Ben Crook and Tim Law we’re perfect strangers until early in the nineties when they discovered they had so much in common they could have been brothers. They made it official when they decided to marry sisters in 2003. Now the brothers spend many an hour playing board games, dungeons and dragons and board games about dungeons and dragons. Worst Birthday Ever is their first story to be published that they have written together.
Worst Birthday Ever
Stan makes his way down the pet food aisle of his local supermarket, he stares blankly at the canary seed for long moments thinking about how the hell he got stuck with doing shopping on his birthday of all days. Breakfast in bed consisted of Stan’s eight-year-old son stuffing a box of pop tarts under Stan’s pillow at 5am before racing into the lounge to fire up the Playstation.
“Do you have that brand recommended by that vet on TV?” Stan asks the girl stacking shelves a few yards away. The girl replies with manic gum chewing and a non-committal shrug of her shoulders.
“Dude what are you doing here? It’s your birthday.”
‘I know,’ Stan thinks to himself as he grabs the closest box of seed before moving off in search of milk.
“Subject is on the move,” Stan hears the girl murmur as his trolley passes by her.
‘Weird,’ thinks Stan to himself but keeps shopping.
There are eleven bottles of milk left on the shelf when Stan approaches the dairy cabinet. Time seems to slow down like it does when you see a pen about to roll off the edge of the table but your reflexes are likewise slow so the perception of slowed time is not helpful, just frustrating. So when Stan reaches out for the closest bottle of milk he sees an elderly lady out the corner of his eye suddenly accelerate with a panicked expression reaching for the same bottle. Stan thinks, ‘What the hell is she doing.’
Stan has always had a thing about old ladies, they smell too much like lavender and he seems to always get stuck behind them on the road. Generally, they give him the creeps. Stan sees, still in slow motion, the woman’s gnarly wrinkled hand with its near-transparent papery skin and blurry blue veins grasp the milk bottle that he was aiming for, but because of his similarly slowed reflexes, he is unable to stop himself from landing his own hand firmly on top of hers.
Stan mentally grimaces – ‘yick!’
But on the outside, Stan smiles. It is one of those cheesy smiles he uses when he feels that he needs to be polite.
“Oops, sorry,” Stan laughs as he snaps his hand back as if it had been burned by acid.
The old woman smiles as well, but hers is almost a cold vile thing that makes Stan’s skin crawl. “That’s quite alright young man,” her breath smells like cat food, the cheap variety.
Stan usually avoids conflict of any kind, but this old woman has gotten under his skin and he decides to say something. “Why this bottle, there are heaps of others?”
The woman is taken aback, obviously not expecting the question. “Er…”
She cradles the bottle close to her chest and takes several steps backwards, her smile morphing into an expression of fear. She bumps into another worker staking shelves and makes the young man drop a can of beetroot. The worker glares at Stan as if it was his fault. Then both the worker and the old woman speak in perfect unison, “Turn off that machine!”
Later, Stan is sitting in his car, groceries on the passenger seat, receipt crumpled in his fist. ‘God damn crazies!’
Stan decides to shop elsewhere in future.
It is of great relief to Stan when his house comes into view. It is not the best house but certainly not the worst one on a pristine, birch lined terrace. As Stan cuts the engine on his white SUV he notices that his neighbor is busy getting the Webber ready for a barbeque lunch.
“Hey there neighbor! Nice porch ya got!” the neighbor hollers.
Stan nods thanks, ‘Seven years we’ve lived side by side and all he’s ever said to me is how nice my damned porch is,’ curses Stan in his mind. In a dark mood Stan unloads the first two bags of shopping. Grinning a goofy grin the neighbor continues to prep his barbeque.
Stan shifts the shopping bags to free up an arm before fishing about his pockets for the house keys. As the key slips smoothly into the lock the door swings open with an eerie creak.
“Tom! I’m home!! Come and give your old man a hand with the shopping!” Stan hollers. ‘Why is the door already open..? And why is it so damned hot?’ he thinks to himself, both confused and concerned.
“Tom!! Are you here?!” Stan yells again, this time louder.
As the two shopping bags he has carried in are both placed hastily upon the kitchen bench Stan scans the longue for signs of his son.
As expected Tom has his eyes glued to the television screen, tapping buttons on a gaming system controller, too engrossed in what he is doing to listen to his father. Unexpectedly Stan notices that the screen which normally shows some character leaping from platform to platform is at this moment completely blank. Stan leaves the milk, eggs, bread and everything else in the bags as he slowly creep from the kitchen toward the TV.
“Tom… Buddy? What are you playing?” asks Stan, his concern growing by the second.
No answer, the boy continues to mash buttons furiously, sweat beading on his brow beneath the strap of his reversed Converse cap.
“Not right now dad, I’m busy.”
“I can see that, Buddy. But wouldn’t you see better if the TV was turned on?” Stan asks as he carefully draws closer, the feeling he has woken up in the Twilight Zone growing ever stronger.
“Enough, Thomas. Turn that machine off!” Stan pauses as he feels a twang of déjà vu. He shakes it off and leaps at the PlayStation to turn it off. He expects the usual tirade of the latest curses Tom has learned from the schoolyard, but there is only the continued clicking noise of more button-mashing. Stan then notices that the PlayStation has come to life with blinking lights and the gentle whir of the hard drive revving up. He has turned the machine on, not off.
Stan looks back at his son, the boy intently focused on the game he thought he was playing, his teddy bear cradled in his lap, he eyes fixed on the blank screen of the TV… ‘Wait – teddy bear?’
