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Sophia Flowers was baking a birthday cake for her grandson, who would turn five years old the next day. Five was a big deal, so a backyard party had been planned. The birthday boy’s assertive mother -- Sophia’s daughter, Abigale -- had meted out various party responsibilities to the invited guests. One had chips and dip, another the bounce house, another ponies, party favors, hot dogs, and so on. In all, there were thirty-four assignments, one for each family who planned to attend. Everyone eagerly agreed to do whatever Abigale asked of them. Everyone knew they were lucky to have been invited at all, and if they didn’t want to do whatever it was Abigale had set as their price of admission, there were plenty of others who would take their place. There was, in fact, an actual waiting list. Abigale decided to create it after the third party, when one of the invited guests died the day before the event. During the party, the one empty seat created a palpable tension, not because it reminded them of someone recently deceased, but because there were conflicting ideas about what to do about the dead man’s share of birthday cake. The dead man's family -- the now-widowed mother and her two children -- made an unabashed pitch in favor of placing a sizable slab of cake on the plate in front of his empty chair, in memory of his passing. That startlingly shameless gambit caused a commotion that prompted Abigale to think of prohibiting the attendance of families who should properly be in mourning. “You can’t ask a dog not to lick itself, ” Sophia told her. Aristocort 10mg pills $104.00 there was one cancellation for the fourth party, but it was because of business, not death. A substitute guest, a five-year-old boy from down the block, was invited at the last moment. His chain-smoking mother spent the afternoon on the other side of the six-foot-tall wooden fence that encircled the backyard party, standing in flip-flops on a five-gallon plastic bucket so she could see over the fence and keep an eye on her son, and so she could let Abigale know it was OK for him to have seconds, should the opportunity arise. The word about Sophia’s intoxicating cake got out soon after the first birthday, but the implications were not realized until a month before the second, when Abigale counted three-hundred-seventy-three requests for invitations to the boy’s party. “Since when do people ask to come to a two-year-old’s birthday party?” Sophia asked her. “It’s your cake, mom, ” Abigale said. “People say you must put drugs in it. ” “It’s not drugs, ” Sophia said. “It’s love. ” After the second party, a rumor circulated that Sophia spiked the cake. The rumor was so intense that it generated a spin-off rumor that said someone had smuggled out a napkin-wrapped pocketful of the cake and sent it to a lab. The scientists at the lab picked it apart molecule by molecule and found nothing but molecules that one would expect to find in a cake. It was therefore decided that Sophia’s cake contained a secret balance of ingredients and perhaps a special way of combining them and applying heat to them that resulted in some sort of homespun elixir. This feat of kitchen alchemy was attempted by several accomplished bakers, one of whom had gone to the Indiana finals of the Pillsbury Bake-Off. All of them failed. Everyone, even the talented bakers themselves, agreed it was not like Sophia’s cake. “They left out the love, ” Sophia said. Sophia’s prowess as a baker was, of course, well known to her daughter, whose most vivid childhood memory was the sticky sweet smell of confectioner’s sugar in the air. Given this, there was never a question about who would be asked to make the boy’s cake, which Sophia lovingly constructed from scratch and without consulting a recipe, so far as anyone could tell. One thing was indisputable: There never was any cake left over, no matter how many people attended or how large Sophia made the cake. For party three, Sophia baked two cakes as big as cookie sheets and five layers thick. Both had vanished quickly. Such obscene amounts of cake had one of two effects on the three-year-old revelers: Either it made them run in circles, usually with their arms outstretched like airplanes, or it made them queasy. One chubby three-year-old boy ate two big slabs and then finished his mother’s slice. (She gave it to him to stop his incessant and embarrassing begging. ) The boy then went for a pony ride. When the pony was about half of the way around the path its hooves had begun to beat into the lawn, the handler saw the boy’s face turn ashen. He moved quickly to lift the toddler out of the saddle – from behind, away from the imminent spray, but was not fast enough. The child hurled a sticky-sweet stomach-full of half-digested cake at the pony’s carefully combed mane. The handler, unsurprised by a toddler vomiting, set the boy down, pulled a cloth from his back pocket, wiped the vomit from the boy’s face and then from the pony’s blond mane. The boy went running to his mother. The handler