Brian Hampton awoke as he did every Monday through Friday, at 7 a.m., in his boxers, under a thick down comforter his mother had bought him for Christmas three years prior. It was one of the only things she gave him that he appreciated.
After the alarm was shut off, the shower taken, and the breakfast made, Brian sat at his kitchen table in his modest yet stylish apartment eating breakfast and staring at the six-inch crack that had formed in the wall over his stove. He couldn’t remember when he first noticed it. He felt it had just always been there. Everything in his life had always just been there.
Brian got dressed, paying ample attention to how straight his tie was, and then collected his briefcase and suit coat. It was his father’s suit coat, and one of the only things he’d inherited from his father when he passed. It fit him like a glove, and smelled of Old Spice regardless of how many times he’d dry clean it. The elbows were a bit worn and the breast pocket had a hole in it from where his father would put pens. The pens eventually eroded the fabric in the bottom of the pocket until they inconveniently fell out. Then his father would simply angle a new pen in a different way as to avoid the hole. Eventually the entire bottom of the pocket had suffered its last.
Brian took the elevator from his fourth floor apartment to the lobby, where Ralph the doorman greeted him with a tip of his cap and a “G’morning, Mr. Hampton!” before making his way to the bus stop not three hundred feet from the front door. Normally at eight o’clock, there were at least three others waiting for the bus, but this morning there was no one. There were usually cars zipping by on the busy city road Brian’s apartment complex was built on. This morning it was quiet. Brian took a seat on the wooden bench, draping his suit coat over his briefcase, which he placed over his lap. The smell of concrete warming in the morning sun filled his nostrils, which was much different than other days. Usually it was the acrid stench of car exhaust and the body odor of the elderly woman that lived two floors down from him who took the bus every morning to the long term care facility where her husband of forty three years was staying after a massive stroke. She always carried that smell of both sterilized hopelessness and pungent, aging sweat.
From a distance, Brian saw someone approaching. Even though he could not make out who it was, he knew he’d never seen that person before. As the figure got closer, Brian noticed it was a man, very well dressed, walking with a cane. The man, upon reaching the bus stop, nodded with a smile and smoothly melted into the bench next to Brian.
“Good day, young man,” the man said in an aristocratic British accent. Everything about him seemed regal. His black pinstripe suit was neatly pressed. His red and blue striped tie was perfectly tied and aligned. Brian could see an exaggerated image of himself in the man’s shoes.
“Good morning,” Brian replied, giving the man a nod in return.
The man placed his black wooden walking cane between his legs and rested both hands on the knob atop it. He looked at Brian with a quizzical squint and a smirk on his face. Uncomfortable silence befell the two of them for what seemed like ages.
“You do know today is your last day,” the man finally spoke.
“Excuse me?” Brian replied.
“Your last day. Today is the last day of your life. Did you not know this?”
“What? No, I…” Brian was taken aback by the man. Surely he meant no harm, at least which was what he hoped.
The man saw the confusion and fear in Brian’s face. “Don’t worry, chap. I mean you no ill will. I’m just here to remind you to get your affairs in order before this time tomorrow.”
“Yes, your affairs. All of the loose ends currently dangling around this thing you call a life. You have a few, less than most, but they are all important.”
Brian was silent, looking at the man with what could be said as a healthy load of skepticism.
“Have you talked to your mum lately? It’s often a chore to listen to that woman ramble on about nothing, but it’s a cross you must bear for being her offspring.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “How do you know my mother?”
“I’m also sure there a couple things needing done at your advertising agency, no?” the man said. “And I’m sure you know what I mean by done.”
Brian recoiled in disgust. “How rude!”
The man snickered. “Rude? I’m not the one whose spent the last thirty three years on this planet coasting along with no real destination nor purpose, taking no chances, simply being and not living.”
“I’m a good person!” Brian retorted.
“Being good means you made choices that benefitted yourself and those around you and your world. You’ve made very few of those. You’re no more than neutral, Mr. Hampton.”
Brian fell silent, looking down at the cracked sidewalk in confusion and shame.
The man nodded. “Twenty-four hours, Mr. Hampton.” He then got up and disappeared as swiftly as he’d arrived.
Brian was awoken out of his stunned stupor by the bus horn and the driver yelling, “You gettin’ on sir?”
Brian shook his head, collected his things, and got on the bus.
Genesis Advertising Company handled mostly regional and local brand accounts, but every so often, their reputation would wrangle an obscure national brand that would hire them and turn them into a household name. Brian had never been on one of those marketing teams. He mostly was assigned to local customers. His last foray into regional brand advertising resulted in his agency losing nearly three million dollars and incurring a defamation lawsuit. Had Brian taken the time to read all of the company information in the brand packet, he would’ve known that the two women who started the in-home carpet cleaning service were lesbians and he would not have suggested as a brand slogan, “We get your carpets done lickety split!”
