Max stared up at the ceiling. The sun scattered shadows across his room and he feigned interest in watching them dance. In reality, he wanted to do nothing at all. He wouldn’t be able to stay in his room forever.
He could hear the muffled greetings downstairs. If you don’t get up they’re going to wonder what’s wrong with you. Max knew this but he couldn’t summon the energy to move.
Today they were celebrating Damian’s third birthday. They’d all gone out to Pizza Party last night as a private celebration. Wasn’t that good enough? Did they have to invite everyone? Max knew they weren’t here for Damian. They’d bring presents, sure, but they were here for his mum. Three years cancer free. What if it came back?
He didn’t want to celebrate his mum’s recovery. Sure things were back to normal now, but there was no guarantee it would last. Max was under no illusions of that. Three years or thirty it made no difference, the doctors couldn’t promise it wouldn’t come back. Having a party made him feel like they were jinxing it.
Time’s up, Max thought, but he still didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t he stay here for the whole party? Avoid the celebration that would jinx his mum? You’re all going to ruin it! He felt like crying. He didn’t want to see his mum sick again.
“Max?” Damian’s small voice called again. That was cheating. They had to know he couldn’t ignore his brother. Damian didn’t understand. He’d never known Bre sick. He didn’t know to fear the circles under her eyes that she tried to hide. The tiredness that she claimed was normal.
But, if he took too long, Damian would start to cry, already he could hear the tremor of fear in his brother’s voice. Don’t be more of an ass. Damian thinks the party is for him. Max finally summoned the energy to sit up.
He pasted a smile on his face as he opened his door. Damian blinked up at him and then broke into his own smile. A genuine one, not a fake one like his own.
“What’s up?” Max could pretend he didn’t know why Damian was there. He didn’t want his brother to know he was avoiding the party.
“Mama says come down,” he said trying to grab Max’s hand and pull him to the stairs.
Max allowed himself to be led several steps away from his room but stopped at the top of the stairs. The sounds from downstairs were no longer muffled. Everyone was here. He closed his eyes. No, no no. He didn’t want to do this.
“Come on,” Damian urged and tugged at his hand. “There’s presents!”
Max took a deep breath followed his brother down the stairs. Mom had outdone herself. There were balloons everywhere and banners. Some of them were for Damian. “You’re Three!” “Happy Birthday” others, Max tried not to read. “Congratulations” “Three years.” Brightly colored gifts sat on the hallway table. He tried not to see the sedate flower arrangements with their pink cards. Those weren’t for Damian.
Damian let go of his brother and ran off towards the kitchen. Telling Mom that he’d done the job assigned him. Max wondered if he could sneak back upstairs now. Everyone was smiling and talking. He felt like a bubble was around him as their eyes slide past his. But no. If he did that, Mom would come looking and they’d have one of those talks.
He found his mom in the kitchen, supervising the placement of all the dishes people had brought. She saw him and smiled. Max winced at the relief in her face and hurried to the backyard. He wanted to find somewhere, anywhere less busy. Plus he knew if he stayed in the kitchen, Julia would find something for him to do.
Grandpa was holding court in the back and Max edged closer. Could he hide out here?
Julia took the last pile of dishes from Max and shooed him upstairs to his room. He’d been really good about helping clean up after the party and mingling during the party. He was due a little me-time.
The dishwasher was already loaded and running. Julia debated leaving the dishes in the sink for tomorrow. No, best not to leave it. It wouldn’t take too long to get them washed and put away. She hated leaving chores for the next day, it would be a waste of a good day if she did that. Although now, these were all good days.
It hadn’t always been that way. She understood Max’s trepidation in celebrating Bre’s health far too well.
“Julia?” She woke with a start. She hadn’t been sleeping that deeply anyways in case Bre had needed her. But it wasn’t Bre calling her name. Robes faded to jeans and Julia sat up.
“No,” she whispered. There was only one reason for Death to be in her room. “Please?”
“I don’t have a choice,” he explained. “There are rules even I must obey.”
“But…” it wasn’t fair. Of course, it wasn’t fair. No one ever promised life would be fair. It was one of those tricks you learned when you grew up. It wasn’t fair that Bre was dying so young. It hadn’t been fair that James had died even younger.
James. Julia looked up. “Does it have to be now?”
“It has to be when it is time.”
Julia nodded. “But the time doesn’t have to be now, does it?” She jumped up. “Just a moment,” and hurried downstairs. There was a reason he’d woken her up. If he’d really come for Bre then it would be all over already.”
Use that which stays death’s hand | A blossom no longer in this land.
There were three blossoms on the little plant. Sleek and glinting in the moonlight. Julia felt a twinge of fear as she snipped one of the flowers off. What if it didn’t work anymore? But it was the only way, right?
“This will stop it, right?”
He didn’t reach for it. “It can only be used this once. When the time comes again…”
Not a guarantee then. A stay. “For how long?”
“I do not know.”
Julia nodded and held the flower to him.
Death took the flower and tucked it away into his robe and then faded. Julia looked over at Bre still sleeping. She seemed to breathe easier? Or was that wishful thinking? How long would he stay away?
A few weeks later the doctors had come back. Bre’s tests were negative. Soon after, they’d started on little Damian. Bre had always wanted a bigger family and Julia couldn’t refuse her.
Cool arms wrapped around her pulling her back to the present. Julia turned.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Bre asked with a smile.
Julia ignored the tightness in Bre’s eyes. They’d been running full tilt all week to get this party up and running.
“Just how much I love you.”
“Ah, so nothing then,” Bre teased.
“Like a rock. Your dad put him to bed before they left. We should have hordes of toddlers over more often.”
“A horde? There were only four of them.”
“It was a horde. Or an army? What is the group noun for toddlers?”
“A chaos, probably,” Julia snorted and let Bre pull her away from the now-empty sink. The house still held the echo of the party. Sagging balloons and a few strips of wrapping paper that they’d missed in the cleanup. But it was almost back to normal.
She’d done the right thing, right? Damian wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t, so in a way, the flower had given her two lives. But what was the cost? There were only two flowers left on the plant now. Would it be enough for James? Or had she ruined his chances?