led the soiled pony to the trailer and brushed out the remainder of the vomit using a spray cleaner that left the horse smelling of bubblegum. Delicious as they were, Sophia’s birthday cakes did more than just taste good. They also looked good. She painstakingly decorated them with homemade marzipan sculptures teased together with toothpicks and tweezers. “This is too beautiful to eat, ” someone would always say, but of course they did eat it, to the last crumb, pressed between the tines of a plastic fork. This year, the cake’s theme was western. The giant slab (any larger and it would not have fit into Sophia’s oven) was to be decorated with candy cowboys riding candy horses and a herd of candy cattle grazing on a green-icing pasture. A lasso of icing would spell out Happy Birthday Cowpoke Jason! The cake was cooling. Sophia already had finished making the candy cowboys in their ten-gallon hats and sitting astride chocolate-and-vanilla palominos. The candy cattle were completed as well, five Guernseys and one longhorn made anatomically correct for the amusement of the five-year-old boys, for whom there were few things funnier than wieners, unless it was poopie, a kindergarten fetish Sophia also sought to satisfy by fashioning a few tiny cow pies she positioned under each animal’s rear end, leaving no doubt about what they were. Even when it took the form of feces, Sophia’s cake was delicious. And besides, Jason and the other five-year-old boys would get a real laugh watching each other eat  candy cow poo. Last year, the theme was Insects. Sophia had placed a giant candy roach on her grandson’s slice, which of course was the huge one with Jason written on it. The boy ate the insect with great relish while the little girls screamed with glee and ran crazily around him in mock terror, squealing, “Ugh! He ate a bug! Ugh!” “Oh, no, ” Sophia said. The problem was the size of the pasture. After she’d coaxed the last drop of green food coloring out of the little dropper bottle, the bowl of icing that was to become grass had only achieved the sickly green tint of hospital walls. If used as it was, she thought, the candy cowboys would appear to be herding candy cattle atop a wintergreen mint. “Jack!” She called to her husband. “Coming!” he answered, pausing to fill in a crossword answer. For years, Jack Flowers had done the newspaper crossword puzzles every day, not just the ones near the comics, but the harder ones in the classified section. He done so many that their sameness had long ago diluted the challenge. Identical clues and answers kept showing up. “Sapporo Sash, ” for example, always was “Obi. ” Who but crossword addicts knew such a word! Anyway, finishing for Jack was a fait accompli. He judged himself now by how fast he finished. “Juvenile delinquent” was the clue for a four letter word ending with a T (the first letter of TERROR). “BRAT” Jack wrote. “Come on, Jack!” Sophia called. Jack wrote down the amount of time he had spent on the puzzle so far (4 min) and went to her. “My dove!” he sang. The kitchen smelled of cake baking and icing sugar. “You cooed?” “I’m out of green, my prince. ” She tossed him an empty tube of green food color. “Can you please go get more?” “Your wish is…” “I don’t have time to play, Jack. Please hurry. ” At 70, Jack had only one speed: slow. He’d even taken to carrying a cane. Abby had given it to him for Father’s Day. He’d been put off by it at first (What was she saying – that he was an old man?) he eventually grew fond of the sturdy mahogany branch and swung it beside him with a confidence that recalled his graceful youth. He’d also discovered that its curved handle came in handy. You could pull a door shut with it, fetch a bottle of ketchup from the other side of the table, coax a hat off a high shelf, fend off dogs, and a million other things. As Jack opened the door to leave, Sophia called out to him. “Get two bottles, Jack. Just to be safe, ” she said. “And no dillydallying with the Bench Boys!” The Bench Boys – an unofficial group to which it could be said Jack Flowers belonged – was a foursome of retired men who gathered on the green benches outside of the supermarket to watch the people come and go, particularly the young mothers with their broods in tow, proof positive of their youthful fertility. The Bench Boys had been invited to Jason’s third and fourth birthday parties, and so were among those who had jockeyed for invitations in year five. This time, however, Sophia told Jack that none of them could come. There were too many parents and children already coming from Jason’s new kindergarten. All of the kindergarten parents had heard about Sophia’s cake and anticipated it with such great relish that some of them were even driven to implore their children to be nice to Jason no matter how mean he is to you so as not to spoil their chance at a slice of it. “You sure they can’t come?” Jack asked for the fourth time even though he already knew the answer. Sophia rarely changed her mind. “Jack!” “OK!” He blew her a kiss (her head was in the refrigerator, so she