"Make a wish!" a dozen dried-out voices cried, accompanied by hearing-aid squeals.

Aida took the deepest breath her ravaged lungs could handle. Blew.

The lone candle rising over an acre of sheet cake fluttered and continued burning in defiance.

Wizened faces clustered close, impatient with Aida's impotence in the face of the single, tiny flame. Aida tried again but burst into a fit of racking coughs. In a long life of innumerable failures and endless let-downs, this ranked as the most pathetic.

The young aide, Gloria, looked up from tucking in a bib, exhaled one of those horrible, pitying "Oooh!" noises, and casually snuffed the tormenting candle.

A fresh spill of frustrated tears traced down Aida's wrinkles as pattered applause and dentured smiles erupted about her. Her attempt to shove her wheelchair away from the table managed only to rattle the cheap silverware and skew her slightly.

"Don't cry, dear," Gloria said in that baby-talk way people reserved for people on the extremes of the human lifespan as she straightened Aida's chair. "Look how happy everyone is for you!"

"Cut the cake already," Frank grumped, his neck-waddle trembling to Parkinson's rhythms. The ancient toad of a man cast Aida a crabby, impatient look. "If the negro isn't going to eat no reason for the rest of us-"

"Frank!" Gloria's eyes widened, her hand covering her mouth. "How could you say something like that? And on her birthday no less! You aught'a be ashamed of yourself."

He shrank back at the admonishment, like a snapping turtle pulling back after snatching a cricket. Mutters and dark looks directed his way by the gathered elders produced the perverse effect: a self-satisfied smile came over Frank's face. A five-year-old delighting in the attention a bad word earned him.

Gloria turned to Aida. "He's just a pathetic old creep. You okay?"

"I've been called worse by worse," Aida said, as though the words hadn't struck an old, scarred place still tender after a century's random battering. "I changed Frank's diapers when he was a baby, you do it now. Bet his pecker's not much bigger than it was then. Might explain why he had to beat all his wives into submission to get 'em to stay with him."

Gloria's eyes went wide again as she stifled a guffaw. Inwardly, Aida rolled her eyes. Why were they always surprised old people were people too? "Been through five times as many years as you and fifty times the hardship. Don't you worry about me, girl."

Aida's comment elicited a furrowed brow and a frown. The aide retreated with a sideways look as if trying to determine whether Aida had insulted her. Aida rolled her eyes for real this time, sighing as the aide bent to fuss over some other creaky ancient.

As Gloria fetched a knife and carved white slabs from a cake proclaiming "Aida's 100th!" in loopy, red-frosted cursive, Aida crumpled into her wheelchair.

It felt like years since anyone came to see her. Where was her grandnephew and his family? Did they remember about today? What about her grandnieces? Would they feel guilty when they realized today was her birthday? As often as she'd disappointed everyone or pissed them off, she'd be lucky if they thought of her at all.

Looking despondently away from the cake, she saw him leaning against the cafeteria door frame: tall, dark, and handsome enough to anchor a romance novel. Vermilion scrubs fit snugly over a lean-muscled frame. A tattoo's dark curve cut down across a bicep. The strange accompaniment of a scarf nearly matching his clothing's hue wrapped elegantly about his neck. The way he regarded her sparked dusty, long-packed-away memories of excitement and passion.

"Frank, let the birthday girl take a bite first!" Gloria set a slice dominated by the hefty glob of a blue balloon before Aida. The girl's dark, shining hair fell like a curtain, blocking Aida's view. When Gloria backed away to take pictures with her phone, the doorway gaped empty.

"Then eat already!" Frank snapped, a forkful skewered and hovering near his mouth as he glared at Aida. "Not used to waiting on the help."

"Says the man who can't get out of a chair without two strong men and a crane," Aida shot back, dismissing the bitter old crustacean with a wave of her hand. "Besides, where you got to be? The Klan put a wheelchair ramp on their meeting house?"

She took a bite, wincing as the dyed sugariness plastered to her taste buds.

