23:59 AND COUNTING
Oliver! Oliver, I need you downstairs right now!”
Listen, the last thing I want while I’m doing my part for population control is to hear my mom’s voice. It’s like a song I can’t get out of my head. But here I am, MMMBoppin’ it under my warm covers before anyone else is supposed to be awake, and she has to go and call my name. I stop and wait, hoping she’ll think I’m still asleep. But I may as well put the wookiee down ’cause I know the next time I close my eyes, she’ll be there floating around the backs of my eyelids, with her blond hair flyin’ and her pink terry cloth bathrobe open just a little more than it should be, telling me to get my lazy butt out of bed or I’ll be late for school. And dudes, that just ain’t cool.
My mom has a wicked sixth sense for everything except that.The woman’s a human lie detector and can sense a bad report card from across town, but she still doesn’t get what a fifteen-year-old could possibly be doing in the shower for thirty minutes.
Annoyed, I abandon my awesomely warm comforter and shuffle to the bathroom for my morning ritual, which involves taking a leak, brushing my teeth, and attacking my guyfro with a brush. Seriously, I can go from dead asleep to ready in like six point five seconds. I’m sure it’s a record.
Once ready, I descend the stairs into the deranged, half-baked circus that is the Travers family.
Mom’s the ringleader and lion tamer and even the clown, though I don’t think that part’s intentional. None of us are really morning people so Mom makes sure we all get where we need to be and that no one dies in the process. She only occasionally has to use the whip.
Dad’s like the blind guy who throws the knives at the hot chick on the spinning rack. He wanders around in this funky stupor, running into walls and knocking over chairs, until it’s time to throw the knives—then he’s a genius. The same goes for his cooking, so long as he has his coffee. God help you if he tries to cook precoffee. Or throw knives.
Obviously, my twin sisters, Edith and Angela, are the freaks.
And Nana? I don’t know where she fits in. Do circuses usually have a deceptively sweet puppet master who can wrap you around her pinkie finger with a look and a chocolate chip cookie?
Oh, I forgot about me. Well, when I’m not running crazy late for first period, I’m trying to finish some last-minute project that I’ve probably had three months to do but have waited until the absolute last possible second to finish. I guess I sort of do my best work under pressure. Like the tightrope walker or that freak that gets shot out of a cannon . . . I wonder if Mom will let me have a cannon.
So you can see it, right? My house is barely controlled chaos in the morning. Okay, it’s barely controlled chaos all the time, but especially in the morning. Which is why I’m so confused as I walk down the stairs.
I expect to be mowed down by a barrage of motherly advice about staying up too late playing Halo with Shane. Instead, my entire family is gathered around the kitchen table. Mom, Dad, and Nana are standing like curved fishing poles heavy with a catch, while my evil twin sisters are stunned statues on tippy-toes.
And they’re all staring at something.
“Oliver Aaron Travers!” yells my mom without turning around.
Mom rarely uses my whole name, mostly ’cause she hates reminding herself that my initials spell “oat.” But even if she hadn’t yelled my whole name loud enough to make my ears bleed, I can tell by the tone in her voice that something’s up.
“Right here, Ma,” I say. “You know, yelling in the morning’s bad for your blood pressure.”
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re wandering around doing your thing? Maybe you’re in the library or school, but you’re good, the world’s good, everything’s good, until you walk into a room and every single person turns to stare at you? And not like one person turns and then the others turn, but every single person turns in unison, like it’s some sort of synchronized swimming event? And that’s the exact moment you realize you’re completely buck-ass naked? Well, I’m not naked, but, you know, I might as well be.
“What?” I say way harsher than I mean to, and immediately feel bad.
There’s a millisecond of shocked silence and then, as if on cue, Edith and Angela start bawling. Now I’m certain that something is up. My sisters are the undisputed champions of the universe when it comes to fake crying. It’s one of their villainous superpowers because when they turn on their fat, squishy tears and shaky lower lips, there’s hardly a person with a soul who can say no to them. But I know them well enough to tell the difference, and these tears are genuine.
I’ve spent a lot of time asking God how he managed to pack so much pure evil into such adorable little packages. They’ve got my mom’s blond hair and dimples and no one’s ever actually caught them doing anything wrong. But it can’t be a coincidence that every baby-sitter they’ve ever had has joined a nunnery or moved to Canada.
“What’s wrong? What’s going on?” I ask.
