Birthday Party: A Short Story

The rain drip-dropped on the windshield, slow but relentless. Inside the Corolla, in the passenger seat, Alex slurped the last of her latte.

Behind the wheel, Caroline smiled. “Nice milk mustache you’ve got there.”

“I do?”

Mm-hmm.” Caroline rummaged through the center console, found a napkin. She held it out to Alex.

Alex folded her own hand over Caroline’s. Looked at her. Gently, Caroline pulled her hand back. The napkin fluttered back onto the console, between them. Alex rubbed at the milk mustache she couldn’t see, but was there.

“Alex…I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Fine.” Alex kept rubbing. The skin above her lip started to hurt.

Caroline folded her hands together on her seersucker skirt. “I’m sorry.”

“I said it’s fine.” Alex began tapping the empty Styrofoam cup against her leg.

“I’m still figuring things out…you said you are too…”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Tap, tap, tap. “Just forget it.”

Caroline took the cup. “Let’s talk, OK? We always have good conversations. Come on.”

Alex thrust open the door. She didn’t have an umbrella, or a hood. The spray of rain on her face was cold, but felt good.

“Alex!”

“I have to go. My sister’s birthday party, I told you.”

“I know, I’ll drive you.” Caroline leaned over, and bumped the Lot A Student Parking Permit hanging from the rearview mirror. The plastic tag seesawed in rhythm with the rain.

In response, Alex slammed the door shut. She strode to the gazebo near the parking lot. Its weathered pine wood held years’ worth of lovers’ histories, pairs of initials carved into nearly every surface.

Alex blinked.

She fished out her phone, thumbed the Uber app. She kept her head bowed, but still saw when Caroline finally drove away.

She sniffled, wiped her nose on the back of her denim jacket. Drip-drop, drip-drip. The rain didn’t let up.

About half an hour later, Alex trudged toward the stoop of her parents’ house. Her mother had taped a neon-pink poster board announcing, “Happy Birthday, Maggie!” to the front door, as if her sister were celebrating her first birthday instead of thirty-first. There was glitter.

Alex hated glitter.

She walked inside, and tripped over a pile of wet shoes. Alex kicked off her own, adding the checkerboard-printed Vans to the pile.

“Hey, honey, we’ve been worried about you.”

Robert MacDonald joined her in the foyer. He wore a cone hat the same shade of neon pink as the front-door sign. It clashed with his striped sweater vest.

For the record, I’m not putting one of those hats on.

Robert shook his head. “I was by the campus, I could have picked you up. I called you, even texted you…”

“I was in a meeting. My writing tutor.” Alex cleared her throat. “I took an Uber over.”

“Your mother and I don’t think those are safe.”

“Well, if you would let me have my own car on campus…”

Ah, this conversation again.” Maggie joined them, holding a glass of wine.

Alex hugged her. “Happy birthday. Why didn’t you and Mitchell make a reservation somewhere, just the two of you?“

Maggie smiled. “We thought about it, but…you know Mom.”

Yep. “Where’s the booze?”

Robert trailed after them toward the kitchen. “This isn’t some fraternity party, Alex.”

Alex looked at her sister, and they both laughed. “I know, Dad.”

In the kitchen, their mother peered up from behind her oversized tortoise-shell glasses. “Alex, I said six, sharp.” Susan stirred at the wok, hissing on the stovetop.

The sweet-sharp scent of madras curry wafted from the kitchen to the adjoining den. Alex gagged. “Maggie picked Indian?”

Well, she wanted my chicken potpie…”

“My favorite,” Maggie interjected, handing Alex her own glass of wine.

“But,” Susan continued, spooning rice into a bowl, “I saw this recipe in the paper and had to try it.” Hiss. Susan snapped off the burner.

Alex glanced back at Robert, who had settled into his recliner in the den, returning to whatever he was watching on TV—a World War II documentary, it looked like. “You and Dad are the only people on earth who read the paper. Like, the actual paper.”

