That Bit About the Birthday

How fun is this inspiration photo that Eric sent my way! I have to give fair warning, though. The type of story you might think would come for this picture and what I actually produced may be two very different things…

cardboard maze
Photo Credit: Stock Image

One of my goals with this Photo Inspired Stories project was to push myself to write a bunch of different stories in different styles and genres, and goodness is that clear with just the differences between my story yesterday and the one today. We’re leaving historical fiction behind and diving into… hmmm… what should I call it? Irony? Satire? Comedy? I’m not sure how to label it, so I’ll just let you read for yourself and decide. If you can figure out what genre this fits in, please comment below so I am better equipped to categorize other stories in the future!

As will probably be the case with all of my stories, the fast turn around means some missed grammatical errors, which I ask you to ignore 🙂

And now, here’s ‘That Bit About the Birthday’:

~~ “I have this niece and nephew, right. Great kids. Six year old twins. My sister always said she wanted, like, ten kids, which, you know, that’s cool. Masochism seems to be trending these days, so, it’s all good.”

Carter paused for the small bout of snickering that followed from the audience. Some of them were obvious, obligatory, courtesy laughs. Great. That was a real boost to his self-confidence. He preferred no laugh at all.

“Anyway,” he continued on, trying to smile like he had practiced in front of the mirror, “when she found out she was having her first two kids at once, she was all, like, smiley and would say things like, ‘Now I only have to go through eight more labors instead of nine.’ Yeah, I know. That’s real cute. The twins, they were born on April 1st.” Wait a beat. “My brother-in-law got a vasectomy on April 7th.”

Ok, there was some legitimate laughter after that line. He’d been hesitant about adding in this newest bit, but it was going ok.

The rest of the routine was the same as always. Splattered laughter. Smiling faces. Occasional good humored heckling.

“Gotta focus on that crowd work,” Ben Blakes, owner of the Howling Crow Comedy Club in south Atlanta, said as Carter walked off the small stage.

Carter wiped at the beads of sweat on his forehead with the sleeve of his navy blue button up and scowled at Ben.

“Told you I’m no good at that,” he grumbled.

“Look, I’ve known a lot of comedians who are grade A douche bags. Off the stage. That’s fine. You wanna growl and fuss when your routine is over? No problem. But when you’re up there, you gotta connect with your audience.”

“Fine. I’ll work on it.”

“Like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Then stop talking about it.”

Ben threw his hands up at chest level and said, “Just tryin to help. You wanna be labeled as mediocre talent your whole career, that’s your call.”

With a huff, the club owner turned and stormed off.

Carter watched him leave, unmoved. He was tired of Ben’s nagging comments about his on stage performance and abilities. Yeah. He already knew. He wasn’t the greatest story teller out there. He wasn’t the friendliest guy. He didn’t connect well with the audience. It was all stuff he had been trying to work on.

Shaking his head, Carter gathered up his jacket from the worn office chair in the wings and pushed his way out the stage door into the cool evening. As he made his way to the clunker car he’d had for ten years, the phone in his pocket started vibrating.

It was his sister, Claire.

“Yeah,” he answered.

“Happy birthday!”

“Not until tomorrow.”

“That’s, like, half an hour away! The big 3-0! How does it feel?”

“Like 2-9.”

“Very funny. You just wait. The older you get, the more you feel it!”

“You’re 32, Claire, not 80.” Carter climbed into his car and started it, wincing when it came to life with a horrible groan.

“Yeah, well, I feel 80, so there. Are you done with your skit thingy? Can you come over for a bit? We’ll be busy all day tomorrow, so I thought we could celebrate tonight. The twins have been working on birthday cards for you all day, and I told them they could stay up just this once to give them to you. I also made a cake. It kinda looks funny, but it tastes ok.”

Carter patted his oversized belly, and sighed.

“I’m trying to eat better,” he said. “No cake.”

“It’s your birthday!”

“Not ‘til midnight. And I’m pretty beat. Can I get the cards before you get busy tomorrow?”

