go through a really rough part of town. This is well known to anyone from our town who likes to go there; usually you just keep your doors locked, look straight ahead, don't call attention to yourself, and drive on through. Apparently, when the guys were stopped at a red light, some gang members came up to the car and started talking to them through the closed windows. When the guys wouldn't roll down the windows or open the doors, then it got ugly. The gangbangers yelled at them to open up and get out of the car, and witnesses said that the kid riding shotgun (how ironic...) mouthed off to them. Joey. Of course it would be that stupid fuck Joey...he pissed them off real good and they ended up smashing in the windows with the butts of their guns. Before Pat could drive off, one of them put a bullet in Nate's forehead and the other one blew half of Joey's away with a sawed-off shotgun. At that point Pat gunned the engine and in his panic, looked back to see if they were being followed...big mistake. He didn't face front to see the sharp curve up toward the bridge until it was too late and they went straight through the guard rail and into the river. At least Nate and Joey were dead at that point...Pat and Denny were very much alive and frightened when they plummeted into the river and sank to the bottom, and they were aware of what was happening the entire time the car filled with water and they drowned. I can't even imagine what must have been going through their minds as they struggled, trapped in that metal tomb on wheels with one of their friends next to them who was dead and chunks of the other one's head all over them. If you ask me, Nate and Joey got off easy...at least they didn't suffer for minutes on end the way the other two did. They never caught the guys who shot my friends and no one in that neighborhood was willing to talk...you know, that whole "stop snitching" code the gangs go by. The cops couldn't do anything more and that was the end of it. Just four kids from the suburbs who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And one who wasn't.
The next few weeks passed by in a blur...I went to the wakes, to the funerals, and I was numb. It's as though I sleepwalked through those days, and the only people that kept me sane and functioning through all of that were my parents and Maggie. I was excused from school for a few weeks to grieve and spend some time with a psychologist to get over my guilt. Just as I was feeling better about it all when I went back to school, the questions started coming at me.
"Hey, Wes, good thing you weren't with them, huh?"
"Weren't you supposed to be with the guys that day? Lucky for you you weren't!"
"Do you ever stop to think that you'd be dead if you had gone?"
"What made you stay home instead of going with them?"
"You're parents must be glad you're not dead, right?"
"I bet Maggie is glad you went out with her instead of getting killed that night, y'know?"
And on it went. I ended up at home for the rest of the school year. My teachers sent my lessons and homework with Maggie, who brought it to me at home every afternoon and stayed with me hanging out and studying because I just couldn't bear to be alone for weeks after. I wasn't sleeping and I stayed inside with the lights off and the shades down all day, no matter how nice it was outside. My coaches let me off the team for the rest of the season and I was pretty much a hermit in my own house until my senior year started up in September. The only people I saw all that summer were my parents and Maggie. Senior year was alright, though, as I started to get back to normal and the kids at school moved on to other things and pretty much forgot all about Wes, "the lucky kid who didn't die because he bailed on his friends that night." I was able to sleep normally by then, and the next few years were actually pretty great. I played baseball that spring, Maggie and I kept our relationship going and we ended up going to the same university after graduation, where we continued to date before getting engaged during our senior year. It's a good thing I had her then, because that last year of college is when I turned 22 and when my friends made their first visit to me since their death. I was trapped in my small single dorm room when they came to hang out and if I told you I was terrified, it would be an understatement. I'm not ashamed to admit that I wet myself the second I heard their voices in my room; it was 5:30am on my birthday and I was still sleeping when it happened. I thought I was going mad and was about to throw myself out of the window to get away from them when my RA pounded on the door to see if I was alright. My screaming alarmed him, he said. I assured him I was okay, just feeling ill. It was all I could do to hold it together there in the doorway in front of him, not least of which because he looked all around my room and didn't notice the guys even though they were standing right there behind me, chatting away amongst themselves.
I learned that day that I'm the only one who can see and hear them.
After my RA left, I turned around and they were gone. Thank God. Unfortunately, that was the only time they visited where they left that quickly...in later visits, they stuck around for random lengths of time. I didn't tell Maggie anything about it when she came over. She skipped all of her classes to nurse me back to health when she heard through mutual friends that I "cracked up." She guessed easily enough that it had to do with my friends, but no way in hell was I going to tell her that they came to see me that morning. She knew all about my guilt, but I was never going to make her feel guilty about being the reason why I ditched them that night (even though she knew I was supposed to go with them). But more than that, I was embarrassed to admit what had happened. I'd already seen a shrink and I just wanted to move on from it all. Call it stubbornness or whatever you'd like, but I'm a man and we're supposed to keep all of this stuff inside. I didn't want to burden anyone else with this sort of stuff and I certainly wasn't going to be a drain on Maggie, my friends, or my parents with all of this.
Anyway, Maggie and I got married after we graduated college, got jobs, bought a house, had kids, the usual stuff. And every five years, on my birthday, the guys came to visit me. I never knew what time of day it would be: early in the morning, during the day, late at night...they came whenever they wanted. The only thing is, each time they might stay for a long time or not, and...
...the worst part...
...every time I saw them, they'd have degenerated a little bit more, for lack of a better word. What I mean is, they started to take on the injuries that killed them, little by little, with each successive visit.
