This story is by Paige Aoki and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On Daniel’s twenty-seventh birthday, a gift-wrapped box arrived at his apartment, heralded by a knock. Topped by a red bow, there was no card, no address, and no one at the door to identify the sender. Inside, a small, plain mirror sat nestled among white tissue paper, bearing a handwritten message in sharp black letters.
You’re one year closer to the grave. Tick-tock. Happy Birthday, Daniel!
Daniel shared a blank look with his reflection as he muttered, “Odd prank.” Nonplussed, he shrugged and set the present aside, leaving his apartment with a peculiar dread knotting his stomach.
His first inkling that something was amiss came at his local bakery: as Daniel picked up his birthday cake, he brushed hands with the baker and saw it.
He saw the baker die, red-faced and clutching his chest, keeling over from an apparent heart attack. The precognitive flash made Daniel gasp as he opened his mouth to call for help, but his throat closed, and he almost dropped the cake, struck by a coughing fit.
“You alright, kid?” the baker asked as Daniel sucked in ragged gulps of air, his lungs afire.
“Yeah, I think so,” Daniel rasped. He gave his head a quick shake, clearing his throat.
The baker quirked his mouth, skeptical but alive despite Daniel’s vivid vision of the man’s collapse.
His cheeks warming, Daniel searched the baker’s face for hints of impending disaster before asking, “Are you?”
The baker’s smile was awkward. “Fit as a fiddle. By the way,” he added, changing the subject, “Happy Birthday.”
Daniel let out a nervous laugh. It sounded hysterical to his ringing ears. “Thanks,” he muttered and turned to leave, recognizing a dismissal when he heard one.
Before stepping away from the counter, Daniel glanced back. Should he mention what he’d seen? But the man was already helping another customer, and Daniel’s throat still ached from coughing. He turned away again, shivering as he hurried out of the bakery with a sour taste in his mouth.
Best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Another vision struck at the bus stop, where Daniel caught the eye of a woman waiting on a bench. He forced himself to return her polite smile and saw her death. It wasn’t horrific or shocking; it wasn’t even violent. He saw her with greying hair and acceptance on her one-day wrinkled face, the colour leaving her hollow cheeks as her body failed.
The serenity of her passing stopped Daniel in his tracks. He stood there, frozen and gawking wide-eyed at the woman, his heart thunderous in his chest. The woman began to fidget and avoid his gaze as Daniel grimaced and looked away with an apologetic smile. Light-headed, he wisely kept his mouth shut and avoided another coughing attack.
He hurried onto his bus the second it pulled up, escaping the uncomfortable moment. Sitting near the back, he closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath. Twice now, he’d imagined the deaths of perfect strangers. Why? Was there something wrong with him?
Someone sat next to him, jostling his cake box with their bag. A grunt made Daniel look up, and his eyes met a stranger’s. Before he could speak, he saw the man take a bullet while standing on concrete steps, his face half-covered by a bandanna pulled over his mouth. Daniel felt like it might happen soon.
He eyed the man’s backpack, his breathing growing shallow.
“What’re you looking at?” the man snarled.
A warning died on Daniel’s lips as he began to hyperventilate, his throat closing. The coughing was harsher than before. Black spots danced in Daniel’s vision as the man changed seats, muttering freak under his breath.
Weakened by the paroxysm, Daniel ignored the insult. He rubbed at his chest and fretted until finally stumbling off the bus at his stop. Rushing past strangers on unsteady feet, he caught snippets of deaths-to-be and clenched his teeth, unwilling to see the visions through.
Daniel’s legs shook when he reached his apartment, but he didn’t slow. He skirted the elevator and sprinted up the stairs to lock himself in his home. Abandoning the cake in the kitchen, Daniel fumbled out his phone and texted his friends and family.
Need to cancel party tonight. Food poisoning. Sorry.
He was sick. That had to be it. Shaking and nauseated, Daniel climbed into bed and pulled the covers over his head.
I’ll sleep it off. It’ll all be okay tomorrow — I just need sleep.
Every major news outlet ran the same headline the following day.
Local Man Killed in Attempted Bank Robbery. The details were boilerplate, but it was the man Daniel focused on. It was the angry stranger from the bus. He’d refused to surrender his gun, and the police had killed him on the bank’s front steps.
Daniel massaged his aching temples as he watched the coverage, dry-mouthed and heavy-hearted.
He stayed home that day and the next, reassuring everyone who sent worried texts that he was recovering. When Monday rolled around, Daniel gathered his textbooks and left for college, praying everything had returned to normal.
He made it as far as the apartment lobby before encountering the woman who lived below him. She smiled, waving hello, and Daniel saw how she would drown somewhere overseas in two years. Stumbling to a halt, Daniel returned the wave with a stiff smile frozen on his face and fled back to his apartment.
Everything changed after that mysterious package arrived — that had to be the catalyst. Daniel ripped apart the gift box but found no answers. Sagging against the kitchen counter, he shook his head. If I stay home, I won’t see anyone else die… Right?
But he was wrong. After a week of isolation, something changed. The visions arose even without physical contact. Daniel was on the phone with his sister when his vision greyed out, and he saw her death. It seemed her new marriage would grow deadly sour within the year. Light-headed, his body wracked by coughing, Daniel choked out, “You need to leave Mark.”
Hanging up, his palms sweat-damp, Daniel wondered if his warning would change anything. Were the deaths inevitable? Was he simply predicting them or willing them into being? Terrified of the latter, he silenced his phone.
A month later, Daniel was scrolling through social media when he saw the death of an influencer. He saw the car crash that would end her life. Crying out, Daniel flinched and hurled his phone across the apartment. Television was the same, death visions haunting him until he turned it off and retreated to his bedroom.
His family lived on the other side of the country, and Daniel convinced them through letters that he was fine: I just need to rest. I promise I’m okay.
They thought he was suffering from a mental breakdown, and Daniel couldn’t disagree. Maybe he’d lost his mind, or maybe he hadn’t, but either way, he couldn’t take the chance.
Twice, knowing he would see death no matter what he did, Daniel left the apartment, determined to ignore the visions. But his callous facade cracked on the second trip, and he scurried home, haunted by his barber’s impending car crash.
After that, Daniel kept his own company for weeks that stretched into months. The days blurred together, and he lost track of time. He had food delivered to his door and paid his bills with what remained of his student loans. He was like a ghost in his own life, but at least he wasn’t plagued by the looming spectre of death.
A letter arrived in the mail. Smudged by tears, Daniel’s mother’s handwriting announced his sister’s death at the hands of her husband, Mark. She’d died just as Daniel predicted, almost a year after receiving his anonymous gift. Mark was in the wind, missing since the murder.
Could I have saved her? Trembling, Daniel re-read the letter and saw his mother’s death at the bottom of a bottle in three years. Something snapped inside him, and wretched sobs wracked his thin form as he crumpled the letter into a sodden ball with unsteady hands. Numb from crying, shoulders hunched, Daniel tossed the wrinkled paper aside and went to wash away his tears.
In the bathroom, he lifted his head, water dripping down his face, and considered his reflection. His skin was pallid, and bloodshot eyes that had grown sunken stared back at him. A muscle jumped in Daniel’s jaw as he pulled in a ragged breath and saw the words written in black across the mirror.
Backing away from the sink, Daniel heard a knock on his front door. His breath caught in his throat, and his eyes darted toward the hall as coughs shook his body. He recalled the gift’s cryptic note with a rush of horrified realization.
You’re one year closer to the grave. Tick-tock.
One year. Today was Daniel’s twenty-eighth birthday, and his time was up.