“Ok, ok. Meet us at Play Time tomorrow at eight.”

“Eight in the morning? You’ve got to be kidding me. I hate mornings. I hate kids.”

“Tough. I’m taking the kids to see Vince’s parents tomorrow mid-morning, so it’s the only chance they’ll have to see you and you them. Until tomorrow.”

The line went dead. Typical Claire. Hang up before he had a chance to rebuttal. Whatever. He put the car into drive and headed for home, turning on the local rock station to keep him company during the 30 minute commute.

Ten minutes into that commute, the car died. No flashing lights on the dashboard. No sputtering noises. No warning at all. One minute it was running, the next it was gliding to a stop.

Carter managed to make it to the side of the road using the car’s momentum and sat there for a full minute with his hands resting on the steering wheel. Of course the car would die on his birthday. He looked at his phone. Ten til his birthday anyway.

He did a search for the nearest tow place. A quick call, and they promised they’d be out to him within fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes came and went. Then thirty. Then forty-five. Right as his phone clock told him it had been an hour, the tow truck pulled in behind him.

“I was told fifteen minutes,” Carter said in frustration as he met the driver behind his car.

The man, in his twenties with a name tag on his blue coveralls that said ‘Quinn’, shrugged and said, “Sorry man. Busy night. Where you want me to take her?”

“Riley O’Brugger’s shop. You know where it is?”

“Right on.”

When the car was loaded up, Carter joined Quinn in the truck’s cab, and they began the trip to O’Brugger’s.

Quinn’s phone rang halfway there. He looked at the screen and smiled.

“Mind if I take this, man?” he asked.

Before Carter could respond, Quinn had slid his finger across the screen and placed the phone to his ear.

“Hey, baby,” he cooed. His face stayed in a smile. For about fifteen seconds. Then it melted from his face to be replaced by concern.  “What’s wrong? Ok. What are you trying to say?”

Carter could hear the muffled female voice, and it didn’t sound happy.

Quinn grew more and more agitated. His knuckles were turning white as he gripped the steering wheel. The truck began to weave back and forth over the mercifully isolated road.

“My best friend! Seriously, Britt! Seriously! Yeah, well, I never loved you either. You’re dead to me!”

Quinn threw the phone onto the seat and fixed a steely glare on the road. Silence filled the cab. That was fine with Carter. All he wanted was to get to Brugger’s in one piece and without having to hear about the phone call. No such luck.

“That was my girl.” Quinn’s voice was tight. Angry. “No, not my girl anymore.”


“I mean, I knew she wasn’t as happy lately as she had been, but my best friend? Really?”

“That sucks.”

“I know. It really does.”

Carter looked sideways out the window, hoping Quinn was done. Was that sniffling? Oh no. More sniffling. No, no, no.

“My best friend!” Quinn sobbed as Carter groaned and let his forehead fall against the glass. “How could she! How could he!”

The entire truck rocked violently forward as Quinn slammed on the brakes. The seatbelt dug painfully into Carter’s collar bone. He didn’t pay it any attention, instead twisting in his seat to make sure his car was still where it needed to be after the abrupt stop.

“What the heck!” Carter demanded.

“They won’t get away with this.” Quinn somehow managed to get the truck and the tag-along car turned around and headed in a new direction.

“Where are you going?”

“To take care of this!”

“Quinn, buddy, come on now. You have to take me to Brugger’s, remember?”

“I will. As soon as I’m done!”

The truck careened down the road, picking up speed.

“Stop, Quinn!”

“Not until I show them!”

Carter pulled his phone out and quickly brought up the tow company’s number.

“Your driver is out of his mind!” he shouted into the phone when someone picked up on the other end.

“Who, Quinn?” came an older man’s voice.

“His girlfriend cheated on him! He’s heading to her house driving like a maniac!”

“Not again,” the man sighed. “I’ll make sure they’re waiting.”

“Who?” Carter asked, but the man had already hung up.

