His sister’s birthday was in August, the last gasp of summer, and they and their cousins celebrated with sparklers and any other fireworks their fathers had been too drunk to set off on the Fourth of July. Bottle rockets, Roman candles, and Catherine wheels — it all had to go. And so, it all went. One year, the fire department came, called on them at dusk by nosy Mrs. Brown next door, the sky purple above Nantucket Sound. Grampy, who did work on their engines for cheap money, he smoothed things right over.
But this year, this year there had been no explosions, no joy, just a trip to the cemetery to freshen up the plants before the flight back home to get the semester underway. It’d been five weeks to the day, and though Michael knew he should get on with things, that Ashley would’ve wanted him to take his turn to celebrate, he couldn’t shake the feeling that even a slice of cake would be too much.
He’d been born two years before his sister and five weeks after her, and his birthday, at the beginning of October, often passed by with very little fanfare. School was always back in session, and everyone was a little more distracted than they’d been when summer was coming to a close and it seemed like holding onto the moment really mattered; there was no time to hold onto anything when a world of new knowledge was being thrust at you, upon you. Sometimes there would be a party for Michael’s birthday, sometimes not, but what he remembered most of all was the big deal that Ashley always made.
Sometimes, especially when they were little, she made a big deal by pounding the shit out of him — kicking him in the shins or shoving him around the house, calling him dummy over and over — but she always made a point of clinging to his shadow on his birthday like her life depended on it. If he was black and blue at the end of the day, that wasn’t what he was thinking about; no, instead, he’d be obsessing over how he’d almost beaten Ashley at Double Dribble, how she’d actually played it with him when every other day of the year she’d tell him it was a crap game that wasn’t worth the time it would take to blow out the cartridge.
But now, now she wasn’t here. Now, he was sitting in his office, watching a thunderstorm roll in off the Pacific, staring at the darkened screen of a phone that wasn’t going to ring. His wife was in the next room, keeping the guests entertained with some story about the time they’d all surprised him on his birthday in college, surprised him so good that he fell back against the wall outside the classroom and slid to the floor. She would be in a moment to check on him, to hold him as he cried over what he’d lost, but that wasn’t what he needed, not really.
What Michael needed, more than anything else in the world, was his sister back. What he needed was the kick in the ass that only a sibling can give, the kind of love that hurts, the kind of hurt that loves.
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