Brian was still in what he could only describe as shock as he walked into the lobby of Genesis Advertising. Brittany, the lobby secretary and CEO’s niece, greeted him in her normal, bubbly eighteen-year-old falsetto voice, “What’s up Mr. Hampton?”
Brian smiled meekly and quickly walked past her to the elevators. If he had engaged her, she would’ve went on a fifteen minute diatribe about how her boyfriend should respect her life choices and that One Direction was the second coming of New Kids on the Block. Brian didn’t need that this morning.
Once on his floor, Brian quickly found his cubicle and collapsed into his chair. He needed a few minutes to process what the strange man at the bus stop had told him. Today was the last day of his life? Surely the man was joking, or he was some sort of figment of his imagination. Brian had been under a lot of stress lately, and that usually brought on anxiety.
“Are you ok?” A meek voice broke Brian’s train of thought. He looked up to see a dyed red bob haircut, framing round, black glasses and crystal blue eyes peeking over his cubicle wall.
“I’m…fine, Angela. Good morning,” Brian replied.
Angela’s whole face appeared. Her smiling red lips nearly matched her hair. Her cheeks were full and highlighted with a light rose blush. “Need coffee or something? Maybe a Danish or…”
“I’m fine, really. Thanks.” Brian smiled his meek smile again while massaging his temples. “Just a bit of a headache.”
Angela frowned for a moment before flashing her trademark smile. “Ok then, if you need anything, just knock!” She giggled her infectious giggle, the one Brian found incredibly charming and attractive, before retreating back into her own cubicle.
Brian and Angela started at Genesis at about the same time. They’d been on several marketing teams together over the eight years they’d been there. She was the girl-next-door type: cute, flirty, overly nice, and considerate. Brian often wondered why such a nice, pretty girl would ever get into the cutthroat advertising industry.
“Nice of you to show up,” came another voice. Brian turned to find Glenn, his current brand manager, leaning against his cubicle.
“I’m not late, Glenn,” Brian replied.
“I know. It’s just nice that you showed up so I didn’t have to find someone to fill your cubicle,” said Glenn. Glenn was an asshole. He rose to regional brand management by being a grade-A asshole. He was perfect for advertising.
“He’s not feeling well, Glenn. Lay off him,” Angela said from her cubicle.
“I’m just joshing him, honey,” Glenn said. Glenn was also Angela’s boyfriend. He leaned down and whispered so Angela couldn’t hear, “Let’s get something constructive done today, Hampton. Ok?” He clapped Brian on the back hard and went on his way.
Brian could never understand what Angela saw in him.
Brian spent the rest of the morning pretending to write emails, study market trends, and do brand research. By lunch time, he was feeling emotionally and mentally drained. The idea that today was the last day on this earth ate at him. He used to daydream about what he’d do if he had only one day left. That’s all he ever did.
Brian found a table by himself in the cafeteria. As he ate his BLT, he thought about his mother. The British man was right. He’d avoided talking to her for months. Brian felt he had nothing to say to her, even though she’d find plenty to say to him. In between relaying stories of how horrible the women she played bridge with were, she’d berate and insult him. “Have you got promoted yet? Seeing anyone? Why would anyone want to go on a date with you? You’re not driven enough. If you weren’t such a slacker, you’d own that business by now,” she’d say.
Angela and Glenn walked by. Glenn had his hand resting on Angela’s backside as they walked.
“Listen, sweetie, I’d love to join you for lunch, but I’ve got three big clients I need to call. See you later,” Glenn said before smacking and squeezing Angela’s rear. Angela winced as she said, “Alright.”
Angela placed her tray across from Brian. “May I sit here?” she asked politely.
Brian nodded. Angela sat down gingerly before saying, “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Brian replied. “Just been under lots of stress lately.” He watched Glenn walk out of the cafeteria, only stopping when a couple mid-level managers walked by. After making sure his nose was firmly between their butt cheeks, Glenn retreated to his office.
“Why do you date Glenn?” Brian blurted out.
Angela gave him a weak smile. “He’s smart, and well-traveled.”
“An ape with a plane ticket is, too,” he replied.
Angela’s brow furrowed. “That’s not very nice. Glenn means well. He just has an odd way of showing affection.”
“By being a complete ass?”
“He’s not an ass…he’s…well…” Angela sighed and stabbed her salad with a bit of aggression.
