Do you like short stories? Here’s part of one of my favorties. (Reprinted with permission from the author, Alex McGuigan)
At the age of three, I killed my brother.
At the age of eight, I killed my father.
All I did was blow out a candle.
I was three years old when my brother died. I’m probably the only one who knows he died on May 6th. His death certificate is dated May 7th.
I remember every detail of those days. You wouldn’t think a three-year-old could recall events so clearly. But I do. I’d give anything to forget. Maybe I could wish for that but I know that would backfire on me too.
On my third birthday, my parents got me a birthday cake shaped like a ‘3’. I thought it was amazing. I had seen square cakes, round cakes, rectangular cakes but never one shaped like a number. And it was my number—my new number.
I had cherished the number two. According to my mom, I would tell anyone who would listen and even those who didn’t that I was two and then I’d hold up two fingers.
My mom and I had practiced all day holding up three fingers. “How old are you now, Claire?”
I yelled “Three!” and held up three fingers. She laughed and hugged me. It had been a perfect day. No one yelled when I stuck my finger in the cake and traced the three. No one yelled when I wiped my hand on the table. The yelling would come later.
Connor was five months old and loved to cry. That was all he did that day. My parents did their best to keep him quiet during the party. But his volume was higher than everyone else’s when “Happy Birthday” was sung.
I took a deep breath in, preparing to blow out the candles. Everyone was yelling “Make a wish, Claire!” I blew out the four candles—three for me and one for good luck— as hard as I could with only one thought in my head, ‘Connor, stop crying.’ I didn’t think about it again until later that night.
Everyone cheered as I blew out all the candles. They all exclaimed again when I answered my mother’s question: “How does the cake taste, Claire?”
“Tastes like three!” I said while holding up three fingers smeared with pink icing.
Before the party ended, I fell asleep in my mother’s arms. I woke up to cries hours later that I originally thought were Connor’s, a nightly occurrence. But the cries were from my father as he held his dead baby boy in his arms.
The doctors said it was SIDS, a term I would look up years later.
I knew even then I was the cause of his death.
I didn’t know it was my birthday when my dad and I went to the grocery store. I just thought it was another day my mother didn’t feel well. Another day she’d spend all day crying over Connor.
“Babe, didn’t you go food shopping this week?” my dad yelled as he rummaged through cabinets to find something for breakfast.
“No,” I answered for her. She hadn’t gotten dressed all week. No one heard me.
“No,” she answered as she entered the kitchen. Mom slowly walked in, head down, dressed in a robe. Her normal defeated posture.
“C’mon, Claire. Let’s go shopping!” he said to me, as if it were an adventure.
I smiled and ran to the car. A year left on my own to dress, I came up with another unique ensemble—blue plaid shorts, a purple elephant T-shirt, and ruby red shoes. My father didn’t notice. Passersby always did.
My dad and I walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store. He seemed to be going slower than usual. Neither of us wanted to go back home.
“Oh, shit!” he said as we passed the bakery. He stopped and stared at the cakes. I stared at them too.
“That one’s pretty,” I pointed out. Edges covered in pink icing roses, the small round cake looked delicious.
“It sure is, honey.”
The bakery lady came over and asked if we needed help. “No, thanks. We’ll get this one.”
“Do you want me to put a message on it?”
My dad looked from her to me. “Do you want your name on it?”
“Why my name, Daddy?”
He wiped tears away. “Because it’s your birthday, Claire.”
We checked out and I couldn’t take my eyes off the cake. On the way home, I asked when I could eat it. As we passed our house, he told me, “In a few minutes.”
“There’s our house, Daddy.” I pointed to it as he sped past.
“I know,” he said with a sigh.
He pulled up to the local park and took me and the cake out. We sat at the closest table. He stared at the cake, realizing we had no knife, no forks, no plates. But he did have a candle. He lit it before lighting his cigarette, a habit he resumed after Connor’s death. A habit that infuriated my mother.
“Ok, Claire, make a wish.”
He sat me on his lap, but didn’t watch me. The sandbox and playground was about twenty feet away. Dad watched a young boy, about a year old, toddle around the sandbox. To him, May 6th would always be the anniversary of the last day his son was alive.
I blew the candle out and was promptly thrown to the ground.
“Connor?” my father screamed. “Connor? Is that you?”
Dusting off the dirt from my face and clothes, I looked up to find him holding the young boy, continually yelling Connor’s name. The boy’s parents didn’t take this well, fearing he was trying to kidnap him. There was a scuffle, the police were called, and I was left sitting on the bench, watching my father believe, for just that day, that his son had returned. For that day, he saw his Connor.
Years later, after watching Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, I realized my wish for my father to see his son again could have turned out even worse.
On the first day of kindergarten, Ms. Hodges instructed every child to stand in front of the class and tell everyone his or her full name, address, and birthday.
I stood proudly in front of the class. Dressed in the blue flared skirt and purple octopus T-shirt I had picked out, I told everyone “My name is Claire Adele Mooney. I live at 611 Mocking Lane.”
“And your birthday?” the teacher asked.
“I don’t have one.”
“Everyone has a birthday, Claire.”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, we don’t celebrate it.”
“Because my brother’s dead.”
I thought the young teacher’s eyes were going to pop out of her skull. She composed herself and told me to return to my seat.
My father worked a lot during that year. He took any shift he could to stay away from our house. During the first week of May, I don’t think I saw him at all. I know I never saw him on my birthday. My mother only got out of bed to drive me to school and to pick me up.
Ms. Hodges had eyed me closely that day. I didn’t know why. She was usually nice but distant.
As the class headed to lunch, she asked me to stay.
“Do you know what today is, Claire?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s Wednesday,” I answered proudly. Part of my morning routine was to update the calendar. It was the first thing I did when I entered the kitchen before I got myself breakfast.