Twenty minutes later, the truck swung into the parking lot of a rundown looking apartment complex. Two police cars were already there. Carter had never been so happy to see law enforcement in his life.

Quinn either didn’t notice the cops or didn’t care they were there, because he threw his door open and started running for the nearest building.

“Now you stop it right there, Quinton Oliver,” called one of the cops, a woman with a stern expression and her hands resting on her belt.

Quinn had no more intention of stopping than a hound dog called off an enticing scent.

“Come on, Quinn.” A male officer stepped up to join the woman, and they both planted themselves in front of the building’s main door. The frantic man tried to barrel right through them, but his small frame bounced off the two officers.

“Let me in!” Quinn yelled at them.

The woman tried to grab him, but she only managed to get a handful of his shirt. Quinn slipped the shirt over his head and began running topless back and forth in front of the building, dodging a third cop that was trying to snag him.

“Don’t make me Taser you again,” the third cop said as he reached for the previously threatened weapon.

“Britt!” Quinn yelled. “Britt, get out here!”

Carter watched it all with mouth open, then jumped when a new figure slipped in the driver’s seat that Quinn had abandoned. An older gentleman.

“Ready to go?” the man asked, and Carter realized it was the same person he had talked on the phone with earlier.

“What? Who are you?”

“Tom. I own the towing company. You wanted to go to Brugger’s, right?”

“How did you…? Wait, what about Quinn? What about the cops?”

“Oh, they can handle Quinn. This ain’t the first time. Or the second. Or the third.” The old man gave a deep, rumbling laugh as he pulled away from the apartment.

Half an hour later, Carter was with his car in the Brugger’s lot, watching the old man and his tow truck drive away. His mouth was still open.

Shaking his head, he wrote a quick note for Brugger, dropped it along with a key through a slot on the front door, and requested an Uber.

Within minutes, a middle-aged man in a bright Hawaiian shirt pulled up and rolled down his window.

“You Carter?”

“Yeah. You Jim?”

“That’s me.”

Carter slid into the back seat of the compact car and rested his head against the head rest.

“Seatbelt,” Jim said.

Carter met the man’s eyes briefly in the rearview mirror, then sighed and complied.

Reggae music was playing, not loud enough to be obnoxious, but loud.

“Whatever,” Carter muttered. At least Jim would probably be a laid back driver. A relief after the mad dash with Quinn.

As things turned out, colorful shirts and easy music were no indication of a person’s driving personality.

Carter dug his fingers into the upholstery of the seat as Jim flew down the road, getting dangerously close to the cars in front of him before recklessly changing lanes.

“Could you slow down?” Carter growled.

“You say something?” Jim looked over his shoulder.

“Slow down. And look at the road!”

“Trust me. I got the cleanest driving record in the A-T-L.” He looked over his shoulder again and flashed a confident smile.


“What did you say?”


Jim turned his head forward and spotted the animal that had darted out into the road. With a curse, he braked and swerved at the same time, almost toppling the car. The car managed to stay upright, but not on the road. It slammed into a telephone pole.

In the seconds following the impact, Carter remained still, trying to figure out if he was still alive. He was. Also uninjured.

“Did we miss it?” Jim asked from behind an airbag.

Flashing lights came up behind them.

“Everyone ok?” the officer asked as Carter and Jim stepped out of the car. Not just any officer. The woman who Quinn had bounced off of earlier. Her uniform had ‘Ruiz’ embroidered across the top right.

“Just a bloody nose,” said Jim, and Carter looked over to see a bright red rivulet inching its way out of the man’s right nostril. “I think we missed the cat.”

“Yippy,” Carter blew out. He turned to look at the woman and her partner, who the uniform said was Guise. Guise had come up to join them. “Do you need me to hang around here, or can I head home?”

“You don’t need an EMT?” Ruiz asked.

“I’m good.”

“Let me get you another Uber,” Jim said. “It’s protocol.”

“I’m gonna walk.”

