A Fitting End by Tom Howard
Paula entered the kitchen where her mom and aunts were preparing food for the party. She’d avoided the fuss, hiding in her room while pretending to pick out a party dress. Her mom washed dishes at the sink while Aunt Ada and Aunt Kate, both older than her mother and unmarried, worked at the stove.
“Paula,” Mom said, “we wondered where you were. Grab an apron so you don’t get your pretty dress dirty. Aunt Ada needs help frosting her zucchini bars. She’s already baked six pans of them. She’s feeding an army.”
“Sure, Mom.” She grabbed the ugly pink poodle apron hanging among the others. It matched the scarf she wore around her bald head. She refused to wear the wig her parents had bought. “All this food will be wasted. No one is going to show up.”
“Nonsense.” Her mom wouldn’t believe her friends had forgotten her. It had been over a year since she’d started chemotherapy and became too ill to attend school. The other kids acted as if her brain cancer might be contagious.
“I’m sure they’ve just forgotten to RSVP,” her mom said. “You’ll see. Ada, not the good china!”
She didn’t care if no one showed. It would have been nice to have friends who existed outside of books, her only companions during her battle with DIPG. Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. It sounded like an exotic plant, not a series of tumors growing on her brain stem. The chemo treatments over the past year had been experimental, each one making her sicker than the cancer. At least she wasn’t slurring her words or needing a diaper. Yet.
Unlike her parents, she’d accepted the fact she didn’t have much time left. She grew weaker and weaker each day. It made her sad to see them waste their efforts on frivolous things like a party no one would attend or a future their daughter would never see.
“Where’s Dad?” Paula sat at the table, conserving her energy.
Aunt Ada handed her a bowl of softened cream cheese. “He and your brothers are tidying the yard and hanging lanterns.”
She sighed. She wanted to return to her room, her pajamas, and a story where a talking lion made everything better, even dying.
Paula spread cream cheese frosting. How many zucchini bars did anyone need for a party?
“So, Paula,” Aunt Kate said, “do you have a young man coming tonight?”
“No.” She considered screaming until someone listened to her. No one was coming, and there never would be a young man. But she didn’t have enough energy to make a scene. Even before her diagnosis, she’d always been the quiet one, the forgotten child. She wished they’d forgotten her birthday. She didn’t want them to be disappointed when no one showed up.
Aunt Ada winked. “Well, your mother didn’t have any trouble finding herself a boyfriend at your age. Papa had to chase them off the porch with a baseball bat.”
Her mom still looked pretty with her dark hair and blue eyes. Paula, with her gray eyes underlined with dark circles, would never turn heads.
“Don’t make up things, Ada.” Her mom smiled at her sister. “With three girls in the house, it’s a wonder Papa didn’t buy a shotgun.”
They all laughed, and Paula’s hands shook as she reached for another pan of zucchini bars.
Her mom looked at the clock. “Goodness, it’s almost six, and I haven’t frosted the birthday cake yet. I’ll leave these dishes for later.”
Paula tried to stand. “I’ll do them.”
“No, no,” her mother said. “You save your strength. Take your comfy chair in the living room and entertain your friends when they arrive. These dishes can wait.”
“There’s no need for all this fuss,” Paula said.
“Someone needs to carry those zucchini bars into the dining room,” Aunt Kate said. “You’ve made enough to feed everyone in town.”
“Well, if you think there’s too many,” Aunt Ada said, “you can just throw out the leftovers and not sneak them home as usual.”
Her mother dried her hands and gave her shoulders a quick squeeze. “I can’t believe you’re sixteen already, young lady. Seems like just yesterday you were stumbling around in droopy drawers.”
Paula rolled her eyes and returned to spreading cream cheese. If her mom told everyone about her diapers, maybe she was lucky to not have friends.
Aunt Kate poured marinara sauce into a tureen. “The table’s getting pretty full out there. We’ll need the card table for the desserts.”
Taking the tureen, Aunt Kate entered the adjoining dining room. At least the family would eat well for the next several weeks. With the chemo treatments and the pile of pills Paula took every day, she didn’t have much of an appetite.
They’d decorated the dining room with streamers and pink crepe paper. A side table held wrapped presents, some rectangular. She hoped they weren’t books she already owned.
“Mom!” Her little brother stuck his head in the front door. “Someone’s here!”
“There’s always an early bird.” Her mom added another dollop of meringue frosting to the strawberry cake. “Kate, would you show them to the parlor? If they brought gifts, you know where they go.”
Who was the unexpected visitor? Her brother would have said if family had arrived. She refrained from peeking. If her mother had invited the bag boy from the grocery store, she’d be so embarrassed.
