The Gift of a Birthday
Jeremy knew when Aiden’s birthday was—the beginning of the fall. The first year Jeremy had come to Granby, Aiden had already been eighteen, but as Jeremy’s stay had grown beyond those first few months, when he lived in Craw’s tack room, and into the years in his own apartment, he’d become part of the family unit that celebrated each birthday as it arrived. Aiden’s in August, Ariadne’s in September, and Craw’s in November. For him, as he learned to knit—and mastered his craft—it was like he worked all year for those three months, and then the big payoff in December.
And because he’d been just the help—and because Aiden had been a callow boy who had grown into a strong and able man—it had not occurred to any of the people who loved him most that Jeremy didn’t have a birthday.
Until Aiden turned twenty-four.
Craw and Ben showed up at their house first, since Jeremy had elected to host. Summer was holding onto it’s heat a little, and he’d had to open all of the windows in the snug little two-story, letting the flowing curtains blow in and out as the wind swept the bowl valley of Granby. Aiden’s mother brought the cake of course, and Aiden’s brothers and sisters showed up too. Aiden’s father took the littlest ones out to go pet the bunnies and chinchillas and such in the outside pen, and Jeremy knew by now that they were gentle with the more tender of the critters.
Rory, Ariadne, and Persephone were almost late for dinner, but then, Ariadne had still, after a year and a half, not gotten the hang of packing the baby bag, her purse, and the yarn bag all together. She’d told Jeremy once that Rory had gotten the hang of packing the baby’s bag and putting it on a chest by the door, so all Ari had to do was grab her keys, wallet-phone, and yarn bag, but still. That baby was toddling around and making all sorts of problems and that was just going to be Ariadne.
So there they were, all of the people Aiden loved best—even Johnny and Stanley who had taken the drive out before the roads got icy in September—and Aiden wasn’t there.
“You don’t know where he is?” Ariadne laughed, bringing the milk to the table with one hand while balancing the baby on on her hip. Jeremy grinned at Persephone who chewed on her teether toy in response. Her lip had been stitched up, but she would still need some surgeries to take the tubes out of her ears and make sure the inside was all matched up to the outside when she was grown enough.
Jeremy didn’t care. She was his shining star right there, and his mother didn’t mind that he called her Persy, even a little.
“I didn’t realize he’d taken the car,” Jeremy said, puzzled. “And Craw’s not here either. I mean, it’s my boy’s birthday—you think he’d be here!”
Jeremy had knitted him boot socks, the kind that came all the way up to his knees and then folded over. They were thick socks with fine yarn, and handsome clocks ran down the sides. Jeremy had wanted to buy him something—maybe a new television or a gaming system, even though they didn’t have much money. He’d thought that maybe Aiden would have grown tired of knitwear after nearly five years, but no, Aiden said he wanted Jeremy’s work and Jeremy wsn’t going to gainsay him.
But Aiden had said nothing about hauling out into the wild blue yonder with Craw as his copilot.
“Ben?” Ariadne called. Ben was sitting in the front room, playing chess with Johnny and losing. It bothered Ben a lot because he was supposed the be the smart engineering guy, but Jeremy could have told him that the organized crime guys could gut you at any game that involved killing time. He should have been relieved at the distraction—or at least amused by Stanley wandering over the house and fawning at all of the hand-knit items that occupied space. Ariadne’s lace valances, Craw’s knitted throws—even the gloves or mittens that could be found pretty much on every flat surface of the house seemed to intrigue him,
Johnny could be heard frequently rumbling things like, “Sure, cupcake, I think you could make that—that’s really pretty knitting there,” with absolute patience.
But Ben did not look relieved. In fact, he looked a little guilty.
“What?” he asked, focusing on the dog who lay at his feet. “Jeremy, have you brushed Bluebell recently? She is positively shiny!”
Ariadne and Jeremy met eyes, and Ariadne’s crossed her thin arms and cocked her hips. “What do you know?” she asked, growling a little.
“Nothing,” Ben said with a winning smile.