“Actually, not true, Alex.” Mitchell appeared, along with her brother, Bobby. “My stepfather’s subscribed to The Wall Street Journal for years.”

Alex just looked at him. Mitchell adjusted his cone hat (of course he had put one on), then retreated to the den. Bobby lightly punched her shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“School sucks. I forgot Maggie’s present in my dorm. What about you?”

Bobby drummed his fingers against the island. “Let’s see. Work sucks, and I forgot Mags’s present at my house.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “You guys didn’t have to get me anything.”

Bobby smirked. “I didn’t. Juno did.”

“And you couldn’t even remember to bring it.” Maggie smirked back. “Impressive.”

Alex tried the wine. It was white, and tasted like water. “Wheres Juno?”

“Oh.” Bobby waved his hand. “Something with work.”

The sisters exchanged a glance. “Juno doesn’t like us,” Alex said. “Just admit it.”

“No, that’s not true…” Bobby cleared his throat, glanced at the documentary in the den. His body language said, Yes.

Susan approached their huddle at the island. She hugged her right arm around Maggie’s back. “I’m glad we’re all together.”

Alex set down her glass.

“Thirty-one years, gosh.” Susan pulled off her glasses and dabbed at her eyes.

Oh, Mom.” Maggie patted her arm.

“I’m sorry to be sentimental, but…” Susan pushed her glasses back on. “You’ll understand, when you have children of your own.”

Maggie paused. “If dinner’s ready, why don’t we eat?”

“Yes, everything’s ready. Robert, turn off the TV!”

The MacDonalds had bought their home three decades ago, an old, classic Cape Cod with all the accompanying character and coziness (or confined spaces, depending on one’s perspective). The two of them, along with their three children and Mitchell, squeezed around the mahogany table in the dining room. Susan had adorned the circular surface with a mason jar of flowers, and splash of neon-pink confetti.

No plates, though.

“Bobby, grab some, will you?” Susan began pointing to the various serving bowls and platters. “Rice. The curried chicken, and you can garnish it with the cilantro and sliced almonds. I heated the naan with olive oil and sea salt…”

Mitchell rubbed his hands together. “Everything looks great, Susan. And this was your first time preparing this dish? Unbelievable.”


“Oh, stop.” But Susan glowed.

Alex picked at a piece of confetti. “Mom.”

“Yes, honey?”

Any Hot Pockets in the freezer?”

Susan ignored her. Bobby returned with an armful of plates, and everyone began reaching for food. Alex filled her plate with rice and almonds.

Mitchell kissed Maggie. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

“Happy birthday, sis,” Bobby chimed in.

Maggie smiled around the table. She wore a sleeveless white lace top, and her long, dark brown hair lay in a loose side ponytail across her left chest. “Thank you, everyone. And thanks for being here.”

Robert smiled back, adjusted the cone hat on his head. “We love you, honey.”

Alex speared some rice.

After dinner, there was cake, and presents—the ones that had been remembered.

“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have!” Maggie clutched a thick bracelet, its smattering of precious gemstones sparkling in the light. Again, Mitchell kissed her, his cone hat bopping against her forehead. Bobby checked the time on his watch, while Susan oohed and aahed over the bracelet.

Alex slipped to the kitchen. She squatted down and opened the wine refrigerator, in search of a red. Aha, an open Pinot Noir—her lucky night. She poured the rest of the bottle into a neon-pink plastic cup. Took a long sip. Breathed.

Her sister’s sudden appearance in the kitchen startled Alex. Maggie wiped a hand across her face. Her new bracelet kept sparkling.

“Maggie?”

Maggie gasped. “Alex.” Tears had gathered in her eyes, their shine matching that of the bracelet.

“Mags, what’s wrong?”

Maggie cleared her throat. “Nothing.”

Alex set down the cup. “You can tell me…”

No, everything’s fine.” But Maggie was shaking her head. She grabbed the empty wine bottle. “I’ll recycle this; be right back.” She hurried outside, just as their brother entered the kitchen, holding a half-full serving bowl of curried chicken and some plates. Why hadn’t Mom just made the chicken potpie?

