This story is by Erica Roberts and won an Honorable Mention in our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Erica Roberts was born in Newark, New Jersey. She is an elementary school teacher by day and a fiction writer by night. She loves writing short stories and is working on her first novel. You can find more about her current and future projects on Instagram at @ericaohnowrites.
Marty was slow to wake, slow to rise on the morning of his seventy-fifth birthday. At least, he thought it was morning until he eyed the green 12:06 on his alarm clock. Instinctively, he rolled over and felt for Lori but the bed was empty and neat aside from the crumpled sheets on his side. He groaned into his pillow and listened to the quiet.
The hum of the fan, the rumble of cars a block away, his own inhales and exhales. He could almost feel the quiet house with its thick, cold walls closing in on him. He got up then, with the agility of a man much younger than seventy-five.
His bedroom door swung open on hinges much too loud. Each stair whined and creaked under his bare feet. In the kitchen, he listened to the coffee gurgle as he poured it into Lori’s favorite mug.
Marty walked to the front door and peeked outside. Tiny droplets began to form on the windows. The sky was low today, sitting just above the pine trees lining his property. He could just make out the street in front of his house through the fog, but to the left and right, his neighbors’ homes were completely obscured. He listened for cars and heard nothing.
He slurped the last of his coffee and turned back toward the kitchen.
“AH!” he shrieked.
Lori stood there, her nose an inch or two from his own.
“Jesus, Lori, you scared the living hell out of me.”
Lori smirked. “Happy birthday, honey.” She pecked him on the lips. “What are you doing creeping around here? Why aren’t you dressed?”
Lori rolled her eyes. “For heaven’s sake, Marty, yes! I knew you were sleeping in but I thought by the time you came downstairs you’d be halfway decent.”
Marty smacked his head gently. “Right! I’m sorry, hon, I don’t know how I forgot. Too many beers last night, I guess.” He gave her a small smile.
“Too many beers this month,” she teased, tapping his belly which was getting more and more round these days.
“And too much sugar and cream in this,” Marty said, raising the coffee mug.
“I’ll take this,” she said, reaching for the mug, “and you go get dressed before everybody gets here.”
A car door slammed outside. She paused to listen. “Ah, I can hear Shorty and Horse already.”
Marty cocked his head towards the backdoor and listened to Shorty’s booming, dog-like laugh. He smiled a great, boyish smile. Lori rolled her eyes playfully.
“Go on,” Lori said, and walked past him to the kitchen. He watched her carry the mug with both hands.
I’ll need to wash that later so it’s ready for me tomorrow, he thought.
Marty hurried up the stairs and into his bathroom, washing up quickly. He stepped out of the shower and was toweling his legs when he suddenly stopped.
Was he humming?
Baby, I need your loving. Got to have all your loving.
He hadn’t hummed while showering since . . .
He cut off the thought. He didn’t want to think about that. Not today. This was his day. May Day.
Marty finished drying himself and walked over to the bureau. On the way, he tripped over Lori’s house shoes. He had left them there.
He took a long look in the mirror. He was a handsome man. His face was relatively free of wrinkles. The lines in his forehead were not deep, but the lines around his mouth were.
From years of laughter, he thought.
He looked at his eyes. There was no laughter there. His droopy, sad eyes were the only parts of him that looked seventy-five. They were eyes that had witnessed lots of loss and suffering.
He thought of the people downstairs. People he loved.
Marty smiled then. He listened to the chatter, the door opening and closing, the laughs and greetings floating up the stairs to meet him. He smiled until his smile reached his eyes.
Satisfied, Marty left the bedroom. He was ready to celebrate.
In the half hour he was upstairs, his living room had filled with guests.
“Happy birthday!” they all shouted at him.
“Happy May Day!” he shouted back.
The living room vibrated with laughter. The gloomy look the house had a half hour ago was gone. The sun shone brightly through the windows, bathing his family in warm, pale yellow rays.
Marty walked around, hugging and kissing his family and friends, and wishing many of them a happy birthday.
“Happy birthday, Aunt Mags! You don’t look a day over fifty.”
Maggie waved a wrinkly hand. She had turned ninety-six a week before.