“You are so lying.” Johnny laughed. “It’s a good thing you’ve been straight your whole life, because you wouldn’t have lasted past puberty in the mob.”
Ben gave him a befuddled look. “I’ve been gay my whole life, and probably not.”
Ariadne started tapping her foot. “Cute, guys. Really cute. Where the hell did Aiden and Craw go—“
“Is dinner ready yet?” Craw demanded, striding in through the door like they hadn’t just been MIA.
“Aiden?” Jeremy said, trying not to be hurt. He was wearing an apron wrapped around his waist and oven mitts on his hands and he was not so free and easy with this whole family thing that he appreciated being all alone there with the entire free world rambling about his house when Aiden was supposed to be the guest of honor.
Aiden walked straight to him and dropped a kiss on his forehead, then took the oven mitts and took over the food prep, ordering everyone into the kitchen to grab a plate and make an assembly line and then go about their business and eat.
Well, everyone was hungry, so it worked.
Food, cake, fun, and then Aiden’s family left and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Stanley and Johnny were getting ready to go too, but Aiden called them back into the kitchen. His gifts still sat on the table—Jeremy’s boot socks in the place of honor, and the basic sweater Craw had knitted out of sturdy yarn, so Aiden could wear it any time and not feel bad if it got dirty. Ariadne had been experimenting with felting, and she’d made him a small area rug for the bedroom, which Jeremy admitted privately was maybe the best thing in the collection—but he wasn’t looking at his gifts now.
“Here,” Aiden said, pulling the chair back for Jeremy and then sitting down himself. “Okay—my family had to go because they do not know all the details of Jeremy and I didn’t want him to be uncomfortable, but everybody here does, and I’ll bet, if you think really carefully, you can figure out what this is about.”
Ben looked at Jeremy with apology in his eyes, and for a moment, Jeremy panicked. “Boy?”
Aiden’s hand on his shoulder settled him down. “Don’t worry, Jer. This is all good.”
“I’m at a loss,” Ariadne said. Persephone had pitched a giant tantrum over her small slice of cake, and had then fallen promptly asleep on her mother’s shoulder in a mess of chocolate cake and snot. Ariadne claimed her baby daughter was not glued to her shirt, but Jeremy was pretty sure she just liked to hold the baby when she finally went still.
“I have no idea,” Stanley said promptly, propping his chin on his hands. “But this is looking like a murder mystery or something and I love those—do go on.”
Jeremy grinned at him, because he was cute with his little round face and big blue eyes—even cuter now that his hair plugs had totally taken and he had a thick growth of what he called vampire-white hair.
“It is shaping up mysterious,” he said, beaming, and a little more at ease. “Why are we here, boy?”
“To celebrate a birthday,” Aiden said softly.
“We just did that,” Jeremy replied, puzzled and tired. Family gatherings were a lot of effort—he loved them, but he was glad this one was only once a year.
“Not his birthday, love,” Ariadne said, looking suddenly like she got it.
Jeremy looked behind him and Aiden had the balls to wink at her, like she was now in on the secret.
“Well then, whose,” he asked, feeling bad tempered. “Aiden’s August, you’re September, Craw’s November, Ben’s September too, Rory’s March, like Persephone, Stanley and Johnny are both in February which is just scary—who’s birthday are we missing?”
He looked around him and realized that all the members of his family were staring at him in surprise.
“Oh my God,” Johnny said, like something had just occurred to him too. “Jeremy. Do you even know when your birthday is?”
Oh. Jeremy shrugged and pulled out a rusty con-man’s grin. “Well, I’m sure it’s on my driver’s license,” he said, all of his nicely repaired teeth flashing. “I mean, it’s no big—“
“The one on your driver’s license was a lie,” Aiden said, sitting down in the chair next to him. “You told me that yourself.”
Jeremy could feel the heat rising to his face. Everybody in this room knew he was a conman’s son. They all knew he’d been born and raised on the grift, and had gone to prison for it.
They all knew he’d come out and had dedicated his life to two things. One was Aiden, and the other was being honest.
