Inside my head, a mental timer ticked – Eight hours thirty-two minutes
A half dozen times I said to her, “Nothing special, please.”
In the trash Post-it notes, familiar names and numbers, along with her increased cell phone activity suggested she was preparing otherwise.
“Laura from yoga,” my wife would say.
A part of me wanted to argue, but I knew how important this day was to our family. At 4:45 p.m. I tidied the items on my desk; loose papers found their place, mementos placed in a cardboard box marked with my name. Outstanding messages returned, and sales prospects passed to another associate. I called human resources to say I wouldn’t be back on Monday.
“Congratulations,” she said, “And on a Friday, how fantastic.”
“Thank you,” I said, whispering into my empty cubicle.
Four hours thirty-nine minutes
On the drive home I tackled the honey-do list written on the exact post-it note paper found in the trash. The random, last-minute errands intended to buy my wife some time; for the surprise celebration.
There are different ways to approach your day. Most celebrate with family and friends. Others keep to themselves. There is no wrong way.
Once home, I sat alone before going inside. The house needed fresh paint. The grass, mowing. A cockeyed shutter, a loose piece of siding, a patch of dead grass and a broken rail on the porch, all needed my attention. I climbed the steps, opened the door and gave a generic, “Honey, I’m home.” Something I’d never done in the sixteen years of our marriage but felt compelled to give everyone inside the chance to maximize their surprise.
“Congratulations,” erupted. A cluster of hugs and handshakes followed.
The celebration lasted a little more than an hour. Once the house emptied, I set up on the couch with a plate of food and an exhaustive sigh. My daughter joined, with cheese dripping from her lips and a plate of nachos in her hand.
Two hours nineteen minutes
“Tell me again Daddy. How was it when you were young?”
“No need dredging up the past,” I said.
“Please Daddy, one more time. It’s your day.” My wife shot a glance over a table of leftovers before hauling out the trash, the back door closing a little firmer than usual.
“Well, when I was your age people were sick and unhealthy and getting sicker every year. In 2019, 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, “scary,” she said.
“Yes, it was.”
“How did they fix it?”
“An expiration date,” I said.
“When do I get my expiration date?”
“Not until your eighteenth birthday.”
“Bet you were excited when you got yours?”
Two hours four minutes
Fear inspired what I would say next. “I found a way out,” I said, my hands coming to rest on her knees.
She drew back, “But Daddy!”
“I know. I know,” I said.
“Does Mom know?”
Even though I didn’t tell my daughter, expiration day had been on my mind for weeks if not months, and I had prepared.
One hour thirty-nine minutes
“I have these pills,” I said, producing two fluorescent blue pills in glass vial from my pocket. “They stop your expiration, instantly.”
“But we will lose everything,” she said. “Everyone will hate us. They will take our home and put Mom in jail.”
“It’s your responsibility,” she said. “You can’t break the law.”
“Do you understand how much I love you?”
“If you loved me, you wouldn’t do this,” she cried. “How do you know they will even work?”
Seventy- two minutes
Three weeks ago I picked up the pills from a friend of a friend. I withdrew ten thousand dollars from savings and paid in cash. I planned on telling my wife after the fact.
“Guaranteed to work,” the man said in a volume reserved for the sketchiest of drug deals. And I’ve been carrying them with me ever since, along with the burden of their use.
“Daddy, please don’t. It’s your day. We’ve celebrated.”
I lowered my head to escape her tears, and in my moment of distraction, she snatched the vial from my hand.
“I won’t let you. I won’t.” Between words she opened the vial and downed the pills, swallowing dry.
I said nothing, only stared in disbelief.
“I love you too much Daddy. I couldn’t let you do it.” Her words rose at the level of her vocal cords and died on her lips, as did she, in my arms.
R. E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and the written word. He is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee and a flawed human who writes under the beautiful Carolina sky. You can see more of his work at http://www. ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.