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No More Candles

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“Hey kid! New shipment of bobble-heads came in. Get off the chair and come help me with them. My fingers are too fat to rip off the box pull-tab dealies.” Stan Pines dropped three stacked boxes, which collided against the wood flooring with a detectable thud. He brushed off his hands and rubbed at the red indentations left in his fingers.

The Shack was empty save for one dull-eyed customer, and Stan’s voice was loud enough to echo off the far walls, but still his employee didn’t stir.

“Hey kid… Buddy. Squirt. Uh…” Stan stared off into space, right fingers snapping quickly, “uh Soos. Help me with these things.”

The boy seated behind the cash register looked up. His gray eyes were dim and disinterested. 

“Sure thing, Mr. Pines,” he answered. His words hardly carried across the room, flat and quiet, which didn’t make it past Stan Pines’ sharp observation. Stan glanced back and forth between the boy and the boxes, frowning.

“And quit moping like that. The customers can sense it; makes ‘em buy less.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Pines.”

“Ah you’re not even trying,” Stan chastised, though he had started moving toward his young employee, face still a mask of discomfort. He watched the boy lower himself from the cashier stool. The child’s sneakers dragged, shoulders slumped, eyes down.

“Sorry, Mr. Pines.”

Stan stiffened at the words.

“Nah, none of this ‘sorry’ business. Can’t have you infecting all our customers with your negativity.” Stan bent to one knee, eye-level with his employee, though the boy didn’t return his gaze. “Why aren’t you doing your whole—the uh—the smiley thing. With your mouth. That you’re always doing. Where’s that?”

“Sorry…Mr. Pines.”

At this, Stan placed a heavy hand on Soos’s shoulder.

“Look at me, kid. Either try harder to act happy or tell me what’s up. Can’t have you working register like this.”

Soos shifted under Stan’s hand. He brought his stumpy fingers together and knotted them, chewing on his tongue as he considered his words.

“It’s my birthday today.”

“Oh.” Stan straightened his back, teeth clenching and unclenching, eyes still examining his worker for whatever deeper meaning lay behind the words. “…Congrats.”

Soos shrugged. He turned his attention to the stacked boxes of bobble-heads. The tinny bell behind Stan told him the one customer who’d been poking around the shop had left. It left a dense silence, peppered with the wind chimes swaying near the window.

“So how old are you now?”

“Thirteen.”

“Ah. Good age.” Stan nodded as if agreeing with himself, though his attention stayed glued on Soos. The kid’s lips were pressed tightly together, thinning out the laugh lines that usually crinkled above his pudgy cheeks and at the edges of his bright eyes. “So then uh…do you, do you want the rest of the day off or…? Like a souvenir or something from the Shack? If you got a birthday party or something don’t let me keep you waiting.”

“No, I don’t want the rest of the day off.”

“Oh, alright then.” Stan pushed himself back to his feet. He took a few steps backwards toward the boxes, patting the highest one on the stack with his open palm. “How ‘bout you help me with these things, and then I’ll just let you off early anyway. Then you can get to whatever…fun birthday activity things you’ve uh…you’ve got going on.”

“I hate my birthday.”

Stan straightened up. His hand fell flat on the top box. Even Soos blinked in surprise, as if the words hadn’t been his. His face hardened again, teeth and fists clenching. He stared at his shoes and repeated himself.

“I hate my birthday, Mr. Pines. I hate it.”

Stan nodded stiffly. “Well, that it explains the whole Debby-Downer thing you’ve got happening.” He gripped the top box from the bottom, hoisted it against his chest, and walked it over to Soos. “In that case, then let’s just say it’s not your birthday. Who needs ‘em?! Just another day reminding you about how inevitable death is. Today’s Tuesday. Now get your fingers under the tape lines here and don’t cut yourself.”

His young employee looked up, a spark of curiosity growing in his wider eyes. “You uh…you don’t think it’s weird I hate my birthday?”

“Not at all. hate my birthday!” Stan declared, dropping the box with a resounding clap. He balled his hand into a fist, thumb extended, and jabbed it into his chest. “I’ve hated it for years! Good to see someone else on this earth has the good sense to hate it too.”

Soos lowered himself onto the floor and crossed his legs beneath him. He pulled the box closer and slipped his right index finger beneath the largest flap.

“And you’re not just saying that, Mr. Pines?”

“Kid, I’ve got no reason to make up dumb lies for you.” Stan bent cautiously and set a hand to the floor. He lowered himself with less ease and flexibility than his partner. Hands shaking, Stan collided with the floor with an oomf. “Birthdays are just some random day to tell us, ‘Hey! You’re another year closer to never accomplishing all those things you thought you’d do when you were younger! Now your vision sucks and you’ve got no hearing and all your weird relatives are gonna try and call you to congratulate you on being that much closer to dying!’ It’s the worst.”

Stan shut his mouth in a sudden moment of clarity. He turned his attention to Soos in a fitful search of the boy’s face, checking to see if he’d scared the boy. To Stan’s surprise, Soos was smiling.

“Aha. That’s true,” the boy answered. He yanked hard on the box flap, tearing it open with a snap of ripping tape. Feet braced against the hardwood for support, he spun the box about to reach the opposite flap. His busy hands lost their fervor and froze along the next line of tape. “…Randy says I’m stupid for hating my birthday. He says I’m wrong and just trying to make everyone else feel bad.”