Mom’s shielding whatever’s on the table with her body and I see Dad give her the Look. I get the Look a lot. Usually it’s after I’ve done something stupid like forget to tell Mom that I volunteered her to bake a few dozen cookies for the homecoming bake sale. The Look is Dad’s not so subtle way of saying that I better own up to whatever I’ve done, ’cause it’ll hurt worse the longer I put it off. I’ve never seen the Look directed at Mom though, and she shakes her head in this tense little way that makes her appear as though she’s having a seizure.
After an uncomfortable stare-down between Mom and Dad,
Mom finally turns to me, and she’s crying too. Or she was, anyway. Her nose is clown red and tear tracks run down her face. Mom tries to hide it from me, but she’s not nearly as good at hiding her emotions as she thinks she is. Either way, I know it’s bad. But it’s not until she moves out of the way that I realize there isn’t a word for how awful it really is.
It’s a Deathday Letter.
It’s unmistakable. That long white envelope with its goofy rainbow in the corner, as if that can take the sting out of maybe the worst news ever. But come on, if you wrap up a steaming pile of crap in a pink bow, it’s still a steaming pile of crap.
I’m shocked, and everyone seems to be waiting to move until they see how I’m going to react. I don’t know what makes me do it, but I run to Nana and throw my arms around her.
“I’m so sorry, Nana,” I say as I try to bury my head in her shoulder like I did when I was a kid. Only it doesn’t work so well, ’cause I’ve grown and she’s shrunk. “I don’t want you to die.”
Nana’s my favorite person in the whole world. Honestly. She’s seventy-eight years of awesome in this tiny, wrinkly body. You’d never know she’s as old as Methuselah by the way she runs around. Not only does she still teach tennis to all the neighborhood kids, she’s the only person in my family I can talk to about girls without wanting to gnaw my arm off in abject embarrassment. Dad got her to move in after my Grandpa Lou died by telling her he needed help with the twins (which wasn’t far from the truth). I don’t know how I’ll make it without her. All I know, as I hug her tighter than I’ve hugged her in ages, is that I don’t want her to die.
Nana grabs me by my shoulders and pushes me out to arm’s length. “What makes you think the letter belongs to me?”
I stop myself from saying, “Because you’re older than paper,” and look at my parents. “Mom? Dad? Which one of you is it? I can’t lose either of you.” My whole world is slowly crumbling around me. If it’s not Nana, then it’s got to be one of them. It can’t be one of the twins, ’cause my family wouldn’t have waited for me to come downstairs to have their freak-out. But it can’t be Mom or Dad either. Without Mom I’d never get to school on time or know if my underwear is clean. Without Dad I’d never know . . . well I’d probably never have anyone to watch crappy movies with again. Losing either of them is too much to handle.
Nana sobs and snorts behind me and isn’t holding it together any better than the twins, who are still bawling—they’re a testament to the superior lung capacity of nine-year-old girls. Nana’s crying so hard I assume the Deathday Letter has got to be Dad’s. Don’t get me wrong, Nana loves Mom, but she told me once that she sometimes wishes Dad had married his high school sweetheart, Lily Purdy. Lily was a redhead and Nana always wanted redheaded grandkids.
“Ollie,” says Dad. “I think you should look at it.” It’s kind of unsettling for my dad to be the one who’s calm and in control. Plus, he only ever calls me Ollie when we’re having one of our man-to-man talks, like the time he tried to talk to me about girls. He said, “Ollie, girls are like trees you have to climb. No. Wait. Girls are like vending machines that you have to keep stocked. And when you want something, you have to give them money. Wait, that’s not right. Ollie, forget what I just said. Girls are like Tetris. You have to line everything up just right to get them to go down—” It got even worse after that. He used the word “plumbing.” Twice. So Dad’s steady, even tone is scarier than what’s on the table, and I’m at a total loss.
People get Deathday Letters all the time. Your mom, your dad, teachers, that guy you saw on the interstate with his finger buried in his nose to the second knuckle. Everyone gets one. And once it shows up—bam—the twenty-four-hour countdown to death begins. It’s not exactly twenty-four hours but it’s close enough. It’s the worst kind of letter you can possibly get, but I can’t imagine what the world would be like if people didn’t get them. Scary.
The letter on the table isn’t even the first one I’ve ever seen. My grandpa and I had been really close. He’d gotten me into building model rockets and we’d sit for hours putting them together. Grandpa Lou loved everyone, but I was his favorite. After he died, I sneaked into his room and stole his letter. I know it’s selfish to steal something that Dad probably wanted to keep but I’m pretty sure Grandpa Lou would have wanted me to have it.