didn’t catch it) then pulled the door shut with his cane, a smooth move worthy of Fred Astaire. “Got nothin’ on me, Fred, ” Jack thought to himself in a reckless moment of pride, and before his ego had a chance to bask in the glory, he stumbled. He nearly fell down a concrete stairway but was able to arrest his fall at the last moment with the help of the cane. He kissed it as a golfer might kiss a lucky putter, as though it held magic. “That could have turned out badly, ” he thought. He walked to the elevator, waited for the claustrophobic and stuffy car, and got in. The market was a short walk from the condo – maybe four-hundred yards – on the other side of a park that was across the street. First Jack noticed two joggers on the path that followed the park’s perimeter, which was lined with shady banyans as big as hot air balloons. Then he spotted a man and a boy flying a virtual squadron of kites, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, most on auto-pilot, the spool ends stuck securely into the grass, angled against a strong and constant breeze that lifted the kites almost directly overhead and pulled their strings taut. It was a blustery June day, and warm. The wind was blowing from the south, into Jack’s right ear as he walked toward the supermarket, and toward the far edge of the park to the north, where a ball field’s first-base fence gathered pieces of trash swept up from the park and blown against it. Huddled in a chain-link cage that served as the first-base dugout, a small knot of teenagers were smoking cigarettes held in cupped hands. “Who’s that?” one of them said, flicking his fuzzy chin at Jack. “Just some old geezer from the condo, ass wipe, ” his friend answered. “Who gives a fuck?” “Maybe he has some money. I need more smokes. ” “Better be careful, ” the third one said. “That cane looks like it could knock the stupid out of you. ” “Blow me, ” said the one with the fuzzy chin, who flipped open his Marlboro box  and saw he had only one left. Jack thought how nice it was to live near a park. He and Sophia sometimes strolled through it after early summer dinners, when there was plenty of sunlight left. “Let’s pretend we’re in love, ” she’d tease once the dishes were done, and Jack would grab his cane with his right hand and her hand with his left and they’d walk along the path that wandered beneath banyan canopies big enough to park a bus under. This, however, was no time to stroll. Jack was on an urgent errand. His cane swinging with purpose, he made a beeline for the market, a cavernous single-story store that nonetheless stood two-stories tall and so was clearly visible from across the park. The grass was freshly mowed. Its aroma reminded Jack of his days playing golf, before his hips went bad. (He was sure he could feel bone-on-bone contact on his left side, the cartilage there having worn through. ) As he walked, Jack noticed a discarded soda can. Dr. Pepper it looked like. He took a lazy swing at it with his cane. “I can’t believe Baby Jay is going to be five years old tomorrow, ” he thought as he addressed the can a second time and prepared to take a more considered swing at it. It seemed just a few months ago that he and Sophia had crowded into an austere hospital room with other family members, many of whom he’d not recognized at the time and hadn’t seen since. Everybody loved a new baby. They hovered around Ally’s bed, maybe twenty of them, standing two-deep and taking turns holding the day-old infant, whose miniature hands clutched at their fingers with surprising strength and super-sharp fingernails. It was fortunate, Jack remembering thinking as the baby dug those little razors into his finger, that the creature had not thought to claw its way out like a chick emerging from an egg rather than waiting to be ejected. Then again, the womb must be a very comfortable place. Who’d want to leave? Jack took another swing at the soda can. As Baby Jason was passed from arm to arm, each new temporary parent was equally astonished by the miracle before them, this despite the newborn’s peculiar-looking cranium, which due to a hard delivery had come out shaped like a butternut squash, narrow at the crown, fat at the base. A first-time mother, Abby was understandably horrified, especially considering the nurses’ well-meaning but poorly-worded assurances that her baby’s head would take on a more normal shape over the next few weeks. Of course the head’s glacial metamorphosis took longer than Abby imagined it would, and with no way of know how normal it would grow before it refused to get any more normal, she ultimately convinced herself that her son’s head was to be forever shaped like a gourd. “How can a head change shape?” she wailed to her father. “It’s made of bone!” “Babies heads are different, ” Jack said. He held his softly sobbing daughter as if she were a child again. He assured her the nurses had meant to say little Jason’s head would become completely normal. It was just going to take more time, he said. “Maybe because it involves bone. ” Jack and the nurses were right, of