17 October 2008

"Birthdays"

BIRTHDAYS
By Curtis C. Chen

When Stacy was twelve years old, she celebrated her father's thirty-third birthday. It wasn't actually his birthday. It was two weeks before his birthday, but he was leaving on a mission before then, so they had to have the party early.

Stacy thought the party was boring. There were a lot of grown-ups there, drinking smelly drinks that bubbled like soda but tasted bitter. She knew because she stole a sip from her father's plastic cup. He was talking to another grown-up at the time and didn't notice.

"It's only sixteen light-years," he was saying, "but we're not sure how hard we can push the new stardrive."

"And you got that relativity stuff to worry about," said the other grown-up. Except he didn't say "stuff"--he said a bad word.

Stacy ran into the kitchen to find her mother. She was hunched over the sink, alone, her shoulders twitching.

"Mommy?" Stacy said, tugging at her skirt.

Stacy's mother turned to look at her. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks were wet.

"Ready for your bedtime story?" she asked, smiling.

"I'm not sleepy," Stacy said.

"Okay, come on then," her mother said, taking Stacy's hand as if she hadn't spoken.

"Mom," Stacy said. "I said I'm not sleepy."

Her mother squeezed Stacy's hand even harder.

***

When Stacy was sixty-four, she celebrated her father's fortieth birthday. She barely recognized the man who embraced her as the waitress maneuvered her wheelchair into the restaurant.

"My little girl," he said, his eyes glistening.

The waitress brought a plate of food that Stacy wasn't allergic to. She toasted her father with apple juice. She felt tired halfway through dinner, but pinched her arm under the table to keep herself awake.

After all the other guests had left, the waitress brought a glass of warm milk for Stacy and a cup of coffee for her father. The coffee smelled good.

He asked about Stacy's mother, about how his family had been over the last half century. Stacy told him that her mother, his wife, had remarried. She'd waited after the explosion, when everyone thought her father's ship had been destroyed due to a stardrive malfunction. She'd waited four years, but she couldn't wait forever.

"She never stopped loving you," Stacy told her father. She showed him the family photo that her mother had kept until she died, and which Stacy still carried in her purse. It showed the three of them at the beach, sunburned and laughing. He cried quietly.

When they left the restaurant, Stacy's father helped her into a waiting taxicab. He noticed her coughing and asked about her health.

"I'm old," she said, forcing a smile. She didn't want to tell him about the cancer.

Four days later, Stacy got a call from the space agency. They had found her father dead in his hotel room. He had overdosed on sleep pills, washed down with a bottle of whiskey. They said he hadn't felt any pain. Stacy knew they were wrong.

The note read: "No parent should outlive his child."

EOF

4 comments:

lahosken said...

Note to self: If you go visit another solar system, don't come back until you've found a cure for mortality.

Chris Roat said...

Why not? We shouldn't hold onto prehistoric, er pre-Einsteinian, beliefs. The world is as the world does.

CKL said...

Well, therein lies the tragedy, innit?

Friend-of-the-Blog Loren also "had problems" with this story, but he's too nancy to post them in comments. ;)

LC said...

Nancy?? I object! Comments posted below :-)

Birthdays I had problems with. Powerful ending no doubt (awesome last two lines, especially about the pain the father felt). But the three issues I had were:

1. There were parts of the story that I don't understand the purpose of. I might be missing something but the parts about: Stacy stealing a drink of alcohol, the party being boring, her having allergies (is that just her being old and mortal?), etc.

2. The part about her mom squeezing her hand even harder is a bit too much -- you've pulled that off effectively in the werewolves and moon book but you had a lot more words with which to develop things before you got there.

3. Although the story is technically told from the third-person omniscient POV, it's really told from Stacey's point of view. Stacey's perceptions of things in the first half aren't very... human. Most twelve year olds would be startled to see their mothers crying -- they would ask why, they would feel bad, they might feel as if they did something. Stacey's reaction is more like how a 2 or 3 year old might react -- an observer without the emotional maturity to understand what was going on. Likewise, a 12 year old is old enough to feel certain things about her father leaving for a mission -- fear, sadness, perhaps excitement. None of that is there so Stacey remains a disconnected observer. Which for me, weakens the second part since without a connection, I don't feel the impact of their reunion, the lost years, the jarring effect of his youth, etc. etc.