“You too, sis. Happy birthday! How old are you again? Ninety-five?” Marty turned away from Shirl’s swatting hand.
“Go on away from here!” Shirl said, laughing. “Seventy-five? More like seven and a half!”
“The man of the hour!” Shorty shouted as Marty embraced him. “How’s seventy-five treating you, Mart? Need to borrow my momma’s cane yet? How about Maggie’s Depends?”
Horse clapped Shorty on the back.
“Age mighta taken your hair and your good looks, Shorty, but it can never take your humor,” Marty said, chuckling.
“I would hope not. It’s the only good quality I got left!”
“You got that right,” Marty’s grandson, Ryan, murmured from the couch.
Shorty snatched the kid’s phone and tossed it.
“HEY!” Ryan shrieked.
The men only stopped laughing when Lori announced it was time for cake.
Another tradition of May Day. Cake before food.
Marty clapped his hands. “Alright! Everyone around the table! Go!”
The excited chatter and squeals moved from the living room to the dining room where eleven seats were set up. Eleven giant cupcakes, each with a candle, sat in the middle of the table. Eleven places for the eleven guests with May birthdays.
The kids rushed to the table to grab their favorites. As greedy hands shot across the table, Marty sat at the head and beamed. Next to him, Maggie was waving Shirl’s hand away from her face.
“I can do it, Shirl. I’m ninety-six, not dead,” Maggie fussed.
“I just want to fix the napkin in case you spill.”
“Hey! That one’s mine!” Janine shouted.
“Ouch!” Ryan yelped.
Marty laughed at his daughter slapping her own son’s hand away from a green cupcake.
His granddaughter, Nia, snagged a blue and purple frosted one from right under Horse’s fingers. Nia stuck out her tongue. Horse made a face.
At the other head of the table sat Marty’s son, Floyd. Floyd was hugging his own son, Jude, who was shrinking away from Horse.
Horse, nicknamed for his wild, long black hair that he had since he and Marty were kids, had flipped his eyelids inside out and was grunting.
“Ew,” Nia said, rolling her eyes and scowling in a way only preteens can.
Next to Horse was Shorty. He was exchanging loud, obnoxious jokes across the table with Janine and flicking sprinkles at her.
Lori swatted him. “Stop that,” she said, and Shorty shrank away, whimpering like a puppy.
Marty laughed, then turned to Lori. His sweet Lori, always at his side. He bore his brown eyes into her browner ones and said, “Happy birthday, my love.” She was seventy-five today, too.
Lori lit her candle, then Marty’s.
The family standing on the outskirts of the dining room sang “Happy Birthday” to the eleven seated at the table.
Marty looked around the table again. Maggie hummed with her eyes closed. Shirl bent to pick up Maggie’s napkin. Janine and Shorty were conducting stupidly. Nia hugged Ryan’s neck and sang along. Ryan gave her the death stare. Horse pulled Jude to him and rocked along. Lori patted her knee with the music. Floyd lifted his cupcake to his dad and smiled.
When the singing finished and the applause died down, Lori gave Marty a small smile and said, “Make a wish.”
Marty closed his eyes, smiling, soaking in the love from all the people around him. Maggie’s warm hand closed around his. Lori took his other hand.
“Wish,” Marty said to his family, “in one . . . two . . . three.”
Marty didn’t open his eyes right away. He listened to the intake of breath from around the table. He heard ten different blows from ten different people he loved. He also heard thunder, then rain. It crashed down around him. He added his own whistling blow to the mix.
Maggie and Lori’s hands dropped from his own. There were no whoops or applause.
Marty tasted salt as a single tear slipped into his partly opened mouth.
Sucking in a breath, his smile now completely gone, Marty opened his eyes.
His cupcake, yellow with blue frosting, sat on his plate, the candle still smoking.
He sat at the head of the table.
He lifted his head.
Around him were ten empty seats.
Yolanda Moses says
Wow, Loved it!! So many details. I wanted a cupcake
I could feel the relationship between these well-crafted characters.
Lakisha Gonzalez says
OMG such a great read!! Im in need of more!!
WOW THIS SHORT STORY WAS GETTING GOOD I WANNA READ MORE
my heart sank. roberts’ story build-up and vivid symbolism of loss and age were impeccably woven into a story that humanizes our elders even more.
