His eyes slowly fluttered open and he stared at the ceiling. Here it was, his thirteenth birthday. He hadn’t expected thirteen to feel that different from twelve, but something did feel off and unfamiliar somehow. Arthur stretched his bony arms backwards over his head and then sat up, rubbing his rumpled hair.
At the kitchen table downstairs, his mother already had his favorite breakfast of orange juice, french toast, and a sunny-side-up egg laid out for him. As he sat down, she hurried in from the kitchen, grabbing his shoulders and kissing his cheek. “Good morning, birthday boy!” she said overly cheerfully.
“Morning, Mom,” Arthur said before swallowing a huge bite of french toast. Through the window he could see how brilliantly sunny it was today, and for a second he wished he could just run around outside with his friends all day, but he knew those days were all behind him. He was a teenager now.
“Are you all ready for your party tonight?” she asked, sitting across the table from him.
“Yeh, I guess so,” he said. He had been really looking forward to the party even just yesterday, but with this sudden feeling of being very grown up, he wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to do at it anymore. He sighed.
“What’s wrong?” his mom asked.
“Oh, nothing. I just feel a little…nothing,” he said, deciding he would feel silly trying to explain.
Arthur finished his breakfast and went to his room to get dressed. Now he had the whole day stretching in front of him until his friends arrived at 5 o’clock and he wasn’t sure what to do to fill it. He felt that significant days should be filled with significant activities, but what sorts of things did one do when they were suddenly no longer a child?
He decided to go to the library and find something very advanced to read. It was just a mile from his house at the center of town, a quick ride on his bright blue bicycle. He threw on his battered backpack and headed over.
Arthur always felt so at home in the library, the musty smell of books, the oversized chairs for curling up in, and the clean brightness of it immediately soothing him. He had ventured away from the children’s/young adult section a few times before, but always for short things like The Old Man and the Sea. Today he wanted something that would require more concentration and work to get through, ideally sometimes sending him to the impossibly heavy leather-bound dictionary his mom kept on her desk to look up unfamiliar words. He walked systematically back and forth along the rows of fiction, eyeing the spines, wondering which particular world he wanted to fall into. Finally, he settled on 1984, intrigued by the little bit he knew about the oppressive future world it described. Arthur felt terribly mature handing over his laminated library card with it at the circulation desk, half-tempted to tell the librarian that this book was to celebrate his birthday and everything being different but deciding he liked it being a secret.
Arthur rode back home and spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in the basement, sitting on the couch with his legs stretched out and reading. Orwell’s terrifying dystopian vision immediately sucked him in and he had no trouble getting lost in the book for hours. It wasn’t until his mom came halfway down the stairs, telling him the first of his friends had arrived for the party, that he realized how long he had been down there.
He reluctantly closed the book and returned to the real world. His friend David came down the stairs a moment later. David was still twelve, and Arthur felt a little strange talking to him, as if he’d crossed over some raging river that he was still on the other side of. But he tried to act as if everything was normal.
Within half an hour all the guests had arrived and were scattered across the basement floor, drinking Coke and eating pepperoni pizza off paper plates. Arthur was quiet, observing his friends more than he was talking himself. Why did everything feel so different? Why did it matter how old he was, really? So the Earth had been around the sun a certain number of times since he was born. What difference did that really make? Still, he felt so very aware of each ticking minute on his watch, each little creep forward of the hand making him older and older.
They played a few rounds of Mad Libs but Arthur felt too distracted by contemplating time to really enjoy himself, though everyone else seemed to. He just kept thinking about how different everything was going to be now. In another year he would be going to high school. And someday, someday he would get old, and someday he would die.
Arthurs’s mom brought down his birthday cake then. She had baked it that afternoon. Vanilla with light blue icing, thirteen yellow candles flickering. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and Arthur half-smiled at them, trying to not let on that really he just wanted to cry.
“Make a wish!” his mom exclaimed, smiling brightly at him. Arthur closed his eyes and hoped that time would sometime stop seeming so important. Then, he sucked in his breath and blew out all of the candles, the smoke floating softly away from him.