Valerie Michaels hoped that March 7th, 2045 would be a special day. And even though it was her eleventh birthday, she would always remember it for another reason.
The ceiling in her room began to illuminate as the soft sounds of classical music signaled that it was time to get up. Her step-mom would be in soon to help her. Until then she stretched and listened to the music drift down like snow upon her. A smile crept across her face as she recognized the soft song. It would only be the first of many surprises from her father. Christine opened the door just as a cello finished the last “Happy birthday to you.”
Val’s first thought was to pretend she was still asleep, but she knew it would only delay the inevitable.
“Good morning sweetie.”
“Good morning Christine.”
Her stepmother still flinched ever so slightly each time Val refused to call her mom. Val did not intend to hurt the woman her father had chosen to remarry, but neither did she want to her to think that she could ever replace her mother.
Christine took a deep breath before crossing the room to Valerie’s bedside. It was one of the things that Val disliked about her. She would often huff or sigh, but never say what she was thinking. Val did not want or need to be protected from whatever thoughts Christine had. She hated being treated like a little kid. Worse, she hated being treated like she was fragile. Being disabled did not make her weak.
Val clenched her jaw and hooked her left arm around Christine’s neck as she slid her arms beneath her. A small grunt escaped Christine’s mouth as she lifted Val and placed her in her wheelchair.
Stepmother and daughter-by-marriage breezed through the morning routine in perfect rhythm, each knowing their part. When they were finished getting Val ready Christine lingered in silence. Val rolled her eyes, but did not let her stepmother see. She rolled out of the room leaving Christine standing there with whatever thoughts she had deemed too difficult for an eleven-year-old girl to deal with.
Val maneuvered her chair into the elevator and descended to the first floor without waiting for her stepmother to join her. As the doors slid open she was greeted with another surprise.
“Happy birthday princess.”
His smile was a warm blanket for her soul. For a time, after the accident, he was the only good thing she could see in the world.
“Are you staying home today?”
Hope began to surge inside of Val’s heart. Her father worked in the city and left before first light each morning. He was never home by the time she started her day, but he loved to surprise his little girl. She saw her answer before he spoke. His eyebrows shifted over his pale blue eyes trying to look mischievous, but he could not hide the truth he held from her knowing gaze.
He studied her face with a smile, but saw that trying to keep a secret from his little girl was useless.
“I can’t hide anything from you can I Val?”
Apparently he could read her as well as she could read him. This only confirmed in her their special bond. It was something Christine would never share with them.
“I’m sorry honey. I have to leave after breakfast, but I wanted to be here to give you your present.”
Val squealed with delight and followed her dad into the dining room. The table was filled with all of her favorite things. A large plate piled high with french toast drew her attention first. It was still warm enough for steam to be playing tag with the sunlight that shone through the bay window. Not far away stood a carafe of orange juice, bowl of strawberries, and a bottle of her favorite syrup. A plate of bacon rounded out the birthday feast.
Only one setting did not have a chair before it. Val took a deep breath, savoring each smell, before she slid into her designated place and began to fill her plate. Her father sat down next to her where a cup of coffee was already half empty and watched her with delight. After piling a small mountain of french toast on her plate and smothering it with syrup she picked up her fork to dive in, but was stopped by a short grunt from her father. The look on his face made it clear that she was expected to wait for Christine before starting.
Val smiled but they both knew it was fake. A moment later Christine appeared and sat next to her husband, across from Val. She looked at Val’s plate and said, “Oh, I hope you weren’t waiting for me. Go ahead and eat sweetie.”
Val’s first thought was to set her fork back down and pour herself some orange juice simply to show that she did not need Christine’s permission to eat, but looking at her dad she realized that it was not worth the risk spoiling a rare meal with him just to make a point that Christine probably would not get anyway. She began working at the corner of a piece of french toast with her fork.
“You want some coffee babe?” Her father asked Christine.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Val’s dad rose and as he went to get Christine her coffee stopped to kiss Val on the forehead. The warmth of his kiss on her skin faded slowly as he walked into the kitchen. His position between the two ladies of his life required the fine-tuned balance of a tightrope walker and Val admired how well he walked that line. Never had she ever felt betrayed by his love for Christine and she knew Christine probably felt the same about his love for her.
After a few bites of french toast Val slid the plate of bacon closer to her and selected a slice. She plucked the fattest strawberry she could see out of the bowl and began to wrap the bacon around it.
“I don’t know how you can eat that…”
Before Val could respond her father reappeared with a red mug in his hand.
“Val is wise beyond her years. She understands that you only live once and should enjoy the best things in life. But she also knows that in order to maximize the time we have to enjoy those things we need to take care of the vessel that affords us those opportunities. Unfortunately her taste buds could not decide which philosophy is more important so they simply combined the two.”
That was not what Val was going to say. Her father must have sensed that too. Once again he had stepped between his two girls while remaining perfectly balanced. She took a bite of her juicy fattening treat and smiled at Christine. When her gaze drifted to her dad he simply winked.
Val ate slowly trying to extend the time she got with her dad. No gift he gave her today could top that. She never had much of an appetite and could feel herself getting full after only a few bites. Silently cursing her tiny stomach, she began to take smaller bites. Even with this new strategy she reached her limit quicker than she had hoped. She took one last bite of bacon strawberry, wiped her mouth with her napkin, closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of perfect contentment.
“I’ve got to go now honey, but do you want to open your gift first?”
Val’s eyes popped open and if the smile that stretched across her face was not a clear enough yes, she nodded and giggled with excitement too.
Her dad and Christine both stood. He waved for her to follow and said, “Well then follow me.”
Val positioned herself directly behind her dad as the exited the dining room, leaving Christine to follow from the rear. They made their way through the living room to the door of her father’s office. It was shut as usual, but instead of entering he stopped at the threshold and turned around.
“Are you ready?” he asked as a playful smile rolled across lips.
There could be only one thing behind that door. It was the only thing she had talked about for the last month and a half. She felt herself shaking with anticipation.
Her father rested his hand on the long silver handle. He glanced back one last time at his daughter before pulling the handle down and throwing the door open.
“Hi Val. My name is S.A.R.A. Will you be my friend?”
Val screamed with delight. It was just like she had seen on the commercial. Two black eyes surrounded by a soft blue glow stared back at her. The robot mirrored her in many ways. It stood about four feet tall and from the waste up was molded to resemble the human form. Its plastic skin was white, but was accented with grey in different sections. The greatest resemblance though, was from the waste down. Below a grey ring where a belt would rest, S.A.R.A. had two wheels attached to the side of a white cube.
“Thank you daddy! She’s perfect!”
Val’s dad laughed with joy as he watched his daughter take in every detail of her new friend.
“I’m glad you like it. It’s from both of us.”
The hint was not lost on Val. Her father was always searching for ways to close the gap between her and Christine. She was so happy in that moment that she did not fake sincerity when she turned toward her stepmother and said, “Thank you. I love it!”
To be continued…
Copyright © 2013 Adam Drake