“What’s Mags doing?”

Alex paused. “Recycling.”

Bobby unburdened his full hands by the sink. He glanced back at Alex. “I have to take off. Want a ride back?”

Alex nodded. She finished her red wine in a few more gulps.

By the front door, Susan hugged them goodbye. “Tell Juno we missed her,” she told Bobby. “Dad and I will add more money to your debit card,” she added to Alex. Robert waved from the den; the documentary was back on.

Alex sighed, opened the door. “Thanks.” She wasn’t thinking about her debit card, hadn’t even brought it up.

But the rain had stopped.

rain-2538429_1920

Bobby started the car. The radio station was tuned in to a football game; Bobby turned the volume up. They careened through a puddle. Alex’s stomach did a cartwheel; she winced.

After Bobby drove through the campus entrance, he slowed down. “Do you want to go to your dorm, or…?”

“Dorm’s good.” Alex pointed. “That way.”

Bobby maneuvered slowly along a winding road, flanked on both sides by residence halls. Alex’s came into view. She started to gesture, but then gasped. On a pine bench in the front sat Caroline. Her stomach began cartwheeling again. “No, don’t—drive that way, drive away.”

“What?”

“Bobby, please.” Caroline looked their way, and she and Alex made eye contact through the passenger window. “Drive away, that way.”

Bobby kept driving along the winding road, until they were away from her dorm, and away from Caroline. Alex clutched her stomach, exhaled…gagged. “I don’t feel good.”

Huh?”


“I have to throw up.” She opened her door. Bobby was still driving—he ground to a stop, and Alex lurched out, onto a patch of lawn. She leaned over, threw up.
She saw pieces of almonds in the wet grass.

Her throat burned. Alex wiped her hand across her mouth. She glanced around. It was a Friday night, a little after nine o’clock, and hardly anyone was around now. Most people were getting ready to go out, and if anyone had seen her…well, she would just look like the typical dumb college kid who had pregamed too hard and gotten sick.

“Are you OK?”

Bobby was beside her now. Alex cleared her throat. “Yeah, I just didn’t feel good…”

You drink too much, or too fast? Or was it the curry?

She hadn’t had the curry

Bobby was looking at her. “What’s going on?”

“What?”

“What’s wrong, Alex?”

She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket. She gazed out into the night, then back at her brother. The way he was looking at her, waiting—she wondered if he already knew, or understood. She had read (online) that sometimes people did.

“Shouldn’t you go home, be with Juno?” she asked instead.

Bobby paused. “Juno and I—things probably aren’t going to work out with us.”

Alex blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“Yeah…” Bobby zipped up his gray fleece jacket. “She’s been staying at her mom’s for a couple months now.” He met her gaze, shrugged, then nodded.

“What happened?”

“Well…I don’t really want to get into it, but…basically, it’s my fault.” Bobby paused, reconsidered. “Mostly my fault.”

“I’m sorry, Bobby.” Alex sidestepped the almond-specked vomit on the lawn to give him a light hug.

He hugged her backtighter than she had hugged him. “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”

They let each other go, and Alex looked at him, still wondering but more certain. “Um…have you told anyone else yet? Mom and Dad?”

Bobby smiled slightly. “No, but I have to. Juno told me Mom’s been texting her about a girls’ night out…”


“Ugh, she’s been texting Mags and me about that too.” Alex did not do girls’ night out.

“I’ll tell them soon, and Maggie too.”

“Something’s going on with Maggie.” Alex’s hair blew in the wind. “I tried talking with her about it, but…”

Bobby toed his boot in the mud.

You know what’s going on?”

Bobby paused. “I don’t know anything for sure.”

That made two of them.

From behind Bobby, a figure appeared near the road. Alex would have recognized the tall red rain boots anywhere. Caroline walked over to them.

“Hey.”

