From the author: Today is Ceci's birthday! And so was yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that...
Ceci hovered high up in the air, far enough that that the lights and noises of the city weren’t painful, but not so far that she couldn’t see or listen in on things. It seemed like a good spot, though she hadn’t ended up there on purpose. After the big explosion she had simply kept going-- up and up and up, until her head no longer hurt. She hadn’t even known she could do that until she tried.
She drifted to a halt at a spot where she could hear her father’s voice, a sound that, while not exactly comforting, at least was familiar.
“They want me to be the sorry father and get all mop-eyed and blubber for the cameras,” he was saying. “But they’ll be waiting a long time before they see Joe Stettner pull a sob act like that. These news people are acting all broken up about what happened to Ceci, and no one stops to think how hard it is to be me, you know?”
She could hear him spit, and the impact of the tobacco-darkened saliva sounded like a slap when it hit the concrete. “I mean hell, I’m glad she’s gone.”
Ceci’s brow creased. She wasn’t “gone”. Why did he say she was gone? Her bottom lip pouted out.
“But… it’s my birthday,” she said, and storm clouds gathered around her.
Of course, every day was Ceci’s birthday since she’d met the strange gray man in the empty field past their house. On that birthday, she’d been playing outside while her dad took a nap. She heard a loud bang and looked up from her Princess Penelope dolls to see a big silver ball the size of a truck lying on the far side of the field. She ran to get a better look, and found a funny man on the ground. He was all wrinkly and grey, with great big eyes. He reminded her of Merlin from the Princess Penelope cartoon. The gray man looked at her and spoke, but he didn’t move his mouth. Ceci heard his voice right inside her head.
“Child,” he said, “I am dying. I have come a great distance to find one worthy enough to accept my gift.”
Ceci’s eyes widened. She loved gifts.
“I compel you to tell the truth: what is the most important thing in life?”
Ceci didn’t hesitate. “Magic and love,” she said.
She knew it was true, because it was written on every Princess Penelope toy pack.
The gray man nodded his head. He held up one wrinkly finger and said, “The gift… is yours.” Then the gray man closed his eyes and was still.
Ceci waited for her gift, but nothing happened. No matter how hard she shook the man, he didn’t wake up again. She gave him a kick in the shin.
“Hey, no fair! It’s my birthday!”
Ceci turned as sirens filled the air. There was a crowd of people carrying cameras, and police and all kinds of stuff. They were surrounding her and the silver ball.
Ceci looked at them and said, “I want my birthday gift.”
Everyone ignored her. She tried again, louder this time. No one paid any attention. Then Ceci got a big idea: she tried saying the words without using her mouth, just like the gray man had done.
All at once, the busy-busy grown-ups stopped what they were doing and came over to give her presents. That was the start of the best birthday ever.
They’d celebrated every day for months. Ceci got presents from all kinds of people. And every night, around bedtime, she’d tell everyone, “Just one more day, okay?”
And everyone would nod and say, “Yes, of course-- one more birthday for Ceci.”
Then Ceci would say, “Lights out.” And all the lights in the city would turn off at once, and everyone had to be very quiet, or Ceci would get cross.
Sometimes things happened at night. She didn’t sleep anymore, so it wasn’t really a problem. Like when the men came all dressed in black with big guns like her cousin Marty liked to play with. She made the men go away. She wasn’t sure exactly where ‘away’ was, but she made them go there.
Nothing much had happened at nighttime lately, but this morning—on her birthday! — her dad had been there with a big present all wrapped up. Her dad gave her the present, then backed way far away so that she could open it up in private.
Ceci tore off the crinkly wrapping paper. It was a Penelope’s Castle playset, one of her favorite presents. The front of the box had a painting of the castle, a magic building that stood at the top of a waterfall, held in place by magic and love. (She couldn’t see magic and love in the painting, but on the Princess Penelope cartoon they said that’s what held it in place, so they had to be there.)
But as she held it the box got really hot, and then it was really loud. There was a lot of smoke, and she’d gone straight up in the air to get away from everything, which had surprised even her.
Now here she was, and for the first time she saw the city from way up high. It was quite big, and all kinds of lights were on. Ceci wasn’t sure what time it was, but she guessed it was after bedtime.
Ceci decided that the city looked ugly. Princess Penelope’s castle would look much nicer there instead. She waved her hands like Merlin did on the Princess Penelope show. Far below the city began to change. The sounds of grinding concrete and snapping steel drifted up to Ceci. There were screams of fear and pain, soon joined by the roar of a newly created waterfall. They were the sounds of magic and love.
Ceci smiled. She wasn’t ‘gone’ at all… and it was still her birthday.
This story originally appeared in Theme of Absence.