It was Ellen’s fortieth birthday party. Yani made a three-layer chocolate cake with a happy face composed of slices of juicy prange on top. Lem composed his own face to look just like the prange face. At the head of the table sat a gangly thin teenage boy with the faintest shadow of a mustache over his sensitive mouth.
“Father, please do the honors,” Yani passed the knife to the boy so that he could slice the cake for everyone.
The boy sliced a piece of cake for Ellen and handed it to her. After all, she was the party girl. Then he sliced a piece for Lem and Yani. Finally, he cut a piece for himself. It was the largest piece of all, and everyone at the table laughed at that.
At forty Ellen had a few strands of white and grey in her thick black hair, and two or three almost imperceptible laugh lines at the corners of her eyes, but she was still a beauty. There was no question about that in anybody’s mind.
The boy and Ellen were the same height. He was much thinner, of course, but her body was still attractively packaged.
The boy had decided about four years ago that nobody should celebrate his birthdays. He just didn’t feel like celebrating them. Birthdays signified another step towards non-existence. It didn’t really matter whether you were going forwards or backwards in time. Maybe the reason Ellen chose to celebrate her birthdays and the boy didn’t was that he knew how much time he had left and she didn’t.
He hoped she’d live forever, somehow independent of his mind, until he thought about it rationally. None of his creations, none of the artifacts of his mind, would survive the cessation of his existence. All his creatures were rational. They all would know exactly how much time they’d have left. He wondered how they could all deal with the same fate so differently.
Ellen understood what was happening. She saw with her own eyes, day after day, night after night. Sometimes, though, she couldn’t help but look at him through other eyes. If only her family and friends could see her, Ellen, a forty-year old woman gallivanting around arm-in-arm with a sixteen year old boy, they’d tell her she’d lost her head and her dignity. They’d think differently, however, if they knew him the way she knew him. He might have looked like a boy but he had the depth of experience and wisdom of a seventy year old. Ellen knew she’d stay beside him to the bitter end. She hadn’t mentioned it to him but she had resolved years ago that she would even carry him in her womb if that would prolong his life for a few more months. Ellen couldn’t imagine life without him.
After they had finished the cake, the boy got up from the table, took Ellen’s hand, and told Lem and Yani not to wait up for them. Ellen and the boy walked out into the crisp night air, turned to their left, and walked up the path toward the strand of trees.
They reached a promontory overlooking the valley of shadow with dimly lit caves on the hillsides stretching away as far as their eyes cared to see.
The boy glanced to his left at the strand of nearby trees. There was a gap between the trees. He took a folding knife from his pocket, opened it up, and made two parallel notches on the bark of one of the trees bordering the gap. In the starlight he saw a pale path. They turned to walk toward it. The boy made two more parallel notches on a tree beside the path. The trees were dense and over-arching so that they could not see even a sliver of the night sky above them. They walked slowly along the path, hand in hand. Often they had to duck their heads to avoid the low hanging branches and out-reaching brambles.
They came to a wall of branches with thorns and discovered that the path turned to their right. He made another two notches on a tree at the turn. They followed the new path for some time until they came into a clearing lit palely by the weak starlight from above. The boy double-notched the tree at the entrance to the clearing.
There was a more-or-less flat boulder half sunk in the middle of the clearing. They sat down on it for a few moments just to catch their bearings.
“Where are we going?” Ellen asked the boy.
He put his arm around her, drawing her toward him, kissing her fragrant hair. “We are going to face my fears,” the boy said softly.
There was a sound, barely discernible, of unlubricated metal against unlubricated metal. He walked to the edge of the clearing and strained his ears to hear better, but he no longer heard it. Then he heard it again. They both heard it now: “Over here…”
There was a path at the edge of the clearing. He called out in a trembling voice barely audible, “Keep speaking so I can find you.” He double-notched the tree next to the path and Ellen rose to join him.
“Over here … over here … over here-errrrrr,” the disembodied voice continued through the darkness.
They saw a glint of metal in the weak starlight.