The first time I saw them after they died, they looked normal, just like on the day I last saw them. The next time, a little bit of Joey's head was missing, Nate had a dark red spot on his forehead, and Denny and Pat looked a little bloated. It went on like this each time...I don't want to get into details; I'm sure you can use your imagination to figure out what they must look like today, on their fifth visit to me since their deaths.
Speaking of today...so here I am, staring at the guys at the table across from me. Nate has a gaping hole in his forehead, ragged and raw around the edges, a black plug in the middle, weeping blood and bits of fluid down his face. His skin is white and puffy and his eyes are permanently rolled back a little more each time...right now, I'd say it's about 50%. Imagine hacking away half of a watermelon with a claw hammer...that's what Joey's head looks like. The half that's still there is white and doughy, his eye on his good side (hah!) is glazed over and translucent and his other eye is hanging out of what remains of the socket. Pat and Denny looks about the same, bloated with white, saggy skin that's starting to slough off in spots. Their eyes are opaque and blueish and really watery...they look like they're going to burst at any second. Their hair is stringy and hangs down in clumps over their foreheads. All four of them have wrinkly, bluish/white puffy skin, yellowing fingernails and a briny stink to them. Denny burps and a small fish comes out of his mouth, lands on the table, and starts flapping around as we all look at it and they start to laugh. Even I do, quietly...even though everything I've explained to you sounds awful, and it is, I'm used to it by this point. It doesn't mean I look forward to it, but it doesn't shock me the way it used to, especially since it's happened enough times that I know what to expect. I'm hoping that I stifled my laugh enough so that no one will notice.
"Man, aren't you glad you didn't come with us to the concert?" Nate asks me.
"Yeah, I guess I am...as always, I'm really sorry about what happened, guys..." I trail off. I've made this apology several times by this point but it's still not easy.
"It's alright, Wes, we understand," Pat chimes in, his voice burbling, sounding choked and a bit faint. "I wish we hadn't gone, too, just like you."
Joey makes some guttural, squelching noises and nods in assent...it's pretty hard for him to say anything coherent with a third of his head missing, but I nod and smile and say "thanks, Joey. No hard feelings, right?" He nods and makes what appears to be a smile on the half of his mouth that's still there and I give him a little wink.
"So how did it go with Maggie?" Denny asks, sounding muffled like he's talking through a mouthful of cotton while underwater. "She's so pretty and nice, did you have a good time?"
"We did...remember what I told you last time? We're married."
They all laugh at me, even Joey, as Denny says "Ah, man, stop shitting us, you're too young to be married! Seriously, how'd it go?"
I forget that, to them, I'm still seventeen. I sigh and give a little smile.
"It went great, guys...I think she's gonna see me again."
"Hey, that's great!" Pat says. "Hope you're having a great birthday so far?" he asks.
I give another one of those wistful smiles and look down toward the floor a little..."the best, guys. I'm glad you could make it." I muster a weak smile and lift my head up so I'm looking at them all again.
Nate answers me: "We wouldn't miss it for the world. Even being dead can't keep us from seeing you on your big day!" They all laugh and start slapping each other on the back. They know...at least they know they're dead and that I'm not. I'm alive.
Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and an arm slide under mine. I turn my head slightly and see that it's Maggie. She says quietly into my ear, "everything okay, honey?"
I turn to look at her in the eye and smile. "Yeah, everything's fine."
"I saw you standing there on your own...lost in your thoughts? You always seem a million miles away on your birthday...well, certain ones..."
It's as if I've been jolted awake...what does she mean? Does she know?
"Yeah, you know, getting older and all that!" I lamely try to inject some humor into it.
Looking me square in the eye, she just grins and lets go of my arm. "Say hi to them for me. I'll be in the kitchen with your mom and mine when you're done." I'm too stunned to say anything and I stand there like a fool, with my mouth open as she gives me a kiss on the cheek and turns to walk across the room into the kitchen.
She knows. She figured it out.
I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my chest and like I can breathe again. All of a sudden I start smiling and laughing to myself, one of those silent laughs that makes your abdominal muscles hurt after a while.
"Nice one, Wes! She's a keeper!" the guys all hoot and holler as I turn back to them.
"Yes...yes, she is." I say. "Guys, I need to go into the kitchen for a minute...be right back, okay?"
"Sure thing, Wes!" Pat says.
I turn on my heel and walk toward the kitchen with a spring in my step. I've got my appetite back, I feel liberated, and I'm excited that this year, I can actually have a good time at my own birthday party.
"See you later!" I hear them call from behind me just as I'm about to go through the door into the kitchen.
"You, too!" I start to say as I turn around, but when I look at the table, there's no one there. They're gone. I scan the room quickly, but they're not here any more. If I'm being honest, I'm only a little relieved...but I'm actually pretty sad. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. For the first time after one of their visits, I don't feel guilty. I feel alive. More than that, I feel glad to be alive, as if I deserve it. I finally know that I do deserve to be living. I made a choice that night that saved my life and led to all that I have now.
I turn to go into the kitchen and, with a little grin, quietly say one last thing to them, wherever they are right now...
"See you in five years."