course. Over the next few months, at a pace that made the change difficult to see unless you looked at old photographs of the boy, the strangeness of the head subsided. Within two weeks of the day his diapers started to smell remarkably foul, he was as perfect a baby as anyone could dare expect. At thirty, Abigale was still a young mother. Everyone assumed that she’d have at least one more child. But in five years she had not. Some thought maybe she feared having another baby with a deformed head – one that wouldn’t reshape itself as magically as Jason’s had. Or perhaps it was because she herself was an only child and so recognized the material advantages. Abigale was born when Sophia was thirty-eight – late for a first-time mother. More than that, once the doctors pronounced the baby normal, Sophia began to insist on having her tubes tied before she left the hospital. The doctors told her she’d have to come back. “Why not do it now?” she asked. “I’m here, you’ve got me all opened up. Let’s do it!” “The human body is not a Buick, ” her doctor told her. Sophia had always known she and Jack would never have a big family. The bulk of her childbearing years had been spent in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of theUnited States. The location was so remote that pregnancy was a risk accepted only by the native Eskimos, who were in the majority and had big families despite commonly losing one or two infants, and those who got pregnant by accident and could not bring themselves to have an abortion. In Barrow, the Flowers had owned and operated the Caribou Depot, a general store of sorts that also slaughtered and butchered wild game brought in by the locals. Jack himself flew in provisions once a month from Fairbanks, five-hundred miles to the south, small special orders included. (Larger items came by boat, in the summertime. ) For two months in the summer, they also ran Midnight Sun Tours, which took tourists on rides around the bay, where the low-hanging sun was visible not only at midnight but all night. On Sophia’s thirty-fifth birthday, she decided she had indulged her adventurous husband quite long enough and started talking about acquiring a normal life, a transition that happened surprisingly fast, since Jack was ready for a change, too. They’d both had their fill of snow and ice, and so even though they were far from retirement age, they migrated toFlorida. Sophia got a job at an accounting firm and Jack flew rich people around in their private jets. InTennessee, it is said, you’re never out of view of a church steeple. InBoca Raton, the same was true for golf courses, and Jack made a point to play all of them, even the private ones, which admitted him as a guest. As a private pilot, Jack Flowers knew a lot of rich people, and rich people, he soon learned, had country club memberships whether they played golf or not. The soda can was not a golf ball and the mahogany cane was not a sand wedge, so it took Jack several swings – each one preceded by a motionless stance – to finally get the stubborn can near a trash receptacle stationed next to the walking path on the far side of the park. Looking into the receptacle, Jack spotted a discarded cupcake and was instantly reminded of his mission. Leaving the battered soda can resting against the base of the trash bin, he resumed his march toward the market with a renewed purpose and a silent prayer that Sophia hadn’t seen him dawdle mindlessly as if it were his fifth birthday tomorrow. As he drew near the entrance of the market, he saw the Bench Boys. Junior Jones, a retired master welder fromLouisiana, had brought his card table and three folding chairs. Junior weighed three-hundred-and-twenty pounds, thanks to a passion for barbecue and corn bread, and so had settled onto the sturdy concrete and wood bench while the other two sat in the folding chairs he’d provided. Marvin Sladewick was east, to Junior’s right, and Walter Pinchell was west, to his left. The folding chair in the north position, across from Junior, was empty. Marvin was the first to see Jack. “Hey Jackie!” he called. “Hey boys, ” Jack said. He stopped at the table, thinking he’d only pause for a second or two, especially since he’d spent so much time with the soda can. “Jack! Glad you stopped by! We need a fourth, ” Junior said, motioning a handful of cards at the empty chair. Junior, a big black man with arms as big as jackhammers, wore a white t-shirt and denim overalls, as he had since he was a boy (except for weddings and funerals). “Can’t do it, Junior, ” Jack said, holding up the empty bottle of green food coloring. “Sophia needs more green. ” “What’s she need the food color for, Jack?” Walter asked, but of course he already knew. “Jason’s fifth birthday party is tomorrow, ” Jack said. “You already know that, Walter. You asked me about it a month ago. ” “Sophia’s cake!” Marvin Sladewick said, clutching his arms to his chest. “She needs the green for the cake!” Marvin was thin as a rail and didn’t normally like sweets, but Sophia’s cake was, as everyone agreed aristocort 