“Walk? We were still two and a half miles from your destination.”

“I need the exercise.”

“Didn’t we just see you?” Guise asked.

“Oh yeah. You were the guy with Quinn, right?” Ruiz smiled and shook her head. “Good ol’ Quinn. Now this. You’re having a rough night.”

“You could say that.”

“Quinn?” said Jim. “Quinton Oliver?”

“You know him?” asked Ruiz.

“Heck, yeah! That’s my cousin!”

“Of course it is,” Carter said. “So I can go?”

“You can go,” Guise said.

“Thanks.” Carter began walking in the direction of his house.

About a mile into the walk, the heavens opened up and began dropping the coldest rain Carter could ever remember having been in. Not just a drizzle. A full out downpour. Within seconds, he was drenched.

“Great, just great,” he said to no one. He pulled his jacket tighter around him. Like that would do any good.

“Look out!” a woman screamed behind him.

Not nearly enough warning. Right after the two words were out of her mouth, something slammed into Carter’s back. He went flying forward and then down onto pavement. Pavement was hard. Very hard.

Carter rolled to his back, rain pelting his face. After testing his limbs, he sat up with a groan. Someone echoed it. Looking toward the sound, he saw a young woman tangled up in a beat up bike.

“You ok?” He had to yell to be heard over the pounding rain.


What did that mean? He pushed himself up and moved toward her. One of her legs was trapped under the bike, and her ankle looked like it was twisted funny. Her right arm also looked rough from a run-in with the ground.

“It ok if I try to get you up? Or do you want me to call an ambulance?” Carter asked.

“Help me up, please.”

Putting his shoulder under her armpit and a hand on the front of the bike, he lifted them both up at the same time. The woman groaned again.

“Keep going,” she said when Carter paused. “It’ll be better if I can get out of this heap.”

“What were you doing out here on a bike in this weather?”

“Looking for my cat, Ravioli.”

“A cat?”


“Is Ravioli orange?”

“He is. How did you know?”

“I saw him earlier. He was attempting suicide.”

“What does that mean?”

“Forget it. He failed anyway.”

The woman scowled and asked, “Where did you see him?”

“About a mile back, I guess.”

“That’s about where my house is! He didn’t come home last night, so I thought he had gotten lost. He must have just decided to stay out a little longer.”


“My foot really hurts,” the woman said once she was out from the bike and trying to test her weight.

“There’s a hospital around the corner. I can help you get there.”

“I hate to impose.”

“It’s all good.”

“But you’ll get wet.”

Carter stared at her and wiped water away from his face. Get wet? Did she think he was feeling particularly dry at that moment?

“I’ll live,” he said.

It took them twenty minutes to hobble around the corner in the rain to the hospital’s entrance. The ER was packed with people.

A frazzled nurse in blue scrubs with a badge that said ‘Brittany’ handed the bike lady a clipboard.

“You can go sit down and fill this out,” Brittany said.

“I’m leaving now,” said Carter.

“Can’t you hang around a little longer?” asked bike lady as she took a seat in the waiting area. “I’m terrified of hospitals. It’d be nice to have the company.”

Carter looked to the door. His exit. His escape. He sighed.

“Sure, I’ll stay.” He sat down next to her.

“My name’s Dicey. Dicey Fresno.”


“Thanks for your help, Carter. Sorry I hit you with my bike.”


Three hours later, they were still waiting for Dicey to be seen. Carter looked at his phone. It was coming up on seven in the morning.

“Well, look who it is!”

Carter turned to the voice and saw Officers Ruiz and Guise walking toward him. An old man with a lolling head was held between them. His leg was wrapped in a bloodied bandage.

“Officers,” Carter muttered.

“I thought you were walking home?” said Ruiz. “Why you here?”

“I hit him with my bike,” answered Dicey. “Then I hurt my ankle. He helped me get here and said he’d wait with me.”

“That’s a nice thing to do,” said Ruiz.

