Birthdays

Author : Curtis C. Chen

When Stacy was twelve, 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 in five days.

Stacy thought the party was boring. There were a lot of grown-ups there, drinking smelly drinks that looked like soda but tasted bitter when 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. “We’re not sure how hard we can push the stardrive, but we also need to balance the relativistic effects.”

Stacy wandered into the kitchen to find her mother. She was standing over the sink, alone.

“Mommy?” Stacy said, tugging at her skirt.

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

“Time for bed,” she said.

When Stacy was sixty-five, 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.

They brought a plate of food that she wasn’t allergic to. She toasted him with apple juice. She felt tired halfway through dinner, but pinched her arm under the table to keep herself awake.

She stayed until all the other guests had left. There weren’t many of them. The waitress brought Stacy a glass of warm milk, and a cup of coffee for her father. The coffee smelled good.

They talked for nearly an hour. He asked about Stacy’s mother, about what had happened to his family over the last half century, how they’d lived without him. Stacy’s mother had remarried when they thought her father’s ship had been lost, destroyed during their initial acceleration out of the solar system.

“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. He cried quietly.

When the restaurant closed, 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 agency. They had found her father dead in his apartment. He had overdosed on ibuprofen, washed down with a bottle of whiskey. They said he hadn’t felt any pain.

The note read: “No parent should outlive his child.”

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