John Mason had the odd habit of reading the obituaries every morning while eating his breakfast.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be so odd if you were in your seventies,” his girlfriend complained, “but for a man in the prime of his life…it’s just weird.”
She was right. John was forty-two and very fit, obsessively so. He ran marathons, followed a strict diet and rode his bike to work. He had only one defect and that was his heart. When he was a teenager he was diagnosed with a heart condition that threatened to take his life, but John was intent on living as long as possible. And with all the scientific advances, he believed he could very well beat Death all together.
“Who are you looking for?” asked his girlfriend Lisa.
“I’m not looking for any one person,” he answered. “I’m looking at their ages.” John gave a satisfied sigh and flipped the page.
Lisa looked exasperated. “That is so morbid. Why can’t you just enjoy your life and quit obsessing over death.”
“This is how I enjoy life. Death tried to take me once and I’m not going to let it happen again.”
“You say that as though death were a person, bent on killing you. It will happen to all of us sooner or later.”
She could see he was not paying attention to her as he had gone back to scanning the names of the dead and sipping his mineral water. Lisa kissed the top of his head, grabbed her bag and left his apartment. She had heard his story before and knew she wasn’t going to change him; it was just one of John’s little idiosyncrasies and she would have to learn to put up with it.
The next morning was like every other. John sat in his exquisitely clean kitchen, at his glass-top table, eating his whole grain toast and fruit. He opened the local newspaper, ignoring sports and world events and went straight to the obituaries.
Ashley Blake, he read, died at age thirty-two. “Ha! I beat her,” he said out loud. He went on reading name after name while nibbling at his breakfast and feeling more and more pride each time he came across someone younger than himself. After a time of gloating over the dead, his began to feel a little guilty over his somewhat callous attitude and decided he would read only one more today. Scanning the long list of recently departed he came across something that made him nearly choke on his perfectly toasted bread.
It read: John Mason, age forty-two, died October 19, 2016. The notice went on to tell of his activities in life and list the loved ones he had left behind.
John took a drink of water and swallowed the toast sitting in his throat, then reread the obituary thinking it must be another John Mason. But no, it was most definitely him. His heart skipped a beat. Clutching his chest as he always did when this happened he said out loud, “Calm down. Remember your breathing.”
Breathe in… one, two, three. Breathe out…one, two, three. His heart began to beat regularly again. Now who would play such a prank? Someone with a sick sense of humor. Brad! Brad Lewis from the office, he was always pulling practical jokes. It had to be him. I’ll just call him and clear this whole thing up.
John went to his room to retrieve his cell phone. He flipped the light switch by the door. Nothing. He flipped it again. Still nothing. In his frustration, he cursed. These light bulbs are supposed to last for years. He tried the lights in the bathroom and hallway, none of them worked. Did he forget to pay his bill? No, he nether forgot anything; it must be an outage. It wasn’t important right now. Right now, the most important thing was to speak to Brad.
John grabbed his phone and scrolled through his contact list stopping on Brad’s information. We’ll just end this now, he thought as he tapped in the number. Nothing happened. No service? What was going on? John’s defective heart began to beat out of rhythm again. He sat on the edge of his ergonomic mattress and tried to control his breathing. Alright, I just need to get out of here. I’ll go see Lisa.
He dressed slowly always aware of the beating of his heart. Deciding that biking would be too stressful he opted to walk. John pushed his way through the crowds unaware of the people he was irritating. If he could just see a familiar face it would make everything better. Taking the elevator rather than the stairs he reached the third floor and turned right, his pace quickening as he came closer to her door. He rang the doorbell. No answer. He rang it again. Still no answer. In his frustration, he banged on her door. On the opposite side of the hall a woman opened her door a crack and peeked out. She cleared her throat. John turned around, embarrassed by his actions he attempted to make an excuse, but she quickly cut him off by telling him that Lisa had gone away for the weekend. That’s right, he had completely forgotten. She was visiting her family this weekend.
I’ve got to see Brad. He must be behind this. John walked briskly, but not too briskly, still being careful of his weak heart, back to his apartment to get Brad’s home address. John was feeling calmer now, having convinced himself this was all just a joke. He pulled the keys from his pocket and inserted one in the deadbolt. The key wouldn’t turn. He checked again, it was the right key, maybe in his agitated state he had gone to the wrong door. Looking up at the number painted there he saw a for rent notice taped to the door.
John’s heart began beating out of rhythm. He clutched at his chest and tried to control his breathing. One, two…His mind kept returning to the obituary. Breathe in…His heart gave a final thump and John fell to the floor.
Through choking sobs Lisa spoke, “How could this happen? He was so careful about his health.” Brad put a comforting arm around her shoulder and gazed down at the body lying in the satin lined casket. “I just don’t know,” he whispered.
At the foot of John’s casket, unseen by the mourners, stood a dark cloaked figure, its bony fingers tapping on the lid. A grin spread across the fleshless face as he hissed out the words, “I win.”