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Birthday Blues

set shortly after 'Taking Out the Trash'


Fraser was working himself up for something and I slouched lower in my chair; he looked like he'd rather be shot at so it was probably something about me. I poked at my oatmeal and listened to the cold make the house creak. He and I weren't getting along so good; he was too fucking weird.

"Well, Josh, your birthday is next week," Fraser said, polite and calm the way he was when he was nervous. I jerked a glance at him, then glared at Ray, stomach winding tight. I didn't want some party, balloons or bullshit. I hated my birthday.

"Yeah," I said warily. My birthdays … they'd always sucked. It was too much attention and I never knew when something would set Pop off. I'd be twisted to pieces the whole time, smiling until my face hurt, trying not to make any mistakes and just praying I'd get through the day without a bloody nose.

"Well, I was wondering what you might like for a birthday gift," he said with a flickering glance at Ray. He got a smile--like this was some kind of big deal for Fraser--and he looked back at me with something hopeful in his face, hell if I knew why. I couldn't figure what they wanted and I hunched my shoulders angry and scared.

"Nothing," I muttered. I just wanted to be left alone. "I don't want anything."

"Ah," Fraser said, which was his 'I don't get it' sound. "You're sure?" He said hesitantly while Ray looked hard at me, trying to make me be a good boy.

"Nothing!" I snapped, shoving my food back 'cause suddenly I couldn't stand it--oatmeal every fucking morning, snow every fucking day and I hadn't even seen the sun for the past fucking week. "Unless you got a one-way ticket to Hawaii or anywhere outta this pit, I don't want nothing!"

Fraser went all smooth and pretty, standing quickly and settling his dumb hat on his head but Ray looked pissed enough for both of them. I flinched back in my chair--Fraser was just too big to be comfy--and his expression went even blanker. "All right, Josh. I'm sure that nothing can be arranged." He turned to Ray, "Well then, I'm off to work." Ray shoved his chair back and followed Fraser onto the porch, leaving me at the empty table. I let my head thump onto the back of the chair.

"I suck."

Ray came back, shuddering with cold and red faced. He scowled harshly at me and I gripped the edge of the table, waiting for the shoe to drop all over me. "That was not cool."

"Whatever," wincing even as I spoke. Why the hell I said some things, I didn't fucking know. I was stuck in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere Canada and it was like I was trying to piss everybody off. It was just--crazy, I trapped here and they could do pretty much anything they wanted and who would know? There wasn't anywhere for me to go, except US state custody and I'd rather sell my ass on the street.

"Yeah, whatever," Ray started snatching the stuff off the table to put in the sink and I got up to go hide … somewhere, until things cooled down. Neither of them had hit me yet but neither of them had been angry at me before; making myself scarce until Ray found something to do with himself seemed like a good idea.

"Y'know," his said, his voice was soft, not easy to hear over the water filling the sink but something in it made me stop at the door to my room. "Ben never had a birthday when he was a kid."

I stood there but Ray didn't look at me or say anything more. Guess he didn't have to.

The next weekend we went into town for a dinner and a movie, which doesn't sound like much until you start living in a three-room house with no cable and guys who eat pemmican. It was my birthday but no one said anything about it; I was sixteen. Yay me.

So, on my first morning of being sixteen, I lay in my bed and felt like a shithead. They were already up, hell, Ben had probably been up for hours and I'd heard him clomping out to mess with his dogs. It wasn't sunny out because it was late winter and there was no fucking sun so I always slept too long. They'd leave oatmeal for me, they always did.

Nothing had changed, no one had hit me, no one even yelled at me and Ben didn't seem mad. He was still all nice to me. Ray had been pissy for a day then it was gone like bad weather; so no one said anything, no one did anything and they did what I asked. Nothing.

"I really suck."

This time of year, it took twenty minutes to get ready to go outside what with thermal underwear and flannel lined jeans and a shirt and a sweater and a fleece vest and a jacket and scarf and mittens and a hat. When I stepped outside the cold still hit me like a hammer and made me sneeze like my nose was trying to fly away to Hawaii. When I could move again, I waded through the snow and over to the shed where the dogs where.

Inside it was sorta warm and dark and smelled like dogfood and dogs. Fraser had a bunch, all of them sled dogs, and it wasn't a normal thing for a white guy to have dogs. He was weird even for a Canadian, I'd already picked that up from watching people in town.

"Ben?" I picked him out in the dimness, sitting on a stump and waxing the sled's runners. The dogs were tumbling around each other and yipping in their straw stable, Dief was curled at Fraser's feet and only gave me a lazy glance. I wasn't too sure of him yet.

"Yes, Josh?" Ben looked up with a smile, still friendly, like I wasn't an asshole to him most of the time. But I wasn't going to apologize, 'cause I didn't do that. Being sorry never got me anything good.

"Uh--maybe, maybe you could show me … " I was hot now, flushed, 'cause asking for something--anything--was pretty fucking hard. "how to do the dogs? Y'know--run the sled?"

I couldn't breathe. Ben might say no, he might treat me like the shithead I was. Might treat me like I did him last week. I squeezed my hands together and shuffled in the loose bits of straw, staring at the snow on my boots.

"I'd enjoy that very much, Josh," Ben said.


His smile was different now, more real, with that weird tooth gleaming and leaning back with his body relaxed, not stiff. Like he was getting a present, not me. He gave me a nod. "Yes, really."

"Okay," I nodded back. "Okay."

"Excellent, the first thing to remember is that these are work dogs, not pets …."

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