Art sat on the corner of his bed with a knot in his stomach and a letter in his hand. Every time he read it, the knot grew, and its twin, the lump in his throat, swelled. Still, he went on staring at the familiar chicken-scratch handwriting. He swept his gaze over the last few lines, as he’d done a hundred times before. Happy birthday, Art. Sorry I can’t be there. -Cam Art swallowed. Tomorrow was his eighteenth birthday. Tomorrow, he would be an adult. Fear gripped his chest, squeezed it like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. His hands shook, crinkling the cheap paper. His heart pounded against his chest, almost audible. Any minute, he would have to get off his bed. He would have to get ready for his final day of school. The last day he’d see his friends, his family, for an entire year. He couldn’t just stay here, hoping the morning would last forever and his birthday would never come. He had to leave. Or he could do what he’d planned with Cam. Art shook his head, dispelling the idea. A poster of his favorite superhero, Magmaman, hung over his neatly kept work desk on the other side of the room. His heavy textbooks were stacked on top, and his homework, which he completed even now, rested next to them in a folder. All of it was ready to be tucked carefully into his backpack, so that nothing would be crumpled or damaged in transit. Art focused on the poster and counted to ten. One Mississippi . . . Remember to take deep breaths. Magmaman doesn’t get overwhelmed by panic attacks. Two Mississippi . . . Everyone has to do this. Everyone has an eighteenth birthday. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. Three Mississippi . . . Cam told you— His thoughts were interrupted by his mother’s sweet voice, calling up the stairs through his bedroom door. “Arrrrrrrrrrrrt! Are you up, dear? You don’t want to miss your sentencing breakfast! I made all your favorites!” Art groaned. His mother and father had been so damn cheery leading up to his birthday, had been so proud their little boy was about to reach adulthood without a mark on his record. “He’s just serving one year! Twelve months, flat!” his father told anyone that would listen. Art got up and then folded the letter twice, tucking it under his mattress like contraband. He stared at his bed, fending off the urge to take out the note and read it several more times. Then with a sigh, Art did what he did every morning. He went into the bathroom, peed, took a shower, brushed his teeth, shaved what little facial hair he had, and got dressed. But he kept pausing in the middle of routine tasks. Between brush strokes. While pulling up his pants. Putting on deodorant. He just stopped and stared. Stared at nothing. Looked right at that nothingness and blinked, unable to do anything but imagine the year to come. “Arrrrrrrrrt!” his mother insisted. “Art, dear! Your breakfast is going to get coooooooold!” “Coming, mom,” he said. He wasn’t sure if he shouted the words or whispered them. Either way, his mother stopped calling. Art entered the kitchen. Waves of sunlight poured through broad windows. Everything was so bright, so clean, so tidy. Art climbed into his usual chair at the kitchen table and looked at the plates laid out for him. They were overflowing with food: sausage links, slices of ham, an omelet, scrambled eggs, pancakes, waffles, grapefruit, cantaloupe, French toast, biscuits, and scones. “Jeez, mom,” Art said, his anxiety momentarily forgotten. “Do you want my stomach to explode?” His mother whirled around, apron twirling as she did. She was in her late forties but still had an air of youth about her. She smiled, a broad grin stretching from ear to ear. “Art, dear!” She gestured with a spatula in her hand, sending crumbs flying. A pan behind her sizzled. “We have to celebrate! Get all of your favorite foods out of the way now! You’re not going to be able to eat them for another-” “Mom!” Art snapped. “I know!” She froze for a moment, shocked, then regained her cheerful smile. “Please, dear. I know you’re feeling . . . sensitive. Scared. And those fears are natural. Everyone goes through them. But there’s no reason to lash out at those who love you.”
