A Very Happy Birthday

Written in response to: Write about a character who lives a seemingly charmed life.... view prompt



This story contains sensitive content

Note: this story contains strong language.


When Michael awoke on his birthday, he knew it was going to be a great day, even if he did have to go to school. The room was warm for the season, and the sun was shining above his curtains the way he loved. Plus, it was his birthday, which was always a good sign. He could hear his siblings in the kitchen– Christian and Hecate always cooked breakfast together. Michael’s bedside clock said he didn’t have to get up for another fifteen minutes, but he grabbed his phone and got up anyway. As he made his bed, there was a dull thud from the attic. He sighed and left his room. 

“Good morning,” Christian said when Michael entered the kitchen, his eyes never leaving the coffee syrup he was adding to the cup in his hands. Christian always insisted on putting the same amount of each syrup in the coffee every day, but he only ever measured by eye. 

Hecate dramatically flipped on the stove and grinned at him. “Happy birthday!” she said. Michael hummed. Whenever Hecate was happy in the morning, it meant her current writing project was going well. Michael’s older sister was one of the country’s best novelists under the age of thirty, and her upcoming book was going to be coming out in a month. 

“Did you figure out how Jamie was going to get from the pub to the library?” he asked, knowing that was the problem she had been having trouble getting on paper for the last few days. 

“Yeah, I realized that Ashley didn’t have a place where she had to be then, so she could fly to him and get him,” she said. 

“I like that. Ashley deserves to be the hero.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” 

Christian decided that the coffee was up to his usual standards and handed Michael’s to him. Hecate took three plates out of the cabinet and evenly measured each of the items onto the three of them. 

“Do you feel ready for your Small Groups exam today?” Christian asked. 

Michael groaned. “I hate that class.”

“Yeah, we know,” Hecate said as she handed Michael his plate.

Michael was in his third year at the city’s college, majoring in Sociology and Art History, the two things his older siblings had also majored in. That meant that not only did he have people willing to guide him through every subject, but the professors also liked him by virtue of his relation to his top-of-the-class siblings. 

Michael glanced at his phone. “I’m going to hang out with Kyle after school today, by the way. I’ll text you when I’m on my way home.”

“Make it quick. We have reservations at Maggio’s for six,” Christian said. 

Michael’s toast dropped from his hand. “Maggio’s?”

Christian and Hecate grinned. “Happy birthday,” Christian said. 

Michael felt his cheeks heat up. “Don’t forget to get me a present,” he said. 

His siblings glanced at each other with big grins. 

“You did get me a present,” he said. “What is it?”

“No spoilers,” Hecate said, throwing a towel at him. “Get ready for school.”

There was an unusually loud thud from the attic. The three of them all looked up with varying amounts of annoyance. Michael sighed and went back to his room to get ready for that day’s classes. 

The exam that day went well, just like how Michael thought it was going to go. He didn’t actually hate the class. He just needed a class that he could say was the worst, because he remembered Hecate and Christian always having a class they hated. 

“Happy birthday,” a girl from two of Michael’s classes said as she walked out of the exam room. She was tall and attractive, and Michael was pretty sure she knew that he had just broken up with his girlfriend of two years because she was suddenly sitting really close to him in their shared classes and always offered for them to have study groups together. 

Michael met with Kyle after his last class, and they sat in booths by the ice cream stand in the student union, their backs to the wall and ice cream in their hands. Like most people, they liked people-watching in the union. People they knew smiled and waved at them and most wished Michael a happy birthday. Michael kept grinning, feeling oddly similar to how he had felt on his birthdays when he was little, when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He stuck the spoon in his mouth and looked at it, and his blood turned icy. 

“Shit,” he muttered, the spoon falling out of his mouth. 

“What?” Kyle said. 

“Shit!” he said again. “It’s my mom.”

“Okay?” Kyle said. 

Michael jumped up and answered the call, scurrying to a quiet corner. 

“Hi!” he said as brightly as he could, noticing his voice cracked. 

“Hi, honey,” his mom said, and Michael winced. For too long now, his mother’s voice was always shaky and high, like she was about to cry. As she often did. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” he said. He gnawed on his bottom lip. 

“So, I was thinking that maybe I could come over for dinner tonight to celebrate,” she said. 

Michael’s heart leaped into his throat. What could he say? “Oh, you know you don’t have to—” 

He heard a soft intake of breath, the kind someone makes when they’re trying to not start sobbing. “Oh, but I’m already on the way…” she said. 

Fuck, fuck, fucking… Michael tried to think of something to say, but every word except swears failed him. “Oh, okay,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Okay, drive safe. I’ll see you soon.”

“Bye, honey.”

Michael ended the call and stared at the brick wall he was standing next to for a moment. Then he darted back to the table where Kyle was.

“I gotta go,” he said, grabbing his jacket and backpack. 

“What happened?” Kyle asked. 