They even knew that much of his personal information had been a lie. He’d kept the name Jeremy Stillson because Jeremy was the only name he remembered, and Stillson had been his identity when he’d gone to prison, so he had a social security number in that name. It was the name that let him get a bank account and earn credit and help Aiden to buy his little house.
But until this moment, he’d thought he’d manage to escape the embarrassment of having them know that he’d never had a birthday party in his life.
“I…” He looked around uncomfortably. “You know, I don’t want to be a bother—“
“Jeremy, you’ve made us gifts for every birthday celebration we’ve ever had. Did you hate doing that?”
Jeremy smiled into his green eyes, thinking as he always did that Aiden was just so beautiful—even when he was being cranky grumpy and irritated, he was beautiful.
And now he was looking at Jeremy with one of those gentle sort of expressions that told Jeremy he was about to be introduced to a new facet of the an honest man’s life.
“I loved doing that,” he said, remembering how he’d had to work on the boot socks in secret, and how he’d chosen the clocking pattern because it had made the socks not boring as shit to knit.
“Well, you’re being selfish,” Craw said, scratching restlessly at his beard. “Selfish, that’s what it is. Not letting us knit for your birthday.”
Jeremy glared at Aiden. “You gave me mittens on my fake birthday for years,” he complained.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t let us celebrate with the family, because you said it wasn’t honest.”
Jeremy squirmed in his seat. “Well, yeah—“
“So,” Craw said, “that’s what we were doing. We wanted it today, so you could have some time to prepare.”
“I don’t understand,” Jeremy muttered. “Time to prepare for—“
“For your birthday, dumbass,” Aiden muttered back. “See, remember Rich?”
“Yeah, sure—how’s he doing?”
“Married Mrs. Fullmer’s daughter—they just had a baby. Anyway, he still keeps in touch, and we had him do us a favor.”
Jeremy blinked at him, suddenly unsure if he was going to like this or not. “What… I mean, them’s federal people, Aiden, what sort of—“
Aiden pulled the chair out next to him and sat down, taking both his hands. “Jeremy No-Last-Name,” he said softly, “don’t you want to know when you were born?”
Jeremy caught his breath. He’d never known—it hadn’t mattered. His birthday had been whenever Oscar had found it convenient. Did he need to be fifteen in December? December 12th was his birthday. Did he need to be twelve in March? March the 3rd it was. There had been no parties because there were no friends because you didn’t get friends when you were grifting on the road.
And maybe because he’d never mentioned it—because it had never really occurred to him—he hadn’t had a birthday. He was pretty sure of the year—wasn’t he? The ID he’d had when he’d been arrested and imprisoned had said he was twenty-four at the time, which made him thirty-one now… right?
“Sure,” he said, feeling confused. “Uh, I’m thirty-one, right?”
“Nope,” Aiden said dryly. “Yeah, chew on that, Jeremy.” He laughed evilly and Jeremy scowled at him. The beginning days of their relationship had, perhaps, been put off a little longer than Aiden might have wished, because Jeremy had been convinced that he was too old for such a bright and shining boy.
“Stop torturing him,” Craw ordered. “You tell him or I will.”
Aiden scowled back at Craw. “No, I’m sorry. Three years we’ve been together, and it comes up at least once a month. ‘I’m too old for you, Aiden. Nine years between us—you should have someone your own age.’”
“I do not sound like that!” Jeremy protested, because Aiden was whining and Jeremy never whined.
“Oh bullshit you don’t,” Aiden shot back. “And it’s been bothering you since we met. And now it’s going to bother you a little less, and I’m fine with that, but I just want you to see that it never should have bothered you at all.”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “But… I was twenty-four,” he said, because this he knew to be true. “When I went to prison I was—“
“Twenty-two,” Aiden said, and now his voice was grim. “You were twenty-two when you went to prison, and twenty-four when you got out, which means you turn thirty on October 4th, so there.” Aiden pulled a brown envelope out of his pocket then, and pulled a piece of paper out of it. What he spread before Jeremy was a birth certificate and while Jeremy didn’t care about the name because the last name was probably from a con anyway, it was the birthday that got his attention.