Alex nodded.

Caroline stuck her hand out to Bobby. “You and Alex look related.”

“Brother,” Bobby confirmed, shaking her hand. “Bobby MacDonald.”

“Caroline Shelburne. We go to school together.”

Bobby looked at Alex. “Do you want me to stick around, or…?”

Alex glanced at Caroline. “No...it’s OK.”

Bobby glanced from her to Caroline. “OK, well…call me if you want. It’s just me at home.”

OK.”

Caroline waved goodbye. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Bobby lumbered back to his car, then drove away.

Part of Alex wished she was in the passenger seat again. Another part of her wanted a toothbrush.

“So.” Caroline nodded toward a nearby pine bench. They were everywhere. “Can we talk?”

A third part of Alex needed to talk. So she said yes.

Photo credit: Pixabay

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art

The chrome escalator wound up three floors. On the third floor, Tinseltown-inspired red carpet flowed forward, toward the hallway of smaller theaters. Life-size posters of the latest blockbusters and box-office bombs lined the walls: “Toy Story 4,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Men in Black International.”

Stanton and I had come to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s newest film. The last time we had seen a movie in a movie theater together was—shake your head if you must, friends—more than four years ago. Little kids, work, Saturday-morning soccer games, visits with family and friends…all good things, but movie-theater date night had tumbled toward the bottom of our list of priorities, right there with meticulous personal grooming. 😉

I shared all this with the bespectacled young woman at the ticket counter. “The next time we’re here, it will probably be four years later,” I added. She smiled politely, and slid our two admission tickets across the counter.

“You can’t help yourself, can you?” Stanton said, as we walked away hand in hand. The pervasive, ultra-buttery scent of movie-theater popcorn seemed to fall into step with us.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers,” I agreed. Then I gasped. “Maybe a title for a blog post?”

“Mel, no.” Stanton gestured around—just a regular day in our life. “This is not a blog post.”

Instantly, we looked at each other, eyes wide. Stanton smiled, sighed. “OK, that’s a good title.”

And it was, until Grace and Anna told me they liked “Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art” better.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers…”

I try to update this, my website, with new writing (in the form of blog posts) at least twice a month. I’m always working on longer pieces behind the scenes…er, screen. These pieces take more time, though: fiction such as short stories, nonfiction like corporate press releases. I want to keep my site as fresh as possible, which Stanton knows. Thus, he knows that I often “think in blog posts.” What a cool quote, cool launching pad for my next post.

I don’t want to exploit my life for my art. It’s a common dilemma among writers, musicians and artists of all kinds. Personal experiences spark creative turns in our professional work. An aha moment hits us, and we try to create something from it without debauching the beauty of our real world.

Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. No doubt. The conscientious writers among us, however, recognize that some stories aren’t ours to tell, no matter how much we camouflage the identifying details of our characters. (We also balk at starting family feuds, or being banished from friends’ speed dials.)

Sometimes, I wonder how many bestselling plots and million-dollar lyrics never saw the light of day (or pages of The New York Times Book Review or Billboard Hot 100).

There’s art, and there’s life.

Then there’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

clapper-board-1019607_1920

I’m not a film critic, so I won’t share an amateur-hour movie review here. All I’ll say is wow. Talk about conflating life and art—this quasi-historical, pop-culture fairy tale centers on Sharon Tate and the Manson Family murders, with a twist…actually, several twists. Totally engaging plot, complicated yet relatable characters, and white-hot, feels-like-L.A. lighting.

And oh, yes…Brad Pitt. Wow again. Wow for both churning out a super-cool yet charming performance and—sigh—still looking mighty fine at age 55.

For our first Valentine’s Day together, back in college, Stanton gave me a “Fight Club” poster featuring Mr. Pitt in all his shirtless, prime-of-life glory—pretty super-cool and charming of Mr. Leddy himself, I’d thought. My college boyfriend turned standing Friday-night date knew I was a fan of the two-time Sexiest Man Alive, as well as “Fight Club.” (I’m not a rom-com girl, which often surprises people. Give me David Fincher, QT, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson any day…although, like everyone else, I do enjoy Nancy Meyers features for the interior design inspirations.)

