Dan did not like birthdays. He didn’t have anything against the desserts, or the presents, or the scent of birthday candle smoke. He quite liked all of those, actually. One of his first childhood memories was going to his friend Christopher’s third birthday party. He remembered the velvety chocolate cake, and thinking that one day, he would have that same cake on his own birthday. His mother had always bought vanilla cake for birthdays, and he’d never had the heart to say he’d prefered chocolate. But despite all that, he liked nearly all aspects of birthdays.
For other people. Not for himself.
As a kid, Dan had liked his birthdays. Heck, he even looked forward to them, the presents and candy and pinatas. But gradually, as he grew older, he noticed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Winnie the Pooh themed decor start to disappear, until themed parties were deemed only for “losers.” In fact, it was on his fifteenth birthday that he realized– he was no longer a kid anymore, and all birthdays did was tell you that you were a year farther away from watching Sesame Street and playing Pokemon, and a year closer to the adult world and boring office jobs and worrying about bank loans and dating, which he thought was disgusting, and inevitably, he realized, death. That day, he excused himself from his French classroom and ran to the boys’ bathroom. He stood in front of the foggy mirror, peering at his pale reflection tinged with green from the faulty bathroom lighting, wondering when he’d suddenly become so old, and exactly when his childhood had slipped from his desperate grasps until it only existed in his memory.
That was why, on June 11th, 2017, Dan did not want to wake up. He had though, a few rays of sunlight beaming in through the windows in his room, shining directly in his eyes.
This, he thought as he pulled the grey covers back over his head, was not a good way to start a day. Having your eyes directly assaulted by a sunbeam. He wished it would rain, or at least be cloudy, as a way of watching his already somber mood. But upon checking the weather app on his phone under the covers, the light illuminating the creases of fabric, he was informed that his birthday was going to be, as he muttered to himself, “bloody brilliant.”
The sky was an exuberant shade of royal blue, with puffy clouds almost resembling marshmallows inching proudly across. The sun was shining brightly, and the birds outside his window were trilling a morning sonata.
“Bloody brilliant,” he repeated. It was as though the entire world wanted him to be happy today, when all he could think about was the inevitability of death. He felt like lying on his bed for the rest of the day, curled into a lump of bitterness and regret.
He knew that at any moment, Phil would come bursting in with some silly cake and party hats, or a messily-baked pan of homemade brownies, or cupcakes from the bakery down the street in some exotic flavor like “avocado” or “mango-chili” or “dark chocolate-bacon.” The thought of Phil brought a small smile to Dan’s lips. Even on days like these, somehow, Phil was always able to make Dan happy. He remembered when he’d been in college, horribly unhappy with his life, in what he liked to describe as his quarter life crisis, and Phil would randomly grab his hand and pull him out of the apartment on mystery outings. Sometimes they’d go buy ice cream cones and eat them in the park nearby. Sometimes they’d buy weird board games from Japan or Italy and spend the night trying to figure out how to play. Sometimes they’d just wander around, their fingers almost touching as they walked side by side. Whatever it was, Phil would always manage to make Dan laugh, even if it was just with a stupid pun.
Dan lay on his bed, letting his eyes shut. His breath became even, and after a few minutes, he was fast asleep again.
Dan woke with a start. He pulled the hot covers off his head and grabbed his phone from his bedside table. It was three o’clock! He’d been asleep for hours! He scrambled out of bed. Phil must be worried sick! He grabbed a pair of dirty jean off the floor and pulled them on over his pajama shorts.
“Phil!” he called as he hurried downstairs to the lounge. His voice echoed off the walls, mixing with his heavy footsteps. He opened the door to the lounge to find… no one. He checked the kitchen. Nothing. Phil’s room. The bathroom. The gaming room. The balcony. Phil was nowhere to be found.
Huh, Dan thought, brewing himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen. He must be out, he reasoned, pouring coffee into a large mug. He took a sip and sighed. Perhaps this wasn’t so bad. Dan never liked big celebrations for his birthday. He always tried to act happy and upbeat, when really, he just wished that he could sit alone in silence, mourning another year closer to death.
He padded back to the lounge, where he scrolled through Tumblr on his phone. Birthday messages from his friends and followers filled his screen. He sighed and tossed his phone aside. He couldn’t escape from his birthday. Any other day, he’d appreciate those posts, but today he couldn’t stand them. Mindlessly, he grabbed his phone to tap out a thank you tweet to everyone, knowing it was the nice thing to do. Still, he couldn’t help feeling like his somber mood leaked into the tweet as he reread it before posting it. Everyone would notice his lack of enthusiasm, he worried, before realizing it was hard to ever sound enthusiastic over a tweet without overusing all-caps and emojis. Oh well, he thought.
He pulled out the Nintendo Controller and launched himself into a game of Mario Kart, hoping it would take his mind of off everything.
Dan finally looked up from his hundredth game, realizing it was already six o’clock. Phil hadn’t bothered to text or call or leave any signs. No DMs, no Snaps, nothing.
