Prologue: March 14, 2020

Everyone was in a festive mood as they celebrated Rufus’ birthday. Prudence, Lizette, Amber, Ellowyne, and Penn took Rufus to Leon’s, his favorite gastropub. They plied him with nachos, poutine, wings, shots of whiskey and Belgian beer. Leon’s staff even served a birthday cake, complete with candles!

After Rufus had blown them out, Lizette asked, “What was your wish?”

“Nope. Not telling,” Rufus answered, glancing at Ellowyne. “Otherwise it won’t come true.”

Prudence exclaimed, “I hope you wished for some geeky birthday presents! Here, open mine first!” 

Rufus opened Prudence’s gift, which was a hoodie. “Cool!” he exclaimed. “Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit! Thanks, Pru!”

“Now mine,” Lizette said. It was a book entitled The League of Regrettable Superheroes, and a t-shirt that read, “Born On Pi Day 3.14.” 

“That’s going to be a great read,” Rufus said. “Perfect shirt, too! Thank you!”

“Here’s mine,” Amber said as she handed him a large box that rattled.

Rufus tore open the gift wrap and exclaimed, “No way! You got me the LEGO Batcave?!? That’s been sold out for ages. Wow! Thanks, Amber! But this is too much. You didn’t have to do this.”

“Oh, hush. You’re such a good friend and put up with me,” Amber replied. “Plus you helped me ace my law school entrance exam.”

Ellowyne was surprised to hear that Rufus coached Amber for her LSAT. She knew that the two enjoyed arguing with each other, so maybe that’s what Amber meant. Still, Ellowyne was uneasy, not only because of the close friendship Amber and Rufus shared, but also because she feared her gift wasn’t as cool or exciting as what the others had given him. “It’s a Mars globe. It reminds me of  the snow globe, the first present you gave me, only it’s red dust instead of snow”, she said.

“I can’t believe you remembered that,” Rufus said. “I mean, we’ve known each other for such a long time and I thought you forgot about it. Thank you for such a thoughtful gift.”  

Penn grinned as he gave Rufus his present. “Old chum,” he said. I looked long and hard for something that would convey to the world exactly who you are. So, with no further ado, here you go.” The gifts were three  t-shirts. The first one read, “I’m Not Just a Nerd. I’m the King of the Nerds.” The second read, “Engineers Do It With Precision” And the third said, “Science Gives Me a Hadron.” 

Rufus laughed so hard that he nearly snorted beer out of his nose. Liz, Amber, and Pru dissolved into giggles, and Penn chortled uncontrollably.  Ellowyne smiled shyly and laughed a little, but she was puzzled and oddly uncomfortable. She didn’t know what engineers did with precision and had no idea what a hadron was–but it sounded a little risqué. 

Then Amber took a sip of her cosmopolitan, and walked over to Rufus, and kissed him on the lips. Lizette and Pru followed suit. Ellowyne was terrified. She had never kissed any boy, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to kiss Rufus. Were they friends? Something more? What would a kiss mean? Her heart pounded, her stomach did back flips, and her knees got so weak she was glad she was sitting next to him.  She leaned over and kissed him shyly, gently, and sweetly on his lips. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice that his cheeks were flushed and that he kissed her in return.

A sixty-something woman was sitting with her husband close to the table where the birthday bash was. She applied some red lipstick and kissed Rufus on the lips, too. Then, Penn spotted three student nurses from his school. “Judy, Beth, Nancy! Come celebrate my best bro’s birthday!” They toasted Rufus with their  drinks, and kissed him as well. Three pretty servers watched the display, put down their trays and kissed him, too. 

Then Penn stood up, downed a shot, and said, “Oh, what the hell!?!” He kissed Rufus on the mouth, which made everyone in that section of Leon’s roar with laughter. When the jocularity died down, Penn led all of them in singing Happy Birthday to Rufus.

Prudence clinked her spoon against her glass. “Speech, speech! Give us a speech, Birthday Boy!”

Rufus smiled and stood to talk. “I appreciate all of you more than you can imagine. I am so lucky to have you as friends. Thank you for making my birthday so special. And here’s to you. All of you.” He toasted them with a shot, sat down, and then said, “You know we’re all going to feel miserable tomorrow.”

He had no idea that something miserable that would change all of their lives was just around the corner. 

To be continued…

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