10mg pills $104.00, not aristocort 10mg pills $104.00 to be missed. “Already told you guys, ” Jack said. “Can’t get you in this year. ” “Seriously?” Marvin said sadly, sounding like a disappointed child. “Jason went into kindergarten this year, and it seems like his entire school is invited, ” Jack explained. “So no go. ” “That is a damn shame, Jack, ” Junior said. “I don’t suppose you can save us some cake?” “Sure, if there’s any left, ” Jack answered. “But…” “There’s never any left, ” Marvin finished. “Deal the cards, Junior. ” Feeling bad about disappointing his friends, Jack walked through the market’s automatic doors and found the food coloring without any trouble. Then he started back to Sophia. He didn’t stop to chat with the Bench Boys this time, but just shrugged and mouthed Sorry silently as he made his way past them. They gave him the cold shoulder. As he started to cross the eastern edge of the park, he noticed that the group of teenagers who had been smoking cigarettes and roughhousing in the first-base dugout now were gathered around the man and the boy flying kites. All of the kites were on auto-pilot. The kite man was pulling his pockets out of his pants as if to prove they were empty. Suddenly, and without apparent provocation, one of the teenagers pushed the kite man hard against the chest and he fell to the ground. The kite boy ran to defend his father and pushed the attacker back for a moment, but then he too was pushed to the ground. Jack kept walking. He’d been gone so long that Sophia must know he stopped to fool with the Bench Boys. She might well be perched on the top floor of the condo right now, watching him. The kite man, still on the ground, was taking off his shoes and socks for some reason. Then Jack heard the kite boy scream. The teenager with the fuzzy chin had kicked one of the kite spools out of the ground. It was skittering along on the grass right toward Jack, the kite boy scampering after it and crying, “Catch it! Stop it!” Jack grabbed the foot of his cane and hooked its crook around the escaping kite string, which whizzed as it gnawed a small groove into the mahogany. Not a second later, the wooden spool slammed into the crook of the cane. “Got it!” Jack said just as the boy ran up. The teen with the fuzzy chin was not done. With his two comrades standing watch over the boy’s protesting father, who despite his protesting remained on the ground, he starting kicking kite spools out of the ground one after the other, sending them jumping along one after the other toward Jack and the boy. It took some doing, and the whizzing kite strings slashed their hands, but Jack and the kite boy managed to stop every kite before it got away, each time securing the spool in the crook of Jack’s cane. When the last kite had been successfully captured, the boy gave Jack a high-five and looked back in triumph at the kite vandal. “Good try, loser!” he cried. Just then, a gust came up and the combined pulling power of the squadron of kites was more than Jack could hold. He was pulled to the ground. “Umph!” Jack said as the air was pushed from his chest. The kite boy leapt on top of Jack and helped him hold onto the cane. He saw that the kites had become hopelessly tangled around the curved crook. If they let the kites go, the cane would go with them. “Hold on!” Jack cried out. “I don’t want to lose my cane!” “I’ve got it!” the kite boy said, and then they both started laughing. The teens, humiliated that they’d been bested by an old geezer and a boy, had wandered off penniless. The kite man came hopping up, still trying to get his right heel into his sneaker. “That was amazing!” he said. “I’ve never seen an old man move so fast! An old man with a cane no less! How old are you, anyway, mister?” Jack, still laying on the grass, still grasping the tugging cane with the kite boy, discovered he couldn’t answer. Even though the boy was no longer laying on top of him, Jack felt as though he was still there, but much heavier. He found it hard to breathe. “Heart…” Jack said. He released his grip on the cane and grabbed his chest. The pull of the kites immediately brought the kite boy to his feet. Then it lifted him easily into the air. “Whoa!” the kite boy said, not yet aware of his dire situation. As Jack lay on the freshly mowed grass, the kite man ran after his airborne son, leaping and clutching for his feet, which remained just inches out of reach. “Let it go! I’ll catch you!” he called out to his son. The kite boy clung to the cane. He either didn’t hear his father calling out or he was too frightened to let go. Or maybe he didn’t want to lose his kites, or Jack’s cane. In any case, he held on tight to the jumbled ball of wooden spools and kite string that had been wound around the top of Jack’s cane, then wrapped his legs around its shaft as if climbing a rope. The kite man, out of breath and realizing that he could not catch his son, stopped and watched the boy fly away. By the time the boy reached the infield, he was twenty feet high and rising. “Shit!” the man cried. He looked back at Jack, who was laying motionless on the grass. The man ran in a small circle twice before dashing off to his car, where he’d left his cell phone. He dialed 911. