I was Hollis Cobden, age fourteen, when I realized I was going to die. That girl does not exist any more, except as part of an event in my head I see from third-person distance. Read the scene from our life before you, and see if I can make you remember:
The picture was slightly discolored and distorted. Every now and then a ripple would slide across the television screen.
"Hard to believe it's been another twenty-five," Samuel, Hollis' grandfather, proclaimed. "Handsome devil on the TV, he doesn't know what'll hit him, poor chap." Samuel gestured at his younger image and then to his current self.
Grace turned to her husband, seated on the couch beside her. "Nah, you're just the same. Haven't changed a bit."
Hollis half smiled. Samuel was not the same at all.
"To another twenty-five!" came the recorded toast.
The Samuel on the television, called to replayed life yet again, laughed and winked at the camera. To celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary, he had just dropped a piece of cake down Grace's dress front and claimed it was an accident.
Their much-anticipated fiftieth anniversary would come tomorrow, and Grace had a plan for the accompanying party.
Grace the Younger pulled faces at the camera, unnoticed by all but its lens, her antics made known after a quarter century.
The day of the party arrived. Early in the morning, Grace gave Hollis and her parents the clothing they were to wear. It looked familiar. "You're young today," she told Hollis' parents, "and you're not born," to Hollis, "so you'll be Leonard." Her grin was mostly gums.
Hollis took the costume. Leonard was a friend of her grandparents' who had died ten years ago. The suit was the same one he had worn exactly twenty-five years previous to today. Her parents, holding what they had worn at approximately age twenty, glanced at each other. Then they nodded, silently agreeing to go along with the thing, to let it play itself out.
"Zachary's even luckier," Hollis' grandmother continued with enthusiasm, referring to a relative a few years older than Hollis. "He was just a baby, just three years old. Lots of things left to do at three."
And so it went.
Each family member staying at the house was given their clothing or that of one who had died, told to put it on, and supposedly reassured by Grace's cheerful, "Don't worry; I'll tell you what to say!"
The morning ran its strange course, and guests began arriving around two o'clock. Grace immediately told them to change. Samuel looked on and shook his head from his wheelchair as she showed them out the door to reenter.
"Congratulations on your daughter's graduation, Lisa!" cried Grace to one such guest, now in a comically floppy hat and dress she has thought quite smashing at the time of its original use.
"Margaret's drowned, you know that…" Lisa said, elderly and confused, hurt by the mention of her daughter still warm in the grave.
"Never mind, never mind. She's here already." Grace gestured to a young male cousin of Hollis' in Margaret's attire.
"Now you say, 'Thanks, Gracie, she always was a hard worker.'"
Lisa glanced around the room. All around her, friends and family were standing still, not talking, waiting for Grace to zip around and instruct them on the next action in this pantomime, in this sad and comical play. There were Hollis' parents, the clothing from their younger days now splitting at the seams. Near them was a baby, tangled in the long pants and jacket of a dead friend. A twenty-three-year-old had been told to toddle around and make a nuisance of himself.
Grace dashed over to this particular man. "Zachary, I told you to spit. You're only three, remember; now spit right there on the floor."
Zachary hesitated. Zachary spat.
Lisa looked last at Samuel, watching his mad and happy wife. The words memorized from film watched time and time again in preparation were now shooting from her lips. Samuel was smiling, as instructed.
Grace rushed back over to Lisa. "Did you say it yet?"
Lisa shook her head, then repeated slowly, "Thanks, Gracie, she always was a hard worker."
And so it continued.
Grace consulted her memory and approached Hollis. "How's life been treating you, Leonard?" she said. Then she whispered, "You feel young and as though all your life is before you." She added, "You're in an expansive mood. Don't say that, of course."
Hollis said her bit, and watched as her grandmother beamed.
Now Grace hurried off to another part of the house. Hollis saw her relatives smother tears at the sight of Hollis playing Leonard and at the memory of a Leonard who was young, alive, and said so.
From the dining room, Grace called everybody together. Samuel wheeled himself after his wife, trying hard to share her enthusiasm.
"'Cut the cake already,'" Grace whispered to a friend. The friend repeated Grace and her younger self.
"First, a toast!" cried Grace. "To another twenty-five years!"
A sodden silence.
"Say it!" Grace ordered the crowd, face aglow with candlelight and excitement, feeling young and as though age had yet to touch her laughing face.
That will be me someday, thought Hollis. It's all eventual—all of this. Twenty-five years ago she was laughing, joking—by god, she was like me! And I'll be like her, going mad, pretending to be young and blissfully ignorant of the difference. Life is breathtakingly short; you're here and then you're gone.
"Say it!" said Grace again, not seeing the tears on her friends' wooden faces through the lens of her overbright vision.
They responded, "To another twenty-five years!"
After the party, I found myself doubled over, vomiting in Grace's flower-scented bathroom, because I knew that all of this is eventual and I was afraid. The day I turned eighteen I took the money I'd been saving and rode the bus as far as it would go.