I realize at four AM that it will be my last day on earth. I sleep in.
It isn’t just a feeling I have like when you’re about to lose something—your body prepares itself to be reduced, you brace. No, not that. It’s all over the news. The Service, they call themselves. They’re the ones who told me. I should never accept gifts from my parents. They’re always weird things like breadboxes and services that tell you when you’re going to die.
Cooper Adams will die at seven PM tonight. His family, who is vacationing in Italy, released a statement that they’re deeply disappointed in the news but added that it would, quote, not be in anyone’s best interest for them to fly back just for a few hours.
Mr. Adams could not be reached for comment.
My phone’s been ringing non-stop since the announcement.
A government-assigned therapist breaks through the crowd outside my door, shoved through by the Service officials. They slam the door behind him. He immediately sits down across from me. He digs himself into my couch that sits against the kitchen counter. I lean forward. He’s nodding, though he’s got this searching look like he’s trying to think of the name of an actor.
“What if I were to tell you this is the end? That The Service has never been wrong, and it’s really a gift. That you can do all the things, you’ve ever wanted to do today because really, there isn’t any tomorrow?”
I think about the concept that tomorrow doesn’t exist and how strange that is. Tomorrow has always existed. Maybe I took it for granted. “I guess I—”
“Sorry, that’s been bugging me all morning. Please continue,” he says with reassurance.
“Jesus, man. You’re a professional.”
“You know how it can be when you can’t think of an actor’s name.” He looks around as if someone else might hear him, and though bloggers and curious neighbours are banging on the door, there is no one else in the apartment. “You know how many of these I do a year, Cooper?”
I shake my head. “Seven?”
“Six. You’re the youngest yet. I mean, you think they’d give me a black hood or something.”
I don’t laugh. All I can think about is every second until tomorrow. The tomorrow that doesn’t exist.
“Would you rather have a priest?” he whispers. “Some people prefer that.”
“What do most people do?”
The government therapist thinks for a moment. “This and that.”
“This and that? The fuck does that mean?”
“No need to take a tone, Cooper. We’re together on this. You and me.”
He pauses for a moment, rethinking the question. He licks his parched lips with his dry, white tongue. I don’t offer him water.
“Some of them spend the whole day with their families,” he says. “Some of them try heroin.”
“Do you have heroin?”
He clears his throat. “Anyway, you seem all set, so I’m gonna leave you to it.”
He stands up, and I stand up. I never realized how blue my apartment is. Blue curtains, blue walls, blue couch. I don’t even like blue. “Doctor, in case I don’t see you again—”
“I’m sorry about before.”
“We call it emotional Ebola in the business. All is forgiven.”
He opens my front door. The air behind the government therapist is electric. I can’t see past the flashes. Ten or fifteen people yell questions, held back by two Service officials.
Do you feel any different than you did yesterday?
Will you wear a wire and tell us what God is like?
The government therapist does not face me. He stares out into the mob for dramatic effect, as he says this:
“Whatever you do, don’t delve into the past.” He clicks the door shut behind him.
I realize I’m the ideal celebrity. I’ll be gone tomorrow.
I hear the ocean as I watch the blue curtains against the blue walls. I remember a young girl in an emerald dress leading me farther than I’d ever been. All we packed were root beer cans and cheese wheels with the red wrapper that peels away. I wonder now what would have happened if I kept following her. I remember the scent of seaweed on my ankles.
The thing about today is that you always assume it’s one today in a line of todays.
I send out a Facebook message to all my exes.
As you may have heard, this is my last day on earth. Go figure 😉 I thought it might be nice to have a last supper with all the women who have ever loved me at 5. I realize it’s early for dinner. Perhaps you can tell some nice stories about me. Please hold back on any negativity, as you will have the rest of your lives to criticize me starting at 7 PM. I’ll be hosting at my apartment as the deatharazzi are out in full force. Please respond either way.
I feel that the winky face emoticon is important because you have to maintain some semblance of levity in situations such as these.
It’s 2 PM. I FaceTime with my parents. They’re the ones who signed me up with The Service in the first place. A thirty-fifth birthday present. My father said it was a financially prudent decision. Insurance companies love it. My mother and father struggle to fit their large faces into the frame. They look plumper than when they left. My mother is wearing a new scarf. It’s blue and gold with tiny red flowers.