But the letter on the table doesn’t have Grandpa Lou’s name on it or Nana’s or even Mom’s or Dad’s. Written neatly on the front of the envelope in a slanted, loopy script is:
Oliver Aaron Travers
I don’t really believe it because I immediately snatch it up and dig my finger under the sealed flap, wondering as I do whose crappy job it is to lick these things. It reads:
Mr. Oliver Aaron Travers,
It is our duty to inform you that your death is scheduled to occur tomorrow in the early morning hours of October 17th.
Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated. Have a pleasant Deathday!
“Umm, okay.” Yes. That is my response to finding out I’m living-challenged. My parents obviously expect me to be a lot more broken up than I am, ’cause they rush me and start hugging me and messing my hair, which is already a natural disaster and doesn’t need their help.
“Ollie, I love you so much,” says Mom. “Girls, tell your brother you love him.”
“We love you, Ollie,” say my sisters. They’ve mostly stopped crying and are moving on. Trust me, the fact that I got tears out of them at all is kind of a minor miracle. Dude, seriously, one day my sisters are gonna grow up to be crazy successful lawyers or hit women. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for assassins, ’cause how cool would that be?
Nana pushes Mom and my sisters out of the way, which is the sort of thing only she can get away with. “I’m sorry, Oliver, I wish it had been my letter.”
“No you don’t, Nana,” I tell her, and flash her one of my crooked, toothy smiles she claims she loves so much. When people talk about a smile only a (grand)mother could love, they’re absolutely talking about mine.
“Honesty isn’t always a pretty quality, Oliver.” Nana smiles back at me. Her face is kind of puffy, and her wrinkly skin hangs like limp turkey flesh. But when she smiles, it’s like a thousand years evaporate right off her face. “You’re right though,” she whispers in my ear. “I still have a few good years of annoying your mother left in these old bones.”
How could anyone not love someone like her?
“Well, I’m hungry,” I say as I disentangle myself from Nana. In the kerfuffle, Mom’s forgotten to do anything about breakfast, and I’m starving. I’m always starving, actually.
Listen, there are four things in life you can always count on. One and two you already know: taxes and Deathday Letters. But the others you might not know.
The third immutable law of life is that guys really do spend 99.999 percent of their (waking and sleeping) lives thinking about sex. Sitting in a church? Thinking about sex. Being forced to sit through a World War II documentary? Thinking about sex. Mowing the lawn? Thinking about sex.
The last fact of life is that guys are always hungry. Even when we say we’re not, we can totally eat. I think it’s like a hunting instinct left over from a billion years ago when dudes wore bearskins and drew on cave walls. See, a guy who isn’t hungry has no real incentive to go out and hunt food for the clan, ’cause we’re lazy, too. Add that to the list: taxes, Deathday Letters, guys have sex on the brain, are always hungry, and are lazy. I mean, imagine a Neanderthal dude in the dinosaur times, not hungry, sitting around the cave, watching the wall, saying, “I’m not really hungry. I’ll go hunting tomorrow.” Especially if there’s a football game on the wall.
So I’m definitely hungry and there’s nothing to eat.
“What do you want?” asks Dad. “I’ll make anything.” Then he starts running around the kitchen throwing pots and pans everywhere, which really pisses Mom off. And, since he hasn’t had his coffee, he’s a one-man wrecking machine wrecking all Mom’s stuff.
“Whatever it is, you gotta make it fast,” I say. “I have to get to school.”
“Don’t be silly,” says Mom. “You’re not going to school.”
“Not fair!” cries Edith.
“If he doesn’t have to go, then neither do we,” finishes Angela.
Nana strokes their heads and says, “If anyone’s going to school, it’s you two.”
“I’m going to school,” I tell them. “I mean, I’m not gonna sit around here all day. Nana’s got lessons, Dad’s got the restaurant, and you have mom stuff to do.”
Dad looks up from the bottom cabinets. “But aren’t there things you want to do? The whole day is yours.”
The naked feeling creeps over me again. It’s like they’re waiting for me to spill all my deep dark dreams out onto the floor for them to rifle through.
When I grow up, I want to be a ballerina.
“Seriously, guys, you’re creeping me out. My life’s been good. Really. I think I’ve pretty much done all the stuff I wanted. I mean, I’m never gonna pitch for the Yankees but even in my dreams that was never gonna happen. I think I just want to go to school and do normal stuff.” They’re all still staring at me so I say, “This isn’t a big deal, you know.”