Tom had given up that teddy bear years ago. In fact, Stan is positive he threw that moldy old thing out a long time ago. Stan considers himself to be a rather sensible individual, not taken to flights of fancy or bouts of hysteria. Stan thinks of himself as a level-headed, no-nonsense type of guy. He has, however, read many internet articles over the years about government experimentation on the unsuspecting public. A lot of what he has seen online has been obviously farfetched, but a few months ago, Stan was certain that the mains water had started tasting different. He had joked about it with his friends, saying it was the government putting hallucinogenic drugs in the water system. Now, Stan is not entirely convinced it was a joke.
Stan grabs for the teddy, Mister Rodger the bear, expecting it not to be there. It is though, soft and fluffy in his hands.
“Hey Tom,” Stan states slowly to his son, “Daddy doesn’t feel so good. I might just go for a bit of a lie down.”
The black button eyes on the teddy flash red on the bear as Mister Rodger’s head slowly rotates a complete 360 degrees.
“Tom is a bit busy at the moment,” Mister Rodger announces in a deep, disturbing voice.
“Demon bear! Horrid… Weird… What the..? My son has a demon bear!!” screams Stan in utter hysterics, totally overwhelmed by what he has just experienced.
Stan rips off the head of the bear manically and as an action based purely upon instinct throws the head with the glowing eyes into the roaring fireplace.
‘Who lit the fire in the middle of summer?’ wonders Stan. ‘Oh no… Electronics…’ he thinks as his next thought as he discovers the circuitry inside the bear’s stuffed body.
Stan pinches himself and whispers thanks as he feels the expected pain.
“Ok, so I’m not crazy,” states Stan, aloud so he can affirm the statement is true. “No, I’m certainly not crazy and definitely not dreaming.”
Stan considers the bear, certainly not American made. It could be Japanese or even come from Germany, as a country united they had made some advances lately hadn’t they? Then looking closer Stan discovers a glowing component. As his focus is drawn to this wormlike piece of the teddy’s circuitry the worm begins to squirm.
The hair on the back of Stan’s neck stands to attention. He tosses the rest of the teddy bear across the room and a flare of sparks explodes from the frayed neck stump of the beheaded toy. Tom jumps to his feet and calls out to his father.
“Dad, Mister Rodger just wanted to play games,” the boy pleads. “Mister Rodger has the best games.”
“Tom! Get over here,” if Stan’s mind wasn’t racing before then it certainly is now; any attempt to rationally explain what he has just witnessed is a futile exercise. All that Stan cares about now is his son, his family, the people that he loves. Then Stan spies from the mangled and burning form of Mister Rodger the little fluorescent worm wriggling like a tadpole out of water. It is travelling at a surprising speed, away from the bear and towards the blank television screen.
“Tom! Get here NOW!!” the hairs on the back on Stan’s neck almost crackle with anticipation for what he suspects will be coming next. Without waiting for his son to respond, Stan strides purposefully to the couch and scoops his eight year old into his arms.
“Dad he was just a teddy,” whines Stan’s son. “He told me that he never meant any harm.”
“And you believed a talking teddy with GLOWING red eyes?” replies Thomas’ dad. “If we get out of this alive please remind me to talk to you about right and wrong choices when it comes to the un-freaking-believable.”
As the pair exit the house Stan risks a quick glance over his shoulder, witnessing the moment when the worm launches itself at the blank screen. The plasma television shows the static pattern of black and white for the briefest moment before it implodes, sucking the coffee table and couch in as well as the worm and everything else in the room.
“Time to go,” announces Stan to his son as together they leap clear.
Stan and Tom hear an almighty crunch as the entire house cracks horizontally through the middle. The pair sprint out to the front yard as the crunching noises behind them grow with intensity. Then there comes an explosion that shakes the ground as the gas tank goes up.
The crunching noise ceased, Stan rolls off his son and checks him over.
“Oh God, are you okay, Buddy?”
Tom sits up and looks over Stan’s shoulder, “I’m okay, dad, but where has the house gone?”
The pair unsteadily climb to their feet and survey the empty space where their family home once stood. There is a tall tongue of flame blooming into the air from the gas mains and water geysers from the mains pipe as even the concrete foundations of the house have been torn up like some pesky weed and sucked into the plasma TV. The TV now gone, not a trace of it to be seen.
Stan and Tom look at each other, not sure if they can believe what they have just witnessed.
“Well, I don’t think that was German-made.” Stan says, uncertain of what else to say.
Tom gives his dad a confused look, “What, dad?”
Tom’s face distorts into a look of pure shock, his eyes brimming with sadness and dismay.
“What Thomas, what is it?” Stan asks, taking his son’s face in his hands.
“Dad, we forgot mum,” replies Tom, tears glistening in the boy’s eyes, threatening to fall.
“Thomas where was your mother?” panics Stan.
“She was in your room,” whimpers Tom, “Wrapping your present for me.”
Stan feels his legs give way and he stumbles, numb to his manicured front lawn.
“Hi there neighbor!” comes an overly pleasant hail from the other side of the driveway. The smiling neighbor stands by his Webber barbeque, raw pale sausages resting on the cold grill. A teenage boy and a small girl each hold up a slice of bread and their father uses his tongs to plonk a couple of still-raw sausages on top.
Stan’s heart pumps erratically, his mind unable to properly register all he has seen so far today, still yet to contemplate everything he has lost; wife, house, sanity. Stan is still just able to summon enough rationale to realize that it is not normal for the neighbor’s kids to eat their meat so undercooked.
The neighbor smiles a sickly sweet smirk, “Pity about that porch.”
‘Yep,’ thought Stan. ‘The worst birthday ever.’