Birthday Boy

Two seventeen was on the clock when Dee decided she would get up to wait. Rising, she walked downstairs with the slowness demanded of her diseased-ravaged ninety-year-old body, wheezing as she went. They said she’d beaten cancer, but it didn’t feel like it. Her feet and hips ached. So did her neck and her jaw. She could barely raise her right arm enough to dress. Drugs did nothing for that pain and movement any longer. They wanted to scrape the joint.

Turning on lights, she walked around the kitchen and dining room, looking out windows. It was dark, and she was alone. Although her eyes, mind, and body felt tired, sleep was like a Mega-millions lottery ticket this week. She’d cleaned the house, washed the bed linens, baked and cooked, and worried.

Prowling the kitchen, she regarded the black forest cake on the table. He’d told her that was his favorite once, so she always had one on hand, with candles. She didn’t know how old he was. He would never say. Based on his annual visits, he was sixty, but he’d been an adult on every visit, so he had to be older, didn’t he? Sometimes, he looked older. Once, he’d seemed like a very old man. His hair had been almost gone. What remained was gray and white. It’d been shocking.

Rubbing her face, she sighed. She was too tired to think. She’d been looking forward to this, but she also wanted it done. She wanted coffee, but for God’s sake, it was two in the morning. Once it was over, she’d want to sleep. Yes, but she felt so tired, maybe a little cup of decaf would help keep her alert. She didn’t want to fall asleep and miss him.

No, she would not miss him. That would be a first. If he came, he would wake her. If he didn’t come —

If he came, he would wake her, if he had the time. He was always so busy, busier every time. That’s what it seemed like.

And last time —

Leaning forward against the sink to hold herself up, she entered a reverie. Last time, he’d been in the worst condition that she’d ever seen. Blood all over him, and so gaunt, with disheveled hair. God. She’d wanted to hug and kiss him but the sight of him froze her.

“Peter. What happened to you?” she said. She scanned him with her nurse’s eyes for wounds and spotted several.

“War,” he said.

“War?” she said with shock. Recent news events bounced through her thoughts. “What war?”

He shook his head. “There’s not time for that.”

“But you’re hurt — ”

“I’m okay, Mom, don’t worry,” he said, but a wince crossed his face, turning into a grimace. “You should have seen the other guy. Seriously.”

“Your arm is bleeding,” she said, moving toward him. “So is your abdomen.”

Peter moved away from her. “I know. Stay back. I don’t want to get blood on you.”

“But you may have major internal injuries.”

“I know, but there’s not enough time for you to do anything, Mom. I’m going to be gone in a moment. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I just had to see you.”

“Why can’t you stay longer?”

He had not answered. Peter had disappeared.

So, she had little hope for this year that it would be a longer visit.

She’d read The Time-Traveler’s Wife when it was released. So much of that book was like her experience with her son. But when she’d mentioned it, he’d said, “No, it’s nothing like that. It might seem random, but your visits are part of a much larger timetable.”

“My visits.” The way he said that, she knew it had more meaning. “You’re the one visiting.”

He’d smiled. “It’s really too complicated to explain. This visit would need to be a lot longer.”

She closed her eyes against the press of pain. It had taken her years to accept Peter was real and that his visits were real. Poor little Peter had lived less than a month. That loss remained a jagged wound in her soul. His first visits —

Her Fitbit’s alarm buzzed, reminding her of the time. She’d set it at his birth time, two thirty-four A.M. He always showed up then. As she pressed the button to stop it, he said, “Hi, Mom.”

Dee started and turned. “Oh, Peter. You scared me.” She laughed. “Right on time.”

He looked great. He came to her and hugged her tight, giving her a kiss as she tried saying, “I didn’t know if you’d make it,” while kissing him back.

“I’ll always make it, Mom,” he said, releasing her.

She drew back. “Let me look at you.” Her eyes brimmed with pride. He was so tall and good-looking, with a lean and athletic body, and beautiful green eyes. It was the best he’d ever looked. He could be a movie star. “You have a beard.”

“I do?” He grinned at her. “When did that happen?”

Dee wasn’t sure if he joked.

Smiling at her, Peter said, “How are you feeling?”

She sighed. “Oh, I’m tired and old. I’m in constant pain.”

That’s not what she wanted to talk about. There wasn’t time for it.

“You want something to eat?” She didn’t want to ask, but she had to. “Do you have time to sit down?”

Regret spilled into his expression. “No, Mom, I’m sorry. I don’t have the time this year. I tried, but….” He sighed, looking tired.

At least he wasn’t wounded, or older than her. Remembering who he was and what day this was, she said, “Happy birthday, honey. I wanted to say that to you while you were still here.”

“Thank you,” he said, looking past her at the table. He grinned. “Is that black forest cake?”

Nodding, she smiled. “It’s your favorite.”

He nodded back. “Cut me a piece. I’ll take it with me.”

“Really?” she said. “Do we have time to for me to sing happy birthday first?”

“Only if you cut the cake while you sing,” he said, “and you sing really fast.”

She rushed to do so. “I put everything out, just in case there was time.” Picking up the knife, she sang, “Happy birthday — ”

She stopped as she looked for him.

He was gone.

“Happy birthday, son,” she said to the empty room. “Happy birthday.”

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