While the others dug in about her, Aida craned her neck for the handsome stranger. She cursed her hunchback. No luck. Just the usual assortment of silver-haired ladies in musty, floral-patterned gowns scraping forks across plates while mole-spotted old men in sweater vests shuffled about clutching confectionery prizes close.

Beyond the sad celebration, wild scenes of ducks launching from the fen or elk staring majestically out of their paintings clashed with fading wallpaper and torn, stained teal carpeting. Mismatched cheap or donated furniture hauled in piecemeal over the last few decades clumped about the room. Everything worn, patched, and barely functional.

Just like the living occupants.

Only "Ai" remained legible on the surviving cake brick when the shindig wrapped and Gloria wheeled Aida away.

"There a new young man working here?" Aida said as they glided down the corridor's olive drab, fluorescent hum-and-flicker. "Tall, black hair, dark eyes, Arab?"

"I don't think anyone calls people that now, but I wish!" Gloria laughed, placed a hand on Aida's shoulder, and leaned in conspiratorially. "Anyone like that anywhere in the state even I'd swipe right in a heartbeat."

Aida didn't get the reference, but didn't care, clutching the young woman's hand tightly. The brief touch of real human contact and connection sprung something in her. Only by squeezing her eyes closed and breathing deeply did Aida choke back a sob.

Gloria mistook the sound for a laugh, chuckling and pulling her hand from Aida's grasp like a sadistic sailor jerking a lifeline from a drowning woman. Struggling to find anything to say to keep from breaking down crying like an old ninny, Aida blurted out, "I saw the biggest dragonfly I've ever seen at the picnic yesterday."

"Oh really?" The sort of voice used when feigning interest in a five year-old's description of their kids' show. Part of Aida's mind wondered when she'd gotten so grimly cynical about everything. She told it to wake up and smell the adult diapers.

"It landed on my hand. I counted six eyes."

"That's sure interesting, dear."

"I'm a hundred-years-old, not five," Aida said peevishly. "If you want to get me a birthday present, how about treating me like an adult for once?"

The wheelchair zigged slightly. The girl quickly changed the subject. "What did you wish for?"

"To be a twenty-something wild child again. Or how about a do-over on life to fix all my uncountable screw ups and flake outs? Since those're impossible, how about dying in my sleep tonight? I just hang on so Nancy doesn't get lonely."

Gloria laughed. Only when she leaned over Aida's shoulder to share in the joke did she realize there wasn't one. The minute it took to roll the rest of the way to Aida's room passed interminably.

"Aaand, we're back!" Feigned enthusiasm for Aida's benefit. "Home sweet home."

Home: a prison cell buried at the heart of a crumbling death-house for the elderly. Four off-green walls, two hospital beds, a patched recliner neither of the room's occupants could get into or out of without help anymore. A dim lamp from Aida's old house, shelves of dusty knickknacks, fading pictures of family who never visited or called, stacks of worn paperbacks Aida had read ten times each before her eyes went bad. All undertoned by the fragrances of fabric softener, mothballs, and bleach.

Home sweet death sentence. Life shrank down to a wait to see whether body, sanity, or hope gave out first. Aida's body obstinately held on, fueled by a last ember of stubbornness insistent on dragging her groaning out of bed each morning.

"Bed time or some TV first?" Gloria heaved Aida out of her wheelchair.

"How about a porno to spice things up a bit?"

Gloria let go in her surprise, bursting into laughter. "Oh my God, that's gotta be the funniest thing I've ever heard. Such a saucy old minx!"

Aida teetered, atrophied muscles struggling to hold her upright. Just before she toppled over, Gloria caught her and, still chuckling, helped her into bed. As she leaned close, Aida stared at the smooth skin of a face marred only by a bit of acne near the hairline and wondered if she'd really been that young once.

Gloria bopped Aida lightly on the shoulder and helped her change into her nightgown. "I've gotta post that right away."

