The Countdown by Gray Winsler

Art by Jason White

The Countdown
By Gray Winsler
Art by Jason White

Published Issue 114, June 2023

The day began as any other for Harry. He woke up to the delightful mrrrps of his cat, Pebbles. He ate his usual slice of buttered toast while listening to Morbidly Curious (a podcast about London’s first homosexual serial killer, whom Harry, when intoxicated, would admit he found rather attractive). He made himself a single cup of coffee, which he sipped slowly as he and his AI compatriot, Fig, designed advertisements for the tube. And then after work he curled up with Pebbles on the couch and together they watched Planet Swap, a reality show in which a human family exchanges places with a boson family and the usual reality hijinks ensued. This was Harry’s life. It was quiet, peaceful. And sure, a part of him longed for the excitement he found in the romance novels he read late at night, but he contented himself with his life as it was. This was the secret to happiness, he believed. “You’ve got to be happy with what you’ve got,” he’d often say to Pebbles as she looked bitterly at the lack of wet food in her bowl. Pebbles did not agree.

Though the day began as any other, it would not end as any other. Because this was the day that Harry learned he was going to die. You see, the bosons, unlike humans, were a race not bound by time. They view time the way you may view a track — a series of moments you can run through again and again at your leisure. And as part of the many accords signed between the two races, it was agreed that the bosons would notify any humans of their impending doom six months prior to their death, so that they may get their affairs in order. Formally, this was called a “pre-departure notification.”

The news came to Harry by way of a targeted advertisement on Planet Swap encouraging him to come visit the island of Mori, which was like Miami Beach for those who were going to die. Harry thought it was a mistake at first. How could he possibly be given the countdown? He was still so young after all. Then a series of texts and voice messages and holograms began pouring in from people he hadn’t spoken to for years, proclaiming how sorry they were, offering to buy him dinner or drinks. But it wasn’t until he saw he’d missed eleven calls from his mum that the news truly sank in, at which point he began to hyperventilate.

Amidst Harry’s hyperventilations, there came a knock at the door. In a state of absentminded shock, Harry went to the door and opened it, finding a middle-aged man standing there in a dark gray suit. 

“Hello, are you Harry?”

Harry nodded, breath still uneven.

An expression of feigned empathy plastered itself to the man’s face, which it seemed to Harry he’d worn many times before. “I’m so sorry Harry. It’s a rotten deal, finding out you’re going to die like that. But, better to know than to not know, you know?”

“I’m sorry — who are you?”

“Apologies. My name’s Ollie. I work for the Happy Days Foundation. We’re sort of like Make-A-Wish, but for people who’ve been given the countdown like you. Have you started to think about what you’re going to do with your last six months?“

“What? No, I — can we do this some other time?”

“Of course, of course. Here, in the meantime take this,” Ollie said, holding out a gift basket to Harry. It was filled with an array of decadent treats and a tablet scrolling through advertisements for exotic destinations. Harry didn’t know this, but the pre-departure industry had become one of the most lucrative industries. As you can imagine, people who were about to die had less reason to be stodgy about their money. Harry took the basket from Ollie and went back inside, where he promptly collapsed into his couch. Pebbles leapt up beside him.

“What am I going to do, Pebbles?” he asked, scratching her fuzzy head.

The next few weeks felt as a distant daze. He tried to avoid friends and family at first. The last thing he wanted was to see their pitiful expressions, reminding him constantly that he was going to die. But after the one hundred and twelfth call from his mum, he couldn’t take Pebbles’ judgmental glowering anymore and so he reluctantly answered. His mum turned out to be more of a mess than he was, which for some reason made him feel a bit better about things. She asked him if he knew how it was going to happen, a question that somehow hadn’t occurred to Harry. He then spent the next three days obsessively trying to find out, but the bosons had taken great care to prevent this information from being revealed. They witnessed too many humans try desperately to avoid their fait, which had the perplexing effect of cementing it. 

As the days went on, Harry grew more and more anxious. He’d never considered his death before all this. He’d simply lived one day after the next. Now that he knew he was going to die, he couldn’t help but feel wildly underprepared. Harry hated to feel underprepared. He discussed these feelings with his therapist who made a suggestion he would never have imagined.

“How do you think you’d feel about a trial run?”

“A what?”

“A rehearsal of sorts. For death.”

“I mean … I don’t know — is that something you can do?”

As it turns out, the bosons were fascinated by the process of death. They found humanity’s affliction quite peculiar, and they were desperate to know what it was like. Some even fetishized the possibility of escaping their endless loops. One enterprising boson tapped into this desire and built a theme park in (of all places) Miami Beach, which catered to the boson’s fascination with death. 

Harry dismissed the idea at first. He was terrified of facing his death, and the last thing he wanted was to face it sooner. And the advertisements for the park (which were primarily catered to bosons) didn’t help. Most were incoherent. The one Harry could follow featured a ride where participants would have their death simulated by being digested (slowly) by the universe’s largest worm. It was called the “Tunnel of Love” because apparently every boson agreed, “there is nothing more erotic than the inside of a worm.” 

