Golden Birthday

By Barbara Stanley


Barbara Stanley has written film reviews and commentary for two local newspapers, and her suspense story “Bitsy” appeared in the dark fiction anthology SubNatural. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA.


David David David. Always David.

Joey watched the plume of smoke rise above the trees as fire engines roared closer to the building. He'd never seen a fire this close before. It was cool.

David, he thought again. You'd think Joey was an orphan, the way everyone carried on about his twin brother.

"That child is gifted."-- Aunt Mae.

"I can always depend on you."-- His Ma.

"How's it goin’, handsome?"-- Mrs. Doss, around the corner.

And the worst, most painful one: "You're a credit to our school."

The last was the worst because it came from Miss Harwell, Joey's homeroom teacher and the most beautiful woman in the world. Joey was secretly in love with her.

He thought of his brother while watching a column of white smoke rise in the sky. Of course David would be gone now, not sitting here with his dweeb-oid brother Joey. David had better things to do -- like hang out with his secret friends, the older boys who treated him like an equal. Or there was baseball practice (most valuable player), or just strutting past the neighborhood girls, watching their drooling faces as they mooned over him--David the Great.

At least the phone had stopped ringing for a while. Neither one of them had a cell phone yet so Joey was stuck being the answering service. The girls were definitely the worst. Some would order Joey to bring David to the phone, and some would get tongue-tied and hang up after hello. That was okay with Joey. They were dumb nuts--raging idiots, in fact. Not like Miss Harwell.

Miss Harwell had thick brown hair, all wavy and curly on her shoulders. She smiled a lot, like the star of a toothpaste commercial. When you stood near her she smelled sweet, like some kind of flower. Joey always felt kind of dizzy and excited when he was next to her. He wanted nothing more than to be her constant companion and protector for the rest of his life.

The loud blast of the fire truck shook Joey his daydreaming. He wanted to walk closer and watch, but his leg ached today and he was self-conscious about his limp. He hated the sugary smiles he got from neighbors who were always asking him how he was doing. As if they cared.

No one asked how David was doing. Why should they? David was always doing great.

Joey was glad David wasn't around. He'd just ruin the show by making dumb jokes about the fire that would make everybody laugh. And he'd embarrass Joey if Joey tried to shut him up.

"Silence, Maggot," he'd say, "or I'll twist your nuggets to a pulp." Then he'd fake a grab or a kick to Joey's crotch. Joey's cheeks burned, remembering the laughs on the playground the last time it happened. He hated that nickname more than anything.

From his spot on the porch Joey could watch the firemen work. Big curves of water poured into the flames, sending up new towers of smoke. The smoke stung his nostrils and tickled his throat. The fire was only one block away, up and over the hill to the next street. From the porch Joey could see roofs and sides of some of the homes there. Neighbors watched too--clumped together in groups, worried creases in their faces. His street had a lot of oak and eucalyptus trees and Joey knew the firemen would want this blaze under control before it could reach those trees.

I guess all hell would break loose then, Joey thought, using his Dad's favorite phrase.

He got a dreamy swimmy feeling gazing at the flames. They were so bright they lit up the sky. Joey loved that. When he watched summer sunsets or glittery stars at night, when he stared at Christmas lights until they got blurred and fuzzy, a dreamy swimmy feeling would come in him and Joey would feel himself expanding, like a sparkler burning in slow motion. No longer was he Maggot, David's "little" brother with thick glasses and a squirrelly limp. No longer was he the tongue-tied blushing nerd. He was Avenging Sun, warrior, protector of those in need. He ran faster and jumped higher than anyone in school. He zapped a sharp comeback to any smart-ass remark. He was stronger than David, braver than David, more admired than David could ever be. No one whispered, in voices they thought he couldn't hear, what a shame it was that his Ma had fallen when she was pregnant, fallen on her left side--Joey's side, not David's. He heard no late night conversations of how fraternal twins could be so different--one dark and pale, one golden. And about what a tragedy it was that Joey was messed up at birth because of that fall, coming out spindly and screeching and practically blind, while his healthy brother, first one out, slept through the racket. Three minutes after his big golden brother, David.

Tomorrow was their birthday -- their golden birthday, his Gramma called it. On your golden birthday, she explained to him once, your age and birth date matched. That would happen tomorrow on July 13, when David and Joey turned thirteen.

Joey sighed and adjusted his glasses. They were crooked on his face again. He knew tomorrow would bring a party with thirteen candles on a big cake, friends and presents and noise, but he wasn't looking forward to it. It was a birthday for two, but the attention would to turn to David, like it always did, to his latest achievements and pranks. His Ma and Gramma tried hard not to let that happen, but it was useless. David was too popular, too cool for it not to happen.

