A Slow, Sad Waltz Into the Future (short story)

A Slow, Sad Waltz Into the Future
By Z. A. Crum

My Seventeenth Birthday

On her seventeenth birthday, Ernesto did an amazing thing: he took her to the county fair. She vaguely remembered doing something similar when she was young, with her parents, but when she walked with Ernesto, hand in hand, she felt electric.
The air smelled fresh and alive, the night time air occasionally pulled by the wind, bringing the scent of popcorn to her nose. He held her arm, like a gentleman pulled out of a black and white movie, and led her down the aisles.
“I wanted to show you something,” he said, pulling her suddenly down another avenue. It sat in the corner of the park, like a forgotten attraction. He smiled, turned towards her and waved at the long booth. She gave him an uncertain smile, not quite sure what was so amazing.
“Wow?”
“Oh come on, they’ve got your favorite stuffed animal.” Ernesto smiled again, cocked one eyebrow and nodded to the top of the prizes. And he was right, at the very top, and also the farthest away, sat a yellow bear with a pot of honey on its lap.
“Very nice, Ernesto, but there’s no way you are going to knock that pin. She knew it because it was rigged. Her dad said all these places were rigged.
“Oh really, baby. You’ve never seen my fastball.”
He gave her another look, another smile, and plopped down a bill. The attendant, another teenager their age, looked at it without emotion, then nodded before speaking. “Welcome to the Speed Zone, the most difficult of all the attractions in the park. These are your three balls.”
He stopped, gave them a deadpan look that said, go ahead and laugh, because everyone else does. After five seconds, he continued, “Three balls, one at a time. The pin must fall completely over. Thank you and good luck.”
Ernesto took the ball carefully, turning it in the overhead lights. He moved his head slowly back and forth as he examined it. Behind the booth, the attendant let out a large amount of air from his lungs. Unaware, Ernesto turned the ball slowly in his hand, nodding slowly.
She held in a giggle. One thing Ernesto hated was being made fun of. He nodded at the attendant, who looked around for a second in confusion, then looked at Ernesto and nodded back.
The ball left Ernesto’s hand quickly, grazing the top of the pin and landing with a soft thud in the bear’s lap. The ball rolled down and disappeared from their view.
“Perhaps, sir, you should try the lower pins.”
Ernesto gave him a look one gives to a cockroach, and took a deep breath. The ball flew slower this time, and she saw the attendant smile slightly. Attendant’s intuition? She thought so as the the pin fell. She gave out a yell, and hugged Ernesto, who stumbled and caught her with a laugh.
“Congratulations, my friends, you have accomplished,” the attendant paused for dramatic effect, “the impossible.”
Afterwards, as she knelt in close, tucked in snuggly under his arm, she knew that Ernesto was her man for life. Above, the multicolored lights flashed along a ferris wheel. He steered her along until they stood in line.
When they reached the top of the ferris wheel, she looked out over the city lights, then at Ernesto. The lights of the ferris wheel shone in his eyes, and he reached for her hand.
“I love you, Ernesto.”
“I love you too, babe.”

My Twenty-fifth Birthday

The party had finished early that night.. It was like that when her parents hosted. They were slower than most, and liked events quite. Which she did not really mind. The last couple events had been pretty crazy.
She sat in the dinning room with her brother, the remnants of cake strewn across the table cloth. The children bustled between legs, moving in and out of rooms. Her brother gave her a look.
“What? Wait until you have some kids, see how you act.”
“No way, sis, I’m more of a once a month kind of guy.” Her brother grabbed her son Alex, spun him around and let him go. Alex giggled and fled around the corner.
“Aww, you’re such a good uncle.”
“Whatever, I’m out of here.” He rolled his eyes and went into the living room, where their dad typically sat during most birthdays. She could see Ernesto and her father talking. It had been years, but her father still gave Ernesto the skeptical glance of someone not sure why his daughter married you. Ernesto saw her, waved and smiled. She smiled back, and went into the kitchen. Her mother was cleaning pans, humming a pop song under her breath.
“Mama, I miss you.” She said, giving her mom a hug.
“Oh, I miss you too honey. And these beautiful grandchildren. They are adorable.”
“Yes they are, mama. And crazy.” She rolled her eyes and her mother laughed.
“You have no idea.”