“So, how’s Italy?” I ask.
“So beautiful, honey! We wish you could be here,” says my mother.
“Yeah, well, you know.”
“You look a little wan,” says my mother. She’s loved using that word ever since she won an electronic Scrabble game with it.
“Have you been drinking water?” asks my father.
“Not really,” I say.
“Well, when you’re about to die, they say it’s very important to drink water.”
“Your father’s right,” says my mother. That’s her mantra. I think she chants it before going to sleep. I think she writes it thousands and thousands of times in her journal like a serial killer.
Your father’s right. Your father’s right. Today I will kill John F. Kennedy.
Her dyed, purplish hair is blowing in what looks like a warm Mediterranean breeze.
“What does it smell like there?” I ask.
My mother looks puzzled. She cedes to my father.
“Bluish,” he says. “Like the ocean, sort of.”
My mother nods. She doesn’t need to say it. He is right.
“Well, honey, we wanted to catch you before the tour bus leaves,” she says.
“Thanks. Hey, listen—”
An older woman walks into view. “Is that your son? Oh, he’s darling. It’s really too bad. Hello!”
“Aren’t you scared?”
I wave into the black eye of the camera.
He looks a little wan, she says to my mother, thinking I can’t hear.
“Well, listen, Bucko, the bus is here,” says my father. He yawns in a way that always meant it was time to go. I remember fearing those yawns on Christmas Eve. One in the morning. There’s something magical about that time when you’re young, like how the air changes as you reach the summit of a mountain.
“Goodbye,” says my mother.
“Goodnight, kiddo,” says my father.
The screen goes blank. I shut my laptop. The only sounds are the shuffling of the deatharazzi’s feet outside my door. I almost want to let them in. Have them tear me apart limb from limb like some fallen god.
Sorry folks, I’m saving my left kneecap for the funeral, but the rest is up for grabs.
We only really wanted the left kneecap, I can hear them say.
We always want the kneecap we can’t have.
I taste the passage of time on my lips like chlorine. There’s a sort of freedom to it. I think back to the sound of wind running through glass, sitting at a café somewhere in the south of France. It sounds romantic, but I remember being very cold. It had rained, and the cold water from the chair-back soaked through my shirt turned it dark. I didn’t say a word. I shivered, and later she dropped her green dress. We bathed together like mother and child.
She was older then. She’s younger than I am now. I feel the smooth beach glass on the soles of my bare feet, seaweed up to my knees.
There is a strange man in my window. He’s holding a photograph of me. I’m not afraid. I’ve still got time. He’s standing on the fire escape, so I open up the window.
“Can I help you?”
He’s sweating, waving this glossy 5×11 of me. “Dude, it’s an honour to meet you.”
“How did you get up here?”
“You should see what it’s like out there. Haven’t you ever wanted to be a celebrity?”
I always wondered what it would be like to be one of those people you recognize but can’t place. You don’t know my name; I’m anonymous, but we have this connection. The sky behind the man on the fire escape is extremely blue. I can almost see past it. I trace the outlines of stars like paper cutouts.
“Not really,” I lie.
“Would you sign this for me?”
I take the glossy photograph and the Sharpie he hands me. It’s strange staring at myself. I don’t remember ever taking that photograph. I look older. Maybe years older, like a projection of something I could have been.
“Would you sign it ‘To Devin’?”
“Yeah, no problem, Devin.” I sign the photograph.
Hang in there.
I hand it back to him.
“Oh, my name’s not Devin. Thanks, though.” The photograph flutters in the shaky wind as he shimmies back down the red fire escape and out of view. I shut the window and lock the little black brackets.
I thought the day would fly by, but it’s interminably slow. I’ve never really liked dinner parties, and I don’t know why I’m having one now. I always feel awkward eating in front of people. There’s an old Spanish film where the guests eat in the bathroom, and they shit at the dinner table—pants around their ankles, yucking it up. I always think about that every time I’m at a dinner party. There’s nothing social about eating. It’s a solitary act. I might as well just take a big dump in the middle of the table.
