Ch 6 - Birthday

Days of Light

Jackson was startled awake though by what he wasn’t sure.  His neck ached and his body protested with stiffness as he blinked blearily.  For a moment, he wasn’t sure where he was or why he’d fallen asleep in a sofa chair until he spotted Mark’s slouched back as the boy stood at the window.  Glancing at the clock, he was surprised to find that it was already past noon.

He looked down and noticed the blanket from his bed covering him snugly.  Stretching, he stood and gazed at Mark’s back.  Memories of the night before flooded his mind and he felt a heavy weight return to his stomach. 

Clearing his throat, he walked over to Mark and looked out the window to see what the Critical was looking at.  He blinked as rain drops splattered against the window; the skies were a dull grey and rain fell from the dark clouds steadily without any signs of letting up. 

He knew instantly why Mark looked so defeated; rain meant no beach… something Mark had been looking so forward to that the Critical had been gripping the postcard even as he threw up blood into the toilet the night before.  But now…

“We can always go tomorrow,” Jackson said, looking at Mark with his best brightened face.  He knew his words wouldn’t console much but, as he looked at Mark’s still ashen face and dark circles, he felt glad that the rain had changed their schedule.  Mark looked as if he would fall to his feet at the slightest wind and looked just as frail.  Even if some colour had returned to Mark’s cheeks, the boy still looked obviously ill.

Mark looked down at the postcard in his hand and nodded obediently.  His face was downcast as he looked outside at the rain again.  He remained silent but the disappointment was clear in his eyes. 

It made Jackson feel as if he was taking away something terribly important from the Critical, even if it the rain wasn’t his fault.  He briefly wondered if they could still do a trip in the rain but quickly decided against it.  Even if they made the long drive out, the beach would be nothing like the postcard.  Mark was bound to be even more disappointed than he was now.  Besides… Jackson glanced at the Critical.  Mark looked to be in no shape for an outing.  What the boy needed was a day of rest to at least recover some strength.  The thought seemed both ironic and conflicting in Jackson’s head but he decided to go with it since it made the most sense.

“Let’s watch some TV,” Jackson suggested, taking Mark gently by the arm and leading him over to the bed, “You haven’t watched a television before, right?”

Mark blinked curiously and let himself be led.  He looked at Jackson with a spark of curiosity as the latter grabbed the remote and the television.  His eyes widened with surprise and marvel as he stared at the colourful screen, the beach momentarily forgotten.  He scooted towards the foot of the bed and watched the people move across the screen with undivided attention.

“A TV…” he began with a hoarse voice, but quickly trailed off as his attention returned to the television.  He never finished his sentence and he never remembered to.  His attention was fixated on the moving pictures in the screen and his mouth was agape with surprise.

Glad he was able to distract the Critical from feeling too disappointed, Jackson picked up the phone and ordered them lunch.  When it came, he placed the bowl of chicken porridge in front of a distracted Mark and put a spoon in the Critical’s hand.  Momentarily distracted by the delicious food, Mark looked down at the bowl in his hand before returning his attention to the television and continuing to feed himself absentmindedly. 

Jackson pulled out his laptop and began opening up folders of saved photos.  He wracked his brains for activities that he’d done in the past Mark might like.  If he couldn’t take Mark anywhere in the rain, then he could at least try to do something the Critical would like indoors.  He surfed through his pictures to try and find an idea for something that could be meaningful.  He wasn’t sure what had gotten into him… only that he wanted to do something other than waste time.

He scanned through the photos but most were of places he’d been to or of friends and family gatherings.  Gatherings… he paused as he found a picture of a birthday party he’d attended a little over two years ago.  It had been a friend’s birthday and the party had been filled with people.  Jackson wouldn’t be able to find enough people to throw Mark a party but… a cake he could do.

He looked up to find Mark still perched on the edge of the bed with eyes glued to the television.  The Critical wrapped his arms around himself and hugged his knees to his chin as he watched reruns of a classic sitcom.

Grabbing a blanket from the bed, Jackson draped it over Mark’s shoulders before he said, “I’m stepping out for a moment.  You’ll be okay alone?”  He wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea to leave Mark alone but he couldn’t really take the Critical out in such a state either.

Mark looked alarmed for a second and looked at him with confusion.  He unfolded his legs and was about to stand but Jackson kept him seated.

“I’m just going out to pick up something,” he explained, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.  You should stay inside.  It’ll be cold out and… just stay here okay?”  It was strange; he didn’t want to verbally acknowledge Mark’s illness as if saying it out loud would make it all even more real.

Mark nodded and huddled up again.  He pulled on the blanket around him and watched Jackson with curious eyes.

