The Birthday Rules

The unexpected sound of a doorbell can startle. It breaks into thought like awakening breaks into a dream. This one, however, was no surprise. Kenny had been waiting for it for years.

“Rodney! Good to see you. It’s been too long.”

“Yeah, Kenny, about that baseball bat. I don’t really remember lending it to you. I almost didn’t come,” Rodney explained, kicking at the dirt in front of the porch.

“Come inside. I have a surprise.”

Rodney lifted his six-foot-two frame into the mobile home where Kenny had lived with his grandmother for the last four years. In the dining room, he discovered three other students of Pullman High standing around an oak table.

“Tracy? You’re here, too?” he asked the lanky redheaded cheerleader who was standing, looking confused next to Mike, the school’s debate captain, and Bert, the newsletter editor.

“He said he could score me some pot,” she explained, looking both annoyed and embarrassed.

Mike and Bert mumbled in turn. Both had been lured in by some needful thing Kenny had impressed upon them.

On one end of the table was a large purple cake with a single candle, and stationed around the edge were four brightly wrapped boxes.

“Kenny, what’s going on?” asked Rodney.

“Happy Birthday!” exclaimed Kenny.

The others looked around at each other, searching vainly for some sign of comprehension.

“Oh, I know. You’re all surprised. Didn’t know it was my birthday last week, huh? Well, I’m throwing a party.”

“Kenny, wow…happy belated birthday,” Bert offered. “Why didn’t you just invite us…”

“Bert, come on!” Kenny chided, smiling. “We’re Facebook buddies, aren’t we? That’s right. Each one of you. I’m on your ‘friend list’, but not one of you wished me happy birthday. That should be against the rules.”

Mike and Bert shuffled nervously. Kenny continued.

“You know, it seems like yesterday we were in Scouts together, eh, Bertie? And didn’t we just have our first kiss at camp when we were ten, Tracy? Things used to be different, guys.”

“That wasn’t my first kiss, Kenneth. And I don’t appreciate being dragged in here on false pretenses.”

“False pretenses? That’s how most people really get along. In reality we’re all a bit savage,” he said coolly.

“I’ve had enough of this!” Tracy started toward the door.

“I think…I’m going to have to ask you to stay.”

Something in his voice froze her steps. She turned and saw a silver pistol in his grip.

“Now relax,” he continued. “We’re all friends here.”

“You don’t have to do this,” urged Mike. “Why didn’t you, you know, just let us know?”

“I doubt you have time, what with your 783 other friends, Mike,” Kenny answered, waving the gun. “Now look, we can all still have a good time. This is a birthday party, and I’ll be giving out the presents. Why don’t you sit down and open your gifts?”

“I don’t want a gift…” Tracy started.

“Open it!” Kenny smiled. “Please.”

Tracy opened the small box and dumped out a Transformers ink stamp.

“Is this…” she asked.

“Yes. You remember it.”

“You used to stamp my arm in fourth grade like every day. You were such a pain, but I let you. You got such a kick out of it.”

Tracy stared at it.

“You kept it all this time?”

Rodney opened up his box next. It was larger and contained an old leather ball.

“My old football!”

“Yeah, remember when it went under my old house and we couldn’t get it out?” Kenny asked.

“I remember. That was back before you…moved away.”

“Before they died,” said Kenny. “I finally got it out two years later, but by then you weren’t exactly talking to me, Mr. Quarterback.”

“I’m sorry.” Rodney looked down.

Bert opened his box, his hands dripping sweat as he fumbled with the contents.

“This is your service badge,” Bert said.

“But you helped me, Bert. You did most of the work, really. I figured after all these years I should fess up and admit you’re the one that really earned it.”

Kenny almost beamed.

Mike opened his box and pulled out a plastic watch.

“This is my watch! You stole it? I thought I had lost it!”

“Sorry, Mike. Too much temptation for a ten-year-old. But I’m giving it back now, okay?”

“Kenny, what’s this all about?” asked Rodney.

“I’ll tell you,” said Kenny, as he pulled the trigger and a small blue flame shot out of the barrel. He lit the candle with it.

“Whoa,” groaned Mike, quietly.

“To be a friend, or not. That’s the question that’s been bugging me. To go on living when your so-called friends have forgotten you, when the pretenders have stopped pretending. You guys have no idea what is means to be alone.”

Mike drew a breath to speak, but Kenny cut him off.

“Save it, Mikey! You’re gonna tell me what I have going for me? Just shut up for a minute. The only reason I haven’t blown this place is because I don’t know what comes next. I mean, it sucks right now, but death could be worse. You ever think of that?”

Mike shook his head.

“The dark clouds. The rainy days. Why would anyone keep putting up with it, except we just don’t know that death isn’t filled with the same nightmares? When you really think about things, our thoughts make us afraid, and we fail to save ourselves, to just end all of this crap.”

The candle started sparkling and running down quickly.

“Kenny what is that?” Bert cried.

“But I don’t have to go alone, I finally realized,” Kenny continued. “Let’s take that journey together, friends. Sunshine or rain…”

“Kenny, no!” Tracy screamed. She flung herself across the table and slapped at the fizzling candle.

In that instant the cake erupted and vaporized the room.

One can’t imagine what a birthday cake-colored supernova looks like. No reason to try. Certainly, it’s the last thing anyone would expect to see.

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