The Birthday Rules

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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.

Gravity

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I’ve got my anti-gravity dreaming boots

Got an anti-reality pistol that shoots

I’ve got hope and I use it like rocket fuel

Have a dagger made of pain, it’s a razor tool

I have no disdain for the earth beneath

But against ordinary I am armed to the teeth

Don’t know very much about the how or when

But I won’t be stopped, I’ve got a mightier pen

Starlight

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A comet streaked through the night sky so brightly that Adea awoke with a start. She looked about but could see only the tall trunks of black pines beneath a blanket of silvery stars.

“Where are we?” she asked the young man sitting next to her.

Jadon had been watching her sleep for over an hour by then.

“I used the hammer, Adea,” he explained.

“The hammer? But why? What happened?” Adea grew more alarmed by each heartbeat.

“They were coming for us. The har-goblins. I could smell them already and I had to get us out of there. I used the hammer and pulled you through the door.”

“Did any of them get through?” Adea asked.

“No. I don’t think so. I’ve been listening for them for the last hour or so.”

“So we’re in Soltre.”

The hammer was Lagvind, a mighty gift from the people of Soltre. One solid strike, anywhere in the all the Realms of Possible, would open a window back to Soltre, but only for a moment.

Adea looked down to see her feet wrapped in Jadon’s scarf. Then she remembered what had taken place what seemed like moments before she woke up among the towering trees.

She and Jadon had been resting in a small wood-paneled room at the back of the only inn in the village of Nor. It was already late at night.

“You know the har-goblins might come out in a place like this,” he had said, half smiling. He was gazing through the foggy glass windows at the moon.

“You don’t really believe in har-goblins, do you?” Adea had teased. “Those are stories for wee children.”

“Heard them of late, have you?”

“I am sixteen!” she protested. “And I don’t believe in them. It’s silly. Monsters that eat your toes while you sleep!”

Yet she had not protested when Jadon pulled off his scarf and carefully wound it around her feet. The gentle and tender way he had caressed them while wrapping her small feet reminded her of why she admired him so much.

“Now listen. If the har-goblins come, they must obey the Law of Toe. Only bare toes, exposed to the air, may be eaten. They will not violate it, lest they come under the wrath of the Har-Kong.”

“What Law? I think you’re making this up,” she said.

“I have it by authority of Farfar Landon,” he stated resolutely.

“I think you just wanted to touch my feet.”

“Silly girl. You don’t want your toes nipped off one by one, do you?”

“Have you ever seen anyone walking around the village with missing toes?” she countered.

“They all have shoes on, so you wouldn’t know, would you? Now go to sleep. I will stand watch and guard your toes, just in case.”

“In case what? You just wrapped my feet.”

“Just in case,” he said more sternly. “In case it’s not enough.” He looked slightly worried.

***

            Now in the darkness of the forest of Soltre, Jadon still looked a bit unsettled.

“I don’t think any of them got through. But they are real, Starlight. I admit, I didn’t believe the tales were true, but then the smell came. I heard the claws of their feet dragging along the floor in the hallway.”

She loved when he called her Starlight.

“But my feet were wrapped,” Adea said.

“I don’t trust the Law of Toe. I don’t really know what was coming down the hallway, but I wasn’t going to wait and find out. Ever since we left Soltre, all sorts of things we only half-believed before have been coming true. I had to get us out of that house, out of that village.”

“So you brought us back to Soltre? That’s like going backwards. You know what Bidron told us. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Jadon looked down pensively. He let out a long sigh. Adea’s eyes were getting used to the low light of the night sky and she could see he was holding something back.

“There’s something else,” she ventured. “Another reason you brought me here.”

“I just wanted to be with you, Starlight. Bidron said there were no night animals in all of Soltre. It’s just you and me right now.”

“Unless the har-goblins made it through the window,” she reminded him.

“Do you trust me, Adea?”

“I trust you completely, Jadon. With my life.”

“There are other ways to conjure magic, but the secret to all magic is that you must believe. Belief is everything.”

“I believe you.”

“Believe in my words,” Jadon whispered as he took her hand in his.

He raised it to his lips and kissed the top of her hand. Then he turned it over and kissed each fingertip once. Adea smiled.

“You going to start saying any words?”

“Shhh,” he warned.

He took her other hand and repeated the display of affection, almost as if part of a ritual.

“Now, believe this. I am a son of the Elgam. By kissing your hands and fingers in this way, you are protected from harmful magic until the sun rises.”

“You could just do that all the time if you’re trying to protect me,” she offered.

“It doesn’t work that way. I can only do that once every new moon.”

She looked up. The moon was full. Jadon saw her glance and followed her line of reasoning.

“In Soltre the moon is full. In our world, the moon is new. I saw that through the window as you were sleeping.”

“It’s like you planned this,” said Adea.

“Not exactly. But you are safe no matter what right now. Do you believe me?”

“I feel safe with you,” Adea breathed. “I believe you.”

“Then sleep, Starlight.”

He set himself against the nearest tree and pulled her softly toward himself. She nestled into him as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Sleep, Starlight. Tomorrow we will look for Bidron and seek guidance.”

“I love you, Jadon,” she mumbled as she slipped quickly into a deep slumber.

“I love you, too, Adea,” he whispered, as he realized she had already fallen asleep. “More than I should.”