Stan waved a hand in dismissal and dragged the two still-stacked boxes closer with his extended foot. “What does Randy know? Kid sounds like the real idiot if you ask me. Everyone thinks they like birthdays when they’re young. He’ll wisen up.”

Soos nodded in response, second flap popping open. He plunged his hands into the packing peanuts within. “You know, you’re right. I used to like my birthday too. Just not anymore.” His hands found purchase on a long chain of vacuum-sealed, bubblewrapped bobble-heads. He pulled them out like a rope, staticy peanuts sticking to the long line of identical novelties.

Stan extended a hand. “Gimme those. You get started on opening the second box. I’ve got the worst luck with it.” Soos stood, brushed off some peanuts, and handed the merchandise to his boss. He stepped over Stan’s legs and wrapped his arms around the entirety of the second stacked box. He carried it back to his previous seat on the floor, waddling. “Every time I try and get the darn things open I end up stretching the tape all thin and stringy. It’s tougher than steel once it gets that bad. And God knows where I put the scissors…”

“Did you ever like your birthday?”

“Hmm?” Stan’s hands froze around the bubble-wrapped bobbles, airtight plastic jutting from the top of each. He looked sideways at Soos. “What’s that?”

“I asked if you ever liked your birthday.” The boy didn’t look up from his box, which he feverously teased open. Though he could sense the way his boss’s breath hitched. Just the wind chimes again, rattling out a steady rhythm.

“You know, I definitely did,” Stan answered. His hard face broke into a wide smile, and he looked at Soos with excited eyes. “You know, I got two cakes every year.”

“Did not!” Soos responded, box flap popping open.

“Did too! Every year! Once it was a chocolate cake and an icecream cake, another time it was—gee uh—musta been carrot and then strawberry. I didn’t like my carrot one so I ate the entire strawberry one. You shoulda seen the look on St—the uh, the party guests’ faces when they found out the whole cake was gone.”

“I thought you said they were both for you!”

“Well I always ate them both in the end, so that’s what matters.”

Soos laughed, cheeks squishing up against his crinkly eyes. The laugh lines receded as a solemn blankness overwrote them. “Why’d uh…why’d you stop liking your birthday?” he asked quietly.

“You wanna know the truth?”

Soos leaned in, nodding eagerly. He’d dropped his hands from the box.

His boss matched his stance, body tipping inward. Stan cupped his hands around his mouth, and Soos stretched his neck to hear.

“Everything was great, all until one fateful birthday…one day when everything changed…”

“What happened on that birthday?” Soos asked breathlessly, as though the walls might have been listening in on their secret.

“The worst possible thing…” Stan quieted, letting his words hang. “…I only got one cake.”

Soos snorted and pushed Stan away. “That’s silly! What’s the real reason?”

“What?” Stan asked with a wide smile. He gave himself away by laughing. “That’s definitely the reason. Imagine getting two cakes your whole life only to suddenly end up with one! It was awful. Just one set of candles. One knife. One plate. Awful! Let me tell you cake’s no good when you know there are supposed to be two!”

“Well I’ve only ever had one cake, Mr. Pines. You’re just greedy!”

Stan knocked him on the shoulder, and Soos laughed in response. “Ah what can I say? I’m a greedy old scrooge making some little kid work on his birthday.”

“It’s not my birthday!” Soos replied confidently. “You just said before that it wasn’t.”

Stan ran a hand over his scratchy chin. “You’re right. I did say that…” He clapped his hands and pushed himself to his feet, bobble-heads scattered about the floor. “Tell you what, I bet if we petition Washington about this they can wipe out your birthday entirely. Let’s have ‘em wipe out mine while we’re at it! We’ll erase ‘em from the calendars!” Stan swept a hand out, grinning as he saw Soos’s eyes light up.

“Yeah!” He scrambled to his feet. “Then I’ll stop having a birthday forever!”

“You got a passport, kid?”

Soos froze, blinked, and ran his hands over his empty pockets. “Uh…no.”

“Me neither! Let’s hope we don’t need a flight through Canada. Or valid ID. Ormoney. I’m not giving those airlines any of my hard-earned cash.”

Soos’s face was flushed red with excitement. He bounced on the balls of his feet. Stan bent and grabbed the boy beneath the armpits, hoisting him high on his shoulders.

“Get started drafting your petition, kid. We gotta get this ready to present to the president.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Pines!” Soos wrapped his arms around Stan’s fez as the two of them made for the door. “How about ‘Dear Mr. President. I think we should make July 13th not a day at all, because birthdays are awful and only tell us that we’re old. From, Soos.’”

Stan set a hand to the light switch. “I like it, I like it. We’ll find something to write it down on at the airport. It’s solid. Throw mine in there too, don’t forget.”

He flicked off the lights and shut the door behind them, customer bell tinging wildly. Darkness settled over the shack, silence too as the bell quieted, broken only by the gentle notes of the wind chimes, and the distant, muted, uncertain hums of the portal skeleton deep below the Shack. It wasn’t functional by any means, only singing off its own residual flow of energy. Singing, as it had been, for the last twenty birthdays missed.