Coincidentally, this past weekend I stumbled upon an old photo album from college. And there, in the album, was a picture of my very first, freshman-year dorm room. And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

That was 17 years ago, and it felt like yesterday.

Seventeen years. How did that happen?

And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

I believe very strongly in living in the present, making the most of the here and now. From time to time, though, I can be sentimental. I can have a moment of nostalgia.

I had a moment then, friends.

I flipped through a few more pictures. Smiled at the late-teen/early-20s faces of some wonderful college friends, who grew up to become wonderful life friends.

There was another picture, of myself with a good friend who passed away much too soon. He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

This person actually introduced Stanton to me, and meant a lot to us both individually and as a couple.

I held the picture out to Stanton. He looked, and gave me a little smile. Half happy (for the memory) and half sad (because we’d never again have more than that).

“We were all so young and happy,” I said.

“Yes.”

He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

The girls and I were at our town library three days in a row this week. It just kind of happened; there was no grand plan. One day, we returned an overdue DVD; another, we stopped by after playing at a nearby park (and stumbled upon an outdoor concert on the green, complete with complimentary popcorn and temporary tattoos for the kids).

The girls marveled at our good luck. We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The guitarist was strumming the chords to “Edelweiss,” from the classic motion picture “The Sound of Music,” and singing along, the lyrics coasting across the library green: “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…”

I said hello to a librarian I know, and mentioned that we often ended up at the library.

“It’s not a bad place to be,” she replied with a smile.

I smiled back. “Totally agree.” (I knew I’d put it in a blog post.)

Where do we end up? What are we doing? How does it all happen?

These can be hard questions, but at least one answer is easy: It all happens fast.

We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The girls go back to school after Labor Day. “Summer went fast,” Grace noted. “I remember the first day of summer vacation.”

Tell me about it, girl. I mean…I remember college. I remember my “Fight Club” poster; I remember 17 years ago.

Once upon a time, we were all so young and happy.

I’ve had some dark days, but overall, I am happy. And incredibly grateful. Not as young as I used to be, though.

I wrote much of this post freehand, old-school in a notebook with a pen, at a park this week, while the girls were playing. It was a picture-perfect summer day, and I did snap some memories. As I did, a quote crossed my mind, and it beautifully sums up the message I’d like to share today:

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” (Gerard Way)

Photo credit: Pixabay

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too

I shut the top lid and press “on.” The old coffeemaker grumbles awake and begins brewing several cups of my favorite blend.

From the adjoining breakfast nook, my daughters are bickering—something about whose turn it is, or isn’t, to use a certain stamp. I poke my head around the corner. “Share, girls,” I say.

My older daughter crosses her arms. “I have been sharing,” Grace says. “She hasn’t.”

Rather than pleading her case, my younger daughter says, “Mommy! Hold me!”

I give Anna a hug and then settle her back beside her sister. “Girls,” I say, “there are a million things you can do in here. Color. Play with your Shopkins. Finish your cereal, maybe. Do something while I pack up your book bags.”

My 3-year-old frowns. “I don’t want to go to school today,” she says.

“You’ll have fun once you get there,” I reply.

She shakes her head. “No, I won’t. I want to stay with you, Mom.”

“I don’t,” Grace announces, for the record. “I want to go to school.”

My coffee better be ready soon. “Look,” I say. “Everyone has to go to school today, because Mom needs to write and Dad is working too. So…” I gesture to the crayons, construction paper and myriad amusements covering the table. “Please do something while I get your things ready for school.”

Anna sighs, but picks up a crayon. I return to the kitchen.

