Julie sat with Alan - her boyfriend - on the sofa. The only reason they had been able to sit down was that Alan had thrown all “the crap” onto the floor. Julie had tutted when he said that.
“Good thing Will wasn’t here to hear that.”
“He’s almost 12, Julie. I’m pretty sure he’s picked up even worse words from school.”
Julie shrugged. She highly doubted that. As far as she knew, Will didn’t talk to anyone at school. He was an only child and he didn’t have any friends, that she was aware of. She always knew he was quiet and he preferred to read a book rather than play on the playground, but she hoped he would have grown out of it by now.
“What are we going to do?” She sighed, almost at her wit’s end. “It’s his birthday on Tuesday and we have no idea what to do. He has no friends to invite to a party and I doubt teenage boys want to spend an afternoon with his family.”
Alan grinned. “Why do you think that? I think you’ll find I’m his favourite.”
Julie suppressed a laugh. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. “And when did he say that?”
“He always says it. You’re just never around to hear it.”
She looked around at all the paper and banners on the floor. She didn’t know if she should decorate the living room, bake him a cake, and make a huge deal out of everything since he won’t have any friends over or just keep it subtle. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings either way. She put her head in her hands and let out a long sigh. Work today had been busy and she had had to force herself to get to work again on Will’s birthday. She was exhausted.
Alan noticed this and frowned. He put an arm around her and waited until she looked up at him.
“Hey, go upstairs and take a nap. I’ll take over from here.”
“You sure?” She felt guilty leaving him to do all the work.
“Yeah. It can’t be that hard, can it? Surely, there are fewer things to choose from now that it’s probably just gonna be us three. Maybe your sister too?”
Julie shook her head. “She’s on holiday with the kids. She put photos on Facebook.”
“Well, lucky for some!”
She laughed. “I wish we could go away sometime.”
They shared a kiss and Julie finally gave in and went upstairs to bed.
She knocked on Will’s bedroom door but there was no answer. She sighed. That boy never came out of his room these days. He barely talked to anyone. The only times they saw him was at breakfast before he left for school on the bus and when Julie called him down for dinner. She was always worrying about him. She was worried he would never make any friends and he would be lonely forever. She worried if there was something bigger wrong with him. Alan would tell her everything was fine but even he worried sometimes about his son.
She left him to whatever he was doing and went to lie on her bed. She planned on reading a book but she fell asleep almost straight away.
She woke up to the smell of pizza cooking in the oven and followed it downstairs as if she was in a trance. That nap had made her hungry.
She came into the kitchen to the sight of her boyfriend with her apron on, flipping hamburgers in the frying pan. She rarely saw him cook. He would usually come home later than her, but recently Julie had burnout from her work so Alan had decided to negotiate with his boss so he could come home earlier this week and make up the time next week. Julie had been very grateful for that when he told her.
“They smell great,” she said, leaning against the doorway. She could watch this all day.
He turned and smiled. “Thanks. I try.”
To both of their surprise, Will came and stood next to his mum. “Yeah, I think so too. Thanks, Dad.”
“You’re welcome. Could you set the table, buddy?”
The parents waited until Will had left the kitchen then Julie looked to Alan.
“Have you figured out what we should do?”
He dropped his voice to a whisper and Julie had to walk closer. “I think we should get the family around. Me, you, your parents, my parents. I’ll drive to pick them up. I’m sure they’d want to see him,” he added once Julie had opened her mouth to protest. Alan’s parents lived half an hour away and she immediately thought of all the hassle it would take to get them over here.
“Are you sure? It’s a long way.”
“Yes.” The look on his face stopped Julie from saying anything else. She knew he was serious about this.
“It’ll be all adults though. I’d think that he would rather be with kids his own age.”
Alan shrugged. “Since he doesn’t seem to talk to anyone at school, maybe he won’t mind. Plus, it’s better than having no one show up.”
Julie couldn’t argue with that. She sighed. “I’ve just been so worried. I want him to have the best party. All his other ones have been so disappointing.”
He nodded sombrely. “I agree but- hey, Will.”
Julie whipped around. Their son was standing in the hallway. Alan had only just noticed him but he couldn’t tell how much he had been listening in to.
“I heard what you said.”
Julie immediately panicked. “Sweetie, we’re just worried. You’re always on your own and-”
Will seemed to have had enough. “I’m not hungry. You can have dinner without me.” He turned on his heel and went back upstairs to his room.
Julie looked on the verge of tears. “Al, we were only trying to help.” Her voice cracked and tears began to fall down her face.
Alan quickly left the oven and embraced his girlfriend. “You’re right. We did nothing wrong. He’s just upset, I think. We did say that he had no friends,” he chuckled and he heard Julie’s muffled laugh too. He felt reassured then that at least he could do that.
