Storytime: Years.

April 26th, 2017

“Happy birthday,” said his mother.
“Happy birthday,” said his father.
“Happy birthday,” said his brother. “Now make a goddamned wish, I’m hungry.”
His mother bopped his brother on the head. Carefully. It was a hard head, and her hand was small.
Joshua looked at the cake in its squat, icing-crusted, soft-cored glory. But his eyes were on the candles. Little wax cylinders.
“What are they for?” he asked.
“Each of those is a year,” his mother told him. “One two three four five. You’re five!”
Five years, melted on the spot. Wax dribbling down their sides. Burning up.
“Can I have something else?”
“You don’t like cake?” his father asked. “But you asked for chocolate. Are you sure? We might have some ice cream-”
And they went on and on and eventually Joshua got some cake, even if he hadn’t managed to make himself clear.
But he remembered that, and regretted that. And when the cake was done and the day was too, he crept downstairs from his bedroom – avoiding all the proper floorboards and tiptoeing at all the right times – and made his way to the garbage can.
Five little half-melted blobs. Five years.
Safe now.
That morning, his parents found him awake early, bolt-upright in bed, staring out the windows. The candles bobbed at his side like fireflies, swirling between him and the world.

A camping trip, and home with him came the paddle and a recording of the slap of water-on-wood.
The cat died, and its grave travelled home.
A book he’d read ten times over.
A passing thought, stewed on for too long.
Term papers, thesis papers, research papers, a full Phd. defense.
Seventeen pop songs, one after another.
One more thing, one at a time, over and over. More baggage for the trek, piled on top and all around.

“I do,” he said.
“I do,” she said.
More words.
Clap clap clap
The knife moved through the cake, and into the wall. The dancing was a little awkward with it in the way, but they managed.

The dog’s first steps.
The baby’s first nap.
The broken tire from the interstate.
All swept up and carried along.

“There’s this girl-”
The conversation only got more embarrassing from there. And it folded in, and tied itself off, and slid into the spot set aside for it. It covered half the breakfast table.

A sore back, an x-ray.
An argument, an apology.
An entire collection of increasingly-comfortable chairs.
A broken tooth, and its cap.
Another dog.
Around and around they spun.

“I do,” she said.
“I do,” she said.
Clap clap clap. His arms were stiff by the end of it, but he was happy.
A different cake, a different cut, and another brick in the wall. He had three chairs to himself on all sides.

A new desk came in and the old one came along with him.
They moved, and the entire house followed. So did three of the trees, his favourites for years.
They went on a trip to the Caribbean and half of the sea came home on the plane. It was damp around him, but it clung tight and would not let go even as it sogged its way through years of words and scribblings.
Words aloud, too. Conversations with dead men and women. Pet names for pets, for grandchildren. Swirling eddys of half-overheard arguments from his childhood. All wrapped in tightly.

It had been a lovely birthday. The cars were lined up around the block. One of them was larger, faster, stronger, and had flashing lights on top.
“Is it not safe to move him?” asked his daughter.
The paramedic shrugged. “Well, it could be. Well, it could be not. Well, if I’m honest, it’s awful hard to tell what with that thing around him. Well. Y’know.” She scratched her elbow absently. “Well. Any drinks left?”
“You’re on duty, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m not driving.”
The bed loomed over the two of them and the whole rest of the party, monolithic in its scope. Inside, on top of the covers and under eighty-eight years, he lay. Breathing or not, hard to tell. He couldn’t see his family behind the layers of his adolescence, adulthood, and god knew what else. He couldn’t touch anything, couldn’t move his arms – pinned down under an infinite weight of accumulated past. He couldn’t even hear his own heartbeat anymore, past the lull of a thousand memories whispering.
Five candles in front of his face. Blinking out one after another, no matter how hard he squeezed. They were dripping through his fingers, running, running away from him, and he was very worried he’d be trapped there, all alone with himself.
Oh dear.
Had the way out always been that simple?
And with a slow sigh that was neither particularly happy nor sad, the high wall of years faded away and the world saw his face unobscured for the first time since childhood.

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