This is the part of the story where I get up in front of everyone and scream.
Haven’t you ever wanted to do that? A girl asked me that once. She asked me if I’d ever had the urge to get up in the middle of a crowded auditorium and scream at the top of my lungs?
I said, “All the time.”
There’s something about a mass of whispering people that makes me want to shake the foundation of the building until it cracks. What keeps them all subdued? Does every single one of them have the exact same impulse? Maybe when I die at 7 PM tonight, everyone will stand up and scream, and I’ll miss it. It’s funny that my biggest regret hasn’t happened yet. Maybe funny isn’t the word.
Dani is the first to arrive. She’s early. It’s only 4:30. She’s holding a little red package wrapped in a gold bow. She has to fight through the deatharazzi, all snapping photographs of me as I open the door. I let The Service officials know it’s ok.
“I’ll be expecting about six more of them,” I say.
As I close the door, I hear one Service guard say to the other, “What do you want to do after?”
I take the little red present and invite her in. “You didn’t have to. Really it’s a waste of money. I guess you should just take it home with you after.”
“You don’t even know what it is yet,” she says.
Her brown hair is short, shorter than I ever remember it being. She’s never had good skin, but there’s something about her that makes me want to lie down.
“That’s true.” I untie the bow and tear open the red wrapping paper. It crinkles in my hand. All these little confetti candies inside sift to the floor like flour.
“They’re Indian. The second time we went out. Remember?”
I do remember. She took me to this gross little vegetarian Indian restaurant, and we ate tan sauces. Afterwards, they had these little spiced confetti candies that you could hardly hold in your hand.
“Thanks,” I say.
Afterwards, we drank wine on the fire escape. She introduced me to a band that became my favourite band. I wouldn’t make love with her because she had a boyfriend back in California who kept trying to call her. “You still with him?” I ask.
She holds up her hand. There is a tiny gold band on her finger. I remember the way she tasted, sweet and sunny.
“Why’d you come?”
“You asked me to, I guess.” She sits down on the blue couch. I sit next to her and watch the last of the sun through dirty, ice-burnt windows. I can tell it’s cold from the stilted way people walk and how the trees won’t bend.
The rest of my exes come in quick succession, almost exactly at five. It’s kind of disheartening to know they could have been on time all along. There’s Dasha. She was my first. She’s Russian and strawberry blonde, and though she’s put on some weight, maybe from a baby (I don’t ask), I can still see that high school girl in her plaid skirt. I remember how exciting it was, knowing I could reach under at any time. Knowing that, she knew it.
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It’s almost as if I’m not there when I open the door. I realize I’m doing exactly what the government therapist told me not to do. The deatharazzi scream. They’re vicious with anticipation. I feel their voices in my chest. The flashes render me paper-thin. There can’t be much left of me now.
The two Kates come in next. They never knew each other or that I dated them successively. I’ve always been secretive about my previous relationships up until this very moment. They’re both blondes. Kate 1 is a bit mousy, petite. She has these incredibly small lips that make her look like she’s always just eaten a Sour Patch Kid. Kate 2 is taller, curvier, confident. She’s wearing the same short sequined dress she wore once on my birthday. The kind of dress for special occasions. She broke up with me the day after. We had this whole mystery about a bunch of deer tails at my grandfather’s house. Later I solved it without her.
I’ll pay your family fifteen thousand dollars if I can advertise on your coffin.
Tell me everything when you come back.
They’re chanting now. It’s getting hard to tune out. I hand Dani my phone and ask her to put some music on. She chooses exactly what I thought she would. You’d think of all things I wouldn’t want predictability right now, but I do.
I remember sitting on a rock in Central Park with an actress. I can’t remember what color her hair was. And she’s here. She’s pale and brunette and wearing these tall Italian leather boots. She kisses me on the cheek.
There are hundreds of people outside my apartment. On the metal stairs and holding candles. They’re just waiting. I try to sympathize with them. I try to say that I would do the same thing, but the truth of it is I wouldn’t. I think they’re monsters.
The Service security increases. They make way for the fire marshal.