My Forty-third Birthday

“Benito, have you seen your brother?” She asked. He shook his head. All of her boys, except Alex, sat on the couch or at the table, talking up a storm. It had been a while since they had been together. Benito and Marco, both adults, with their girlfriends too. Most of them had turned out pretty good, although she worried about the friends Alex had.
“Don’t worry mama, he’s probably hanging out on the corner like he always does.” She nodded absently. She thought of walking out to the corner. She used to do that quite a bit, but the neighborhood had changed. Not much, but enough to make her weary. Instead she chose to go to the curb.
“You’re right.” She went into the kitchen for a minute. Ernesto sat at the kitchen table, talking with Veronica, Marco’s girlfriend.
She spoke a few words with Ernesto, giving him a pat on his shoulders, then grabbed her coat. “Just going out to get the mail.”
Everyone waved, smiling, before turning back to their conversations.
Outside, the sun lay past the horizon, leaving behind a faint gold glow and a swirl of red clouds to show its lingering presence. The street stood empty except for faint voices in the distance. She thought Benito had been right. Alex had gone down to the corner, like he had many times before. She hesitated, debating whether or not to go get him. It was late, and soon enough Ernesto-or more likely, his brothers would drag him back, making a big fuss as they always did.
She began walking towards the corner of the street when she saw the odd strobing lights flicker through the trees high above her head. Behind her she heard squealing tires as a police car turned the corner. It flew by, leaving the pavement as it crested the hill two houses down from her own house.
From beyond the hill she heard voices yelling, doors opening and the panicked voice of her son. She ran towards the flashing lights, yelling, “Alex! Alex!”
There was a pop, like a toy, then another. She was running faster, cresting the hill. She could see the hood of the cop car, parked sideways on the street. Fear coursed through her veins. As she reached the top, her lungs burning, she saw two dark shapes on the ground, flickering in the alternating lights.
Hands grabbed her from behind, pulling her from the scene. From the sight of the two bodies. She turned, saw Benito and Marco. “Mama, no.”
“My boy.”
“Mama, we’ll go see. It’s not him.” Benito said, looking into her eyes. Behind him Ernesto came out, his eyes filled with worry. “Dad, please help mama in the house.”
He nodded, gave her a nervous smile, and led her inside.
She turned one last time, saw Benito place his hand on Marco’s shoulder, and disappear behind the hill.

My Forty-fifth Birthday

They piled out of the house, still yelling. Ernesto gently pulled her into the front living room, away from the back yard. Still, she could hear their escalating words. Threats and blusters, the emotion getting a hold of their judgement. She tried not to cry, but it was hard.
From the backyard she heard Marco yelling. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Those pigs slaughtered our brother. Shot him in the back of the head. His blood stains the streets and his killer went free. For godssake, you could end up working for him, Benito.”
“What would you have me do, peddle drugs all day like you do? Live in the back of a some crack addict’s garage?” She heard a scuffle, a thud, Veronica crying out, and then murmurs.
“No, no it’s okay. Just back off, man!”
“Hey, just let me-”
“I’ve got it, son.” That was Ernesto, her husband, finally intervening. As he often did, letting them get out their anger. “Why don’t you go inside with your mama.”
She heard the door open, shut, and Benito walk in with shame and anger on his face.
“Sit down son.” He nodded, sat next to her on the couch. “You understand why your brother is angry?”
Benito nodded. “Yeah, of course.”
“We loved Alex very much.” She saw the sadness in his eyes.
“This has nothing to do with him.”
“I know. But your brothers, they see that-” She pointed at the police uniform hanging in the corner. “And they see the enemy.”
“I’ve made up my mind, mama, and that’s that.”
The door opened again, and Ernesto walked in. “I think it’s time for the cake, mama.”
She nodded, patted her son on the head and walked outside.
The table had been set, and by the look on Veronica’s face, she was very proud of it. Everyone had calmed down. In fact, they all looked very happy. Ernesto closed the door behind him and began singing. “Happy birthday to you.”
A few voices rose to the occasion, mostly the eldest of her family, who had long ago put away their shame of singing silly songs, and halfway through they all sang the song for her.