He gaped at the piece of paper.
“I’m not even thirty yet?” It was like his entire brain had gone exploded in sunshine and chicken feathers. How could that be?
“Nope.” Aiden grinned, evil as sin, the darkness that once only Jeremy knew was there on display for all to see. “And it’s not nine years between us, it’s seven, and you know what? For all you know it could have been five. Or nothing. So could you leave it alone now?”
“I’m not even thirty?” Jeremy’s voice pitched, and he felt a little bit of panic seep in. His boy knew him though—his high-triumph faded, and he stroked the side of Jeremy’s face.
“Nope,” he said kindly. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Jeremy just shook his head, still flummoxed. “It’s just…” He thought of it all. The being a conman, the going to prison, the getting out and going straight. Coming to Craw’s place, and meeting Aiden. The three years of getting to know himself, getting to be an honest man, and then getting beaten to a pulp to save Stanley—and the recovery that healed them all. “It’s just…” his voice quavered. “It’s been a lot of living in thirty years.”
Aiden’s thumb wiped moisture from his cheek, and Aiden’s lips followed. “Yeah,” he said softly. “A lot of living, Jer. So, in October, let’s say we celebrate that, you think?”
“A party?” Stanley chirped, unmindful of the tenderness between them. “Yes—absolutely. My treat. A party. Johnny and I will plan it, is that okay, Johnny?” Stanley paused. “Johnny?”
Johnny was looking decidedly uncomfortable. “Uh, yeah, sure, Stanley. We can definitely help plan Jeremy’s birthday party. That will be awesome.” He smiled greenly at Jeremy. “I’d like that.”
And then Jeremy remembered. Johnny and he—before the arrest, and prison, and Craw’s, and Aiden—they’d had a blowjob and a kiss.
And Johnny had been well into his thirties.
For no reason at all, Jeremy started laughing.
The rest of the family hugged him and made promises of plans later, and Jeremy spent much of the time pondering, a little stunned.
Aiden saw their guests out—with help from Bluebell who was the size of a human and probably looked like Aiden’s significant other in the lowering summer twilight—and then came to pour him a cup of coffee and sit in the yellow light of the kitchen.
“Still poleaxed?” he asked, amused.
Jeremy glred at him. “What in the hell made you decide to—“
Aiden’s amusement faded. “I wanted to celebrate you,” he said. “And I felt foolish—it wasn’t until you started planning this shindig here that it really hit me. We never knew. Even Craw felt bad when I brought it up. You never said, ‘Today’s my birthday’—it’s such a simple part of us, and you never had that.”
“It was always a lie,” Jeremy said, surprised. He’d never even thought to bring it up.
“It’s not anymore.” Aiden’s eyes—mysterious green and oh-so pretty—rested on Jeremy’s face, and when he looked like that, Jeremy forgot about the scars from the beating and about the fact that he was older. Aiden loved him, and he’d be young and beautiful forever.
He smiled back, shyly. “Nope.”
Aiden squeezed his knee and whispered in his ear. “Want to celebrate a little early?”
They were on their way up the stairs to the bedroom, Aiden’s hands relentless in the quest for more of Jeremy’s skin, when Aiden brought it up.
“So—what was Johnny’s problem? He looked really put out when he found out how old you were.”
Jeremy couldn’t stop a chortle. “Well, you know how me and Johnny—“
“A blowjob,” Aiden said dryly, because yes, this was well covered territory. “A blowjob and a kiss.”
“It was the blowjob and the kiss that saved my life, so don’t discount it,” Jeremy said tartly, “But yes. Anyway… see… Johnny’s turning forty this year and—“
Aiden started chuckling. “And oh my God.”
Jeremy had to smile. “Yup.”
“Jeremy—you were the younger man!”
The thought made him giggle—right up until they got to the bedroom and Aiden’s mouth and his hands got serious.
Yeah, it was going to be a bit of a stretch, wrapping his brain around having a birthday like a real person. Especially when he was finally coming to understand that age was just a state of mind.