“Can’t tell you right now, sorry,” Michael said, and sprinted to the exit. As he ran to the subway station, he found Hecate’s contact and hit the call button. It rang, rang, rang, rang… voicemail. He tried Christian, hoping he wasn’t in a meeting with a client at the firm. It went immediately to voicemail. 

He just barely made it onto the subway before the doors closed, getting him some glares from the other passengers. He kept texting “SOS MOM ON THE WAY” to both Hecate and Christian. When the subway got to his stop, he bolted out of the doors while they were opening. By the time he got to their house, he was drenched in sweat. 

“Hecate!” he yelled. She was standing in the yard, holding a bow and arrow and aiming it at her straw target. She spun around. 

“What?” she said, taking in his appearance. “What happened?”

“Mom!” he gasped. “Mom’s on her way here now!”

The blood seemed to rush out of her face and neck. “SHIT!” she screamed, and they both ran to the door. Their shoes thudded on the wooden floor of the entrance and the kitchen. 

“Call Christian! Tell him to go to the restaurant!” she yelled as she ran up the stairs to the attic. 

“I’m trying!” he wailed as his brother’s phone again went to voicemail. “He’s not answering!” 

 “Call his work phone!” 

That, of course, meant things were at the worst they could possibly be. His fingers shaking, Michael called his brother’s work phone. It rang twice, then Christian’s harsh whisper came through the phone. 

“What are you doing, I’m talking to—” 

“Mom’s on her way. Get to Maggio’s.”

There was silence for a moment. Then: “Oh, God. I’m on my way.” Then the line went dead. Then there was nothing for him to do. There were two quick thuds from the attic, and Michael heard Hecate swearing. He wondered if he should try cleaning, but Christian always kept the place spotless, so he just went to change. There was another thump from the attic, and Hecate came downstairs. 

“Okay,” she said. “We should go change.” But as soon as the words left her mouth, a painfully familiar car rolled into the driveway. Their mother was in front of their house. Without a word, they both bolted to their rooms. As he was straightening his tie, he left his room and saw Hecate leaving hers, barefoot and struggling to loop earrings in while holding her shoes in one hand. She had gotten her dress from the attic. It was black. It seemed she only wore black. There was a knock on the door. They looked at each other, and Michael counted silently: One, two, three. Then they pulled on their rehearsed expressions of brave smiles. 

“We’re dead, right?” he whispered. 

“Just try not to make her cry,” Hecate said. 

“Now how the fuck am I supposed to do that?” he said, and they opened the door. 

Their mother’s eyes were already glassy and wet the second they faced each other, which did not mean good things for not making her cry. Hecate and Michael moved to step out onto the porch and close the door behind them, but their mother instead stepped forward and grabbed them both in a rib-crushing hug. Michael was pretty sure he heard his sister squeak. 

“Jeez, Mom,” Michael said, being careful not to say that he couldn’t breathe. Because that would definitely make her cry. 

Their mother sniffled and gave them another squeeze before she let go. Michael could see she was making a concentrated effort to not cry. “Have you two grown? You look like you’ve grown.” Of course, that was impossible, given that they had finished growing a while ago. But they both smiled at her.

“We should go,” Hecate said. “I bet Christian is already waiting for us at the restaurant.”

Their mother’s face fell. “Restaurant? Oh, I thought we’d maybe cook something here…” her voice trailed off, and Michael looked down to see their mother had brought a cooler that she had set down on the porch. Michael and Hecate stared at it like it was a bomb.

Hecate swallowed. “We made the reservation for five. It’s probably too late to cancel.”

“Oh,” their mother said again, and her bottom lip wobbled. “I can stay here and bake a cake!”

“Are you kidding?” Michael said, putting a childish grin on his face. “I added you to the reservation the second you called.”

Their mother’s smile nearly split her face, and she grabbed them both in another hug. “You kids are the best,” she said. 

Michael made eye contact with Hecate over their mother’s shoulder with a pleading look. Hecate gave him a tiny nod. 

“Mom, we should really go now—”

They all went silent at the distinct sound of banging from the attic. Their mother looked alarmed. “What was that?”

“It’s nothing,” Michael said quickly. 

“That wasn’t nothing!”

Hecate sighed. “It’s nothing you need to worry about. We’re handling it.”

Their mother steeled herself, and for a moment, Michael saw the person she used to be. “What is it?”

Hecate sighed, lowering her head. “It would seem that our house is under siege by raccoons,” she said. Then she grinned. “Who would have guessed there are raccoons that can outsmart three relatively intelligent people?” 

“We tried covering up the window, but they still get in,” Michael said, shrugging. “Christian called some people and they’re going to come tomorrow.”

Their mother looked horrified. “But what if they come downstairs while you’re sleeping and attack you?”

Hecate laughed. “Don’t worry, they’ve never come downstairs. Stop worrying about it. Let’s go eat.”