Nikki Norris says
Very well written. Definately left me wanting more!!
Thanks Dina! I love this critique so much!
Ana C says
Wow! Great story and well writen! Great job
Christine Roberts says
This was an awesome story. Fit the need for this time and moment right now. Enjoy your love ones.
Thanks Chris! And absolutely to that last point.
Such a great story with much detail, I felt right there watching all the friends and family around the table and then sad to find he opened his eyes.
Wendy Flores says
I loved this short story! The ending took me by surprise. All the details made it easier to visualize the plot. I cant wait to read more!
Terranni Barnes says
Great job Erica. I got in the mood of it. It kinda reminded me of grandpa.
Thanks Tee! And yeah I def had him in mind when writing this!
Edwin F says
Felt like I was there the whole story! Very detailed, good job!
I loved the story you should consider being a writer one day , keep striving for greatness .
Erica, you did a wonderful job. I hate reading, but from the time I started the story I was into it kept me wanting to hear more… Job well done.
Shante Williams says
Erica I really enjoyed your short story. It was so good that I could really visualize every word. You had my attention from beginning to end. I wanted to read more…..
Yessir, follow your dreams and be great
Lol thanks Tajh
This was splendid! I envisioned every detail of the story as I was reading it. The ending was also a grand surprise! Great job Erica. I’m a sucker for a well painted story
Marsha Bligen says
That was a great ending. I want more! I need to meet these characters. What’s their individual story? What role do they play in society, in their family?
Ashley D T says
Excellent story! In such a short read, I became invested in the plot and characters!
Thank you Ashley!
Thanks Marsha! I love your questions!
Thanks Marsha! I love all of your questions!
Darren Johnson says
Loved it…Great job Erica!!
Barbara Carter says
Come on Erica what’s next ? So many questions
Lol thanks Barbara!
Love love love this as an avid reader I can appreciate all the detail!!!
Thank you Nicole!
Romonda Snow says
Zakeea Love says
Omgggg! I need the rest ! Lol great story Erica
Thanks Zak! But that’s it lol
Eleanor Glover says
Need the rest of the story. Great read
Anne Winchester says
So sad. The loneliness of being old and forgotten with all the people you have loved rolling around in your head. Wondering where your life went…very poignant
Donna Miller says
Erica! What a brilliant mind you have. Keep it going, great read give us more. Well done Dear Heart.
Thank you Donna!
Bridget Florczak says
Great images in this story! Very touching subject matter. I’m interested in knowing this character better. Keep writing
This was so interesting! The details brought so much life making it feel so real! Can’t wait to read the rest !
Shirley Salley says
Erica…OMG!! GOD has truly bless you with many many talents I’m always wonderfully impressed of your abilities and what you can do keep up the good work the story was beautiful had me in tears at the end but I truly enjoyed it thank you for my part in your story…lol
Thanks Shirls lol
Ray Kelly says
Hi Erica – I really liked the way you developed your narrative. The signal for the end was quite early when your protagonist woke next to a made side of the bed – but I enjoyed questioning my supposition as you drew your delightful family scene.
Your ending was excellent and I felt for your character, Marty.
Thank you Ray!
Great story Erica. I enjoyed it. What a wonderful talent…
Susan Liddle says
What a moving picture you painted. I love the details: the coffee cup, the slippers.
Thank you Susan!
I didn’t understand the ending. Had the old man just immagined everything ?
Were the others just ghosts ?
steve martinson says
I knew from the beginning what the story was about and how it would end; the only way it could end. Even though I knew, I still had tears in my eyes most of the way through. It was even more special to me because everybody knew my dad as ‘Marty’, and my sister’s name was Lori. They are both gone now, but this brought back happy memories of our birthdays. Great story!
Wow Steve, thanks for your comment! I’m glad it touched you and brought back good memories. 🙂
wow, i loved this! i loved how all your characters were so different but everyone seemed to get along well. i kind of had a feeling of what was coming next at the end but it still got me. it’s really sad that that was all imagined in marty’s head. you made it seem so real. i wished i could’ve read more! and also congrats on getting an honorable mention!
Aww thank you Ellis!