Eventually, they plated up dinner and ate it in silence at the table. It felt empty without Will there. He didn’t talk so often anymore but just having him there lit up the room. Julie began to fidget and play with her food, and even Alan didn’t seem to be very hungry anymore.
“Should we take a plate up to him?” Julie said.
Alan nodded. “I’ll do it. And I’ll be disappointed if you’ve left some of my delicious cooking.”
Julie smirked. “Alright, fine. I’ll eat it.”
Alan left Will’s dinner by his door. He let him know it was there but he doubted he would come for it while he was still there so Alan left and, sure enough, he heard his bedroom door open once he had walked down the stairs.
Tuesday arrived in the blink of an eye. Julie had butterflies in her stomach as she waved Will out of the door for him to go to school. She hoped that he would have a good day at school and be able to come home to the best party ever - or at least the best they could come up with in the current circumstances.
“I think I’ll go and get Mum and Dad after lunch,” Alan said, taking a bite of toast.
Julie nodded. “Sure. I’ll call my parents then as well. Give them time to drive over.”
She worries every time Roland gets in the car since his reflexes weren’t as sharp as it once was. But it was a short drive and he was adamant that he would be okay driving. She could hear her mum hissing next to him that he should let Julie drive but he wouldn’t give in.
She also knew that their memories were dwindling so she would make sure to call them again today to remind them.
Sure enough, they had forgotten.
“What was that, dear?!” Julie had to hold the phone away from her ear. She assumed he had forgotten to put his hearing aid in. She didn't have the heart to tell him.
“Will’s birthday party. You said you would come.”
“Oh, I remember now. We forgot, didn’t we, Janet?”
“Yes, we did. Oh, we forget a lot of things these days.”
Julie smiled and suppressed a laugh, even though neither of them would be able to hear him anyway. “Anyway, it’s at 4. Could you make it for then?”
“Of course! We’ll get a present on the way.”
“Are you sure? I could get one for you to give to him.”
It seemed that Roland wasn’t going to give up on that either so Julie didn’t even bother to protest this time.
“Alright. See you soon.”
She would always have to hang up first because Roland couldn’t figure out which button to press, despite Julie and Alan showing him numerous times.
The wait from lunchtime to four was terribly slow. Julie was running out of ways to pass the time. She had tried reading, watching garbage TV, listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, doing crosswords, but she couldn’t concentrate on any of them.
Alan finally came home with his parents - armed with presents for Will, which were placed by the presents from Julie and Alan - and they all decided to start putting up the decorations together. The banner said ‘Happy Birthday!’ and Julie had written ‘Will’ on a separate piece of paper and stuck it on. Alan wanted to write straight on the banner but Julie wouldn’t let him. They had bunting with the number 12 all over it, and Happy Birthday balloons all over the place. And - for good measure - Alan had bought party poppers that they were going to pop when Will came into the living room.
Julie looked around at their masterpiece and smiled. “What was I even worried about? This looks great!”
Alan chuckled and put an arm around her. “I told you we’d work it out.”
“You should listen to Alan more, Julie,” Alan’s mum said, grinning. “I know he’s a good-for-nothing man but you should give him at least some credit.”
“Hey!” Alan turned to her. He sounded annoyed but a smile tugged at his lips. “I thought you of all people would be on my side.”
They all laughed until they heard the door open. Julie rushed to the door, thinking it was Will but it turned out to be her parents.
“No need to look so startled, dear. It’s only us,” Janet said.
She forgot that they had their own key. She shook her head. “Yeah, sorry. I’m just on edge. It’s almost four now.”
“Yes, sorry about that. We took too long on decided a present.”
“What did you get him?”
“It’s a book about this game he plays. I heard him talking about it. Mine something.”
“Yes, that’s it!”
“That’s great.” Julie was grateful that they had actually thought about a present to give him. She was sure he would love it. “We’re in the living room to surprise Will. Come and join us.”
They all waited in the front room and, sure enough, heard the turn of the key again. Julie didn’t run to him; she wanted it to be a proper surprise.
As soon as the boy came into the living room after taking off his shoes very slowly, the party poppers went off and they yelled, “Surprise!”
Will stood still for a moment. He had jumped when they yelled, and Julie was worried that he didn’t like it.
She started to speak when he ran up to her and hugged her.
“Oh.” She was surprised by his reaction. Honestly, she didn’t know what it would be but she didn’t expect this. “Do you like it, honey?”
“I love it,” Will said. “Thanks, Mum.”
The rest of the family were looking at the two of them, beaming. It looked like Janet was about to cry.
“You’re welcome, Will,” Julie said, fighting back tears as well. “Happy birthday.”