My Forty-ninth Birthday

Benito insisted they celebrate her birthday at his house this year. She went along with it, although she enjoyed the comfort of her own home. That way she could fall into her chair until the children got the hint that it was time to go home.
But his eyes lit up when he described the things they would do.
Marco turned on the radio ten minutes after walking through the door. He was one of those boys who could not go too long without stimulus. He shook his head after a few minutes and played his own music. His father gave him a look and he turned it down. Not off though, that would have been unbearable.
Marco and Benito gave each other a look, and she thought it meant, don’t let father get a hold of the music. She smiled, they saw her, and laughed.
Veronica sat in the kitchen, keeping her newborn content. She smiled and said, “Hi mama. It’s nice to see the boys getting along.”
She nodded. It was true, it had taken years for Marco to get over Benito’s betrayal. But Benito was a good police officer, and he made her proud.
Benito came in, smiling. “Thank you for having mama’s birthday at our house. I know it’s a big deal, coming down to our neck of the woods.”
They ate cake, as they always did. She even smiled when she saw her slice of cake: lemon cheesecake filling, her favorite. She smiled over at Benito, who grinned back. Benito might not have been her favorite, but he sure was close.

My Fiftieth Birthday

Her fiftieth birthday passed without much fanfare. The celebration happened at Benito’s again. She still felt odd, with the passing of Ernesto, and he would creep into her thoughts often. Her children felt it as well, and acted oddly around her. The children came with their children, but they seemed distracted. Marco and her youngest stood out on the porch, drinking beer and watching the grandchildren chase each other around the yard. Once, Marco looked back at his mother, and gave her a strange sad smile.
She smiled back, but inside she felt a creeping feeling of dread.

My Fifty-first Birthday

Most of the family met in the parking lot. The rest caught up in the lobby. Veronica cried a lot, and she held onto her mother-in-law for a long time. The men, the ones left, sat near a bench and talked in whispers. Veronica wiped away her tears and pulled away. She waved everyone over.
“It’s not good. They say Marco will probably go tonight.” She began to cry, and Marco’s mother did the same. It wasn’t right, she thought, for a mother to watch so many of her children pass before her.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. She stepped into the women’s restroom and stopped in shock. Instead of a utilitarian room with stalls, she stood in a pastel colored lounge. She could see the stalls through a door at the end of the room. She looked around before sitting in a corner. Slumped over, she cried. At first she cried for Marco, whose body had withered to a thin shell by cancer. She dwelt on him for a while, remembering his smile as a boy, before he had lost his baby fat. Then when he was older, and he thought he would become a major league baseball star. Even the rough times, when he almost fell into the pattern that had taken Alex from her. But then she thought of the last few years: her granddaughter, beautiful and special.
The door opened, and she froze. This kind of grief was a singular affair, she thought, but she could tell by the dress that it was a stranger. Whoever it was disappeared into the restroom.
She remembered Benito, her strong one. The day of his graduation from police academy, a strange mixture of pride and sadness and fear had flowed through their hearts. Years later Benito came to her, sat by her side and told her why he joined.
“I did it so we could heal.”
She thought of Benito for a long time. “I love you Benito.”
She thought of Alex, her shining boy. A boy too bright for this world. So full of ideas. All of her boys had had friends, but only Alex carried an entourage with him. The world had been his stage, and with it, the temptations of the world. “I love you Alex, even though you broke my heart.”
“Mama?” Veronica poked her head through the door. “It’s time.”
She nodded, went to the mirror and made herself presentable. She smiled, a test smile, she guessed, and even though it shone through a few wrinkles, she thought it was a pretty good smile. “Here we go.”
Marco looked up at his mother when they walked into his room. He gave her a weak smile and whispered “mama.”
She grabbed his hand, frail and pale in her own. “Son. It’s good to see you.”
Marco tried to speak but then just nodded, and she saw how happy he was to see her.
“It’s okay, son.” she sat by his bed. Outside, the other family members waited.
They spoke, although she did most of the talking, about the past. When he was a child, which Marco seemed to enjoy the most. He closed his eyes, lost in those memories, but he continued to squeeze her hand, as if to tell her to go on. She talked of his early school years, when he had a crush on a neighborhood girl. How he would sit with her for hours, until they moved, and he cried for days.
They spoke of his daughter, the beautiful light he had brought into the world.
“Okay, son. You’ve got a long line of your family waiting to see you. I’ll be right outside.” He nodded, his eyes closed. She could see he was at the end. Holding on for his family.
Outside, she slumped into the contours of a plastic chair. She felt empty, as though she had given everything and had nothing left inside her.
The hours passed, her family coming out, and then going back in. A doctor went into Marco’s room. She could hear his murmured conversation with the family. Ten minutes passed and she heard bedside machines began to beep rapidly. She heard a commotion from inside, heard crying, and then lowered her head into her hands.