“Man, first Quinn, then the Uber accident. Now this.” Guise shook his head.

“Quinn. Quinton Oliver?” The nurse, Brittany, walked up with a clipboard.

“Yeah. You know him?” asked Guise.

“Yeah. He’s my ex. We broke up earlier this evening.”

“Of course,” grumbled Carter, leaning back in his chair.

“Oh! You’re Britt!” said Ruiz. “We’ve stopped him from charging your apartment a dozen times. You two got to get this on-again off-again thing figured out.”

“Tell me about it.” Brittany looked over at the old man. “You’ll need to fill out this form. The doctor will see him soon.”

“What happened to him?” asked Dicey.

“He downed most a bottle of vodka, then decided to clean his gun.” Guise readjusted the man. “Refused to get in the ambulance. He wanted to take an Uber, so we convinced him that’s what the police car was.”

“Uncle Larry!”

Officers Ruiz and Guise, Brittany, Dicey, and Carter all turned to the door to see a bright Hawaiian shirt. Jim.

Jim walked quickly up and stopped in front of them.

“You know him?” asked Brittany.

“Yeah, he’s my uncle! What happened?”

“He accidentally shot himself,” Guise said.

“Not again!”

A new nurse stepped into the waiting area and said, “Dicey? Dicey Fresno?”

“That’s me!” Dicey stood up using mostly her good leg.

“Ok, I’ll head out now,” said Carter as he stood along with her.

“Thanks again, Carter. And also, again, sorry for hitting you.”

“All good.”

Dicey grabbed his phone from his hand and smiled.

“It still works!” she said. She moved her fingers over the screen and then handed it back to him. “I called myself so I’ll have your number.”


“I want to thank you properly later!”

Carter had no idea what that meant.

“Ok,” he said.

He nodded his head at the rest of the group and walked out of the ER.

His phone said it was 7:15. He had to meet Claire and the twins in 45 minutes at Play Time. There was no way he’d have time to get home and then back to them on time. If he was going to make it, he’d have to head that way immediately.

He rubbed a hand down his face. Fine. He’d go straight there.

On the taxi ride over, he halfway expected a meteor to fall from the sky and land directly on top of the car he was in. It didn’t. He made it to Play Time right at eight.

“Uncle Carter!” the twins, Catie and Chris, yelled in unison as they jumped out of Claire’s SUV.

As a general rule, Carter did hate kids. But the twins were different. He scooped one of them up in each arm and hugged them tight.

“Carter!” Claire exclaimed when she saw him. “What happened to you?”

“What?” Carter looked down at himself. He was still a little damp from the rain. There was a huge rip in the knee of his jeans from when he had been hit by the bike and fallen. His shirt was stained all down the front.

“Long story,” he said.

Claire shook her head and said, “Ok, well, happy birthday.”


They walked into Play Time, and Carter was amazed at how many parents brought their kids to play at such a ridiculous hour of the morning.

“Can we go to the maze first?” asked Catie.

“Yes! The maze!” seconded Chris.

“Sure.” Carter let them lead the way to a massive room that was mostly taken up by a maze made entirely of recycled cardboard boxes.

Catie ran off for the start of the maze, but Chris hung back.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Claire asked him. Then she threw a hand over her nose. “Chris, honey, is that smell coming from you?”

Carter got a whiff of the smell she was mentioning and about gagged.

“What is that?” he asked.

“In my pants,” Chris said.

“Did you… did you go potty in your pants?” Claire asked.

Chris nodded his head exaggeratedly up and down.

“Ugh!” Claire was exasperated. “Since when do you go potty in your pants? I asked you if you need to go two minutes ago.”

“I wanted to play.”

“Watch Catie,” Claire said as she grabbed Chris’ hand and turned for the bathrooms.

“Seriously? You’re leaving me alone in a room full of screaming kids and glowering parents?”

“Look at your nephew! Would you rather go clean him up while I watch Catie?”

“I’ve got Catie.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Uncle Carter! Come in the maze with me!” Catie yelled.