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. “Come on!” the kite man said, tapping his foot. “911, is this an emergency?” “Yes!” the kite man said. “I’m at TreetopsPark. There’s an old man having a heart attack and my son is …” The kite man paused to think how best to explain his son’s desperate situation. “He’s being dragged into the air by a bunch of kites! Up! Into the sky!” “Please stand by, ” the dispatcher said. They must hear it all, the kite man thought. Then he heard the dispatcher come back. “Paramedics are on their way, ” she said. “An officer should be there within two minutes. ” The kite man looked up to see his son easily clear the first-base dugout where the teens had been smoking cigarettes and then the tall banyan trees at the far northern edge of the park. The boy’s sneakers just brushed a banyan’s top branches as he floated past. “Oh my god!” the kite man said. Two policemen drove up and leapt out of their car. “Where’s the heart attack?” one of them said. The kite man didn’t take his eyes off his son. He pointed to Jack and the cop who’d asked ran to him. The other cop followed the kite man’s gaze and saw the boy being dragged away. “Come with me!” he said, and the kite man ran with him back to the police car. It was lucky the wind that day was blowing straight north, right downUniversity Drive. With the police lights on and the siren blaring and the kite man sticking his head out the passenger window, the boy was easy to track. “There he is!” the kite man cried once the police car turned ontoUniversity Drive, headed north. They followed the boy’s flight for several miles, with the kite man sticking his head out of the window every few seconds and yelling to his son. “Hold on, Spider! Hold on!” Maybe the wind will die down and he’ll land softly, the kite man hoped. But he could see by the trees that linedUniversity Drivethat the wind was strong and steady. It was, after all, why they’d decided to fly kites in the first place. After the kite boy had cleared the tall trees that lined the northern edge of the park, he’d felt his arms begin to weaken. It was hard to hold himself up by clinging to the cane alone, so he struggled to lace the shaft of the cane through his belt, so that his pants helped hold him up and he could just hang there and enjoy the ride, or at least not have to worry as much about falling. (He still kept a firm grip on Jacks’ cane. ) Looking down, he saw people onUniversity Driveshading their eyes and pointing up at him. Some of them seemed to be calling to him, but he couldn’t hear their voices over the sound of the wind. He looked around and saw theWestCardinalHigh Schoolfootball stadium (where his brother played quarterback) and the Boca Raton Mall (where he and his younger sister had eaten pizza two days earlier) and theBoca RatonAirport, where he could see a jet taking off. Suddenly he was struck by the fear of being hit by an airplane, or having one fly through the long trailing kite strings, which surely not even an eagle-eyed pilot could see. He looked around but saw only two small single-engine planes far off in the distance and a jet liner far above him, drawing chalky trails against the sky. Looking down again, he saw a police car speeding up University Drive, its lights on (and probably the siren blaring, by the way it was blowing through red lights. ) Someone was sticking their head out of the passenger window and then disappearing back into the car, then reappearing. “Dad?” the kite boy said, knowing he could not be heard. A black bird appeared next to him in the air, easily keeping up. The bird cocked its head and looked at the kite boy over and over. “Caw!” the bird said. “Caw!” the kite boy answered. Then the bird was gone. The boy was a thousand feet high when it occurred to him that he might be able to get down by cutting away one or two of his kites, hopefully no more than three. But which ones? Not the Spiderman kite, and he wouldn’t want to cut away the largest of the kites, which would have too great an impact on his altitude. Could he even tell which string went to which kite? Probably not. He’d just have to chance it. Cut one away and see what happens. He dug for the pocket knife his father insisted he always carry. It was that very second, just as his fingertips touched the knife, that he hit something hard. By [aristocort 10mg pills $104.00] this time, Sophia was sure Jack had stopped to gawk at young mothers with the other Bench Boys. She untied her apron in disgust and stormed out after him. Jack had always been absentminded, easily distracted by one thing or another that caught his quirky attention. His forgetfulness increased as the years passed. Now that he was seventy, it seemed to happen at least once a week. The week before, she’d sent him down to the car to get something (she’d forgotten what, exactly) and he’d ended up taking two hours to come back because