Of course it’s a big deal! Just not the kind I want to go through under the glassy, teary, snotty stares of my family.
“If he’s going to school,” begins Angela.
“Can we stay home in his place?” Edith finishes. Then they both smile. You’d think the first skill they’d teach minions of evil at the Evil Academy for Evil Girls would be how to smile without looking like the demon-possessed girl from The Exorcist (watched it, thought about sex).
“No,” say Mom, Dad, and Nana at the exact same moment. It’s funny because I know my mom and Nana are both immune to their powers, but I’ve seen my dad melt way too many times under the fiery heat of their pouty lips and droopy eyes.
Edgy silence follows while Dad makes scrambled eggs. The problem with that sentence is that my dad is utterly incapable of making plain old scrambled eggs, so he carpet bombs them with every vegetable in the fridge and every spice in the cabinet. I know that in some dark corner of his noncaffeinated brain, celery seems like a fantastic idea, but the execution makes me wanna be executed. Or, you know, not.
On top of having to eat the universe’s most disgusting scrambled eggs, I can sense my family having this silent dialogue that goes a little something like this:
That’s the last bite of egg Ollie’s ever going to eat.
That’s the last time Ollie’s ever going to slurp his orange juice.
That’s the last time he’s ever going to get yelled at for belching at the table.
That’s the last time Ollie’s not going to use his napkin.
Except for my sisters, who are still plotting how to use my Deathday Letter to either get themselves out of school or get ponies. I put my odds on the ponies. Plus they’ll make the coolest pony-mounted assassins in the fourth grade, taking out math teachers for Pez.
Finally, I’ve had enough. “Guys!” I yell. “Stop acting like I’m gonna die.”
Mom stops dancing nervously around the kitchen, making lists of things she wants to buy for dinner. Nana stops flipping through her photo albums, looking at pictures of me like I’m already gone. And Dad stops stirring the toxic sludge formerly known as hash browns.
“Ollie,” says Nana. “You are going to die.”
I know that everyone’s thinking it, and I love Nana for having the balls to say it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to go coffin shopping.
“Maybe, but you don’t have to act like it.” I push away the plate and hunt for my backpack. The twins love hiding it, but there are only so many places they can hide a backpack heavy enough to give me scoliosis.
“Oliver—,” begins Dad.
“Everyone gets a Deathday Letter!” I yell again. I don’t mean to yell, but sometimes yelling just happens. I count to ten and try again . . . without the yelling. “At some point, everyone gets a letter. My life’s been pretty solid and I don’t want to spend my last day locked in this house while you all stare at me, waiting for me to drop dead. I want to go to school, hang with my friends, come home, and try to ignore you all until I go to bed. The only difference between this day and any other day is that I won’t have to worry about making up an excuse for why I didn’t do my homework. Okay?”
Wow. That sucked, but it had to be said. And I know they get the point because Mom starts yelling at the twins, who haven’t brushed their hair yet—likely hoping that she’ll cave and let them stay home. Nana’s already reading the paper like normal, which means she’s brutalizing it. It’s a crinkly black and white bloodbath. Oh, and Dad goes back to terrorizing more eggs. I don’t know whether to feel worse for the newspaper or the eggs.
“You’re going to be late,” says Mom. She looks at me out of the corner of her eye and I know it’s eating her up not being able to cry and hover and mother the crap out of me, but I’m not about to stay home and watch Oprah all day.
I get ready to leave, and maybe my sisters have just a sliver of humanity between them, because I find my backpack sitting in front of the door.
I know everyone’s pretending and it makes me feel like a real dick. I also know that the second I leave, the crying and moping will resume. And since I’m not a total douche, I give each of them a hug before I leave. Even my sisters.
“Here,” says Dad, and he hands me a wad of cash. “For lunch.”
I look down at the money. School lunch, which Dad abhors, is only about five bucks, but he’s given me enough for, like, sixty lunches. “What’s this for?”
Dad shrugs and winks at me. “You never know where the day might take you.”
“Actually, I do,” I say. “First period is History, then Alge—”
“I swear, if you didn’t have my good looks, I’d think you were the garbageman’s son.” Dad chuckles and closes my hand around the money. “You’ll figure it out. Now go or you’ll be late.”
The whole thing is kind of surreal, but Dad’s right about being late. And you know, there is a giant neon sign above my head flashing, FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY.
© 2010 Shaun David Hutchinson