“Dad, what are you doing?”
I slid my legs over the side of the bed and dug my toes into the fuzzy blue carpet. I stretched and whacked the edge of my bed. Nursing my injured wrist, I tried to reboot my sleepy brain. My father was fully dressed, holding a plate of steaming hot breakfast pastries of some sort. The whole camper smelled of cinnamon, maple syrup, and sizzling butter.
“I wanted to surprise you,” he said.
“What?” I exclaimed, catching myself in a yawn. “Dad, it’s your birthday! I should be making you breakfast. What are you doing up? It’s seven-thirty.”
“I know… but I love French toast, and frankly sweetheart, you don’t know my secret recipe,” Dad justified, setting the plate down on the table.
“Well, let me at least give you a birthday hug,” I stood up, wandered the few steps over into the kitchen, and threw my arms around my father. “Happy birthday, Daddy!”
“Thanks, kiddo,” Dad grinned and squeezed me back.
“You made coffee?” I smiled, inhaling the aroma of cinnamon spiced coffee wafting from the green and gold pitcher on the table. “And you finally bought milk!” I remarked happily, lifting the lid off the creamer pot.
“Yes, I made a trip to the store,” Dad nodded.
“And French toast… mmm… I do enjoy your breakfasts,” I murmured as I closed my eyes.
“And for a special surprise… pumpkin…” Dad squeezed my arm.
I popped my eyes open. “Oooo… pumpkin… Dad you do spoil me!”
“Now come on, sit down before breakfast gets cold,” Dad urged, ushering me to my seat.
“I see you’re being healthy and got an apple too,” I said, reaching for the pitcher to pour myself a cup of coffee. “Where did you get fresh pumpkin in the desert?”
“Marisol Loera,” Dad said, keeping his head down as he cut into his slices of toast.
“You’ve been spending time with the author a lot lately, haven’t you?” I smirked, holding my fork in mid-air.
A hint of pink breached Dad’s cheeks and ears. “She’s a nice lady.”
I was glad Dad seemed happy. He met Marisol, author of Special Snowflake, at the bookstore when his company catered her book signing a few weeks ago. Frankly, I think Dad was more interested in her hydroponic garden than her written works, but he had been on a few dates with the woman. I took this as a sign he was moving on from his five-and-a-half year relationship with Kate, the woman he left mom for, and the woman who left him in shambles when she, herself, decided to move on. Dad had been a wreck, hence the urgency of leaving Sunset Valley, and since I had a somewhat urgent reason to leave my hometown behind, I had been glad to accompany my father on his self-discovery journey around the country. Our summer in the Palms had been nice, albeit quiet, but I didn’t mind the peace. I minded the isolation. At least one of us isn’t lonely.
“Do you and Marisol have big plans tonight, birthday guy?” I asked, pouring more syrup on my French toast.
“Kass, you’re drowning them,” Dad chided.
“I like the sugar…” I defended myself. “So plans?”
“No, Marisol won’t be back from her young authors conference until tomorrow so I won’t be seeing her tonight.”
“And you have the night off work?”
“Good… I got us a reservation at the Blooming Cactus Bistro.”
“Kass, that’s expensive.”
“I know… but it’s your birthday. I’ve been saving my tips from Sandy Place for this.”
“Must be good tips.”
“They are. Plus Mr. Tanner wants me to tutor his son, Ethan in writing so I’ll be making extra dough starting early next week.”
“Kass,” Dad looked at me hesitantly like he was about to say something, but then took a sip of his coffee instead. “…Alright… I’ll let you spoil me.”
“Great! Pick you up at 8,” I said teasingly as I plopped a kiss on his cheek. “I’m going to go grab a shower, if you didn’t use up all the hot water.”
“Have I told you that you look lovely?” Dad inquired, in between bites of his fettuccine with Simtalian cheese sauce.
“Yes, Dad,” I smiled, my cheeks burning with pleasure. “You look mighty handsome yourself. Is that a new suit?”
“You like the navy blue?” Dad played with the lapels. “I thought Marisol would like it if we went out on another date.”
“It looks great on you,” I nodded approvingly, cutting into my breaded chicken dish.
“The Blooming Cactus?” Dad remarked, folding his hands behind his head. “This place really is phenomenal. You know your Mamma and I had our first date here?”
I gasped, my face souring. “Oh Dad, I’m sorry! If I had known…”
“No, no, no,” Dad waved his hands. “Relax… it doesn’t bring back bad memories or anything, and even if it did, we’re making new ones, okay, kiddo? New good ones!”
My shoulders relaxed. “Okay… so are you enjoying your birthday so far?”
“Yes,” Dad replied. “I am with my favorite eldest daughter enjoying this delicious meal on the terrace at twilight. What more could I want?”
“Dad,” I rolled my eyes. “I’m your only eldest daughter.”
“Oh, really?” Dad teased, straightening his tie. “I didn’t know.”
The server came and cleared our plates and dirty dishes. I insisted on ordering dessert, chocolate cake, Dad’s favorite. He sighed, telling me I was spending too much money, but I didn’t care. I had a lot of birthdays to make up for, since Dad had missed out on most of my teen years. Who knew how many more birthdays he would have?
We sat and watched the sky fade to a pretty purple, the first stars poking through the atmosphere, shining down upon the Palms. Dad pointed out a few constellations, and talked about he used to take my mother up into the hills with nothing but a blanket and a thermos of hot coffee, and how they would star gaze all night. I sighed, thinking the notion sounded romantic. It was hard for me to imagine my parents being romantic. I really only remembered the fighting.
It hadn’t all been bad. Dad was reminding me of the good times – like the trips to the laundromat before we had a washing machine and how he would push Andi around in the laundry cart, how Mamma would give up all her quarters to buy us girls sodas from the machine, how I would play cards with Dad, and he would always cheat, and I would always catch him, how Cari was obsessed with folding all the clothes with Mamma, even at a young age, and how Dad would go grab us sandwiches from the supermarket. I recalled how he taught me to ride a bike at Central Park on the grass so if I fell it wouldn’t hurt so bad.
“Oh yeah, I do remember that,” Dad rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Though I think you still had a few scrapes and bruises from those early days.”
“Yeah, like the time I decided it would be a brilliant idea to wrap the toy hoops around Cari and I on our bikes so we could practice ‘spinning…'” I used air quotes as I spoke. “…while cycling…”
“As I recall, you nearly crashed into the garage.”
“We did crash into the garage.”
“And what a goose egg your sister, Carina, had on her forehead!” Dad folded his arms across his chest as he spoke. “I brought you two ice pops in the bedroom…”
“…yeah, cuz I wouldn’t leave her side… I was so worried I killed her,” I recalled.
“You were a good big sister,” Dad said.
“I tried…” I shrugged.
Looking up and seeing the server returning with two plates and a chocolate cake with lit candles, I smiled and clapped my hands, delightfully.
“Look Dad… it’s for…”
My words were suddenly cut off as my father grabbed the table suddenly, and then attempted to stand. His hands flew up in front of his face as he moaned. His eyes rolled back into his head and he stumbled, falling to the ground in what appeared to be slow motion.
“Dad!” I shrieked. “Dad! Dad! Can you hear me? Dad? Are you okay?”
“I’ll call zero-zero-zero,” the approaching waiter called out to me as I collapsed at my dad’s side, grabbing his shoulders and trying to get him to respond.