he’d decided the car needed to be washed, and, once it was washed, needed to be driven down to the Chevron to be vacuumed out. The week before that, she’d asked him to get a bottle of aspirin in the bathroom medicine cabinet and found him fifteen minutes later on his hands and knees next to the toilet, studying a trail of ants that had entered through the window. He was trying to figure out where they were going, where the trail led, what they were up to. The mystery ended when Sophia returned from the kitchen with a bottle of insecticide and killed them all. It wasn’t until Sophia got to the edge of the park and saw paramedics loading someone into the ambulance parked in shallow center field that she began to fear that Jack’s delay had been caused by more than just absentmindedness. She peered into the back of the ambulance just before the doors slammed shut and saw what she thought was her husband. “Stop!” Sophia cried from the park’s edge, but the man in the white uniform who closed the ambulance door didn’t hear her in the strong wind. Sophia started to trot toward the ambulance. “Is that Jack?” she called to a jogger passing by, pointing at the ambulance. The jogger looked at her queerly. Jack who? her face said. Sophia, in her panic, had mistaken the jogger for someone else. Still trotting across the grass, Sophia called after the ambulance, “Jack! Is that you?” She reached the ambulance just as it was pulling away and beat with the palm of her hand on the driver’s window. The ambulance stopped. The driver rolled down his window. “Lady, we’ve got a heart attack, ” the driver said. “I think it’s my Jack!” Sophia said, pointing to the back of the ambulance. “OK, get in, ” the driver said. Sophia ran around the front of the ambulance, rendered temporarily breathless by the suffocating heat of the radiator, and climbed into the high passenger seat. She looked toward the back and saw a tangle of hoses and wires and tubes connected to lighted panels that blinked and beeped. All she could see was the top of Jack’s head resting on a small white pillow. “Oh my God!” she cried. “What happened? Will he be all right?” The paramedic adjusted an oxygen mask on Jack’s face and looked up with a smile. “He had a pretty mild one. His signs are stable now, ” the paramedic said. “He should be fine. ” Should be. Not will be. Sophia held back the urge to cry. She felt terrible for having secretly accused Jack unfairly of dawdling with the Bench Boys. Jack woke up a few hours later in the hospital. Sophia was there, and so was the kite man and his son, even though the doctor had told them he was unsure how long Jack would remain asleep. As they waited, Spider told Sophia about his adventure, about the teenagers looking for cigarette money and how Jack had worked with him to save all the kites, how Jack had then grabbed his chest and how he’d been suddenly lifted away by the kites. “I didn’t want to let go because he said he didn’t want to lose his cane, ” Spider said, looking at Jack, who was sleeping soundly. Spider had hoped he would be able to catch a branch on one of the trees at the far end of the park, maybe just with his feet. But by the time he’d gotten there the tree tops were just out of reach. After that, he had no choice but to keep hanging on. He was at 200 feet and climbing. “I thought I was gonna pee my pants!” Spider said, smiling and looking at Sophia, who kept looking at Jack. “For a minute, I worried that airplanes would hit me. Then a bird started flying next to me. Then I started to think I should maybe cut some of the kites free and wham!” Only after he had been carried fourteen miles across the county, forty minutes or so after his take off, the police car following him the whole way, the sirens blaring, his father’s head sticking out the passenger window, waving his arms and screaming something he couldn’t hear, did Spider’s wild ride finally end when he hit a cellular phone tower. “Want to see my bruise?” Spider said, lifting his shirt to reveal a perfectly straight line across his abdomen, where he’d hit the tower. (X-rays taken downstairs had shown there were no broken bones. ) Stunned by the collision, Spider had nonetheless held on to Jack’s cane, which as it had saved Jack earlier that day on the stairs also saved the boy from falling off the tower. Once he’d recovered from the collision, the boy made his way to a nearly work platform and wedged the cane into a section of the scaffolding. He then worked to carefully free the kites from the cane one by one and reel them in. In all their years flying kites together, his father had stubbornly refused to help him with string tangles, so Spider was an expert at untangling such messes. Even so, he admitted, he had to cut two or three of the kites free with his pocket knife and retie the shortened string to its spool before reeling it in. The cop and Spider’s father had arrived at the base of the tower before Spider had the first kite freed. They spent the next hour gathering up each kite as it floated down. When the last kite had been retrieved, the