"Dude--it's our day," David would say, putting his arm around Joey with a big fake smile. This only happened for pictures, with Joey's Ma or Gramma nearby.

Truth was, two more different boys couldn't be found. The nine months they curled together inside their Ma was the closest they would ever get to each other. Their thoughts, their feelings, their interests -- all were different. They were two strangers with the same last name, but only one was the star.

"So much for the psychic connection of twins," his Dad would say with a laugh.

Joey often wondered about this, but David never did.

"Who cares that we're different?" He'd shrug.

But David didn't need to care. David was perfect.

Things were going from bad to worse with the fire. An ambulance pulled up but sat quiet while the flames roared. The tips of the flames wiggled towards the roof of the house next door. Joey heard voices shouting.

He didn't know whose house it was. It had been for sale, vacant, for a long time. Joey had gone with his Ma once to the open house. He remembered a small house with a big empty living room, dirty spots on the walls and a stale pukey smell.

David had been inside too, but not for the open house. The house had no lock box but David had found a hidden key, so he and his friends used the house for themselves. They stole stuff from the back yard and broke a window in the garage. And once they started a fire in the backyard, running off before they could be discovered. David had twisted Joey's arm and sworn him to silence about that one.

"One word Maggot, and you're dead meat."

That had stung. How could his own brother, his twin brother, not trust him? Joey was totally loyal. Had he said anything when David spray-painted curses on the church schedule, or when the vice-principal found one of his tires slashed in the school parking lot? Even the worst one--the fire in the gym--did he say anything? No, he just shut up and avoided Miss Harwell’s gaze for a week. But it was useless to bring this stuff up to David -- it was like he expected betrayal.

It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Nobody would believe David could do those things. He was too handsome, the perfect athlete, the perfect everything. Everybody loved him.

Even Miss Harwell.

Joey's stomach lurched. He stared at the flames and tried not to think of David’s words this past week.

David did yard work for neighbors and their Mom and Dad’s friends. He made pretty good money. He also got a chance to check out potential hiding places, sneak back later, and watch the neighbor ladies undress. Last Saturday he'd pulled some weeds for Miss Harwell and on Tuesday he crowed to Joey about his big score.

"I saw her tits and everything, Maggot. She's got big bouncy ones and..."

Joey squeezed his eyes shut and yelled at David to shut up.

He was rewarded with a punch in the back and a storm of curses from David.

"What's a matter, Maggot-faggot--you don’t like girls? I thought you and Miss Harwell were in luuvvv." His voice squealed like a girl.

Tears blurred in Joey's eyes. He hated the thought of David talking about Miss Harwell, describing her body to all his friends. He knew that would happen on the sly at the party tomorrow. He didn't care anymore that David would humiliate him by broadcasting Joey's feelings for her. All he cared about was that Miss Harwell had been fooled, just like everybody else -- vice-principal, pastor, his own Ma and Gramma. They all loved David, cruel golden David who could do no wrong.

And now, this fire.

Joey's Ma had come out to watch the fire. She'd asked him, "Where's David?" in a worried voice. Then she'd gone off with Mrs. Doss to get a closer look.

Joey often thought it was his Ma who was psychic.

David wouldn't watch this fire with his brother. David was still in the living room of that burning house. Joey had found him earlier sprawled on the carpet, passed out, two older buds nearby in the same condition. A cigarette burned between his fingers. It had been easy enough for Joey to climb through the window, drench bodies and carpet with beer, and just...

...light a match.

No one even screamed. It happened that quickly. A bright flame, an eerie silence, and an awful smell.

The ambulance revved to life. Its siren cut through the flames and smoke. Joey watched it move down to his street, picking up speed as it neared the intersection. Then it rounded the corner and sped off.

Goodbye David.

Joey turned to look at the flames. They were beautiful. The dreamy swimmy feeling came in him. His leg ached now, but it hardly mattered. No one had seen him run away from the house.

Avenging Sun had triumphed. No one would hear ugly stories about Miss Harwell. No one would laugh at moron jokes. No one would stare at two boys and compare.

No one, ever again, would laugh at a stupid nickname.

Avenging Sun, the one and only. Tomorrow would be his birthday, the golden birthday he would share with no one. Joey was a warrior now. He was strong and sure, he was protector of the weak. And the best part of all was that he had just lit the biggest, brightest, most beautiful candle for himself. There it was now, blazing brightly, for him, for him alone.

"Happy birthday," he whispered.



Barbara Stanley ©2005


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