Story Image

For all I have to do to secure my writing time—the two different school drop-offs, snack and lunch preparation beforehand, the pleading (and, occasionally, yelling) for the girls to get along and remember to brush their teeth and, of course, find their shoes—I wonder if it’s even worth it. Especially considering that the majority of the writing I do now—essays submitted to literary magazines (and not always accepted), short fiction that I self-publish on Amazon, every post on my website here—is creative, a.k.a. not that lucrative.

The coffeemaker sputters to a stop. I pour myself a cup. Outside the window above the kitchen sink, the sun rises. The thought flickers across my mind, again: Is this even worth it? Or should I do something different?

“Mom. Look, Mom.”

Anna’s voice draws me back in. I turn; I look.

She’s smiling, proud. And she’s holding up a piece of blue construction paper, marked here and there with lines of crayon. “I wrote a story too,” she tells me.

I take in a breath. Then I smile; I kneel down. I look at the paper. “Wow,” I say. “You did.”

“Just like Mom,” Anna says. She drops her story at my feet, then runs off.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling. Just like when we visited the local firehouse for a field trip, and the girls spent the rest of the day pretending to be firefighters.

I hang her story up on the refrigerator, with Grace’s soccer-picture magnet from last season.

I could never not write creative nonfiction, or short fiction. I simply love telling stories, both those that are true and those I make up. It makes me happy when someone reads something I wrote, and lets me know it moved them in some way—made them laugh, or encouraged them during a difficult time.

And during difficult times in my life, writing has been healing to me. Either in helping me to make sense of my journey and to find meaning within the pain, or in escaping, for a moment, to a world of my own making. Often it’s easier to give fictional characters’ “Aha!” moments, rather than to stumble across our own.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling.

Originally, I submitted a version of this essay to a literary magazine I really like and read. Yesterday, the editor let me know it wasn’t a good fit for them right now. During dinner that evening, I shared with the girls what she said.

“What was your story called?” Grace asked.

I told her: “Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too.” (Based on a true story, as all good stories are. 😉 )

Grace smiled sympathetically. “Awww, that sounds cool, Mom.”

I smiled back. “Thanks, honey.”

Eventually, every creative type has a come-to-Jesus conversation with him- or herself. Is what I’m doing worthwhile?

I’ve been thinking about this, and the answer is—like many of the answers I arrive at—yes and no. Pros and cons for everything, shades of gray everywhere. But for sure, more “no” than “yes,” friends.

I want to contribute more financially meaningfully to our family’s life. E-book royalties and token payments for magazine pieces, while holding out hope for a big break à la Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, don’t go very far toward summer camps and retirement savings.

Worth and value can be subjective, and are, but bottom lines don’t lie.

I’m excited, then, to dedicate more time to seeking out the kind of contract work I’ve done before, proposal editing and copywriting. I’m good at that stuff; I can do it. Fingers crossed, I can do it from home.

I’ll still do the creative writing I love, just more on the back burner.

Yet…Anna’s story still hangs on the fridge.

Kids…love…stories. We grow up, and we still…love…stories. We tell stories every day—from our quickest conversations with our neighbors, to our end-of-day heart-to-hearts with the ones who know and love us best.

I believe there is unity, and understanding, and love in storytelling. Deep down, we all might believe that.

That’s why I’ll never give up on it.

In the meantime…if you know anyone who could use some editing or writing help, send ‘em my way. 😉 ❤

Photo credit: Pixabay

+

Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Enjoy My New Short Story, What Happens Next!

What Happens Next Book CoverI’m happy to share, friends, that my newest e-book is now published and available on Amazon.com! Please check out “What Happens Next,” and let me know what you think.

From the Amazon book description: “In 2016, author Melissa Leddy introduced us to imperfect yet relatable literature professor Tess Berry in her short fiction e-book ‘This Is Just a Story.’ Readers loved ‘This Is Just a Story,’ but when they reached the end, they all had the same question: ‘What happens next?’ Leddy brings Tess back in this sequel, to answer that very question.”

Writing this next chapter, so to speak, was a true labor of love, friends. I hope you enjoy reading “What Happens Next” as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thank you.