Sometimes a birthday present goes too far; sometimes it doesn't go far enough.
What kind of birthday present is Steve's sister planning to give him?
Something heavy fell on my legs, waking me. I pried open my eyes and looked at my sister, sitting on the end of my bed, her butt pressing down on my feet.
“Get offa me! What are you doing? Lemme go back to sleep.”
“Nope, little brother, no way. It’s your fourteenth birthday, and I have a big surprise birthday present for you, so get your lazy behind outta bed and get bundled up. We’re going outside so I can show you your birthday surprise.”
Ellen was grinning like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. I looked at the clock on my nightstand. 6:23 in the a. of m. I closed my eyes.
“I’m goin’ back to sleep. It’s my birthday. Show me my surprise later.”
“No, come on, get up. I have an 8:00 class so I have to give you your birthday surprise before I leave. You’re gonna absolutely positively love it! Up! Up! Up!”
She got up off the bed and pulled the blanket off me. I grabbed the sheet and held onto it as tight as I could, and she gave up trying to pull it off as well. That was a good thing, I went to bed commando. Ya know, nothing on but my birthday suit.
“Alright! Alright! Get outta here and I’ll get up and shower…”
Ellen interrupted. “No time, just get up and get dressed to go outside. Dress warm, it’s real cold out this morning. And hurry. You’re gonna sooo love the birthday surprise I have for you!”
I let out a loud sigh. “Okay. Get out and close the door. Please!”
I got up and pulled on the thermal underwear, shirt, heavy socks, and jeans I’d been wearing yesterday. I grabbed my cold weather jacket, wool scarf and gloves, and my boots, went downstairs and, still half asleep, put them on when I got to the living room.
No response. She must have gone outside already. I went out, and she was right about it being real cold. In addition to the cold there was at least a foot of new snow, and that was on top of the foot we got the day before.
Ellen was standing on the porch, at the top of the stairs. She was holding something behind her so I couldn’t see what it was.
“Damn, it’s cold! So where’s this big surprise birthday present?”
She pulled out what she’d been hiding behind her back. It was a snow shovel with a large red ribbon through the handle. It looked like our snow shovel. It was our snow shovel.
“This, dear brother, is your birthday surprise, something on this cold morning that’s just for you. Now, get shoveling. I hafta leave by 7:30.”
I started to laugh. “You gotta be kidding. I’m not shoveling the driveway for you. Especially not on my birthday.” I started to turn to go back into the house.
“Oh, yes you are, Steve! And not just the driveway. First, you get to shovel the sidewalk from the porch to the driveway. And then shovel the driveway. Oh, yeah, and then you get to sweep the snow off my car, too. The broom’s right there, leaning against the back of my car.”
“Oh, yeah, like that is so not going to happen, dear sister.”
“You forgot something, dear brother. Do you remember this?” She pulled what looked like a dollar bill from her pocket and waved it around. “You gave me this for my birthday last March.” She held it up. “It reads, ‘I, Steven Marsh, promise to do one chore for my sister Ellen Marsh.’ Remember now?”
Oh, shit. I did remember. I’d forgotten to get her a birthday present, so I asked Mom what to do and she said that promising to do one of Ellen’s chores would be a great present. I decided to make it fancy, so I got on my computer and spent a lot of time designing something that looked like a dollar bill.
“Hey, that’s for doing one of your chores! Shoveling the sidewalk and driveway isn’t one of your chores. That’s Darryl’s chore. You should’a got him outta bed to do this. And besides, I don’t have to do it on my birthday!”
She held up my “chore promise” and looked at it like she was studying it in close detail, then looked at me over the top of it and grinned. It was a very nasty grin.
“Sorry, Stevie. It very clearly reads ‘promise to do one chore for my sister.’ It doesn’t say anything about it having to be one of my chores, one that I would normally do. It very clearly says ‘one chore’ and I’m sure Mom would agree that it can be any chore I want you to do.”
She stared at it again for about five seconds, then looked at me again with that same grin. “And, you’ll be surprised, I’m sure, that it doesn’t limit when you have to do it, and there’s no special dispensation to excuse you from having to do it on your birthday. So when you do it is when I want you to do it.” She pushed the shovel at me. “So get shoveling, little brother. Pronto! Oh, yeah, happy birthday!”
“Ellen, why are you making me do this? What did I ever do to you that makes you hate me so much this morning, on my birthday?” I was looking at her with my ‘puppy dog’ eyes. I could tell from her expression that it wasn’t working.
“Oh, nothing in particular. It’s just one of those things a big sister loves to do so her little brother understands that she’s the one at the top of the sibling pecking order.”
She started to walk toward the front door, then turned around and looked at me.
“Oh, yeah, there is one more thing. I want to remind you about something you told me a while ago, Steve. Remember when I asked you to read and comment on the first story I wrote for my short story writing course? Remember that you told me it was a good story? Remember after I turned it in you told me you’d found a bunch of misspelled words? Remember when I asked why you didn’t tell me before I turned it in? Remember that you told me that I should find my mistakes myself? Remember that I told you it wasn’t a very friendly thing to do because I got a B on that assignment instead of an A because of those misspelled words? Remember what you told me? ‘There’s no good writing, there’s only good rewriting’?”
Ellen grinned again, her particularly nasty grin.
“So you see, little brother, revenge can be so sweet. Well, for me it is. Probably not so much for you.
“Okay, we’ve wasted enough time. Get shoveling!”
Shit! As my granddad likes to say, ‘You were hoisted by your own petard’ and the ‘You’ in this case was me. Even worse was Ellen’s smarmy grin. She was totally enjoying my stupidity. She'd probably never let me forget it.
I learned three important rules that morning.
From now on I’m going to remember these rules so I won’t ever end up behind a snow shovel again, especially on my birthday. Most important I’ll remember that when I’m writing something, especially a promise, to go back and thoroughly and carefully edit it so it means exactly what I intend it to mean, nothing more, nothing less. And I will absolutely, positively remember that ‘There’s no good writing, there’s only good rewriting.’
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