This story is by David Elderton and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
William Curry turned 18 today and that meant changes. Big changes.
He closed his eyes to mentally prepare for an arduous day.
But first, he had a party to attend!
Seated as the “Guest of Honor,” he admired all the decorations and appreciated the effort that went into setting it all up. He smiled at 52 of his closest friends, along with his parents, all there to celebrate this life-changing milestone with him.
Most of them he hadn’t seen in years, but they all looked exactly as he remembered them.
His dad ignited 18 candles on the cake, then his mom carried it over to the festive table.
His eyes lit up when he saw the candles blazing atop his special birthday cake. It was special because his mom only made it once before, from scratch, for his 5th birthday. A white cake with white frosting and lemon filling between the layers.
Amidst all his friends whooping and hollering, his mom placed it in front of him. She wore a proud, maternal smile; her little boy was now a man.
“Happy birthday, Billy,” she whispered, blinking back a tear.
Little Becky, with her animated child voice, started singing “Happy Birthday” and all of Billy’s friends joined in.
Billy took a long, deep breath, taking it all in. “How blessed I am,” he thought.
After the final chorus, accentuated with raucous raspberries and intentional off-key harmony, Travis exclaimed, “Make a wish, Billy!”
Make a wish? What could he possibly wish for? He had loving parents, great friends and, well, he just couldn’t think of anything he needed.
“C’mon, close your eyes and make a wish! It’s like the law, or somethin’,” said Logan.
“Fine, give me a second,” Billy replied.
With his eyes still closed, he waited for a wish to materialize. Instead, an image from his 5th birthday formed in his head. He just finished the white cake with that delightful lemon filling between the layers. Licking his lips, he declared it the best cake in the world. He remembered mom beamed the same proud smile she just gave him.
He recalled his favorite present that day was a red plastic car with a family inside. It was a special order, the only one like it, irreplaceable. But it accidentally rolled into the flaming barbecue grill. In an instant, the car became a melted glob. He cried a long time over that.
“Just happy thoughts today.”
He shifted to an image from his seventh birthday. After his party, neighbors knocked frantically on their door. Their child, 4-year-old Becky, was lost. Could they help look? His parents aided in the search, but Billy knew where she might be. He found her hiding at the nearby playground, crying.
“What’s wrong, Becky?”
“I lost my family. I’m all alone.”
“No, you’re not. The family is looking for you, they won’t stop looking until they find you. They need you to complete their family,” he assured her.
“No, I went home and everything was different,” she said between sniffles.
Billy thought a minute.
“Becky, point out which house you went to.”
She pointed to a blue house.
“Becky, your house is the blue one next to it. Let me take you to your family,” he said as he took her hand.
Billy found her parents; they were looking in the wrong place. He tugged on the father’s trouser leg. He turned around to see his daughter.
“We found her! Thanks everybody, but Billy found her for us!”
Billy liked how he felt about that.
He smiled at the memory, but the heat of the candles reminded him to think of a wish.
Instead, his mind went to his twelfth birthday. He was boating with his parents, fishing for their supper when he heard a splash from another boat, followed by panicked cries.
“My son fell into the water! I can’t swim! Help!”
Before his parents could stop him, Billy dove into the water. He’d taken swimming lessons and had the naive confidence that a water rescue was easy. Billy swam deep into the dark water and brushed the boy’s arm. He grabbed the boy’s wrist and tried swimming toward the surface, but he was too heavy! Billy needed air, but if he let go, the boy would drown. Billy was desperate for oxygen, but he mustered all of his strength and made progress upward. He saw the sun shimmering on the top of the water, giving him the motivation for one…two…three more upward strokes until he broke the surface. He pushed the boy to the outstretched hands of the father while he raggedly gasped for breath.
“Thank you for giving me my Travis,” the father said, tears streaming down his face.
Billy resolved to improve his swimming and life-saving skills that day.
Billy smiled. Travis always made raucous raspberry sounds singing Happy Birthday.
Billy thought about his 17th birthday, when he put those life-saving skills to work. A boy lay unnoticed at the bottom of the pool. Billy saw him, dove in, swooped him up and placed him on the side of the pool in one smooth motion. He administered CPR and brought the boy back from blue to coughing up water. His mother ran up in a panic and shouted, “Logan, are you ok?”
Logan coughed up more water, then said, “Yeah, Mom, thanks to this guy.”
The mother looked at Billy. “Thank you for looking out for others. Thank you for giving me my son.”
Billy smiled, it was Logan who always sang off-key on purpose.
“C’mon, Billy, the candles are burning down. Make a wish already!”
Ah! Now he knew what to wish for!
He drew a deep breath to extinguish the candles when the harsh knock at the door startled Billy’s eyes open.
The special cake festooned with 18 lit candles faded into nothingness, the balloons and decorations dissolved away, the smiling faces of his 52 closest friends dissipated, his parents, his proud, loving parents melted away last. He was alone in the silent, barren room.
He sat at the head of a table, completely worn of finish, surrounded by unpadded bentwood chairs, illuminated by the naked 100-watt bulb overhead.
20 twin beds, ten on each side, lined the big room. 19 were stripped, even of the mattress. The bed-frames looked like bed skeletons.
But his was crisply made, pillow fluffed. On the bed sat his suitcase, packed and ready. He waited only for the knock and now it was here.
Mr. Martin stepped into the room, saw Billy and smiled. “It’s almost time, son. I wanted to spend a few moments together before you go.”
“Sure, Mr. Martin.”
He pulled out the chair at the opposite end of the table and sat down.
“Billy, as you know, we’re closing this children’s home after you leave. Budget cuts.”
Mr. Martin continued. “Help me understand something. Your parents died in a fiery car crash on your 5th birthday, right?”
“Yes, sir. Big changes for me that day.”
“You’ve been here 13 years, longer than any other kid. I tried hard to find a family for you, but they always chose another child. Why is that?”
“The other kids needed a family, sir. I helped them find one.”
“But what about you, Billy? I remember the first family I spoke to about you. They fell in love with you before you even met. They wanted a 7-year-old boy just like you, but after talking with you, they chose a 4-year old girl instead.”
“Becky. They chose Becky.”
“Right, Becky. But they didn’t even want a 4-year old girl.”
“No, but they needed one. And she needed them.”
“It was on your 7th birthday, as I recall,” Mr. Martin said.
“Yes, sir. Best present I ever got.”
Mr. Martin sighed. “And there were others, countless others that wanted a boy just like you, but they always chose a different child. The Taylors were a perfect fit for you, remember?”
“Yes, sir.” Billy’s eyes moistened. “But it was Travis that was a perfect fit for them…not me.”
“Billy, you paired up, what, 50 children with prospective parents, but you never paired up yourself. Now you’re the last one here, it’s your 18th birthday and you’ve aged out of the system. You’ve got the biggest heart of anyone I know. I’m going to miss you, Billy. You’ve become quite a young man.”
“It bothers me, though, not one of those kids know what you did for them, or what you gave up for them. None of them ever visited you.”
“Oh, no, sir, I see them all the time. In fact, we were celebrating my birthday when you knocked on the door.”
The cab honked the horn.
Mr. Martin sighed.
“Your ride is here, Billy.”
“Yes, sir. Big changes for me today. But, Mr. Martin?”
“I think I’ll go by William now.”