• Mark Howard

Birthdays of the Dead, flash fiction


Dad was a no-nonsense guy except for one thing: he celebrated his birthday five days after the actual date. I didn't know until I was in my forties. The whole family had acted like April 17 was his birthday for as long as I could remember.

I found out by accident just after he'd retired from the mill. He'd never been much of anywhere except to our cabin on the lake, but now he wanted to travel. I flew home for his retirement party. While his cronies were toasting him I went upstairs to work on some contracts. A passport application was on his desk--and in the Date-of-Birth box he'd written April 12. When I asked him about it the next morning, he looked away and said he just liked the 17th better. I asked why. His jaw tightened, like it did when I was a kid and I knew he meant business. He said there were lots of countries where birthdays weren't celebrated at all. He thought that was a great idea.

I dropped it. When I questioned mom, she admitted that she knew. Of course everyone older than her knew--my grandparents, aunts, uncles--but nobody knew why. Mom thought he'd made the switch for his nineteenth birthday, a year before she'd met him. She smiled her thin smile. "Don't stew about it. Your father's a straight shooter. He would've told me if there were some deep dark secret."

I did stew about it. It bugged me that dad had this quirk he wouldn't explain and that the whole family went along with it, pulling the wool over my eyes for over forty years. When April came around again I made a point of flying out and handing him his card and present on the 12th. He took them, and thanked me, and shook my hand. Mom pulled me aside and said please don't make a big deal. I left before the 17th. Things settled down after that. I was moving up in the firm, I didn't have time to go out. I even forgot his birthday one year. Next April I sent him a Cartier watch. He phoned and thanked me, on the 12th, asked when he and mom would see me again. I didn't know.

A few years after that he was wheeled into emergency with heart failure. By the time I got there he'd stabilized. Mom went home, she'd been up all night. I pulled up a chair at the foot of the bed. He looked old, propped up with the oxygen mask at his side. We talked about his condition, then there was this silence.

"I want to tell you why--about my birthday."

I waited.

"When I turned fifteen I wanted a big party. There was this kid, Stewart Fernie. He'd act like your friend, then start yelling and swearing at you over nothing. Or he'd get you in a headlock and scream, 'Say Uncle!'--which was strange, 'cause he lived with his uncle. Next day he'd pretend it never happened and want to be friends again. Mom wanted me to invite him. I swore I didn't want a party if Stewie came. I told her I'd run away from home. She dropped it.

"Three years later I was--I was canoeing on the lake with a buddy. It was late in the afternoon, the sun was slanting down on the dock on the far side. As we paddled towards it, a man stepped onto it carrying something. He knelt down, like he was tying his shoe. We glided along, just brushing the water, not paying him any mind--until I glanced back and saw that he was walking out on the dock, carrying the thing in both hands. I said to my buddy, what's that guy doing, and we paddled a little harder. We were about two hundred yards off when I realized he was holding a big rock, and a rope hung down from the rock to his ankle. I started yelling, steering the canoe towards the ladder at the end of the dock, and it was like time split in two and we were in one, shouting and racing like mad, and he was in another, taking one step and then the next, straining to hold the thing. He was down to the last steps when I realized it was Stewie. I shouted, and at the sound of his name his head turned a little and went back. Then he dropped. We dove in, but he was in twenty feet of water. We couldn't see him, just the bubbles coming up."

I stared around past the equipment, the flowers, the hard plastic surfaces.

"Dad, that was over fifty years ago. You've been blaming yourself, for fifty years, for a kid's birthday party?"

"At first it was blame, but it became a gift. For all these years he never had, I gave him one day of mine. His birthday was April 17."

I blurted out, "You can't give him anything! He's dead!"

He stared down at the sheets. "I'm sorry you found out."

When I left the hospital I was mad. I couldn't believe it--he of all people, giving in to a sentimental fantasy about some guy he hardly knew, while he kept me in the dark my whole life.

Dad hung on for a few months after that. We never mentioned Stewie or his birthday again.

I made sure his headstone said the 12th.

Mark Howard is an architectural technician in Vancouver, Canada. He has a special interest in the social impact of oncoming technological change, including robotics, artificial intelligence, and biometric identification. He has published in a number of literary journals in the United States.


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