In she comes, singing “Happy Birthday,” bearing a tray that carries the gift of a special breakfast, a breakfast that etches onto the surface of his senses: an orange, trimmed and cut into half-moons, arranged on the plate in a kaleidoscope pattern. A tall glass of milk, the thick kind he likes rather than the watery kind they usually drink. Two strips of bacon on another plate, forming a ragged X. And at the center of it all, a chocolate chip muffin with a candle at the center, a tall, thin candle with a wavering flame at the top.
“Happy birthday, dear Jeffrey… Happy birthday to you,” she concludes, unfolding the tray’s cunning little legs and setting it over Jeff’s waist as he scrambles back toward the top of his bed to sit up. “Make a wish.”
He looks into her blue-green eyes, her beaming face, with sudden terror. A wish? Wishes were traps. They either never came true, leaving their heavy fossils lodged in his brain like the stones that interrupted the smoothness of grass in his yard, sitting there stubbornly, ruining everything, or they weren’t what you wanted, as in all those stories that convert wishes into curses, “Be careful what you wish for” tacked onto the end like doom. “Don’t wish for anything,” they might easily have said. Live a wishless life. That’s just what Jeff wants as he watches a glob of wax drip down the candle on his muffin like a tear.
“Go ahead,” she prompts, sitting sideways at the foot of his bed. He can feel the panic in his face. A second wax tear drips, drops. Her wide-open eyes and broad smile falter. “Something wrong, honey?”
The pressure for the right wish floods his mind, and he feels his heart pound. “Don’t do it,” a voice in his head warns. “Do not let a full sentence form in your head before you blow out that candle.” But then there is his mother, eagerly waiting. What kind of wish is this supposed to be, anyway? A wish that a baseball glove – the top gift on his list of hoped-for birthday presents – will be downstairs? A wish that Randy Craven will stop picking on him every day, both on the bus and at school? Or a stronger wish, like that Randy would die? Or that this eighth year of his life will be shorter than the last year was so he can just hurry up and be a grownup?
The candle’s height is less than half what it was when his mother placed the tray over him. Her face has collapsed a little more, registering deep concern in place of carefreeness. He is disappointing her, making her sad. It’s too much; it’s all gone wrong. He panics and shouts, “I wish you’ll always be happy!” and blows out the candle. Wax driplets scatter all over the muffin, the oranges, the bacon. He’s made a mess of her beautiful offering. He convulses, his throat filling with a familiar feeling, a hot, tight feeling that precedes crying, and his tears and snot start to flow immediately, for he knows one thing about wishes: if you say them aloud, they’ll never come true.
He has doomed his mother to unhappiness.
She comes to the top of the bed to comfort him, to shh him, to hold him and croon, “It’s okay, honey. Everything’s going to be okay.” Rocking gently, she repeats, “Everything’s going to be okay. I wish you’d believe me.”
D. Quentin Miller is Professor and chair of English at Suffolk University in Boston. He teaches fiction writing, American Literature, African American Literature, and happiness. He has published a number of micro, flash, and short stories lately, though he is hoping to publish his novel *Eric 2.0* soon as well.