Grabbing his wallet, Jackson slipped on a jacket and walked towards the door.  With another quick glance at Mark, he pointed to the floor to make sure Mark would stay and then stepped out into the hall.

The drive to a bakery was quick; the rainy day kept most people inside so the streets were relatively empty.  Jackson browsed through the display of ready-made cakes and wondered which kind Mark would like the best.  He mentally rolled his eyes at himself; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d bought something for someone else with such sincerity.

It had something to do with Mark’s condition, he reasoned.  He couldn’t erase the image of Mark’s thin frame against the toilet bowl from his mind.  It also didn’t help that he had begun questioning the work he had so fully thrown himself into.  Despite his intelligence, had he been too ignorant to really see what he was involved with?  No… ignorance wasn’t the word; he had been very well aware of what happened to Numbers and Criticals at Facility.  So what?  Had he chosen to remain disengaged?  On a subconscious level just so he could maintain a hefty salary and live in his big house?

“Can I get the carrot cheesecake?” Jackson asked, pointing to a medium-sized cake with a large carrot decorated at the top, “It’s a birthday gift so…”  A birthday cake seemed liked both a good idea and an ironic one.  It made him feel a strange sense of sadness and irony that Mark would celebrate a birthday as the Critical approached the end of his life. 

Jackson reached into his pocket for the Facility card but paused as he held the card in his hand.  Frowning, he shoved the card back into his pocket and pulled out his own credit card.  It seemed cruel and inhumane that Mark would receive a birthday cake paid by Facility… the very place that contributed to Mark’s poor health and the very place where the Critical will end his life.  No… he would pay for the cake himself.  It wasn’t to justify working at Facility, Jackson reasoned with himself; it was just something he’d wanted to do.

Taking the cake, Jackson made the drive back to the hotel.  On the way, he passed by a games store and stopped to go inside.  He browsed the collection and was pleased to see that, rather than video games, the store was filled with classic board games and other equally stimulating party games.  Picking out a few that were simple yet exciting, he paid for them again out of pocket and added to his collection of items to do for the day.  He also stopped by to pick up some pizza, fried chicken, snacks and soda for their dinner.

Trudging his way back to the hotel room with several bags on his arm and the cake box delicately balanced in between, he was relieved to find Mark still glued to the television.  Mark looked up as he entered and gave him a small smile of surprise.

“So much stuff,” Mark said, getting up to help.

“Stuff you’ll like,” Jackson said, setting down the bags and putting the cake onto the coffee table.  He glanced at the clock; it was still early for dinner but considering he’d wanted to get to bed early…  He glanced at Mark, who was sifting through the bags curiously, and asked, “You hungry?  I grabbed dinner.”

Mark looked up and gave him a small smile accompanied by a nod.  He lifted the bag carrying the chicken and pointed to the pizza box.  “Dinner?” he asked, “It smells good.”

“Yeah,” Jackson said, taking the pizza and chicken, “Two of my favourites… great for a rainy day.”  He grabbed the soda and added, “Save some room though.  We have a delicious dessert.”

“Dessert?” Mark repeated, sitting down at the coffee table and looking at the pizza with wide eyes.

“That’s right,” Jackson said, bringing over the cake and opening up the case, “Carrot cheesecake.”  He pulled out a few candles and birthday hats he’d picked up along the way and snapped a hat onto Mark’s head.  “We’re going to celebrate your birthday today,” Jackson said as he stuck a few candles into the cake, “I know it’s not your birthday but I figured you’ve never had a birthday party.  They’re the best.”  He paused when he was responded to with silence.  He glanced at Mark with a questionable expression.

Mark’s smile had faded and his eyes were set on Jackson’s face.  His face was a mixture of surprise, sadness, and happiness.  He looked at the food spread out on the table then back at Jackson’s face.  “Thank you,” he said softly, playing with the candle wrappers, “I’ve… never had a birthday party before.”  He looked down at the plastic in his hands and crinkled it with his fingers subconsciously before adding, “I don’t even think my birthday counts as a birthday since we’re… not really born naturally or anything.”

Jackson fell silent as he gazed at Mark’s face.  It was true; Numbers were all clones of their original counterpart.  Taken secretly from the baby’s DNA, they were developed in incubators and delivered from casings rather than a womb.  Due to their unnatural conception, they were never treated like humans… that would explain why they were used as lab rats at Facility.  Still… he felt as if another piece of stone was added to his already piling weight inside of his stomach.

Clearing his throat, he flashed a grin and finished setting the table.  “That’s what I thought,” he said, “So let’s have a party that will make up for all the missed parties.”  Setting the lighter down, he grabbed a drumstick and gave it to Mark.