Michael watched Hecate as she drove their mother’s car. She had insisted on being the one to drive, saying that their mother didn’t know the area well. Michael noticed she had put the cooler back in the car. Hecate’s knuckles were white as she gripped the steering wheel. Michael tried to pay attention to his mother as she talked about how proud she was of him, and how well they were all handling everything. 

When they got to the restaurant, Michael saw Christian through the window, speaking with the hostess. They made eye contact for just a moment, and Christian reached into his wallet. Michael grabbed his mother and spun her away from the window. “Did I tell you I had a Small Groups exam today?”

“No,” his mother said pleasantly. “How did it go?”

“Honestly, everyone made it seem way worse than it actually was. I swear, half the stuff the T.A.’s told us to study wasn’t even on the test. And only a quarter of the stuff my dumb sibling told me to study,” he added, looking pointedly at Hecate. 

“Hey, just trying to keep you in line,” Hecate said, standing with her back to the window. Clearly, she had seen Christian as well. 

There was a soft tapping on the glass, and everyone looked to see Christian standing inside. He waved them in, and they entered. Walking into the dark dining area that smelled like basil and tomato felt like walking to the gallows. Christian walked to their mother and pulled her into a hug that made her seem smaller than ever. He whispered something in her ear that made her laugh into his shoulder. Michael felt like he had a rock in his stomach. 

Hecate walked forward and engaged their mother in some bright conversation, and Michael and Christian hung back. 

When the hostesses, who both looked a little dumbstruck. Michael and Christian hung back. “What did you do?” Michael whispered in his brother’s ear. 

“Gave them $300,” Christian whispered back. 

They were quiet for a moment when they got to their seats. But like a magician, Christian said something about Michael’s birthday, and suddenly there was a lively conversation going. 

It was going so well, in fact, that Michael almost forgot why they were so tense.

But of course, it had to break. And to Michael’s surprise, it was Hecate that broke. 

Everyone seemed to notice all at once that Hecate had gone quiet. The other three looked at her. She was holding her wine glass still by her lips and staring at a spot in the distance. They all followed her gaze, and Michael sighed as his eyes landed on the Missing Person poster on the wall. 

The picture was a couple of years old. Hecate had taken it as the couple was on their way to junior prom. Michael hadn’t been there— too obsessed with worry about the fact that he was graduating in a week, but Hecate had laughed for hours about how their Joseph had tried leaning in for a kiss in the picture and Carrie turned away, distracted by a bird. 

The poster was far away, but they had all seen it enough to know what it said. It said the full names of both the missing kids, asked anyone with clues to call the police, and said the date the two had gone missing. 

They had reached the one-year anniversary of the disappearances a month ago. 

Of course, their mother started crying, and the three siblings looked down at their drinks. 

Thankfully, their mother had gone home right after dinner, because of course (according to Hecate) it wouldn’t make sense for them to drive two cars back to the house. When Michael, Hecate, and Christian got home, they pulled their shoes off and fell onto the couch. They were silent for a minute. 

“That went badly,” Michael said. “I’m going upstairs.” 

He grabbed one of the leftover food boxes and went to the kitchen. 

The cake Christian and Hecate had spent days working on was still in the fridge, untouched. He cut a slice of it and put it in the box, and grabbed his key from the cabinet under the sink. He made his way up to the attic, the steps creaking below him. The door unlocked with a dull thud. 

Joseph was sitting on his bed, with his hands tied together and a cloth over his mouth. He glared at Michael. Michael sighed. 

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “You were the one freaking out.” 

He set the food down on the bed and untied the gag. 

“Mom was here,” Joseph said. 

“Yeah,” Michael answered. 

Joseph stared down at his hands as Michael helped untie them. The bindings were clearly rushed, and Joseph’s wrists were now red. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“I could have told her,” Joseph mumbled. 

“No, you couldn’t have,” Hecate said. Joseph and Michael looked up to see her in the doorway. 

“It’s been over a year,” Joseph said. “Carrie’s parents deserve to know what happened to her.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Hecate said, walking into the room. “You want to confess so you can get it off your chest, and the rest of us have to deal with it.” 

Joseph looked down at the chain on his ankle, his face red. 

“You go and confess, and then you look like the repentant kid that accidentally killed his girlfriend, and then you feel better,” Hecate said. “But if you do that, you'll ruin Mom’s life. Christian will lose his job at the firm and never get another one. I’ll lose my contract. Michael will be a freak for the rest of his life. Because of your stupid fucking mistake.” 

The room was silent. 

“So now that?” Joseph said. “We just stay like this forever?” 

Hecate nodded slowly and took out her earrings. “For as long as it takes,” she said. Then she let out a sad laugh. “On the bright side, I’m pretty sure they don’t give you Maggio’s in prison.” 

She stormed out. Joseph sniffled and reached for the food. He didn’t say anything, but Michael got the impression he wanted to be alone. 

“I almost forgot,” Joseph said as Michael was leaving the room. “Happy birthday.”

September 02, 2022 23:04

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