True to her word, the phone emerged the moment Aida lay back. The screen lit up Gloria's face, pupils gleaming with reflected light as the girl cast Aida's words off into the digital universe all the young folk half lived in but Aida couldn't hope to comprehend.

"Sometimes I wish I had a different world I could slip into like that, a place where I could make myself whatever I wanted."

"What was that, deary?" Gloria said without looking up. Her phone chirped. "Already five likes on your porno bit."

"I wasn't born this way. I ran wild and free in my day back when I was a real looker. Lay with more men in my time than you'd even..." Aida mumbled, performing the nightly fruitless pillow shuffle to find some arrangement of the lumpy sacks that might ease the constant ache in her neck and back.

"What was that?" Gloria didn't look up from her phone.

"Saucy old minxings. Is Nancy coming back soon?" Aida looked over at the other bed. "I missed her at bingo today. Was going to rub it in that I won again."

A held breath and downward flick of the aide's eyes told Aida all she needed to know.

Gloria slipped her phone into her back pocket and made a show of helping Aida with her blankets. The girl's perfume reminded Aida of her daughter, the only one who ever actually visited her. Until the accident. Her funeral almost a decade ago marked the last time Aida was allowed out into the larger world.

"Didn't she call for you earlier? She's at the hospital, they just moved her to critical care." Gloria's hands ran over the blankets as though trying to smooth the wrinkles of Aida's pain.

"She wanted me to visit but I couldn't see her like that. Can't believe we survived that nasty COVID business together only for the stupid flu to do us in."

"Yeah, it hit her pretty bad, but I'm sure she'll be back soon. Don't you worry. You feeling better from it yet?"

On cue, the few nibbles of cake Aida forced down for form's sake came surging back up. "Bathroom, bathroom!"

They got there without a moment to spare. Aida knelt dry-heaving on the floor after, knees aching. She wondered if her guts would finally give up clinging to her bones and just flop out of her mouth.

It felt like hours of clean up, but Gloria finally wrestled Aida out of her now-blue-dye-stained gown, into a new nightgown, and set to tucking her in. Exhaustion helped Aida ignore the lumpiness of the threadbare pillows.

"Nancy's not coming back, is she? 94 year-olds don't usually come back from 'critical care'." Aida stared at the ceiling, a tiredness far deeper than physical crushing down on her. "They told me she called, but I didn't call back. Too afraid of losing her too, I guess. She probably wanted me to visit since she knew this was it for her. I was all she had left and I let her down. Again. You'd think I'd be too old to do that to anyone anymore, but somehow I still manage."

Pause. A soft hand brushed her forehead, triggering childhood memories of the mother Aida buried fifty years ago. Aida's fingers rubbed the crude, silver crescent amulet her mother had left to her; the only memento of a father vanished before she was born.

Too tired to feel sad any more, Aida rolled away to face the wall.

Sounds of Gloria tidying up a few things. "I've gotta run. Chris didn't show tonight, again, so we're running double duty. Sleep tight; tomorrow's another day! Get over this and get better so we can get some food in you."

Gloria's attempts at lightheartedness just made things worse.

Politeness required Aida say something, but at that moment she couldn't force herself to care. This young one would burn out and move on to something less depressing than rushing around cleaning up after cranky, slowly-decaying ancients who shuffled about leaking from both ends. One day the girl would just be gone, another face and name replacing her for a while before it deserted them too.

Footsteps tapped softly on the tile as Gloria drifted away, stopping near the door.

"I'll let you know if any hunky dudes come asking for you."

Aida smiled in spite of herself, looking up at a faded black-and-white photo from her late twenties; strong, tall, lean, proud, fierce. That magnificent Afro before it became popular. A smile so easy and casual. A woman in charge of her life, unafraid of any challenge and refusing to take guff from anyone.

Now look at her.

She barely managed to reach the picture and lift it down. "It's strange. I look in the mirror and see an old woman, but deep inside I'm still the same headstrong girl as this photo."

