Last Birthday Blast, by Nathaniel Tower
I stopped celebrating my birthday when I was nine years old. It was mostly out of necessity that I forewent the rite of unwrapping presents, blowing out candles, and cutting the cake, but there was also something about that ninth birthday that I knew I couldn’t ever top. I remember waking up early that morning and running around the house waiting for everyone to grant wishes upon me. Just so happens that it was the same day Mom left, somehow even earlier than I had managed to awake, and the same day that Dad told me to grow up and be a man.
“Life’s not all presents and candles and cakes and ice cream,” he told me.
I knew there were presents and candles and cakes and ice cream in the house. Mom had talked about them. I’d seen the cake. I’d seen the ice cream. I knew they’d made the plans.
“But it’s my birthday,” I whined.
“You can’t hang onto things forever,” he said before he headed out for work. “Besides, men don’t celebrate birthdays. That’s what boys do.”
Even though Dad always stressed how important it was to be a man, I still spent the next few hours scouring the house for birthday presents. I checked all of the usual hiding spots: under the bed, up in the attic, in my parents’ closet. There were no gifts anywhere. After the basement came up empty I sat down on the couch and resigned my title as Birthday Boy. I settled on watching an R-rated movie that I’d found in my dad’s closet as my reward. I’d never seen one before, at least not one that wasn’t all censored on the television. The characters cussed and shot each other and took off their clothes. I cussed a few times with them; boy did it feel good to get those words out. I even stood on the couch and shouted them. Every dirty word I could think of, including some I didn’t even understand. I’d never felt so old before in my life. As I stared at a naked woman’s chest I wondered if this was what it felt like to be a man, and if it was, I wondered what was so great about it.
Halfway through the movie I remembered that there was cake and ice cream. Those were better than the presents anyway. Presents were fleeting. I’d tear off the paper and the excitement would be gone just as soon as it appeared. Then I’d outgrow whatever silly toy I’d uncovered. Cake and ice cream were things that lasted, things that no one could ever outgrow.
But there was no cake in the fridge, and the only ice cream had been tucked away in the far corner so long that the ice crystals made it taste like the inside of the freezer. Chocolate clung to my fingers as I scooped a chunk into my mouth. I didn’t bother going back for a second scoop, and I didn’t bother to put away the carton or wash my hands either.
I thought about going back to my movie, but it was getting a bit boring, so I went to look for the candles instead. I found them in the drawer right below the silverware. Mom had bought the jumbo pack, probably trying to save money knowing that there would be so many more birthdays to celebrate. They were right next to the matches. One of those boxes of like five-hundred. I couldn’t believe how quickly my luck had changed.
Knowing that fire is always better with someone, I called my friend Jack. “Wanna come over?” I asked.
“Lemme ask my mom,” Jack said. I could hear him set down the phone and I rolled a match between my thumb and forefinger while waiting for him to return. The wood felt soft in my young hands. Soft and harmless.
“I can’t go,” Jack said when he got back.
“Come on,” I urged. “I’ve got candles and matches and nobody’s home.”
“Where’s your mom?” Jack asked.
“She’s gone. Dad says she isn’t coming back.”
Jack didn’t say anything, but I could hear his breathing. His asthma caused him to breathe heavy even after just walking over to his mom. Jack was one of the few kids picked after me on the playground.
“C’mon you pussy,” I said again, practicing my new curse words. “It’s my birthday today ya know.”
Jack’s breathing quickened, like it always did when he got nervous. “Alright, I’ll come over,” he finally said.
“See ya soon,” I said before hanging up. I was glad the birthday trick still had a little magic left.
By the time Jack rang the doorbell I’d gathered an arsenal of things I thought would be fun to burn. There were pictures, clothes, stuffed animals, toys, and even a couple boxes of baseball cards, I was a man now, I wouldn’t need those things anymore.
“Let’s go to the garage,” I told him. He nodded his head with a nervous enthusiasm, his bowl cut bouncing with each up and down movement.
In the garage we laid out the stuffed animals carefully along the floor. There were seven in all, including a giant stuffed panda my mom had given me last year that was almost as big as Jack. We put him in the center, and the rest of the animals looked like they were worshipping him. Around the congregation of animals we made towers of baseball cards, and we scattered the pictures, mostly old family photos from vacations, in the open spaces, being careful to make sure that everything touched something else.
I figured we had enough without the clothes and other toys, but when I tossed all that junk on the floor away from our setup, I noticed a tattered bra that must’ve belonged to my mother. I pulled it out of the pile, held it up for Jack to see—which oddly made him more uncomfortable than it made me—and then tied it around the giant panda.
We stepped back and admired the collection before emptying the giant box of candles around the group.
“How’re we gonna make ’em stand?” Jack mumbled.
“We’ll stab little holes in the animals,” I said as if I’d had the idea my whole life.