She flattened her apron with her free hand. “It’s a big day . . . for me as much as you. My little boy is growing up!” She blew out a long breath, as if remembering some nostalgic memory. “Now eat!” Art took a fork and poked at his omelet. Yellow ooze trickled out, and he imagined it was radioactive liquid that would give him superpowers, allowing him to fly somewhere far away. Something hit his spine, hard. “Why so glum?” It was his father, slapping his back. “You’re about to be a man! And did you hear about the Bedford’s son? He got seven years!” “Seven years?” Art’s mother gasped. “That boy has always been nothing but trouble.” “Remind you of anyone?” his father teased with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Art’s mother frowned. She twirled around and went back to working on the grand feast. “Christ almighty, Art,” his father declared, grabbing a newspaper from the breakfast table, “you’ll have such a jump start on other boys when you get out. Think about it — you’ll be in college when you’re only nineteen!” His father snapped open the newspaper, scouring the headlines. Art stabbed at his breakfast. He tried to nibble on something—either the pancakes or the omelet—but became distracted, forgetting what he was doing mid-bite. “Art . . . dear.” His mother was staring at him once more. “You’re barely touching your breakfast.” “I’m not hungry,” Art said, dropping his fork onto his plate and crossing his arms. His mother and father exchanged knowing glances. They each let out those sighs Art had come to recognize as a signal: he was going to get a lecture as to why the world wasn’t always fair. They had been doing that more and more as his birthday neared. “Art,” his father said. “I know this is tough for you. Tomorrow’s your big day. You’ve always followed the rules and done everything you’re told. It must seem unfair that you even have to serve a year. Obviously, you’re mother and I are worried about this . . . transition as well. Parents worry any time their children leave the nest. But this is necessary. It’s something everyone has to do. I had an eighteen month sentence. And it was hard, of course. This isn’t something we’d all have to do if it was easy. But it builds character. It made a man out of me. Art, you’re going to go in a boy, and in no time, you’ll come out a man. You should be proud.” Art’s mother nodded in agreement, a rueful smile on her lips. Art pushed his plate away. “I don’t want to go to prison at all!” he shouted. “It’s so unfair!” His mother sighed. “Art, dear, we’ve talked about this. You just don’t have a choice.” She flattened out her apron again. “You know, I was quite the troublemaker when I was your age. I had . . . a three year sentence.” She spoke in a hushed tone, as if this were some great secret. Art rolled his eyes. But his mother went on as if she didn't see. “And the world’s a better place for it. Just look at me now. Look at the wonderful life we have. That your father and I have built for you. Now imagine all the trouble I would have gotten into if I hadn’t gone to prison.” She gave a weak smile. “None of this would be possible. I know it’s hard to see now, but you should be grateful for your year.” “And, what, so that makes it okay?” Art said. His legs shook, feet tapping the floor. “I haven’t done anything wrong!” Art’s father put his paper on the table, flat. He drew long breaths and took a moment before speaking again. That stern look in his eyes meant he was one outburst away from losing his patience. “You are a citizen, Art. A living, breathing, human being. That means at some point you have or will break the law— intentionally or not. Maybe you’ll forget to wear your seatbelt. Maybe you’ll walk out of the grocery store with a bag of chips you forgot to pay for. Maybe you’ll blast through a stop sign you didn’t notice.” His father cleared his throat and leaned forward. “And this is how you pay society back for what you've done wrong before and what you'll do wrong in the future. You are a child, about to become a man. You must understand there are consequences for your actions. And this is how you learn.” Art’s mother put the spatula down on the counter top. “Did you get another letter?” she asked. “I’ve told I wish you would stop your correspondence. You get so worked up whenever he writes.” She shook her head. “It’s time to make a clean break, my love. You should look at all of this like the start of a new chapter in your life.” Art ground his teeth. He hated the way his parents refused to say Cam’s name — as if his memory tainted the air around their perfect child.
But before Art had the chance to lash out, his mother placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Your father and I know how difficult this is for you,” she said. Behind her, something was beginning to sizzle and smoke. “We’ve talked every night about how if there was one person in the world we thought shouldn’t have to go to prison, it would be you. And we will miss you so much every day you’re gone. Now eat up, before everything gets cold.” His parents’ eyes lingered on him, as if ready to respond to any more protests. But none came. What choice did he have? This was the way the world worked. Everyone had to do it. Every child had to go to prison. Art ate his breakfast. There would be none like it again, at least not for a while.