Emily thought that the flickering light was captivating. She didn't know that word yet, captivating. It was more than a few years away, but that didn't change the experience one bit. Oh, the fantastically colored sugar flowers were pretty and the white fluff that she licked off of her father's finger was sweet, but nothing compared to the single flame sparking in front her. Even at only a year old she could tell that it was something special, something magical.
She reached out wanting to touch it and bring it closer, to hold it and play with it as she did her other toys. She was pulled toward its heat. Even though she didn't have the words to describe it, there was something exciting about that heat and her heart speed up in response. She was almost there. She could almost touch it. Yet before she could close her fingers around it, her mother gently redirected her hand toward the table.
She didn't understand why she couldn't have it, but rather than cry, she simply pulled her hand away and tried again, more determined than ever to touch the brightness. Then poof! It was gone.
Emily couldn't believe that she was turning six. She had been thinking about it all week, thinking about all of her friends that would be at her party, about the balloons and the presents and most importantly the cake. The cook had promised her a chocolate cake this year because she was going to be a big girl now and she just knew that she wouldn't get it on her dress. She had wanted chocolate icing too but Mommy had vetoed that, saying that she didn't want the embassy covered in it. Daddy had told her that veto was just another way to say no. She had explained to Daddy that she had already figured that out because all Mommy ever did was find new ways to say no. She didn't understand why that made Daddy laugh so much, but rather than trying to figure that out too, she ran off to watch the staff hang streamers. Still, chocolate icing would've been nice.
Emily was fairly certain that she wasn't going to have a 14th birthday party. That was all right. There were more important things going on. At least, that's what she told her grandparents whenever they asked. It wouldn't be much of a party anyway, with her friends scattered across the country, the globe really, and her parents watching for scud missile trails from their bedroom windows. She had been evacuated back to the States but they were still in Riyadh, gasmasks never out of reach and Marines around every corner.
She was watching for scud missiles too. Without school to distract her, she spent the day glued to CNN looking for familiar landmarks in the backgrounds behind the reporters. It was almost enough to make her forget about her birthday entirely. She knew that her mother had. So, she was surprised when her grandmother called her to the phone and even more surprised when she heard her mother's voice wishing her a happy birthday. The temporary relief of knowing that at least that night had passed safely was enough to make the cake that her grandmother baked taste good and sweet and not like the ash that had been filling her mouth ever since she had stepped on the airplane from Saudi Arabia.
She knew that once things calmed down her parents would insist on celebrating her birthday a second time, but she didn't think they could ever find a present that was better than that phone call.
The ambassador wanted her to come home, wherever that was, for her 21st birthday and Emily was sure that she had used every tactic she knew to get her to change her mind. Her girlfriend, the one that she was almost positive that the ambassador didn't know about and never would as far as Emily was concerned, wanted to take her out to celebrate. 21 meant tequila shots for everyone, never mind that Emily didn't really like tequila. But Emily couldn't see what the big deal was. It wasn't as if she was suddenly going to morph into the adult that her mother wanted her to be and frankly she had been drinking ever since ambassador had been assigned to Russia. There was a reason the Russians were so fond of their vodka. It was just another day in another year and her birthday wasn't going to change the fact that she had to go to class in the morning. At this point it was just a formality. She could ditch for the rest of the semester and still graduate, but it was an argument that she knew would work on the ambassador even if her girlfriend wouldn't be as receptive.
So the loud knocking on her door that quickly turned into banging didn't surprise her. She was already dressed to go out, bowing to the inevitable.
31 wasn't really a big deal. She was trying to forget about it entirely. She didn't need the reminder that she was yet another year older. As far as she was concerned that wasn't a reason to celebrate. She had already dodged the ambassador's call, glad that sprinting after a suspect had made answering her cell phone impossible. She knew that there would be a slip from UPS stuck to her door when she finally got home, another piece of jewelry or clothing that she would never wear, but that confrontation was at least a day away.
As far as she could tell, no one on the team knew that it was her birthday. That was perfectly fine with her because as much as she wanted their acceptance, she didn't need or want false birthday cheer. In fact, all that she really wanted was to fill the hotel's too small bathtub with scalding water and steam her birthday into oblivion. A knock on her door brought her up short though and for a brief moment she panicked at the thought that her mother had somehow found her in the middle of Kansas.
"Hey Emily, you in there?" It was only Derek and Emily hid her relief as she opened the door.
"Yeah. What's up?" She looked at him expectantly. They had already closed the case so she wasn't sure what he could want.
"We're all heading to that bar down the street to get drinks. I thought you might like to come." Emily knew that her smile was completely out of proportion to the invitation but she didn't care. It wasn't complete acceptance, but it was a start. As she grabbed her purse she thought that, even if she wasn't celebrating, maybe this wasn't going to be such a bad birthday after all.
Emily wasn't really paying attention to her surroundings as she walked to her desk, so it was a complete shock when she almost put her cup of coffee on top of the single cupcake sitting in the middle of it, the single cupcake, with a single candle, a box of matches, and a note.
You should have told us it was your birthday
The note wasn't signed, but the feminine handwriting gave away the author. Emily smiled and though she felt a bit silly, she struck one of the matches and lit the candle. She watched the flame sway in the air currents for a moment before she blew it out. She didn't watch as the smoke curled upward toward the ceiling; she was too busy pulling away the wrapper and licking the chocolate icing.