Accepting it with a wide smile, Mark nodded and looked at it.  He sniffed at it and took a tentative bite.  His eyes widening, he chewed scrumptiously and said though a full mouth, “Delicious!” 

“I know!”  Jackson agreed, taking a soda and opening it for Mark, “It’s my go-to for lazy days spent inside.”  He cracked open a beer for himself and took a large swig.  The alcohol felt good against his throat and helped quell a new blossom of anxiety that had been forming in his stomach.

They ate in silence for a while but Jackson didn’t mind; watching Mark take down several pieces of chicken followed by a slice of pizza made him oddly satisfied.  The boy was probably starving after having thrown up everything the night before and only given porridge for lunch.  He laughed at his own absurd feelings; since when did he become such a sap?

After they had eaten their fill, Jackson took out a lighter and lit the candles.  Getting up to close the thick curtains and turn off the lights, he threw them into a darkness that was dispersed only by the soft glow of candlelight.  “Make a wish, Mark,” he said, feeling a weird sense of suffocation in his chest as he spoke, “But don’t say it out loud or it won’t happen.”  He watched Mark’s softly lit face ponder innocently before the Critical closed his eyes and fell silent for a few seconds.

Jackson closed his eyes too, and secretly made a wish he knew would never come true.  He wished that things were different.  That Mark wasn’t a Critical galloping towards his end.  He wished the boy… and all the other Criticals within Facility, would be given a chance to experience things that they had been denied since birth.  The wish brought him conflicting emotions and he couldn’t help the tightness in his throat that followed the thought of Mark lying on an operating table with eyes closed forever.

“Now what?” Mark asked, interrupting Jackson’s depressing thoughts, “Are you making a wish too Jackson?”  He sounded excited and curious; the tone of his voice made Jackson smile.

“Nah,” Jackson said, “Only the birthday boy gets to make a wish.  Now you blow out the candles.” 

The reflection of candlelight danced in Mark’s big eyes as the boy grinned and took a deep breath.  He blew out air over the candles but, it seemed, the candles were reluctant to go out.  Perplexed, he tried again but still, two candles remained lit.

“Need help?” Jackson asked, feeling amused as he watched Mark try for a third time.

“No,” Mark said stubbornly, blowing one last breath over the two candles and extinguishing them at last.  The room was thrown into darkness; Mark clapped excitedly.

Jackson chuckled and made to get up when Mark’s cool hands touched his arm.  He paused and, in the darkness, he felt his skin tingle from the touch. 

“Thank you,” Mark said, all sense of excitement and joy gone from his voice, “I’m… glad you’re my babysitter.” 

For the first time, he sounded serious and solemn.  His voice was quiet as if he were worried that being too loud would ruin the moment.  It sounded nothing like his usual joyous self, nothing like the boy who was curious about everything he laid his innocent eyes on.  Instead, it sounded tired and fatigued as if spoken by an old man who had lived his fill and was approaching the end.  It made Jackson’s heart ache like nothing he had ever felt before.

“Don’t thank me,” Jackson replied, his voice raspy as he blinked back a sudden stinging in his eyes, “I can’t… do anything for you.”  There was nothing he could do to change Mark’s fate.

“You’re already doing a lot for me,” Mark said, letting go of Jackson’s arm.

Jackson let out a silent breath as he heard rustling in the darkness.  The curtains were suddenly pulled back and grey light from the outside filtered into the room.  Mark turned and looked at him, his face shadowed by the darkness.  Even so, Jackson could see that the boy was smiling.  Returning it with a forced smile of his own, Jackson stood and the lights again.

Mark sat down at the coffee table again, his expression happy and carefree as if nothing had happened.  He looked at the cake with expectant eyes.  “Is it made with real carrots?” he asked curiously.

“Yeah,” Jackson said, playing along.  If Mark wanted to forget about all of this, he would do his best to help it happen.  “It’s made with real carrots,” he said, handing Mark a plastic knife, “The cream cheese is the best part though.  Go on and cut it.”

Mark eagerly sank the cake knife into the soft fluffy icing and cut out two generous pieces.  Jackson helped put them on their paper plates and handed Mark a fork.  He gestured for Mark to take the first bite, a smile spreading across his face at Mark’s excited face.

Mark dipped his fork into the cake and scooped up a large chunk.  He sniffed it, as usual, before popping it into his mouth and chewing scrumptiously.  His eyes all but rolled to the back of his head as he looked at Jackson with moved eyes.  “This…” he gestured but no words came out.

“I know,” Jackson said, digging into his own piece, “There are no words to describe it.  It’s okay… I understand.”  He chuckled as Mark nodded enthusiastically before wolfing down more cake.

