by David V. Matthews
The day I turned ten years old, I had a premonition of my death. I had this premonition during my birthday party. After blowing out the ten candles on the cake, I heard a male, stentorian voice in my head tell me, almost conversationally, You’re going to die on your forty-fifth birthday. Nothing else, just that message. The voice had sounded a little like God’s in that Charlton Heston movie The Ten Commandments, which I watched on TV every Easter.
Had the actual God spoken to me? If so, why would he tell me this?
As I sat with my friends at the long table in my basement, my mom cutting me the first piece of birthday cake, the piece with the largest, pinkest rose made of icing, because I liked icing roses—well, if I announced God had just told me exact date I would die, that would bum everyone out almost as much as I felt bummed out at that moment. Or everyone would think I was crazy. Plus my suburban Presbyterian family didn’t go for that white-trash, holy-roller, voice-of-God stuff. So I kept quiet and kept smiling.
At least the cake was delicious.
* * *
That night, lying in bed, I couldn’t stop obsessing over my future, or rather my lack of it. Dead at forty-five. I would never grow as old as my grandma and grandpap. But hey, if I wouldn’t die till age forty-five, then I could do anything. I could drink beer and smoke dope and ride my bike down that steep hill with my eyes closed and—
I would still die at forty-five.
Stop it, I thought. Just stop it. Do you wanna go crazy for real?
It was just your imagination. Why would he bother speaking to a ten-year-old girl? Doesn’t he have more important things to do?
Don’t worry. The people in this family live a long time, remember?
Yeah. They live into their eighties and nineties.
That’s right. You yourself could live to be a hundred.
Yeah. We have advanced medicine and stuff now.
That’s right. Now go to sleep.
Which I did a few minutes later.
* * *
I didn’t tell anyone about the premonition. I didn’t even write about it in my diary. I made myself forget, though every birthday for the next few years, I would mentally recite Forty-five, forty-five, I won’t be alive when I reach forty-five, the only poem I’ve ever written.
By the time I reached adulthood, I had rebranded myself as an atheist, because the whole idea of an actual Guy in the Sky now seemed silly. I started sharing the premonition with my college friends and my coworkers and the women I dated. “I felt like Chuck Heston in The Ten Commandments, minus the coiffed hair,” I would say to my listeners’ amusement. I’d even verbally recite the poem, to more amusement.
That anecdote served me well over the years, over the decades, right up to—
The day the premonition would allegedly come true.
* * *
This might be the last time I ever waste time like this, I thought as I stood staring out my office window. I worked as an assistant director for a charity that helped the developing world join the developed one. I had my own office, on the thirty-fifth floor of our building. I could have had an office a floor below, but I’d wanted to defy fate. Ten plus thirty-five equalled—nyah, nyah!
I’d felt a vague sense of dread all day. I’d survived the morning and most of the afternoon, but the day hadn’t ended yet. I still had to attend the birthday party at my apartment that night. Anything could happen. A meteor could flatten me, or I could spontaneously combust, or—
Grow the hell up, idiot.
I should, but—
Grow the hell up. And enjoy the view.
* * *
I got home at seven PM, as my wife had requested. She and the few guests who had arrived wore black armbands and black party hats. HAPPY DEATHDAY, proclaimed a large banner hanging on the wall. Mortuary-style flower arrangements and lit candles decorated the tables. Funereal organ music played. A gray papier-mâché tombstone sported my first and last name, the dates MAY 14, 1970-MAY 14, 2015, and the epitaph WREST IN PEAS.
Oh, and our flatscreen TV silently showed The Ten Commandments, which I hadn’t seen since age ten.
More guests arrived, putting on black party attire—armbands and hats—from a stack near the door. Eventually, my wife brought out a birthday cake with black icing, including black icing roses. In the center sat a blazing, skull-shaped candle. Everyone sang “Happy Deathday” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I blew out the candle. Everyone clapped and cheered.
“Forty-five, forty five,” I said. “I won’t be alive when I reach forty-five?”
A brief pause.
“Don’t give me that jive!”
Everyone clapped and cheered again.
My dread may have disappeared, but embarrassment had replaced it. Underneath my smiling face, I felt embarrassed. I knew I shouldn’t have felt that way, but I did, and I didn’t know why. Not even mentally ordering myself to Grow the hell up worked. Maybe I’d matured and now considered that divine message, well, divine, not something to treat flippantly. Not everyone hallucinated a message like that. Or maybe I didn’t want competition, didn’t want others to joke about my life. Or maybe I was secretly a white-trash holy-roller, hoping God cared about my existence enough to terminate it.
My wife could sense my hidden mood, for she stared at me with concern. She’d put so much work into this party. Maybe she shouldn’t have. I regretted having told her about the premonition, then I regretted my regret.
I stared at the clock. Nine twenty-four. Soon the day would end, and I would cheat death.
Which I did, obviously. You can’t write a story from beyond the grave.