And yet, as the days went on, and Harry’s countdown clock began to dwindle, he found himself growing desperate. He was not ready to die, this he knew. But perhaps, he thought, if he could confront death once in a sort of trial run, then maybe the real thing wouldn’t be so bad. And just as Harry was softening to the idea, the tablet in the gift basket Ollie had left him buzzed with a notification that flights from London to Miami Beach were on sale. This was unfortunately just an example of how omnipotent targeted advertising had become, but Harry took this as a sign from the universe and purchased his tickets on the spot. 

“Looks like we’re going to America, Pebbles.”

Pebbles mrrrped with judgment. 

One week later, Harry found himself crammed into a boat with a gaggle of Dorito-headed bosons, floating toward the universe’s largest worm. It was in this moment that Harry deeply regretted his decision to come. He briefly considered exiting the boat and swimming to shore, but somehow the neon pink river seemed less appealing than the inside of the worm. 

He expected it to be cold and damp, like a cave, but it was in fact warm and damp. Harry imagined this is what it felt like to be enveloped by a giant armpit. The light grew dimmer the further they went. Parts of the worms insides had hardened and calcified, leaving ample opportunity for boson graffiti that Harry could not decipher, but was the equivalent of crude drawings of penises. The boat wobbled slightly as the worm gurgled, acrid fumes filling the air. The bosons beside him seemed to giggle with glee, which only made Harry’s dread worse. He wondered what had possibly caused his him to make such a foolish decision. He looked back again to the worm’s mouth, which looked woefully far away now. He wished desperately to be back at home with Pebbles as the light grew ever more dim.

It was at this point in the “digestive process” (which had of course been altered for safety reasons) the worm began to excrete a chemical familiar to many psychonauts. Harry had never taken psychedelics before, but he’d read about them. It can be assured though that reading about psychedelics cannot possibly convey how it feels to take psychedelics. What Harry felt at first was a sensation of falling, as if the boat beneath him had simply vanished. This exacerbated his panic, but in the inky black abyss of the worm, there was little he could do. He began to hyperventilate again, until, somewhere out in the abyss, he saw a tiny ball of fluff growing larger. 

Art by Jason White

“Pebbles?” Harry asked, absolutely mystified.

“Hello, Harry,” Pebbles said. 

“How … ”

“How indeed,” Pebbles licked her paw absently. “Life is full of mysteries, isn’t it?”

“But … how are you here?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m the person you’re closest to, the person you wish was by your side in this cavernous worm.”

“But … you’re a cat.”

“You know Harry, I have to say, that hurts. It really does.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean — it’s just that, shouldn’t the person I’m closest to be a … person?“

“And who would that be, Harry?”

“Um, well … “ Harry suddenly found himself desperate to think of someone, anyone. “What about my mum?”

“Your mother? Who you talk to a few times a year? Who you refuse to share anything personal with for fear she’ll tell one of her boyfriends, and they’ll tease you for it?”

“That’s not fair.”

“Oh no? Tell me Harry, who did you go to first when William broke up with you? Or when you got laid off? Or when Fig gave you nasty feedback about one of your advertisements?”

“Oh god … is my best friend a cat?”

Pebbles sat and curled her tail around her feet, seemingly satisfied with herself. Harry slumped down beside her, the weight of the realization slowly sinking in. He used to have friends, a community of people he loved and who loved him. He used to go to trivia every Thursday with Jenny and Jemma. He used to play ultimate frisbee in the park with Wesley. He used to throw extravagant dinner parties for all the people he loved. But somewhere along the way it all just felt like too much effort, too much drama. And now here he was, inside a giant worm next to a hallucination of his cat.

“What have I done?” Harry asked.

“There’s still time,” Pebbles said.

Harry scoffed. “Not for me.”

“Two months from now, you would kill for the time you have today.”

“Are you always this wise?” Harry asked, but when he looked to Pebbles, she was gone. He was alone again.

The details of how Harry exited the worm is something he would prefer not to be discussed. But suffice to say that, despite being bathed in an unknown gelatinous liquid, he was no worse for wear when he boarded his flight to London. As he sat there, waiting for his plane to depart, he sent out a group message to all the friends he’d ignored these past weeks. He let them know he was holding the first in a series of pre-departure parties this weekend. The first theme would be “Sultry Space Opera.” Harry knew he couldn’t change the time he’d lost these past years. But he could at least say a proper goodbye.

Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.

Jason White is an artist living in the suburbs of Chicago. His favorite mediums are oil on canvas and pencil & ink drawings. When he was a kid he cried on the Bozo Show. His work varies from silly to serious and sometimes both. Check out more of his work on Instagram.

Check out Gray’s May short story, The Girl Behind Samurai Bistro, and Jason’s Full Page piece, or head to our Explore section to see more of his work.

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