Six candles on the chocolate cake, one for each of Sherman Moon’s years, and as Mrs. Moon carries the cake into the dining room, Mr. Moon says, “Don’t tell us your wish, son.” Sherman closes his eyes. Then the candles are extinguished in a blitz of his breath and saliva. “I’ll get a knife,” Mrs. Moon says. But the wicks ignite again—six sprouts of fire on six wax stems. Sherman gasps. “Look at that!” Mr. Moon says. He glances at his wife and grins. Sherman inhales deeply, his chin pointing up at the ceiling, and blows so hard it’s as if he’s trying to inflate the room another three sizes. Mr. Moon clutches the table, leans back in his chair, pretends to almost blow away. “Those lungs!” he cries.
The candles spark back to life.
Later, after these candles are snuffed out for good and plucked from the cake like thorns, after the presents are unwrapped—a box of plastic dinosaurs, a baseball glove, a lantern that rotates behind a star-patterned shade, projecting a universe of stars on Sherman’s ceilings and walls—Mr. and Mrs. Moon take Sherman down to Pearl Lake to search for bullfrogs in the reeds. Sherman brings along a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He kicks off his shoes, allows his mother to roll his pants up to his knees, and steps into the lake. He holds the dinosaur over the surface of the water. “That’s you,” he says.
“Did you have a good birthday?” Mrs. Moon calls from the shore. Nineteen years from now, she will ask this same question of Sherman, though by then she’ll no longer be Mrs. Moon—Mr. Moon will be living up in Maine with a dental hygienist—and Sherman will no longer be standing in Pearl Lake, searching for bullfrogs, but instead sitting on the porch of a halfway house in Cedar Rapids. “Great birthday,” he’ll tell her over the phone, detailing the special dinner that was prepared for him: ham smothered in caramelized pineapple rings, roasted asparagus, potato salad, and, later, strawberry shortcake with buttermilk biscuits and fresh whipped cream. “God, I must’ve gained ten pounds!” he’ll say, and Mrs. Moon—now Ms. Renner—will stand at her kitchen sink, looking out at the summer dark, and ask, “Do you remember those trick candles, Sherm?” and Sherman will say, “Oh, shit—I have to go, Mom. I love you.”
Sherman balances the Tyrannosaurus Rex on his head and says, “I don’t want it to end,” and Mrs. Moon whispers, “I don’t either,” and she wonders if this is what her son wished for in those seconds before he blew out the candles—for the night to carry on forever—and, if so, if some part of him believed it had come true when the sparks sprang again from those tricky wicks and caught flame, as though the smoke had been a misunderstanding, as though the candles had never been blown out at all.
Andrew Mitchell is an MFA student at the University of New Hampshire. He lives in Dover, New Hampshire.
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