“This whole building is unsafe. Why, if I were to light this hallway on fire right now, you’d all melt here like a bunch of wax dolls,” says the marshal.
He lights a match, and the horde goes silent, observing the flame as if at the end of a fuse.
“You Cooper Adams?” he asks. His chest is so broad I’m not sure how there’s room for the rest of him.
“Yes,” I say. I remember the girl in the green dress and the smell of burning hair in the sand. Behind the fire marshal, I see Yulia and Melanie. The Service is detaining them. “I know them,” I say, but the crowd is in an uproar now that the flame has extinguished.
“Do you realize that this is exactly how the Great Chicago Fire was started?” says the fire marshal.
I’m trying to see past him, but his massive body is pushed up against mine.
“I thought a cow started that.”
“That’s what everybody thinks,” he snarls. “This—” He’s so beside himself it’s hard to form words. He’s spitting as he speaks. “This is a powder keg of flesh. This is a flesh powder keg!”
“Excuse me,” I say. I usher in Melanie and Yulia. Melanie is married now. She makes it very apparent in all of her Facebook photos and tweets, and emails. Her response to my message was:
I’m so sorry to hear about this, especially the way it was splashed all over the news. I know you like the hard things to be private. I’ll be there tonight, just like I always was. I remember when you carried sangria in the snow and how we found that garden filled with Faberge eggs in Rome. I remember how much it hurt the last time. You just handled it all so badly. See you at five 🙂
Mrs. Melanie Fisher-Lambert
I loved her the most. That’s why she’s hurting me. No one should be allowed to have two last names.
I’m about to close the door when the stripper-ex shows up. I always felt guilty for how I ended things. I bought this expensive bottle of perfume for her when I was in Rome. She always wore this sort of standard stripper strawberry body spray. Not that I didn’t like it, it just always reminded me that I was dating a stripper. I wonder now if people thought I paid for her. Let them.
I ended up giving the perfume to the actress. That was at the end and the beginning. I remember her name, of course, but in all my stories, I always referred to her as “the stripper.”
Russian, blonde, thin frame, beautiful. Beautiful smile. When we first met, she had this way of taking her tongue and moving it all around my mouth as if searching for something. It was as if she’d never kissed anyone before—a childlike exploration.
“You look nice,” I say.
The fire marshal is yelling at one of my neighbours and her dog, Josh.
“Your dog will be a pound of flesh!” he says.
The room fills with strawberries.
“I want to see you go,” she says. Her English is a little better than the last time I saw her, but she’s still carrying a little pink translator disguised as a cell phone.
The girls all talk to one another. I wonder if they’re talking about me. It’s already getting a little crowded in my small blue apartment. There’s nowhere for me to sit. The Kates touch each other’s hands as if transferring memories.
The door swings open. It’s the actress. She kisses me briskly on the cheek. She’s wearing the perfume. The room is a potpourri of old affection. I can’t believe how living I feel.
The fire marshal directs traffic in the hallway. The Service keeps guard. The neighbours speculate.
Is he making pasta for a last meal?
Josh, the dog, sniffs women’s crotches in the hallway. I remember my own dog. I found him on a bus. He was a good dog. Not really a “good dog” by other people’s standards, but I liked him a lot. He loved chasing Ping-Pong balls around the apartment, but I had to stop because the neighbours complained. I never complained about their sounds. It seemed unfair.
Before The Service can close the door, the dancer shows up. The stripper, the dancer, and the actress. I acknowledge my clichés like a fairy tale. I hardly knew her. I’m touched that she remembers me. They’re piling in. There won’t be enough pasta for all of them. Will I have to choose between them? The thought is terrifying.
“Are you trying for some kind of Fellini thing here?” asks Yulia from the blue couch.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I say.
“Yes, you have. I know you have,” she says.
“You did always love Fellini,” says Melanie, spinning the wedding ring on her finger.
“Why didn’t we ever watch any Fellini,” asks Kate 1. She’s perched on the windowsill like a starling.
“I don’t remember,” I say. “I tried to do everything I could.”
Dani opens a bottle of wine and pours a glass for herself.
The actress glares out of the peephole into the camera flashes like a kaleidoscope. “How many do you think are out there? I think I saw someone from The Daily News.”