“What’s today’s date?” she asked.
I looked to the calendar that hung by her desk. “It’s May 6.” She waited for me to say more but I thought I had answered the question sufficiently.
“It’s your birthday, Claire.”
“Okay,” I shrugged.
“Will you have a party tonight?”
I shook my head. “I think you’re about the only one who knows it’s my birthday.”
“Alright, Claire. You can head to lunch now.”
I headed to lunch, mad that I’d be last on the lunch line. Mom hadn’t gone to the store all week and there was no food to make lunch with. I heard a door close and saw Ms. Hodges scurry out of the building.
As my classmates and I exited the classroom at the end of the day, Ms. Hodges held me back again.
“My mom’s waiting, Ms. Hodges.” I didn’t want to be last in line again.
“I know. I want to take you to her. Just wait here.”
When we exited, most of the students were gone. I saw my mother sitting in her minivan, staring out the front window, oblivious to the fact that all the children were gone.
Mom jumped when Ms. Hodges spoke her name into the open passenger window. “I’m sorry Claire is late. All my fault.”
Ms. Hodges opened the door for me and put the shopping bag in the back with me. She looked closely at my mom, who had obviously been crying. Ms. Hodges closed the door and mouthed, “Happy Birthday” to me.
“What’s this?” my mother asked as she helped me out of the car.
“I don’t know. Ms. Hodges put it there.”
She peeked in the bag. “Did you tell Ms. Hodges it’s your birthday?”
“No. She told me.” I tried to catch a glimpse of what was in the bag but Mom snatched it away and plodded into the house.
Mom took out the birthday cake, a ‘5’ candle, and pink polka dot paper plates and napkins. She put it on the table. We stared at the beautiful cake, covered in pink and yellow daisies. She never lit the candle.
“Make sure you tell your father he forgot your birthday.” I didn’t point out she had as well.
She returned to her bed and left me alone at the dining room table, staring at my birthday cake.
I stared at the unlit candle and wondered how I could set things right. I pulled a chair over to the kitchen counter. Standing on it, I rummaged through the junk drawer until I found matches.
It took a few strikes but I lit the match. It burnt down faster than I expected and I yelped when the flame got to my fingers. I dropped it onto the table and tried again. Quicker this time, I reached the five and smiled at my accomplishment. I marveled at the candle as it flickered. Pink drippings slid down the ‘5’ toward the cake.
I blew the candle out and made my wish. I smiled and hoped for the best. Looking at the book of matches, I wondered if I lit the candle again if I could make another wish. It was worth a try.
The bedroom door squeaked open. “Claire? What do I smell?” Mom said as she walked into the kitchen. Her voice sounded free of tears and I thought my wish had come true.
She screamed and snatched the lit match that hovered above the candle. I was preparing to make the same wish again, but this time for my Dad.
“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed.
“Making a wish,” I answered.
She grabbed the matchbook, as I lit another match. We struggled over it. Children have a surprisingly strong grip when motivated but Mom did win, eventually. The lit match caught her sleeve and her robe began to burn. I watched in horror as it quickly spread. She ran to the sink and ran water on her arm to stop the burning. She quickly disrobed and marveled at the scorched pink skin on her right arm.
“I can’t feel it,” she muttered. She gently poked her forearm, then poked it harder. “I can’t feel it. It doesn’t hurt,” she marveled. The initial relief of no pain quickly passed as she realized it should sting. She pinched her other arm. “I can’t feel!” she screamed.
I got my wish: “Take my mom’s pain away.”
In first grade, Mrs. Payson always made a big deal of all holidays and birthdays. As I left the classroom on May 5th, she asked, “Are you excited for tomorrow?”
I looked to the calendar that hung on the wall, highlighting each day’s activities. I saw my name on May 6th and was reminded that the next day was my birthday.
“I’m looking forward to your mom’s chocolate cake!” Mrs. Payson said as she escorted me out of the classroom.
I smiled, agreeing that the cake Mom had made for the spring bake sale was delicious but knowing Mom certainly wouldn’t be making me a cake. She got dressed most days now and cooked dinner more nights than not. But this was always a bad week. She hadn’t been out of bed in two days.
I got home and rummaged through a recipe book to find my mom’s recipe. Failing, I grabbed a box mix and tried to follow the picture directions on the back. I had just put the lumpy and eggshell-riddled mixture into a cake pan when my father came home.
“Jesus, Claire! You can’t have chocolate cake for dinner!” He mumbled some profanities and threw the cake out. I started to explain but held my tongue, knowing my birthday brought more pain than joy.
I plodded to school, not knowing how I was going to explain why there was no cake.
Ms. Hodges, my kindergarten teacher, was waiting at my classroom door when I arrived. She handed me a tray of cupcakes and wished me a happy birthday. I couldn’t contain my excitement as my classmates huddled around me to check out the pretty cupcakes. Each, one for each classmate, was iced in pink with a purple daisy on top. They were the prettiest cupcakes I’d ever seen and I debated not eating one. My schoolmates didn’t struggle with such a decision. After singing, they devoured them.
“Wait,” Mrs. Payson instructed me, as she ran over and put a lit candle, shaped as a 6, in mine. “Shh…I’m not supposed to put a candle in it but Ms. Hodges gave me this.”
I smiled and blew out the candle, so happy that my classmates were happy and I was the center of their universe. I knew it would be brief and wished that it would last forever.
That’s the last thing I remembered until ten hours later, when I woke up in a hospital bed. I only remembered blowing out the candle, repeatedly, for what seemed like forever.
Stuck in that happy moment forever would have surely led to insanity.
Fortunately it only lasted until midnight.
Want to read more? There are several more birthdays for Claire. Check out Alex McGuigan