“Who’s here?” Mom asked when Kate returned.
“Two handsome young men.” She smiled at Paula. “A Robinson boy and someone I didn’t recognize. Said he’s Jim Hawkins.”
“It couldn’t be the Robinson boy.” Ada took another pan from the oven. “The Robinsons moved away last fall.”
“Maybe he’s returned for Paula’s birthday,” Kate said. “Although I don’t remember one of them named Fritz.”
Paula dropped the cream cheese spatula. “Fritz Robinson and Jim Hawkins? Is this a joke?”
Mom looked surprised. “Why? Don’t you know them?”
“Yes, I’ve spent many nights with them.”
Her aunts’ eyebrows shot up.
Paula sighed. “Fritz Robinson is a character from Swiss Family Robinson. You and Dad read it to me before I could walk, remember? And Jim Hawkins is the boy in Treasure Island.”
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence?” Ada asked. “Maybe their parents read as much as you do.”
Paula stood and removed her apron, angry at such a prank. “Maybe Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are helping Dad paint the picket fence on their way in.”
Who would pull such a mean trick? On her birthday! Didn’t they know she was dying? Inviting strangers to her party and naming them after characters in her favorite books was cruel. She’d give the two boys a piece of her mind and find out who had put them up to it.
As Paula passed the front door, someone knocked. She opened it, surprised to see a young man standing there with a dark-haired girl in a white gown.
“Hello,” he said with a small bow. “I am Prince Caspian. I met this young lady at the gate. Her name is Ozma.”
“Prince Caspian and Queen Ozma?” Paula stood with her mouth open. The two young people on the porch looked as she’d pictured them. Caspian stood regal and handsome, and Ozma looked demure and beautiful. “Won’t you come in?” Paula bowed before showing them into the parlor. Jim and Fritz jumped to their feet. More guests arrived before she could close the door. Pippi Longstocking needed no introduction, her trademark pigtails curled upward in defiance of gravity. Lucky Starr wore his astronaut suit, and Meg Murry brought her most fetching accessory, her boyfriend, Calvin.
Huck, Tom, and Becky showed up in their Sunday finest, and everyone wished her a happy birthday. She didn’t question them appearing out of thin air, thinking it an elaborate costume party or a wonderful dream. Maybe her drugs had given her hallucinations.
Mom brought the birthday cake into the dining room, and the aunts carried in fried chicken, potato salad, and zucchini bars until Dad had to remove one of the pantry doors and have the boys fetch some sawhorses to make another table. In the meantime, Podkayne of Mars arrived with her obnoxious little brother. He volunteered to help set up the sawhorses.
“Are you having fun, dear?” Mom served glasses of lemonade to the people gathered around her.
She’d been discussing the trials and tribulations of having little brothers with Podkayne and smiled. “Yes, Mom. The best!”
Mom looked around the room at the young people chatting. “And you said no one would come to your party.”
She grinned. “I was wrong, Mom. All my favorites are here.”
“Glad you’re happy, dear.” Mom took a chicken bone from Ozma who looked perplexed as to how to dispose of it.
Podkayne sipped her lemonade. “I hope you like my gift. It’s an Insta-Dye wand for your hair when it grows back. I love mine.”
“I’m sure it’s perfect.” Paula would never have hair again, but she appreciated the thought. “Is that Romeo and Juliet by the mantle? I didn’t see them come in.”
“No one ever does,” Podkayne said. “They’re pretty wrapped up in one another. Just like Princess Buttercup and her boyfriend in the corner.”
“Excuse me.” Paula felt light-headed. “I’d better show d’Artagnan where the umbrella stand is before he sticks someone with that sword. Thank you again for the gift.”
She pulled herself to her feet, surprised her body came with her. Maybe she’d died and gone to heaven. On her way to the fourth musketeer, Paula said hello to Anne of Green Gables and to Bilbo from the Shire. D’Artagnan exchanged his sword for a plate of zucchini bars.
When the cake’s candles were lit, her family helped the guests sing the traditional birthday song. Afterward, they escaped to the porch. If they thought her guests’ attire peculiar, they didn’t mention it. They told Huck if he smoked his corncob pipe, he needed to do it on the back stoop. Bilbo, never without his long-stem pipe and pouch of Longbottom Leaf, joined him.
Paula returned to her seat and spent the evening visiting with her friends, feeling weak but happier than she could remember.
“We’ll miss you.” Peter Pan placed a pillow behind her head.
She couldn’t keep her eyes open. “This is all a dream, isn’t it?”
“Or the beginning of an awfully big adventure.” He took her hand, and the others drew closer.
She smiled and closed her eyes.
Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his family and friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their perspiration.