Jack’s quick nod told me he knew my idea was perfect and that he wished he’d though of it.
“Go get something to poke holes,” I told him with a point to my dad’s toolbox.
Dad’s toolbox was mountainous. Jack practically had to get out the stepladder to reach anything in it. After fiddling around on his tiptoes, fishing through drawers he couldn’t see into, he brought back a screwdriver and a chisel.
“Give me the screwdriver,” I ordered, hoping it would be good enough to get the job done. It was. After a few stabs, I’d made holes the perfect size to slide in the candles. I repeated the process to each animal while Jack filled the holes, and pretty soon we had over a half dozen stuffed animals loaded with dozens of birthday candles. Two candles protruded out of the giant panda’s bra like the sharp nipples I’d seen on my dad’s movie.
“Let’s burn this crap,” I said as I got my match ready. I handed one to Jack as well. I certainly couldn’t light them all at once.
“We’ll have to be quick,” I said. We both stood next to the box with our matches ready to strike. “On three,” I added. Jack nodded and I wondered if he was as excited as I was. I looked at him for a moment before I started counting.
“Should we open the garage door?” he asked when I got to two.
“And let everyone see what we’re doing? Nah. We’ll be fine. Two,” I said again.
Jack slid the match across the box before “three,” but it didn’t light.
“Three,” I said as I dragged my match across. Instantly the red head disappeared into an orange flame. Jack pulled his match three more times before it lit.
As quickly as I could I went around and touched that flame to each candle. Most of them took two or three touches before they would light, and I only got five or six lit before I had to blow out the match. Jack wasn’t nearly as successful. Right after I blew out my match I looked over and saw him still trying to light his first candle, one that was placed right between a dog’s eyes. The flame was barely above his finger tips.
“Put that out before you burn yourself,” I told him, but he didn’t react in time and shook his hand hard in response to the shock of hot pain. The match, still lit, soared to the covered ground and lit a picture on fire. I glanced at the photo and recognized the magical castle in the background behind my mother and me, but soon it was curling up and taking the image away with it.
“Light another one,” I said as I looked away from the disintegrating memory and reached for the box again.
We each lit another match. I made a game out of it and tried to beat the five or six I’d lit the first time. I told Jack to do the same, but all he had to do was get one. I was on my fourth candle before I realized the garage floor had caught fire. It grew so quickly that I didn’t even have time to stomp it out. The stench of burning oil floated into my nostrils and begged for fresh air. I dropped my still-lit match and raced for the garage opener.
The garage door squeaked as it revealed our burning world to the outside. The flames grew tall and singed the hair of the giant panda even from a few feet away. I stared in awe as the fire encircled the panda and devoured the baseball cards, photos and other animals. The giant panda put up a fight, his fur melting slowly while his friends vanished beneath the smoldering.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jack wheezed before turning to run out. I knew if Jack could muster up the breath to speak then it must’ve been urgent, so I turned and darted out with him.
“Get the hose,” I yelled to him, but the fire had already reached the ceiling and engulfed everything inside before we could even get to the side of the house.
“Go across the street,” I said with a frantic wave. The flames bounced through the garage and into the house as we scampered across the street into Mrs. Morbond’s yard. I wondered how long it would take someone to call the fire department. A minute later I heard the sirens in the distance, and the sound grew louder almost at the same pace as the flames.
The wailing roar of the approaching fire trucks almost drowned out the slapping of the flames against the wood of the house. I’m sure the only thing that kept Jack there was his asthma. The kid would’ve passed out if he’d tried to run away. I stood there frozen in time, almost smiling as the flames devoured everything I’d ever known. I’d seen pictures of fires before, and of course I’d watch the little fire dance around in the fireplace, but this was so much different. I could feel the heat burning my face even across the street, like the time I had that fever for four days and Mom took me to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Only now I wasn’t sweating quite as much, and I wasn’t shaking like I had that time. And I remembered how it felt so good when Mom came in and clung me to her body and somehow the warmth of her body actually cooled me down because hers was a healthy, calm warmth and mine was the warmth of death. If she came and picked me up now she wouldn’t’ve been able to do anything about how hot I felt. It was then, staring at the mingling reds and oranges and even blues, I realized Dad was right and that you couldn’t hang on to things forever. Someday you had to become a man and give up birthdays.
Jack continued to stand at my side until he couldn’t take it anymore and then sat down on the grass. I sang “Happy Birthday” quietly to myself before Dad came home, and then I tried to blow out the fire, but I knew there wasn’t any wish left in there for me.
Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in over 50 online and print magazines. A story of his, “The Oaten Hands,” was named one of 190 notable stories by storySouth’s Million Writers Award
in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, is out now anywhere e-books are sold. Visit him at www.bartlebysnopes.com/ntower.htm.. He currently lives in Missouri with his wife and daughter.
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