Still, his friends struggled to make sense of their old friend's new appearance, wondering what stood behind the dramatic shift and whether it conveyed a specific intent. The masculinity gushing out of every pore of his hardened body did not suit Ben, and not for aesthetic reasons. They circled around him relentlessly, hugging him, treading carefully around the thin ice of Marian's name. Yet Ben, the life of the party, threw his head back and laughed, open-mouthed, constantly bringing Marian up, signaling that he was aware of the delicate situation and eager to put everyone at ease. With each passing moment it became clear that Ben refused to accept even the slightest gesture of pity. The blood that drained from his friends' faceswhen he joked that Marian had perfect timing, leaving when she did in order to avoid having to deal with a midlife crisisslowly resumed its normal course as they began to realize that Ben could only relate to the crushing loss with humor, and so they played along, chuckling on cue when he announced that his wife had found the most original manner in the world to leave a man without hurting his feelings. After an hour of verbal ballet, Ben suggested opening the presents. He failed to conceal the moistness in his eyes when he ripped open the wrapping paper, revealing the newest works from his wife's favorite writers, musicians, and fashion designers. But before the evening was stained with melancholy, he brought his palms together, rubbed vigorously, and said it was about time he revealed his second present for his dear wife. When one of them asked what the first present was, he posed for her, struck a malemodel pout, and pirouetted three times, arms extended, enchanted by his own inane performance. "This bodyMarian always wanted me to put some work into it."
His friends, rejoicing at the simple explanation, rose out of their chairs and clapped him on the back, some of them wiping away tears.
Ben waited for them to settle down and then repeated his earlier statement. He walked over to the window, pulled the curtain aside, and nodded. Before his friends had the chance to fully interpret his actions, their ears picked up the crack of gunpowder from outside and, at the sight of Ben, smiling, nodding his head toward the door, they rushed out and stood dumbfounded in the front yard, their eyes tracing the arc of the fireworks in the sky, the wealth of stunning colors crowning the night with festive circles of light. The eye-and-soul pleasing shades flared across the night sky, drawing hearts and roses, baby blue fountains and emerald gardens, orange suns and regal purple stars. As Ben's friends oohed and ahhed, the neighbors came out of their houses and joined them, enjoying the breathtaking pyrotechnic display on the eve of an ordinary day.
But it was not, the friends learned, a regular evening, nor was it an ordinary day. Twenty exhilarating minutes later, they filed back into the house to thank Ben for the generous display but were rudely denied the chance. Ben lay in a puddle of blood, seeded with parts of his brain. In his right hand he held a warm gun, and in his left a note asking them to open the fridge and take out the towering birthday cake with the maple syrup script that read "And They Died Happily Ever After . . ."
The World of the End © Ofir Touché Gafla 2013
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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