Brian looked at Angela. She deserved much better than Glenn. Brian liked how her glasses made her big blue eyes even bigger. She dressed rather conservatively, but she didn’t need to. She wore mostly cardigans and pencil skirts that accentuated her womanly figure while remaining highly professional. There were times Brian caught himself watching her walk to the coffee pot, her hips swaying and legs gliding down the aisle. He’d wanted to ask her out ages ago, but Glenn beat him to it. At least that’s what he told himself.
At that moment, the British man’s words floated across his brain. “A couple of things to do at the agency.” Brian immediately felt a wave of anxiety come over him. His heart began racing, pounding on his rib cage. His fingers became useless and unable to hold a fork. He put his fork down and folded his hands over each other in front of him. His left heel began tapping as his leg jerked up and down.
“Would you like to have drinks with me later?” Brian stammered.
Angela looked up from her salad. Her huge eyes were even bigger. “Did…you just ask me out?”
Brian fidgeted in his seat. “Guess so.”
Angela froze for a moment, letting her mind process what was going on. “But Glenn…”
Brian held his breath the entire time. He knew if he exhaled, he’d probably puke.
“I don’t know,” Angela said, her brow furrowing again.
Brian waited for a definite answer even though his face was turning blue. He saw the worry in Angela’s eyes. He had to bail on his invitation and forget it ever happened, or somehow rescue himself.
He couldn’t hold his breath any longer.
“Glenn is a fucking jackass and you deserve better and I have been wanting to ask you out since we met but I was too scared you’d say no and then Glenn asked you out and I felt horrible and now you should go with me for drinks and forget him!” It all came out in one heaving breath.
Angela stared at him for several moments, stunned.
“Are…are you for real?” she finally said.
Brian gripped his chest as if he were having a heart attack as he gasped for air, nodding.
Angela’s surprised look turned into a small smile, which turned into a big one. Her natural blush shined through her makeup. Her wide eyes returned to normal size and gave Brian a warm flutter.
“Sure,” she said. “Eight o’clock. Murphy’s Pub on 3
Brian smiled in relief and slowly regained his breath. They both finished their lunches in silence.
When five o’clock rolled around, Brian was almost giddy. He left the office after receiving a wink and a smile from Angela as the elevator doors closed in front of him. Brittany’s voice wasn’t as unpleasant as it usually was as he left. “Have a good one!” she said as Brian left the lobby.
His bus ride home was a bit more relaxing than normal. He spent most of the trip looking out the window, watching cars whizz by and pedestrians jog to beat street lights. For the first time in a long time, he felt an inner calm.
His anxiety returned when he arrived home to see the voice mail light blinking on his home phone. He picked it up and dialed the voice mail service to learn that there were three messages for him, all from his mother. Gritting his teeth and sighing, he returned her calls.
“Hello?” His mother’s voice was an older version of Brittany’s.
“Hi Mom,” Brian said. “I see you called three times. Is there an emergency?”
“Oh, no. I wanted to tell you I saw that commercial for that company you helped.”
“Did you like it?”
“The person filming it had to be far too small to hold such a camera. It shook terribly. And the poor girl they hired to be in the commercial looked like she was on drugs.”
“She wasn’t on drugs, Mom. She’s actually a nice girl and well within the ad budget.”
“I would’ve spent some more finding a better actress.”
“Mom, did you call just to complain about the commercial?” Brian’s voice was frustrated and rushed.
“Why, are you too busy to talk to your mother?”
“It’s just that I have a date…”
“A date? You? Surely you’re joking!”
“No, I really do. A nice girl at work.”
“Well, I see where your priorities lie. Slog off your own mother for some tramp who made you coffee.”
“Mom, she’s not a tramp.”
“I’m sure she’s not.”
“Look Mom, if you’re going to blow up my phone everyday just to have me sit here and take your shit, then please do me a favor and lose my number. I am tired of your insults, and your condescension, and pretty much all your bullshit. You’re the reason I was in therapy. You’re the reason I tried killing myself. If you have nothing positive or uplifting to tell me ever, feel free to call. But until then, goodbye.”
Brian didn’t even wait for a retort. He turned the phone off and slammed it back into its cradle.
Brian showered, shaved, put on some Old Spice, and got dressed. He looked into the mirror, making sure his tie was perfectly straight, and saw something he hadn’t seen in a long time: a smile on his face.
Murphy’s Pub was a local dive tucked in between a dry cleaner’s and an adult novelty store on 3
Street downtown. Brian strolled in wearing a more casual shirt and tie under his father’s sport coat. The bar was relatively sparse for customers at eight o’clock, and that was just fine with him. It didn’t take long for him to spot Angela sitting in a corner booth.
Angela smiled and blushed again as Brian sat down. Her hands wrung around a pint glass of dark beer.
“Glad you could make it,” she said.
“Sorry I’m a little late. Got a phone call from my mom.”
