by Linda S Barth
Nearly all the torches in the dining hall had been extinguished, leaving the spacious chamber in near darkness. A cluster of children jostled each other in their quest to get as close as possible to the teenager seated in a place of honor at the end of a long oak table. Their parents tried unsuccessfully to corral the youngsters while everyone gathered around, watching in eager anticipation as William carefully carried in an enormous cake.
Giggling with excitement, the children moved aside to allow the cake to be placed in front of the young man whose special day was being celebrated. William pulled a book of matches from the pocket of his apron and lit the small, colorful candles that rose from a cloud-like concoction of fluffy white frosting. Tiny starbursts of light sparkled in the shadows as the adults made room on the benches for William, and the children again surged like a miniature tidal wave to surround the guest of honor.
At a commanding gesture from Father, the tunnel community began to sing the traditional song of celebration, their voices blending in a joyful tribute to their much-loved friend and son. As the music came to an exuberant close, applause and cheers echoed along with good-natured demands.
“Make a wish, Vincent! Make a wish!”
“And make it a good one!” Pascal teased his lifelong friend. “You’re only going to get one eighteenth birthday!”
“You know anybody who got more than one?” Winslow’s booming laugh filled the chamber as he and several others relit the candles in the wall sconces. “You planning on having a second turn?”
Pascal grinned. “I guess not. I’ll just have to wait until I turn twenty-one for my next special birthday.”
“But Pascal is right,” Rebecca said. “You have to make your most important wish when you have a special birthday!” She smiled at Vincent, recalling the wish she had made at her eighteenth birthday celebration a few months earlier. It hadn’t come true yet, but she was certain it would, and she hoped with all her heart that Vincent’s wish would be realized as well.
A small hand tugged at Vincent’s sleeve. “Are you going to wish for candy, Vincent?”
“Brooke! You’re not supposed to ask what someone’s wish is!” Olivia admonished the younger girl. “If he tells, it won’t come true.”
Brooke bit her lip and her eyes gleamed with a rush of tears. “I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay.” Vincent ruffled the little girl’s hair. “I suppose I might wish for candy. I’m not sure yet.”
Given that opening, several more suggestions were made for the best possible wishes. The words of advice jittered in Vincent’s ears, full of warmth and good intentions, but with a disquieting undertone only he could hear.
Mary smiled indulgently at her family. “Why don’t we all quiet down for a minute and give Vincent a chance to think?”
“Yeah, or he’ll be turning nineteen and he still won’t have made his wish!” Cullen’s comment drew laughter from the others, but they followed Mary’s suggestion.
Vincent closed his eyes. For several moments he sat in silence, his face a mask of intense concentration, while around the table, his friends watched him, wondering what his wish would be. Then, he smiled softly and opened his eyes. His expression was that of someone who had come to a happy and satisfying decision. Only those who knew him best saw the flickers of pain in his eyes.
Father summoned a cheerful smile. “Now blow out the candles, my boy, and make your wish!”
A final round of cheers faded away as William sliced the cake, passing filled plates down the length of the table for all to share. As always, there would be stories and songs, lighthearted conversation, maybe a game or two. Later, Vincent would open the gifts, mostly handcrafted and entirely heartfelt, piled on a nearby table.
He felt another small tug on his sleeve. Turning from the humorous story Olivia was telling about a recent foray Above, he found Brooke hovering at his elbow once again. She put a finger to her lips, urging his silence. He leaned closer so he might listen to her whispered words.
“What did you wish for, Vincent?” Her wide eyes gazed up at him. “Cross my heart, I promise not to tell.”
He smiled at the hopeful child. “I wished for something that makes everyone happy,” he whispered back.
“I knew it!” Her smile sparkled as she skipped away. She was sure that when Vincent’s wish came true, he would share all that candy with everyone, especially her.
Vincent smiled, content in the warmth of the special moments his family had lovingly created for him. But in his heart, his happiness was threaded with a knotted cord of sadness that he could never entirely escape. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had revealed his wish. He knew in his heart it would never come true.
After all, not everything is possible.
* * *
A few short miles yet worlds away, a teenage girl giggled as her friend debated a choice of birthday wishes. A date with that cute new boy in their geometry class, front row tickets for the Elton John concert, one of the Biba dresses they’d all tried on at Henri Bendel.
“Come on, Jen, you have to make up your mind!”
“Cathy’s right,” Nancy said, reaching across the table in the crowded café to tweak a strand of the birthday girl’s long curly hair. “At this rate, you’ll be seventeen before you make a decision!”
Jenny laughed and rolled her eyes. “Okay, okay…hmmm…I guess I’ll go with –”
“A date with Jimmy Faraday!” her friends chorused. Jenny grinned her acknowledgement of their correct guess, then pretended to be deep in thought, pondering her next move just in case wishing wouldn’t be enough. “Maybe I can get him to help me with my geometry homework, and we’ll see where things go from there.”
“Good idea, Jen.” Cathy grinned. “And with your math grades, that boy will never suspect you have ulterior motives!”
Jenny glared at her. “Very funny! Why don’t you share that one with all your much brainier friends at the next meeting of the National Honor Society!”
“Okay, you two.” Nancy shook her head. “Let’s keep it civil.”
Cathy immediately looked abashed. “I was only joking! You knew that — right, Jen?”
“Of course, I did. And besides, you were right!”
The three friends collapsed in a wave of laughter, trying and completely failing to hush each other under the disapproving gazes of a few people at nearby tables. Finally, Jenny took a deep breath and reached for a brightly wrapped package. “You know, I wonder if a birthday wish actually can come true, especially one you make on a special birthday.”
Nancy shrugged. “Sure, why not?” She pointed at the gift in Jenny’s hands. “Now, open your presents – that one’s from me!”
The rustling sound of paper and the chatter of voices faded away for a moment as Cathy considered Nancy’s words. She’d already decided on the wish she planned to make this summer on her own sixteenth birthday. And if it were granted, she would never have to wish for anything more. She smiled, somehow knowing in her heart that wishes and dreams truly can come true.
After all, anything is possible.