Groaning, Carter walked to the start of the Maze with Catie and got down on his hands and knees so he could fit under the three foot high entrance. With his less than trim girth and six-feet-five-inches of height, it was not an easy fit.

Halfway into the maze, he tried to follow Catie through another cardboard doorway, but it was narrower than the rest, and he couldn’t push through. His niece didn’t seem to notice or care. She moved away from him until she was out of sight.

Carter pulled back out of the narrow entrance and sat down. It was his birthday. He was spending it crawling through a kids’ cardboard maze, getting fearful looks from passing children whose pathway he was partially blocking. He was damp. He was bruised. Nothing was going right. The night had been one of the longest and worst in his history. There could not be a worse birthday. It was literally impossible.

“Sir,” came a stern man’s voice from outside the maze. “You in the middle. Man in the blue shirt. Please stand up.”

Carter looked down just to remind himself he was, indeed, wearing a blue shirt, then slowly stood to his feet.

He turned and was facing Officers Ruiz and Guise.

“Hey, Carter!” Ruiz said, her face breaking out in a smile. “What are you doing here? You were heading home!”

“Uncle Carter! Who’s yelling at you?” Catie came running through the doorway her uncle hadn’t been able to make it through earlier and wrapped herself around his leg. Carter bent and lifted her up so she could see over the sides of the cardboard.

“This is my niece, Catie. I had a playdate with her and her brother this morning.”

“She’s precious!” said Ruiz.

An angry looking mother said something to the officers that Carter couldn’t hear. Guise looked back over at him.

“Come on out, Carter. We’ve got to clear some stuff up.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Carter when he was back out of the maze.

“Carter, what’s going on?” Claire ran up to them, dragging Chris behind her.

“Who is this?” asked Ruiz.

“My sister.”

“Nice to meet you.” Guise gave her a friendly smile.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?” Carter asked again.

“Some parents called the police department and said a strange, homeless-looking man was in the maze with the kids.”


“I asked him to meet me here,” said Claire. “He was hanging with my kids. His niece and nephew. But I don’t know why he looks like a homeless man.”

“We do,” said Ruiz, nodding her head.

“Wait, what?” Claire looked confused.

“I’ll go explain things to the parents,” said Ruiz.

“I’ll take the report.” Guise pulled out a notepad and pen. “Man, you wouldn’t even believe it,” he said. “Right after you left the hospital this morning, this house nearby exploded.”

“What do you mean it exploded?”

“The furnace. Just went off like a bomb. Thank goodness the house was empty. If the owner had been home, it would have been fatal.”


“Yeah. Can I have your driver’s license, Carter?”

“Sure.” Carter pulled it from his wallet and handed it over.

“Sorry, man. It’s for the report.”


Guise started writing some stuff down.

“Oh! It’s your birthday, Carter! Hey, Ruiz, it’s Carter’s birthday!”

“No kidding!” Ruiz turned from the parent she was talking to. “Happy birthday, Carter!”

“Thanks,” Carter muttered.

Guise went back to writing, then stopped, his face registering surprise.

“This your current address?” he asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“221 Highland Avenue. That’s the house that exploded last night.” He looked up with sober eyes. “Carter, your house exploded last night.”

Carter went completely still. His mind was racing, trying to understand what Guise had just told him. Then he started laughing. Hard, deep, belly laughs. Guise joined in, a little unsure at first, but soon he was doubled over and patting Carter on the back as they laughed loud enough to scare the kids.

Six months later, as Carter signed autographs after his fourth sold out show for the week, a man in line said, “I’ve never laughed as hard as I did the first time I heard that bit about your birthday night.” Others in the line nodded in enthusiastic agreement. “But as funny as that bit is, as famous as it’s made you, you gotta know that no one is every going to believe all that stuff is true. That all of it actually happened.”

Carter finished signing his name on the poster, then looked up at the man.



6 thoughts on “That Bit About the Birthday

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