As they ate, Mark looked at Jackson curiously and seemed to contemplate something before going back to the cake.  Noticing quite quickly, Jackson asked through a mouthful of cake, “What?”

“I was curious about your life,” Mark confessed in a point-blank manner, “Like what you do after you go home.  I’ve read about family and friends and stuff so I was just wondering…”

“I don’t have much of a life outside of Facility,” Jackson admitted, “I sleep in the labs overnight sometimes to get stuff done.”  He spent more time at the lab than anywhere else, something he hadn’t really cared much about until now.

“What about your family?” Mark asked, helping himself to a second serving of cake and a chicken wing, “Or friends?  Do you have any?” 

The way he asked that question made Jackson raise an eyebrow.  Were it anyone else asking in such a fashion, he would have felt offended and defensive.  Instead, he sighed in exasperation and replied, “My family is just fine with seeing me a few times a year.  And yes I have friends.”  He paused and contemplated the thought.  He did have friends… right?  He suddenly couldn’t remember the last time he went out for drinks with his buddies.

“Hmm…” Mark said as if he didn’t believe a word of it, “Do you have a girlfriend?”  He blinked as he chewed the chicken wing.

“No,” Jackson replied, grabbing his beer and taking a swig.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had one either…

“Why not?” Mark asked, “I read that girlfriends are just as important as family and friends.”

“Except when you sleep at the lab all the time,” Jackson replied, feeling as if he was getting interrogated by a five year old, “I don’t even have time for family or friends… where am I going to find the time for a girlfriend?”  It was the truth… at least that’s what he kept telling himself.

“Hmm…” Mark said again.  He took a forkful of cake and chewed silently before he opened his mouth with yet another question.  “Do you have a dog?” he asked, looking at Jackson curiously.

Jackson refrained from planting his face into the palm of his hand and replied, “No, I don’t have a dog.”  He could feel it coming, the follow up question that would start with why.

“Why-” Mark started but Jackson quickly interrupted.

“Refer to answer for girlfriend,” he said before getting up to grab the board games he’d purchased earlier.  “Enough questions,” he said sitting back down again and pulling out a game, “I got a few board games I used to play as a kid.”

“Board games,” Mark repeated with wide eyes, all questions momentarily forgotten as he looked at the colourful packaging, “Games you play on… a board?”

“Yes,” Jackson said, setting up one of the games.  Some of his fondest memories were laying a smack-down with his family over board games.  “The rules are simple enough,” Jackson began, “All you need to do is…”

The rest of the night seemed to pass by in a blur.  Mark caught onto the games quickly and the two spent the night bickering and challenging each other to round after round of games.  It wasn’t long before the skies outside grew dark and Mark’s eyelids began to droop.

“Time to sleep,” Jackson said, noticing Mark’s sleep glazed eyes, “We can play some more tomorrow.” 

Mark nodded and leaned back against the foot of a sofa.  He gave Jackson a lazy smile as he closed his eyes and stretched. 

Jackson began cleaning up the food and games.  He was glad the night had passed happily; he had felt guilty about the weather ruining their original plans.  More than anything else, he was glad Mark enjoyed another precious day; he himself had quite a bit of fun too ,in between the moments of abrupt sadness of course.

As he wiped the table, he glanced at Mark, who had fallen asleep leaning against the sofa.  Sighing, he set the paper towel down and pulled Mark into his embrace.  Lifting the boy gently, he laid Mark down onto the bed and pulled the covers overtop.  He tucked the boy in and took a moment to look at Mark’s face.  Most of the colour had returned to Mark’s cheeks and the boy looked significantly better compared to earlier that morning.  The food had probably helped and Jackson was glad they’d spent the day in.  Even though he knew Mark was terminally ill anyway, he didn’t want to speed up the process by overdoing things.

Jackson’s eyes trailed over the boy’s long lashes and soft looking cheeks.  Now that rosiness had returned, Mark looked both peaceful and strangely beautiful.  Jackson found himself staring and blinked.  He felt a strange urge to lean forward and kiss those soft looking lips.  Before he could slap himself out of it, he was already closing his eyes and pressing his own against them. 

They were terribly soft, enough to send a flare of heat to his groin.  He couldn’t stop at just one; he pressed his lips down again and again against the softness.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, alarm bells went off but he paid them no attention…

Until Mark shifted underneath his kisses and mumbled something incomprehensible.  Like a bucket of cold water splashing onto his face, Jackson jerked backwards and quickly scooted away from Mark’s bed.  He was breathing heavily as he stared with wide eyes at Mark’s still asleep face.

What just happened?

Author's notes:

I'm back!  Thank you for all of your patience!!

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