lighted candles on cupcakes

The birthday cake and all of its ambiance, as Josephine picks at the chocolate frosting dreading the party, all the guests, some whom she hasn’t met before. At least the rain has stopped and the balloons sparkle from the inside, tied to every other white unfolding wooden chair. Her mother spared no expense. Although the birthday says twenty, Josephine feels like she’s turning two decades older. Maybe it’s all because it’s a miracle she survived thus far. She pulls the sleeves of her black cotton hoodie to her palms to hide the needle marks and the slashes.

“Hi, hi,” all smiles, Josephine pretends as the first of the guests arrive. Happiness is something Josephine invents and it’s not even to put her anxieties at ease, but to help invite others to her world because people only want to be in a happy world. They don’t want to be dragged down with Josephine’s cynicism and bitterness. Well, at least, that’s what Mildred announced with her last visit at the clinic, ‘No one wants to be friends with a downer. Cheer up, for goodness sake. You got no struggles, why do you go about fabricating them?’

“You look great,” Mildred’s friend, Simone, says in her wispy voice, leaning for an embrace, squeezing Josephine’s bony arm. Mildred’s friend because Josephine and Simone never got along, especially after Josephine made-out with Simone’s boyfriend at some party she vaguely remembers. The drugs had much influence on Josephine’s behaviour then. Now, she’s simply trying to survive another pointless day as the horizon of her sobriety stretches further away.

“Thanks,” Josephine manages to squeeze the word with an avalanche of an effort. The smell of freshly-baked biscuits suddenly turns her attention from the guests and she snatches one from the basket as her mother carries them out to the patio. She turns her back without an apology to Mildred and Simone and follows the lingering scent to the oven. The heat enslaves and the urge to stick her hand and touch the scorching grills inside the oven range become a seductive sensation. All, to feel something for a moment than this dull day but she promised not to throw another tantrum or storm of hysteria, because that is how she got away with things, throwing the anger back at everyone. But, she tips her fingers towards the searing grills and one brief touch to feel the burn, the melting of a millimetre of her skin. Now, everything feels much better and she can pretend for another few minutes, smiling, hugging, thanking; and she smiles, hugs, and thanks for the next two hours amused by the inconsistency in her ex-friends sentiments. Everything from hurt, anger, to joy and delight of being invited.

Unsure whether everyone pretends and spills words that would be a pleasure for her to hear or a torment she caused to apologize for, she stands frozen as the chaos around her begins to move in slow-motion. How can she feel guilty and pride in the exact same instance?

The door shuts with thunder, but Josephine doesn’t care. ‘Why bother?’ The thought strikes her like a match to the red phosphorous and Josephine tucks a towel into the gap between the door and the floor. She would like to snort another line but inhaling the cigarette smoke becomes sadly sufficient. It’s not her party after all. Although the letters of her name might be arranged correctly with the pale blue icing on top of the cake, it feels more like a celebration for everyone present except her.

On her eighteenth birthday she sneaked out the window of this bathroom and was found stumbling through the street wasted and barely dressed. Today Josephine’s contained to finish the day burying her face into the muddy looking birthday cake and nick another dash into her bedpost. Thirty-seven minutes and counting before the evening ends, before the flame melts the candles to a puddle of pinkish goo and Josephine forgets that her twentieth birthday ever happened. She inhales that everlasting puff, the one she savors, before she chucks the cigarette-butt into the toilet bowl. “Smile,” she says while looking into the mirror. “Smile,” and she manages to pull her lips to opposing sides, widening them enough to something that resembles a grin. The red ribbon tied to her wrist as a reminder and a promise to her mother, be present and absorb the jubilant air and float like the swimming pool doughnuts.

“You don’t blow out the flame to end something. You blow at the flame to make a wish and spread the flame of your eternal light into the air replenishing the aura surrounding you.” Her mother’s words, although, sounding a little tainted, always are with intention of optimism and hope. Josephine’s eternal light, as it has faded, with another year and an extra lit candle, can only ignite growth within her flame. Or at least that is something she chooses to wish for as the Happy Birthday verse begin to run in a loop and the only thing visible are twenty blurs of pale-yellow light getting larger. Josephine closes her eyes tight and exhales with force and faith. “Happy Birthday to me!” She exclaims with assembled joy to keep everyone convinced but also with genuine contentment and serenity. Maybe the day wasn’t as bad as she anticipated it would to be.

© Jacob Greb — 2019

first appeared in The Piker Press magazine

return to Story Teller

One thought on “The Flame

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