Brian ordered a Guinness from the waitress. For a few moments, he stared into Angela’s big blue eyes, getting lost in them before he spoke.
“Does Glenn know…?”
“Yes,” Angela said, placing her hand over his. “He’s taken care of.”
Brian’s beer arrived. The pair sipped their drinks and chatted about work. The conversation turned from work to art, and Brian discovered why Angela worked at the agency. She was an art major, and working in advertising was a practical way to apply her skills. She had not been aware of the hostile environment marketing often created, but she stuck it out.
They both lived alone, and Angela had a cat named Spartacus. She grew up in the city but often yearned to spend time in the countryside. She wanted to visit and possibly live in Ireland one day.
Brian felt like a horrible human being for never knowing any of this despite working with the woman for the past eight years. Fear hides so much.
Two beers turned into four mixed drinks, which led to four shots of tequila. Brian hadn’t laughed so hard or often in years. Angela’s hand felt good and right on his. The pub got busy around ten, but neither of them noticed. Around one in the morning, the crowd thinned out, and soon the pair was being ushered out the door by the bartender.
Brian hailed a cab. When the cabbie asked where to, Angela blushed again and pointed at Brian. He told the cabbie his address.
The two of them stumbled into the lobby of the apartment building giggling like schoolchildren. Angela threw a fit when the elevator button wouldn’t work. Brian showed her how to press it just right. They shared a kiss in the elevator. And in front of Brian’s door. And behind it.
Eight years of fear, anxiety, frustration, longing, and loneliness evaporated in forty-five minutes and condensed into sweat on their skin and on Brian’s sheets.
The two of them lie under a simple brown sheet, catching their breath and allowing the world to return to its rightful place after spinning out of control. Angela’s red fingernail traced circles on Brian’s ribs and her head rested on his chest.
“What suddenly made you ask me out?” she asked.
Brian’s arm rested around her shoulders. He gave her upper arm a gentle massage. “I was told this was my last day on earth.”
“A British guy. This morning, at the bus stop.”
Angela giggled. “That’s silly.”
“I think he meant it.”
“Is this how you wanted to spend your final day?”
“Couldn’t think of any other way.”
Brian awoke to his alarm going off. His head was still full of beer and tequila as he sat up in his bed. Angela was gone. Was she ever really there? His throbbing head wouldn’t let him think.
He trudged to his bathroom where he choked down a glass of water and a few ibuprofen to ease the throbbing. He saw himself in the mirror. The smile was still there, even though he was not in the mood to smile.
His head cleared up as he got ready for work. He wondered what Glenn would say to him. He wondered what Angela would wear to work. He adjusted his tie perfectly, splashed on some Old Spice, collected his briefcase and sport coat, and went downstairs.
As he approached the bus stop, it suddenly occurred to him that he was supposed to die. It made him pause, but when he saw a familiar cane resting against the bus stop bench he was able to move again.
Sitting at the stop was the aristocratic British gentleman again, wearing the same suit.
“Good day, young man,” he said.
“Morning,” Brian said as he sat down. “I take it you’re here to whisk me off to some afterlife hmm?”
“Afterlife?” The man chuckled. “My good man, your life ended last night. This is the afterlife.”
“What do you mean?”
“One hasn’t truly lived until he has chosen to do so,” the man said. “Some of us make this choice very young, and spend our lives burning bright as the sun until one day, our fuel runs out, and we disappear as fast as we arrived. Others decide to burn our fuel sparingly, leaving a steady impression on the world, only to fizzle out into darkness again. Still others choose to never use an ounce of fuel until one day, they erupt with the light of a million atom bombs, leaving their indelible mark on the world and questions in the minds of the witnesses.”
“You have spent your life conserving that fuel, too scared to light it and let it burn. That, my good man, is not living. That is merely surviving. People like you, and there are so many, only need a catalyst, a spark, to push you to light the fuse. Essentially your life as you know it ends when you choose to ignite that fuse.”
Brian’s hangover-clouded brain seemed to clear instantly. He only looked at the man, who returned a bright, wide smile. For several moments, they stared into each other’s eyes. The man then tossed his cane into the air and caught it. He stood, bowed his head and gave Brian a small salute before turning to walk away.
“Wait,” Brian said.
“You’ve done enough waiting. Your fuse is lit. You can choose to burn it all at once, or steadily, or in one giant explosion. Choose now, and never let the fuse go out.” The man’s voice faded as he got farther and farther away.
“You gonna get on?” The bus driver’s voice bellowed. Brian’s trance broke and he looked at the driver.
“Yes, yes I will. I am.” He collected his briefcase and his father’s old sport coat and stepped onto the bus with one new thing: a smile.