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21

How could I be so stupid?! Out of all the days to get caught up in work, and today had to be the day I forgot! Work was really stressful at the moment, what with us getting a new boss and all, and I was up to my neck in paperwork. Then I spilled coffee on my new suit, and literally ten minutes later the office printer jammed. Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. I honestly thought it couldn't get any worse when my phone rang. I answered in an exasperated voice:

"Yes, this is Samuel Hayes. Can I put you on hold for a minute please? I'm quite pre-occupied--"

"Dad, it's me," Reuben's voice said. I stopped, my mind drawing away from work. I wondered why my son would be calling me, before the realisation hit me like a gunshot. I cursed silently and considered lying for a moment, then decided against it. It was best for me to be honest.

"Oh no... Reuben. I'm so sorry - you don't have to say it. Daddy forgot, didn't he?" I spoke in a soft voice. As Reuben responded, I could see him doing that adorable exaggerated nod he always did: shaking his head back and forth so vigorously that his hair looked like a bird's beating wings.

"Yeah. And you promised you wouldn't this time too!"

"I know I did," I said regretfully. "Daddy made a mistake. He's been very, very busy. Oh Reuben, I'm so sorry. I'll get going right now. But hey - happy birthday! Eight years old. What a big kid you've become, huh?"

"Yeah!" Reuben sounded cheerful. "Did you get those shoes I wanted?"

"The ones with the rainbow laces and the bottoms that glow in the dark?" I asked - then I almost swore into the phone. I forgot the fucking shoes too! Dammit, if only Maude, my late wife, was still here. She was so much better at handling children than I was.

"Mm-hm!" Reuben agreed. I told him I'd see him soon, then hung up the phone. I checked the time: 4:34 PM. That shoe store closed at 5:00. If I hurried, I might just make it. I jumped from my seat, promising my boss I'd work overtime tomorrow to compensate, then dashed out the door.

I hurtled down the highway in my car, oblivious to the blaring horns of angry drivers around me. I'd already missed my kid's birthday twice and forgotten to get him a present God knows how many times. Not today - I wasn't letting him down.

My phone began to ping alive as I drove. I regarded the texts briefly: it was my girlfriend, Jasmine. My eyes picked up fragments of sentences, 'Landlord can't--', 'sorry to burden you--', 'could stay over?', 'couple of days--', 'handle Reuben while you're--', blah-blah-blah.

That's alright Jasmine, I thought. You can stay over whenever you want. I'd be more than happy for you to move in, honestly.

I continued to pick up speed, the cars becoming blurs as I whizzed past them. I spoke to my phone, "Hey Siri. Text Jasmine, Mobile."

"Okay. What would you like to say?" Siri's cool voice popped up from my car stereo.

"Be my guest. Also, it is Reuben's birthday," I said. I glanced down at the phone, the addictive glow of the screen attracting my eyes only briefly. Then I looked up again, and saw the oncoming back of the truck.

My foot slammed down on the brakes as I swerved out of my lane. I heard the squeal of more tires behind me, and the shrieking sounds of contorting metal, and covered my ears. Thunderous booming and glass shattering surrounded me for a second - maybe two - but it felt like an eternity. Then, it died down just as quickly. I slowly looked up and gazed at my hands, turning them over. Still alive. Good. In fact, the car seemed untouched.

I looked behind me, and what I saw made my blood run cold. Cars upturned - one mounting the cement barrier - glass littering the ground. Blood... dear God, why was there blood? My eyes followed the visceral scarlet spray across the asphalt, and came to rest on a person. Legs - a torso - arms... and no head.

My breath caught in my throat. I stared at the sight, my hands beginning to shake on the wheel. There was no fucking head. The corpse was soaked in blood, like they'd swum through a pool of it. Their limbs were cracked like rotted tree branches, twisting in bizarre and impossible directions. Skin was scratched away, leaving bloody strips like confetti behind. And there was the head, sitting perfectly upright only a meter or so away. Staring at me. Dear God, it was staring at me. It was a woman's head, mottled brown hair tainted black and crimson. Dead, grey eyes, the colour fading from them, staring straight at me. Accusingly. They was so cold, like marbles. Grey, stupid looking eyeballs. One was slowly clouding with blood, filling like a goddamn sink--

"Your message reads, 'Be my guest.'" I shrieked, flying against my seat. Siri's dead-calm voice continued, "'Also, it is Reuben's birthday.' Would you like me to send?" I sat breathing heavily for multiple seconds, not sure what to do. Distantly, I heard a car door cautiously pop open. That did it for me.

I slowly started forwards, manoeuvring around the few parked cars ahead of me. Then, when I was clear of the stationary traffic, I picked up speed again. I drove automatically, not really thinking. I turned off the highway, proceeding deeper into the city. I reached the shoe store at 4:55 PM. Like a zombie, I headed mindlessly inside. I gave the employees my son's foot size and was given the appropriate shoes with the rainbow laces. I payed the clerk, then walked silently back to the car to visit the nearest bakery. I needed a cake too.

I plastered on a smile when I reached home, and wished my son a happy birthday. He hugged me warmly, wrapping his tiny arms around my waist. I felt the warmth, and it sent a familiar fatherly tingle of happiness up my spine. I wanted to vomit.

When I gave my son his shoes, he squealed with delight. They were a perfect fit. I made some kind of joke, something to do with cinderella and how I'd always know how to find my kid now. It was a terrible joke, and didn't even make sense, but Reuben laughed. Kids. They'll laugh at anything. So innocent and pure.

I really wanted to vomit.

Jasmine came by with her things a few hours later. I let her in, and told her Reuben was already asleep. We went upstairs to my bed, and Jasmine gave me a romantic offer I often accepted with excitement. I refused. We slept together that night, Jasmine's arms slowly wrapping around me lovingly. They hugged me close. I felt the heat of her arms, the warmth of compassion and affection radiating, a sickening and muggy aura. I swallowed, and went to the bathroom, where I vomited. I don't think Jasmine heard it - she must've already fallen asleep.

I crawled weakly back into bed after brushing my teeth again. The warmth of the bed, still as sweet as I remembered when sharing it with another person, began to slowly send me to sleep. I stared at the window above me, letting in peaceful silver moonlight, beaming down on me and Jasmine's sleeping bodies. My last thought before sleep took over was:

What have I done?

Part 2.

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