Melanie is looking through an album she made of us when we were travelling abroad. She lingers on each photo. I can tell she remembers now. We never got it right. I see it in her eyes.
“Aren’t you scared?” she asks me, not looking up, knowing I was there as she always had.
“Doesn’t matter, I guess.”
“Yes. Not of this, though. Not of this.” The camera flashes wriggle under the door, further and further into the room. Metallic blue. I feel them inside my flesh.
“Do you remember that terrible Russell Crowe movie that you loved?” asks Melanie.
I remember it. Of course, I remember it. It had the greatest line I’d ever heard: “The lesser of two weevils.”
She laughs because it’s one of those things that’s only funny if you love someone.
“I don’t know what it’ll be like if you’re not there,” she says.
“I think I know what you mean.” I want to kneel down and touch her small dry hands, but I remember the ring. It’s glowing now.
She looks around the room at the fluttering curtains. There is no breeze. “Has it always been this colour in here?”
“As long as I can remember,” I say.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s getting late. My exes all grow silent as if it might be someone to take me away—as if there is something supernatural in all of this, but I’m not that special.
I miss my life.
It’s the government therapist at the door. The pasta boils, salty foam leaking over the sides of the pot.
“I thought you said I’d never see you again.”
“I’ve been wrong before,” says the government therapist. “Time to go, everyone. Cooper needs his privacy for his final moments.” He directs all of my exes out of the room. They don’t protest. Melanie touches my hand. Yulia kisses my cheek. No one wants to watch it happen. They’re relieved they don’t have to.
I’d left them all before they could become real, or they left me. That’s their magic. What if we never saw fat, Elvis? They’re apparitions. Each one of them carries a fragment of my story as she leaves—something only she could know.
The deatharazzi swarm around the women, the actress strikes a pose and smiles as she files out of my apartment. Her heels click as they flow down the metal staircase pretending to shield her face.
The stripper furiously translates what the deatharazzi shout at her on her phone.
How much for one night?
Can you ask him if he remembers the girl in the green dress?
Does he prefer Sting or Alice Cooper?
One by one.
Yulia slips one of the deatharazzi her business card.
Melanie looks back.
Dani swirls her red wine in the air and screams all the way down the stairs. Sugary confetti trails her hair like a veil.
The Kates hold hands. They are united, finally, as one Kate.
One by one, they’re gone.
The government therapist takes out a pack of Marlboro Reds, offers me one. I hesitate.
“I don’t smoke either,” he says.
I take one, and he lights it. The room fills up blue. I think of my mother trying to decide between the gnocchi and the fish.
Do you think it’s safe here?
Italian fish are known for their restorative powers.
You’re right. I’ll have the snapper.
I’m sharing a cigarette with a stranger, and I’m so happy he came back. It’s funny all the things you don’t do because you’re afraid they’ll kill you one day. Smoking, amphetamines, community theatre. I don’t want to be alone.
“It doesn’t seem right, does it?” It feels like the water’s up to my chest. It’s crushing me. I remember looking out over the ocean at night and wondering if anything could ever be darker. The surf on coffee waves. Yellow lights in the distance. Tomorrow never really existed in the first place. I wonder what would’ve happened if I followed her.
I taste smoke and saltwater. The sky is blue through the curtains. It’s morning everywhere but here.
“I’m not even sure why I’m here,” says the government therapist. “There was something you said that really stuck with me.
“What was it?”
He’s taking these really long desperate drags and spewing out corkscrew tails of gray smoke. “Doesn’t matter, I guess.”
The space underneath the apartment door floods with false light.
This is the part of the story where I die.
I feel like my story is disjointed. I grip the seaweed on my neck. I taste salt. The room is so blue I can’t stand it anymore. Blue floors and blue ceilings. I can still go back and change things. Tomorrow has never existed. This isn’t the end.
Matthew Di Paoli has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, including in 2020. He has won the Wilbur & Niso Smith Adventure Writing Prize, the Prism Review, 2 Elizabeth’s, and Momaya Review Short Story Contests. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Boulevard, Fjords, Post Road, and Cleaver, among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press and teaches English to at-risk high school students in New York City. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.