But as Dan refreshed his Twitter feed, a tweet caught his eye. It was Phil’s. Just random gif of a birthday cake.
Dan thought nothing of it until he noticed Phil had tagged his location. Someplace called “Bob’s Boba.” Dan remembered walking by it a few weeks earlier and agreeing to try a bubble tea from there at some point with Phil. Now, as his stared at his screen, he almost felt betrayed. Sure, it was small, but they had agreed to go together! And now Phil was off galavanting with who knows to get bubble tea!
Dan frowned. Phil wasn’t one to go back on his promises. What if Phil couldn’t help that he was at Bob’s? What if-
No, Dan shook his head. It was too impossible. But what if? Dan bit his lip, and couldn’t help but let the thought flood his mind.
What if Phil had been brought there by a kidnapper? He hadn’t told Dan about any plans he’d had today.
The hairs on the back of Dan’s neck stood on end. Phil, poor innocent Phil. Kidnapped?
Dan couldn’t stand thinking of his best friend being dragged around by some huge thug, tweeting random gifs to make it seem like everything was normal, against his own will!
He should phone the police, Dan realized. His finger hovered over the nine on his phone’s keypad. No, he thought. He wasn’t even sure that Phil had been kidnapped. He would go to Bob’s, he reasoned, to find Phil for himself.
He ran upstairs and quickly changed out of his pajamas and old jeans into a pair of clean, nondescript ones and a shapeless black hoodie. He couldn’t be bothered to be recognized today, not when he was on a mission. He grabbed his headphones, his wallet, and his keys, shoved them into his hoodie pocket, pulled on a pair of worn black Vans, just in case he needed to run, texted Phil a few hundred times with no response, and headed out the door.
He passed the cute hipster cafe, the grocery store, and the Starbucks. After a while, the buildings began to blur together into a jumbled mess. He was sure he was going the right way. Right? He looked up at the street signs, but they all seemed unfamiliar. He turned to his phone to check Google Maps, but suddenly realized, to his dismay, that he was over his monthly data limit, only eleven days in. He muttered curses to the sky, which, he noticed, was looking grayer than before. In fact, it looked positively cloudy, the cheery sun from before blotted out by ominous masses of cloud.
It started raining a few minutes later. Dan groaned, cursing his earlier self for wishing it would rain. This wasn’t a light rain, either. At first it was a few drops, but then, just like that, it was pouring. Dan was soaked to the bone in an instant, water sloshing around inside his drenched shoes. He shivered in the dark light, ducking under awnings in an attempt to keep dry. His teeth chattered, his hunched figure dripping and dark. His hair stuck to his forehead, and his fingertips grew freezing in his pockets. The rain stung his arms, coming down almost sideways in the wind.
Finally, he came to a street called Borrows Avenue, which sounded familiar. He could’ve sworn Bob’s was nearby, so he picked a direction and walked in it for a while, hoping he was going the right way. After a few minutes, a glowing neon sign came into view up ahead.
“Bob’s Boba.” Dan grinned, breaking into a run. He flung the foggy glass door opened to find a nearly empty shop. A woman with blue hair stood at the counter, a few years younger than him, looking boredly at her phone. A pretentious-looking older man sat by the window, stroking his pointed beard and scratching away in a small leather notebook. Beside those two, they were alone.
“Um, excuse me?” Dan approached the woman at the counter. She looked up, snapping gum in her mouth, and raised an eyebrow, as if to say “what do you want?” Dan bit his lip and continued. “I was just wondering if you’d seen a tall guy come in here, about my height, with uh, black hair? Blue eyes? Pale skin?”
“Nah,” she mumbled through her gum. “I didn’t see no one lookin’ like that come through here.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, or as thoughtful as one could look while blowing bubbles with their gum. “Wait, actually. Black hair, right?” Dan nodded. “He left, like, twenty minutes ago, or somethin’. He was with a tallish guy and a shorter woman. Blonde, I think. They went that way.” She pointed out the window.
The man sitting in the corner looked up from his work. “I could’ve sworn they went thataway!” He gestured in the other direction.
The two argued for a few minutes while Dan used the Wifi to check for new tweets. Indeed, Phil had tweeted another gif, this time a bowtie tying itself. Again, he’d tagged the location, somewhere called “Pixel.” Dan loaded Google Maps, thanked the woman as she yelled, “No, you’re wrong, you bloody twit!” at the man, and hurried out the door.
Another ten minutes in the rain and he arrived at the store. It was a video game store that Dan made a mental note to return to. Again, he asked the cashier if he’d seen Phil. Again, the guy described the same group of people as the woman at Bob’s, and directed Dan in their direction. Again, Dan checked Phil’s tweets and found another gif. This one, however, was not tagged with the location. Dan sighed with defeat as he stepped out into the rain. Phil, wherever he was, was definitely not kidnapped, and was obviously avoiding Dan. Surely he’d gotten his hundred texts! Surely he knew!