Aida hugged it tight, struggling against her blankets to roll back over. "Can you stay for just a minute longer? Sometimes I get so lonely even with Nancy here I just didn't know now that she's gone how I'll make it through another-"

The room brimmed over with emptiness.

Aida rolled back, reached up, and took down her favorite picture of her with her kids. After caressing the worn-thin glass over their faces, she reached up towards the one of her and Nancy strolling in the park. Back when they could both walk. She gripped its wooden frame for a moment, then slowly tipped it face-down onto the shelf.

"Where'd you go?" she asked the picture of her old, young self. "Why'd you leave me? Why'd everyone leave me?"

With no one left to hide them from, she lay back and let the tears fall freely, soaking the hem of the faded quilt Nancy made for her. Nostalgic thoughts of times long-past and people long-dead floated across her mind as she drifted off.

A century's-worth of aches and pains conspired to render her sleep fitful, plagued by dreams of empty rooms, unseen eyes watching her.

The feeling of being watched grew stronger as she woke.

Cracking an eye to scout out her bedside glass of water, she caught his silhouette leaning against the wall. Shadows filled his face, offering only barest hits of features or expression.

His formal, crisp tone carried an unidentifiable accent. Some foreigner who studied English back in university now on his first trip to America.

"Ready to start again?"

A note from Austimized
The mundane world at its worst before we leave it all behind.

Next chapter: wishes come true, just not the way you'd expect.


About the author


Bio: My favorite authors are GRRM and Dan Simmons who mostly ruined fantasy and scifi for me, respectively. A few survivors of their arrival in my logosphere: The Foundation Series, Ian M. Banks, Dan Abnett, Neal Stephenson, Patrick Rothfuss, and Cixin Liu.

My biggest inspirations beyond the above are "Kill Six Billion Demons", Studio Ghibli, the Exalted RPG, "Final Fantasy III/VII/X", "Guns, Germs, and Steel", "The Elfstones of Shannara", "Heat", "The Man Who Would be King", and history, especially Sumerian and Greco-Roman.

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Maitri ago

Excellent fiction, inspired writing, am following this author!

darkocean (J. L. Salmonson) ago

Eh? Wasn't this a fantasy story? The n word really? *Shakes head*

    Austimized ago

    You know, you're totally right. I can show the character is a racist, neo-Nazi toolbag without the n-word. Was hoping to show how mean and petty using the word is through a petty and mean character using it, but that goal doesn't work if the word stops people from reading further. Edited.

      darkocean (J. L. Salmonson) ago

      That's really great! There's no need to trigger people who've been assaulted by it before.

      Try inner thoughts, descriptions and actions. Here this tumblr blog is dedicated to teaching people how to write people of color without it being a stereotype or coming off as racest:

      There's a search, try typing in racial slurs, characters, offensive, hair, eyes, culture and read what shows up.

      This site has helped me a lot.

      Tap on everything that shows up and eventually you'll come across what you're looking for and more.

      I see it as being our job to learn to do better and try even in some small part not to continue the mistakes/harm that our own people have made. It can start with a book!

      Ran into an article that explains why its more then a "bad word" and far more sinister then just being petty, it's worse:

      There, now you're armed with knowledge! *Hugs*

      Have a great day! :D

darkocean (J. L. Salmonson) ago

I'll continue reading now, and see if there's anything to help with, if not just to read.

darkocean (J. L. Salmonson) ago

You're very welcome, I hope I saved you some time, research can take such a chunk out of writing time. Ugg.

Most of us mean well right? it's just the execution that can get bumpy sometimes.

Apollo149 ago

I really like this line, "If you want to get me a birthday present, how about treating me like an adult for once?"

I like it because it feels like something I would say to my parents and my kids will prob. say to me one day.

Basically, my point is the dialogue feels real.

Thanks for a good chapter.

JEPayne ago

Fantastic writing! A real emotional gut punch of an opening

realTENSAi ago

Interesting start! Thanks for the chapter.

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