‘Midlife Crisis’ by Val Muller

Welcome to the Spot Writers. This month’s prompt is: “someone is caught on the bus without a ticket.” Today’s story comes to us from Val Muller, whose story may or may not be inspired by a milestone birthday this week. You can learn more about her kidlit mystery series, Corgi Capers, at www.corgicapers.com.

Midlife Crisis

By Val Muller

Jeffrey reclined on his leather sofa contentedly, inhaling the fresh scent of moisturizing soap. He crossed his legs in his plush slippers and closed the lid on his laptop. He had just scored several Black Friday deals, a little early birthday shopping for himself. The merchandise would arrive just after the big day—in time for the weekend.

He could hardly believe it, turning 40. It was supposed to feel like some kind of big deal, wasn’t it? But, he’d had his life together for several years now. This year hardly felt any different.

All his friends had it harder, of course. All those with kids looked so much older, decades older, in fact. But not Jeffrey. Even at 40 he could still pass for a decade younger. He could probably even pass for a college student if he dressed right. Why would he, though? He kept up-to-date with his education by taking online enrichment classes. He just finished the class on Egyptology and would start one on photography on Monday. And he certainly wouldn’t go back to college to party. He hadn’t even done that when he was a student.

There Jeffrey was with a free ride. His scholarship status allowed him first choice of rooms, so of course he opted for single-occupancy room with no troubling roommates to distract him from his studies. He graduated second in the class, had three job offers waiting. His dad never had to have the talk that dads sometimes have with their sons. About studying instead of partying. About taking it easy with girls and being responsible. No, his dad had a much different conversation.

As early as sophomore year, his dad told him he was wasting his high school years studying so hard all the time, worrying about grades, and avoiding parties. His dad warned him that soon he would be old and mature and wouldn’t have the opportunity to mess up. He’d regret it.

His dad had even gone so far as to offer fifty dollars for Jeffrey to intentionally fail a test, just to prove that the world would keep on going. The day Dad left him at college, he said one thing.

Don’t waste your life being good.

But Jeffrey stayed true. He never failed a test. Dad was just crazy. Why break the rules? It was much less stressful to do what you’re supposed to do and succeed. Jeffrey had a great job, a great salary, and a great house.

His only regret, and it only bugged him once in a while, was that his dad was never made a grandfather. He knew his dad would have had all kinds of ways to spoil kids and rile them up before bedtime and teach them bad things and laugh about it. But if you don’t go out and cause trouble, you never meet girls; and if you never meet girls, then you don’t get married; and thus, no chance for kids. This is what he thought as he closed his laptop and turned on the television for his evening documentary. This one was about the feeding habits of the Cooper Hawk.

*

Jeffrey woke a minute after midnight. And just like that, he was forty. He thought it was almost too poetic to be believed. That’s right, his life was so structured that he’d literally chosen to be born on the stroke of midnight. He usually slept soundly, but tonight he couldn’t fall back to sleep.

Something echoed inside his head, inside his heart. It spoke in the voice of his father.

You never did anything fun.

Exciting.

Bad.

There is still time.

Jeffrey tossed and turned as long as he could until four in the morning, when it was somewhat acceptable to be awake. He went for a jog as he often did. On his way back from several consecutive seven-minute miles, he passed the bus stop. The same stop he always passed when he jogged. He’d rarely taken the bus. A few times in college, maybe. That was decades ago. He’d always had plenty for cars and repairs and parking and insurance.

He stopped at the bench to adjust his sneaker. A cold gust prickled his neck.

His hand patted his pocket as if it already knew. He had only his license and insurance card, as he always did when he went jogging. And as his hand patted the two cards in his pocket, his brain conjured a wild idea that made the corner of his lip draw up in a half-smile that surprised him, scared him even.

The bus was already pulling up, so he had little time to decide whether it was a good or a terrible idea. All he heard was his father’s voice echoing in his brain.

Come on.

And so he followed the three tired-looking commuters onto the bus. The three scanned their fare cards by sliding them through a slot. Wow, when he last rode a bus, everyone still used cash. Without thinking he pulled out his driver’s license and swiped it through.

This will be it, he thought. I’ll get in trouble for sure. I’m trying to board the bus without bus fare. His license went through without the satisfying beep of the other three fare cards. Here we go.

The tired bus driver looked up. “Not sure your card went through, buddy,” he said. “Maybe get it checked out at the depot.”

Jeffrey’s heart raced. He was supposed to get admonished, or maybe even arrested. Thrown in jail. Couldn’t you get arrested for boarding the bus without a ticket?

He shuffled to the back of the bus, where no one noticed him. No one cared that he had been bad.

How depressing.

As the bus lumbered on, Jeffrey thought about home. If he had simply gone home after running, he would have been in the shower by now. Enjoying his three-way jet-powered showerhead and moisturizing soap. Then he’d turn on the news before dressing for work.

Lame, his dad’s voice echoed.

It was then that he saw her. Looked like she was finishing her shift. She must work nights. How unorthodox that must be. She looked younger than him–that is, she looked the same age as him, but as tired as she seemed…well, those were City Miles. They probably added at least a decade.

She sat down in the seat adjacent to him, and he thought about doing something else bad. He stretched out his feet so that his left foot bumped into her right shoe. She looked up at him, too tired to care.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

No you’re not, his dad’s voice insisted. Come on. I’ll give you fifty bucks.

Jeffrey shook his head. He’d get off at the next stop and jog home. An extra birthday cool-down.

Forty, then. Consider it an apropos birthday gift.

And then Jeffrey nodded. And smiled. Okay, dad. Just this once. “Actually, I’m not sorry,” he told the woman.

The woman looked up. Her face said she wasn’t sure whether she didn’t believe him or wanted to clock him in the face.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

Her snarl, her scrunched eyebrows. She eyed Jeffrey with a look he’d never received before. The adrenaline coursed through him.

“I’m feeling feisty today,” he admitted. “It’s my birthday. I thought you’d like to take me out for a coffee.” Jeffrey could barely contain his smile. He didn’t even like coffee, and here he was, lying point blank to her about drinking it.

“F you, buddy,” she said, shaking her head and turning toward the window.

Well, dad, I tried.

The bus came to a clumsy halt, and Jeffrey got up, mentally calculating how long it would take him to jog back home. He hopped off the bus and stopped to catch his bearings.

“Hey, buddy,” a voice said. He turned around. It was the woman, following him off the bus. “I changed my mind. How about that birthday coffee?”

Jeffrey raised an eyebrow. “Sure?” he managed. “But…why?”

She shrugged. “You seem like a bad boy. I always stayed away from bad boys, and look at where that got me.” She raised her arms defeatedly. “Maybe it’s time I made a change.” Before Jeffrey knew it, she had looped her arm in his. “I can’t believe I’m doing this, but why the hell not? There’s this crazy fancy coffee shop down the street, and I’ve got forty bucks in tips from last shift. Knock yourself out, birthday boy.”

Jeffrey walked in lock-step with her, probably the way a bad boy would, and a gentle gust of wind kissed the back of his neck, sending the couple on their way.

The Spot Writers—Our Members:

Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/

Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/

Phil Yeats: https://alankemisterauthor.wordpress.com

Chiara De Giorgi: https://chiaradegiorgi.blogspot.com/

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