Dan wandered dejectedly home. What was he even doing with his life? Twenty six whole years of what, chasing his friends who clearly didn’t want to be found? He sighed. Another birthday went wasted. Dan hated birthdays, but even he couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit annoyed with his friend. Deep down, he knew that he really didn’t hate the silly cakes and streamers and party hats. Deep down, he liked knowing that his friends cared, even if he didn’t like knowing he was a year older.
Dan was shivering by the time he reached his building. He rubbed his red nose, thinking about Phil on the elevator ride up.
Phil was the one person he knew he could depend on. Phil, who would bring him little gifts without any real reason. Phil, who had supported him for years. Phil, with his clear blue eyes and brilliant laugh that could light up any room. Phil, who, Dan realized, he desperately wanted to be with. He wanted to spend his birthday with Phil, he realized. He wanted to spend today with Phil, and tomorrow with Phil, and, he realized he sounded a bit like a strained fanfic writer, everyday with Phil. He couldn’t erase those eyes, that smile, those eight years of companionship. And yet… he thought, as the doors opened to his floor, there was something missing. Some little piece of the puzzle that was Dan and Phil… gone. Had it ever been there? He trudged to the apartment door, dripping, sultry, and alone.
A sliver of light shone onto his feet from under the door. He must have left the hall light on. He pushed the key into the lock, leaned into the door, and…
“SURPRISE!” The light blinded him for a moment, and suddenly Dan realized he was facing his friends. There was PJ and Chris and Louise and Cat and Joe and Alfie and Casper and even Tyler Oakley in the back. And then, popping up right in front of him was Phil. His glowing face, his shining blue eyes, his dark hair falling in his eyes. And suddenly, Dan grabbed Phil into a huge hug. Phil, his Phil, had been planning all this for him! Phil leaned in Dan, even though he was getting wet from Dan’s jacket.
They both pulled away after a moment, realizing their hug had lasted a little long.
“Happy birthday, Dan!” Phil grabbed Dan’s hand. It was warm and reassuring. Dan was too busy grinning to speak.
“Thank you guys so much!” He finally said after a moment of standing there, awestruck. As his friends started to mingle and chatter, Phil explained that he, Louise and PJ had gone to Bob’s and Pixel to get presents, and to get Dan out of the house so they could set up for the party. It touched Dan that Phil had done all this for him.
The party started to wind down a few hours later. Dan’s friends stood in small clumps, talking and eating slices of rich, velvety chocolate cake. (How Phil had known that Dan loved chocolate cake, Dan had no idea. Lucky guess, he assumed with a smile.)
Dan had wandered away from the friendly conversations and up to the second floor with the balcony that looked out over the city. The rain had stopped, but the scent still lingered in the night air. Dan sighed, staring up at the huge, glowing moon. A few small clouds scuttled across it, but otherwise, the night was clear. The stars formed criss-crossing constellations above, and the street lights did the same below. For once in his life, Dan felt truly happy. He hadn’t known this feeling in a long time. He wasn’t worrying about the future or wishing for the past. He was thinking about now. He was living in the moment, like Phil had to always remind him to do.
The door creaked open, and as if on cue, Phil slid onto the balcony beside him. Neither one of them said anything for a while, but instead, they stared out at London in silence, their shoulders touching.
“Beautiful night,” Phil finally remarked, breaking the silence.
“Kind of like you,” Dan blurted out before he could think. He blushed, looking away.
“Or you.” Dan looked back at Phil, surprised. He’d never really been the flirty type. They were flirting, weren’t they? Dan’s heart began to flutter without any reason to. He didn’t need to be nervous around Phil, right?
“Thanks so much for everything, Phil. I mean it. The party, the cake, everything,” Dan looked into those familiar blue eyes for a moment before he realized the were getting closer to him.
“How about this?” Phil’s voice softened as he leaned into Dan. They grew still for a moment, their lips almost touching. Then, as if he’d played out the moment many times in his head, Dan brought his lips onto Phil’s. It was so natural, their bodies intertwining together, their hearts beating as one. They finally pulled apart, smiling and blushing. Their fingers remained intertwined.
“I should probably go back inside,” Phil smiled up at Dan. “They’ll wonder where we are.”
“I’m going to stay out here for a moment,” Dan beamed back. Phil shut the door quietly behind him, leaving Dan to stare up at the sky. For some reason, his cheeks ached, and then he realized it was because he was grinning so hard. He brought his fingers up the his lips. He could still feel the pressure of Phil’s lips upon his own. The puzzle that was Dan and Phil was complete. He laughed out loud, knowing he was the only one who could hear it.
And that was how, on Dan’s twenty-sixth birthday, on the balcony on a flat in London, on a cool summer night, Dan suddenly realized– he had loved his birthday.
“How old do you have to be before you know the difference between right and wrong? Do you have to be eighteen? Do you have to be eighteen before you can bring yourself to own up to a lie? There are soldiers of eighteen old enough to be left to die on the side of the road!”