boy tossed Jack’s cane down. “My dad caught it before it hit the ground, ” Spider said. “Then I started to climb down from the tower. I was a long way up, so it too a few minutes. ” When Spider’s feet finally hit ground, he felt so weak he might fall, but his father held him up and smothered him with hugs and kisses. Spider looked at his dad, who was standing over his shoulder. “You were shaking like you were being electrocuted, ” he said. “I thought you were going to die, ” his father said. “Do you realize how far up you were? If you had fallen, you would have hit the ground at well over a hundred miles an hour. ” “I wasn’t going to fall, ” Spider said. “I threaded the cane through my belt, so I was tied to it pretty good. It’s why I didn’t let loose of it when I hit the tower. Gosh that hurt!” Sophia say Jack’s eyes crack open. “He’s awake!” she whispered. She’d never taken her eyes off him. “Here’s your cane, mister, ” Spider said. “Thanks for helping me with my kites. ” Spider placed the cane on the bed beside Jack’s right leg and pushed its crook into his still tremulous hand. “Thank you, ” Jack said, patting the cane without looking at it. “It’s a little bashed up, but I saved it, ” the boy said. “Thanks, ” Jack said. “You had a heart attack, Jack, ” Sophia said, “But you’re going to be fine, thanks to the quick action of your friends here. ” Jack turned his head to the boy, “Your kites?” He’d been asleep during Spider’s retelling of the tale. “We got ‘em all back!” the boy said, “even the Spiderman!” “Good…good, ” Jack said, smiling a small smile. Just then there was a knock on the open door. Junior Jones stepped into the room. They all looked at him. “How you feelin’, Jackie?” Junior said. Jack seemed to grow more alive. “OK, Junior. I’m doing fine. Thanks for coming to see me. ” “I didn’t come to see you, Jackie. I came to see Miss Sophia. ” Sophia threw Jack a quizzical look, but saw in his face no clue about what possible business Junior might have with her. “What do you want, Junior?” Sophia asked. She crossed her arms over her chest, tacitly daring the huge black man to ask yet again if he could come to the party. “We were playing cards in front of the market. You know, Jackie. You stopped to jaw with us. ” Sophia looked at Jack. “It was … a minute!” Jack protested. “I did not … play cards! … Not one hand!” “Yeah, yeah, ” Junior said. “That’s right. He didn’t play cards. He was in quite a hurry, he was, Miss Sophia. ” Junior drove his big hands down to the bottoms of his overall pockets as he spoke. “Anyway, I was feeling kind of bad at how we pressed Jackie about the cake and everything. ” He threw Sophia a toothy grin that shone like a lighthouse in his big black face. “You know that is a mighty fine cake, Miss Sophia. ” “Get to your point, please, Junior, ” Sophia said, waiting for the begging to start. “Like I said, I was feeling bad about how it all happened, and it ate at me and ate at me until finally I got up after maybe a couple hands – you know we don’t play so fast with so much to look at – and so I got up and followed after Jackie so I could tell him I was sorry for pestering him, that it was OK if we didn’t get any cake. “That’s when I saw you, Miss Sophia, running after that ambulance and beating on the door so they’d stop and let you in. I was going to call out, but I figured it would be best if I just let them get Jackie to the hospital right away. You know seconds count. So I didn’t yell out. “The ambulance pulled away and that’s when I noticed the plastic bag blowing across the grass. And it wasn’t moving steady like it was empty, you know? It looked like it had something in it. Jackie told us that he was getting green food coloring for you, Miss Sophia, and I figured maybe that was it and when I got to it I knew I was right, because inside that bag were two tubes of green food coloring – these two tubes right here…” And with that, Junior Jones pulled the two tubes of green food coloring out of his overall pocket and presented them to Sophia. “Oh, Junior, how sweet! You didn’t have to do that. ” “Yes, Ma’am. But I know how everyone loves your cake, and I didn’t want to see so many disappointed people on Little Jason’s birthday, so I thought I should bring them to you right away. Sorry it took so long. Took us a while to figure out which hospital you were at. ” Sophia looked at Jack. “Jack, ” she said, “I think we might have room for one more tomorrow, what do you think?” “Junior, you’re coming to the party!” Jack said, and then coughed. Just then, Marvin Sladewick and Walter Pinchell, who had been in the hallway listening for their cue, shuffled into the room. “Us too?” Marvin said, pointing at Walter and smiling with too-big dentures. Jack looked at Sophia. Sophia just smiled at him and, without turning to look at the two men, said, “OK Marvin. You and Walter can come too. And Spider. You and your dad are certainly welcome. After all, we have more to celebrate tomorrow than just a birthday. ”   ### (7, 347 words)

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