My Fifty-second Birthday

She sat at the table, watching her family mingling. They made little groups, ones that had formed and broken and formed again, until they settled into the pattern she saw before her. Once, she had had four sons. Now she had one. One had died by the bullet of a cop, the other by the bullet of a drug dealer. The last had died of cancer, which she supposed was the worse.
Yet her last son had made it this far. She leaned to one side, watching her youngest laugh an intoxicated laugh. She tried to enjoy this, her family. But ghosts came into her mind against her will.
Her breath caught, her eyes watered. Joey, one of her grandchildren, saw. He was perceptive. He came over and leaned against her, a child’s hug if there ever was one. She put an arm around him, swallowed the sorrow and let the happiness replace it.
“Look,” he said. Joey stared at the sky in wonder, and she followed his gaze. High above, as dusk descended, a thousand stars began their long fall to earth.
Later she would say that those artificial stars fell forever.

My Last Birthday

The machines stood ready in their great ships, out on the shores of numerous cities. Her family has sold all of their belongings, their homes and their past. Veronica looked out towards the sea, which burned blue with bioluminescence. She didn’t understand it, but the security guards assured her that it was harmless. At the end of the dock floated a massive alien ship. It’s upper deck high above her, and the sides extending far enough to make it impossible to see the horizon. Unseen engines thrummed with unharnessed energy. She didn’t understand its makers, or its captains, but she does understand salvation.
A single, massive dark loading bay stood open at the end of the dock. Veronica grabbed her mother-in-law’s hand, now a fragile ancient women, and helps her towards the end of the dock and into the darkness.

My First Birthday

The children are gone, the captain has told me that much. Benito, Marco and Alex already long passed from this life. They passed too soon, my poor children. But my last precious child, I thought he would have made it this far. But he could not adapt to their process. They tell me little, the ones who fell from the sky with their offer of salvation. A double edged sword, I think now, with all my children lost to me.
Oddly enough, I miss Ernesto the most. My memories of our early years shine bright like diamonds now. This body, or whatever it is that I now inhabit, brings my young Ernesto close to my heart once again. In ways that time is closest. Sometimes, when the darkness descends, I smell his cologne. Not the one he wore when we grew older, but the cologne he wore when he wanted to impress the girls-and then, when we started dating, to impress me.
Then, when the darkness permeates my being, and I stand on the precipice of sleep, I feel his arms around me.
“Ernesto,” I whisper. And fall wonderfully into sleep.

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