Flash Fiction: Surprise Party (1098 words)

Tarra paid one of Dene’s nephews three sugar sticks to wait on the forward peaks and watch the horizon for sails. He was an eager little thing, with brown hair grown too long below his ears and eyes that could spot a frog three yards away in the weeds. He grinned at the thought of doing a favor for Dene’s soon-bride, grinned wider when he saw the thick sticks, and ran out the door with one already stuck in his mouth.

The hawks had come in days ago, and Galen’s ship could arrive in port any of the next four days. Tarra herself had lived long enough on a ship’s schedule to know that it was more likely to come in on the fifth than it was the first, but she also knew her brother. Galen was always around at the right times, and today was his birthday. Waking, lying in bed and looking at the sunrise turning her ceiling from ash gray to warm brown, she could believe that he would walk through the front door that day. If he did, she intended the whole street to celebrate with him.

There was a lot to celebrate.

Tarra pulled herself out of bed. and ate a breakfast straight out of the cupboard, too jittery to cook. There was work to be done in the carpenter’s shed beside the house, a table waiting to have the legs put back on, and a set of drawers that had gone too tight in their fittings with age. She stayed in the kitchen even after she was done eating. She watched out the window, hands folded over her chest to keep them still. Waiting.

And before the morning was half spent, the brown-haired boy was back, pounding on the door.

“Square sails,” he told her. “A hauler, right on the horizon. The crew will be off ship by nightfall.”

Tarra smiled, and realized that that motion was what she’d been waiting for all morning. “Run. Tell every house on this line that The Bearer is back. Quick.”

The boy looked sideways at her.

“Do it,” she said. “And come back tonight and there will be more cake than you can eat.”

He took off and inside two breaths Tarra heard him pounding on the next door over.

Bridet came first, running with her skirts in her fists. Tarra met her at the door, but she braced herself on the frame rather than come inside.

“Do you have apples?” she demanded.

“No,” Tarra said.

“I’ll be back.” And Bridet ran back to her house.

Then Cas arrived, and Prisca behind him, and Vasco and Margared a moment later. Each of them carried a basket or two under their arms, over-filled with whatever had been in their cupboards. Margared had a lash of wood tied over one shoulder and she swept past Tarra to start the stove, with just a smile and a rough squeeze of the hand. Prisco and Vasco started immediately to chopping, while Cas sorted what they had until Bridet came back with her basket on her hip, and her two boys in two with baskets of their own.

She found Tarra standing just to one side, not knowing where to put her feet.

“What are you doing?” Bridet asked.

And Tarra only shrugged a little.

Bridet rounded on Cas. “What are you doing? This is Tarra’s kitchen. Let her be telling you what to do.” Putting her basket down, she elbowed in between Cas and Vasco and started issuing commands.

A few minutes later, she turned back for Tarra, handed over bowl of rich, red apples. “Do you think we should make pies? Or dip them and bake them? They’re so pretty, we should do a bit of both.” And she handed Tarra a knife.

All afternoon, they chopped and baked and stirred and kneaded and cooked. Men and women ran in and out through the doors. They paused to breathe in the spices rising on the warmth, and kept on running. They pushed the couch and the chairs to the edge of the room. Tearing down the dull curtains, they put up the lighter festival sheets, and hung lanterns all across the ceiling to fill every corner with light. Then they laid blankets outside and hung lanterns on strings, until it was ready to be lit like daylight once the sun fell. They rolled barrels into the yard, set the taps, and tested both the ruddy wine and the smooth beer.

“Save some for when he gets here!” Bridet shouted, though Tarra wasn’t sure how she had seen the narrow circle of men all the way at the back of the yard.

Tarra laughed silently to herself.

Vasco nudged Tarra’s arm as they finished the glaze on a pie together. “Does Galen know?”

Tarra touched a finger to the polished disc of her engagement necklace, then she pulled it away, realizing she was probably smearing it with sugar and oil. She shook her head.

“So, we’re really having a surprise party,” he said, and he winked at her.

Dene arrived as soon as the workday was done. Sneaking in behind the already gathering crowd, he hugged her from behind. She turned, hugged him back.

When the sun set, the house was rolling with happy conversations, half-hobbled by mouths stuffed with good food. Tarra bumped elbows every moment, turned and laughed and said hello to whoever she’d collided with. And she kept her eye on the door. Just waiting.

Finally, Galen stepped inside. He almost filled the doorway, he’d grown so tall, shoulders as square as the frame, blonde hair wind-brushed and salt-curled. Seeing the crowd, the yellow lanterns, the plates and kegs, he burst into a smile.

“What is all this?” he asked Tarra.

She put her hands on his arms, halfway into a hug. “Happy birthday,” she said.

“Oh,” he said, happy, light, like he hadn’t really needed anyone to remember but was glad she had.

“Come on,” she said, and pulled him into the room. Galen had one arm still straight at his side. Tarra thought he was carrying something, his ruck maybe, and she reached down to take it from him.

But he was holding a little girl’s hand, her fingers so small they barely wrapped around the width of his fingers.

Immediately, Tarra looked down. The girl looked back, dark eyes wide, tucked close to Galen’s knee. She walked on her own feet, but her head barely reached his hand.

“This is Jaera,” Galen murmured.

Tarra looked up, caught his apologetic look.

“Surprise,” he said.

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