The dark wooden bar, long mirror behind it, the woman tending it, crimson-scarlet-cerise redhead, blue unicorn tattooed on her décolletage. The crows’ feet crouching in the corners of her green eyes say she’s thirty-plus but they don’t say those green eyes have ever witnessed a murder.
She asks me what’ll I have.
“Old Fashioned, please, beertender.”
Her giggle says she’s seventeen. “I.D., please,” she jokes.
“On my next birthday, I’ll turn sixty-four if I don’t kill myself.” I tell her I’ve looked forty-five for eighteen years and she takes my left hand and peers at the creases in my palm like a latter-day chiromancer.
With a bartender’s professional flirtation, she asks, “When’s your birthday, Mr. Forty-Five?”
She runs a manicured red fingernail over my Mount of Venus.
“I’m sixty-three,” I say, which gets me an arched red eyebrow.
“Pisces, The Fish. Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks. Two fish, tethered, swimming circles in opposite directions. When’s your birthday o’clock?”
“July 19th. What do you mean, ‘o’clock?’”
“We celebrate a birthday o’clock twice a day, one A.M., one P.M. The nineteenth day of the seventh month makes your birthday o’clock 7:19.”
“Making yours 2:27.”
I like the name I’ve given her. I like the smile she gives me.
“Cerise” lets go of my hand, saying, “Your lifeline stops and starts, stops and starts. You’d better check the batteries in your clock.”
Her green eyes gaze at her smartphone and she laughs at something, maybe a “guy goes into a bar” joke.
“Like so many of life’s twisted bits, it started in puberty,” I say.
“How’s that?” She looks up from her emoticons.
“The way I can avoid aging.” And I spill it to her, my story as I understand it.
I tell her how, years ago, the boy had hopped the snowy fence, pilfered in the tool shed, come around our house, found me shoveling the driveway and shot me with my stepdad’s cordless nailgun. But my twelve-year-old doppelgänger merely wounded me before he ran away.
A year later, with a quick red brick, I bludgeoned my thirteen-year-old double and, yearly, snuffed other teenaged selves with other blunt instruments.
At sixteen, my twelve-year-old body was too small to drive Mom’s rusty Caprice and I avoided my other self that 27th of February. On the 28th, I could reach the pedals and had a new voice and new hairs and new interests. Then I ran away – drove away.
I kicked the killing habit for five years but picked it up again at twenty-one and switched to bullets.
“Wouldn’t you?” I ask her. “Hang at twenty-one for a decade and rack up wisdom without the wrinkles?”
“You’re saying you had no clue this could happen?”
“My mom started to tell me a couple times about my real dad. Too late now.”
Considering my tall tale, the smile Cerise gives me is a treasure.
“It’s like a hangover the day after I fail to kill myself.” In the long, dark mirror, my reflection swirls his brown drink. “I wake up desiccated, a weary combination of ‘dried’ and ‘desecrated.’ And my calendar age catches me.”
“Why kill myself to stay forty-five? Mid-forties are a livable stretch: you can pass for a young-looking fifty-seven or a shopworn thirty-nine. Go grey, dye your hair, work out, slack off. Call it plausibility, a way to avoid complicated explanations, a survival strategy that has taken me years to learn.”
The bar’s mirror doesn’t show how I’ll look tomorrow at age sixty-three if I fail to murder the Pisces man born in the Year of the Wood Horse.
Cerise unbraids her red, red hair and braids it again and I smile at the apropos image.
“My self splits into two people the day before my birthday. Call it unbraiding. The day after, we’re one again; there’s one body and we’re braided.”
The hairs on my arms stand up; I can feel him nearby; he’ll check all of Denver’s 16th Street bars.
“What if…?” Cerise starts to ask.
“Sometimes he only wings me or I wound him and my birthday-celebrating self avoids dying. The next day, I’m the guy recuperating in the hospital. We braid and I age.”
“My self had to fly from Seattle to Dallas to shoot me one year but it saved nine.”
“Your other self pops up in different cities?”
“Seems farther away every year.” I continue. “Say I get arrested for attempted murder. They lock up one or both of us, we braid and I have the victim’s fingerprints and DNA, not the perpetrator’s. The authorities ask, ‘How’d we make this mistake?’ and have to release me. Three times, so far, three cities.
“Say I’m arrested for murder, murder. Habeas corpus, baby: produce the body, which, after a braid, does not exist.”
She squints at me. “How do you know you’re not the evil, I mean you’re the …?”
“The ‘good twin’? I’ve never hunted him on our birthday; he pursues me.”
“What if you get hit by a bus or something? Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“If I die when it’s not my birthday? I’m a guy drinking an outmoded cocktail in a throwback bar talking retro lingo to a kind woman who smiles warmly at an old unicorn.” At this, she does smile. “Life’s a mystery; how would I know what happens then?
“The one thing I know too, too well is I need to get him before he gets me: being shot to death is horrifying-agonizing-traumatic-harrowing-excruciating. Give – do not receive – that birthday present.”
The front door of the barroom opens and a familiar figure steps in. Cerise walks to the end of the bar and, in the mirror, I see what looks like the start of a “guy walks into a bar” joke: a gentleman holding a .45 shows a photograph to the bartender whose green eyes have never witnessed a murder.
He says to her, “Have you seen this man? I think he plans to kill me.”
Sean Jones says: “When I read other authors’ bios, they talk about their cats. I don’t have any and I wonder if other authors really do. After all, they’re creators of fiction. Let me tell you about my cats. Jasmine is a black Siamese with green eyes and she loves to scamper on the back porch and catch moths in the moonlight. Thor is a tabby who sleeps all day, ironically through thunderstorms. Then, there’s Penelope, a Persian…”