What would you like for your birthday?
By Scott Warrender
“What would you like for your birthday?”
“Stars,” she says.
“Thunder and lightning in a mason jar.”
“Noted,” he says. “Did you print out my boarding pass?”
“Got to. What do you need?”
“A foam Statue of Liberty hat.”
“I mean now.” He smiles, crisscrosses his arms, squeezes himself warm.
“Call my mother. I need her to push my hair out of my eyes and tell me everything’s going to be okay.”
“How long are we going to do this?”
“The doctor said two months, so—” She shrugs.
He reaches to touch, to rub her shoulder. “I can’t tell you that everything will be okay. I’m not God.”
“That’s not what you said on our first date.”
“I remember telling you I was omniscient, not that I was God.”
Feet propped on a small table, she twists on the plastic deckchair, pulls the wool blanket up over her legs and takes in the view: the pumpkin she placed on the deck railing the day before; the unsettled motions of the clouds; the churning tops of the half-dressed trees — eddies in a tide pool, she thinks — the stinging sound of the rain on the roof of the deck overhang. Drowning, she thinks.
“I used to like October. But now, everywhere you look, things are wet and failing.”
He stands, lifts the mugs and the empty teapot, now cold and used. “I’ll be back.”
“Would it be the end of the world if you weren’t there?”
“Probably,” he sighs. “Hey, we never made the guest list for your birthday dinner.”
“Chester Pane and Martha Stewart.”
“The Martha Stewart?” He turns, smirks.
“And Chester, your sister’s dog walker?”
“He’s funny. He makes me laugh. We should get a dog.”
“Maybe we could just hire him to make you laugh.”
“Would he do that?”
“I’ll have a word with him.”
“That’d be nice.” She tucks the blanket under her legs, shifts onto one hip.
“Okay. So funny dog walking Chester and, you know, I don’t think Martha’s returning our phone calls right now.”
“Ever since she went to prison, she thinks she’s so much better than us.”
He disappears into the house and the screen door claps shut. She pushes the blanket away, rolls up her t-shirt and studies her goose-fleshy skin, slides her palm over the perfect bump of stomach, caresses it.
“In two months I’ll give you a name,” she whispers. “When that time comes, it’ll be nothing but blinky trees, pirate costumes, and armies of friends in pointy birthday hats. Sounds fun, huh? You should consider that before you make a decision.”
“Hey!” she twists and shouts into the house, “grab my coat,” then unrolls her shirt and pulls the blanket back up to her chin.
Another pain in her side. She shifts position.
He returns and hands her a jar of jelly from their pantry, unopened.
“Here. They were out of Thunder and Lightning. How about the Collision of Two Galaxies?”
“Good choice.” She holds up the jar, spins it, reads its label. “You’re predictable.”
“In what way?”
“In the way that you always seem to surprise me.”
“Just don’t let that sit around too long,” he says, pointing at the jar. “The label says it goes bad in ten thousand years.”
He sits in the chair across from her.
“I left a message. I’m not going to New York. The Earth will keep spinning.”
“You’ve seen to that, have you?” She reaches out to him and he smothers her ice-cold hand in his, breathes into their jumble of fingers. “Okay, so far, the party is you, me, Chester. Really? Chester?”
She looks up and into his eyes for the first time since meeting with the doctor. “Do we have to have a party?”
“Not if you don’t want one.”
“I don’t. Not this year.” She stares at the yard, the clouds.
He begins to stand, gently pulls her hand. “Let’s go inside.”
“I want to stay.”
“That’s okay. You can thaw me out when—” She trails off because what she really wants to say is out of reach, inexpressible.
A strong wind blows dead leaves onto the deck. He shivers, walks inside the house and grabs a quilt from the sofa. When he returns, he squeezes in behind her, surrounds them both in yellow and blue patchwork suns. They look out to their garden, their yard, the tree line, down the hill to the Cedar River, perpetually flowing, twisting away. Unstoppable.
“I’m thinking,” she says, “We should have waited to harvest that pumpkin from the garden. We should have let it grow bigger and bigger. Then, one day, we could have hollowed it out and moved into it.”
“Next year,” he says.
“Next year?” she says. “Where’s the consolation in that?”
Smeary clouds scud around the fir trees up on the hill and the rain chills into sleet.
“It’s freezing! God? Can’t you have your people do something about this weather?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Well, for one thing, I’m not God.”
“But you know everything, right?”
“I lied about that, too.”
“I’m afraid, right now, there is little within my control.”
“So now you’re powerless?”
“I am,” he says so quietly it’s nearly a thought.
A wall of icy rain slams the house and deck, dares them inside. He slips his hand under her t-shirt and lays his open palm carefully on the skin of her belly. He touches her neck with his lips and closes his eyes.
“I am,” he says.