It’s 9.45 pm. Everyone’s gone except a 30-something woman sitting alone in her 2m2 office cubicle, finishing off the last of the audits in time for the 9.45 am meeting tomorrow. She closes the folder and places it on top of the other folders, smiles at the mountain of completed work.
She switches off the small desk lamp and sits in peaceful darkness. When her phone glows, she leans over to check the caller ID. Just as she did in her childhood calculating the proximity of a thunderstorm, she counts one-one thousand, two-one thousand, until the initial light of the caller is followed by the dull thud of a voicemail alert.
“Lydia, sweetie, it’s your mother.” Then muffled, awkward, “no -it’s just her bloody voicemail…I know…I always think she’s picked up at first…” before returning to the message: “Just wanted to say happy birthday. I was so hoping to see you today. It’s a long time since we last saw you and it’s already 6 years since…” Her voice quietens like a dimming light, “I just hope you haven’t forgotten us.”
She hasn’t forgotten, despite years of trying.
Happy birthday, Lydia.
The small, tinny, speaker starts playing inconsequential chatter, people laughing, chinking glasses. One of the voices shushes the others. Then the lights go up, row by row of overhead industrial bulbs, and the room is suddenly full of family, friends, ex-boyfriends, the living and dead.
“SURPRISE!” The sound of tinned laughter and delight comes from the speaker, while the hordes, whose weddings, birthdays and funerals she’s missed in the last 15 years, stand motionless looking at her, not smiling, just watching.
Heart pounding, she presses ENGAGE, clasps her hands together, feigns surprise.
The guests begin telling stories about the birthday girl.
Grandad says she never made it to his funeral, dabs his mouth after he coughs, and the handkerchief turns dark red.
Sara says she didn’t call her back that day, the only day that mattered.
Mum rolls up her dress to show off a 47-stitch scar running across her abdomen: “they cut a hole in me to get the birthday girl out, and now she doesn’t even come for tea.”
Phil appears, sucking a small cube of pineapple from a cocktail stick, holding a present wrapped in unicorn paper.
The room snaps to black then theatrically and, after a pregnant pause from which you might expect a candlelit birthday cake to emerge, the surgeon walks in, masked, carrying a cake stand that bears a perfect left foot, two small hands, a punctured torso, half a face, mottled lips. The foetal parts lie carefully assembled, a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, a silver candle in the centre. Phil sings Happy Birthday; the other guests crowd round, urging Lydia to make the wish.
She tastes blood in her mouth and sinks to the ground, her legs giving way beneath her, snapping into weird angles like Sara’s did at the foot of the cliff. And now the pain, the wretched pain, as 47 stitches rip apart across her abdomen, tearing her womb open.
“Why don’t you wish you’d put something else, someone else, first?” It seems such a simple, fair request from Phil; he never did have any other children.
She knows this moment so well; she’s lived it a dozen times. All she needs to do is blow out the candle, make that wish.
She reaches up and presses a red button by her ear. The party guests flicker, then they’re gone.
She throws down the headset, reaches out and turns off the power, sits for a moment on the gritty floor where she fell.
From the CPU she pulls out the WORKAHOLIC programme her therapist made, a test of reflection she is yet to pass. She peels off the virtual reality body suit, gasping as the electrodes tear out. She packs the suit back into its grey box, ties up the red ribbon ready for next year, then pulls out her chair, carefully removes a folder from the bottom of the pile, and begins to check the figures again before tomorrow’s meeting.
Katja Sass teaches philosophy and religion to teenagers in the UK, co-running a small, weekly writers’ club after school, during which she writes pieces of flash that occasionally get published. Her stories can be found at Lost Futures, in The Loop anthology, and most recently as 3rd prize winner at Reflex Fiction.