The Age of Viability

"We can't do it," Jack said.



e can't do it," Jack said.

Carolyn placed two slices of gluten-free bread on the cutting board then spread mashed avocado in wavy swoops across one of them with a butter knife. "I'm actually proud of her."

"We already gave in about the tooth fairy."

Carolyn put the knife down, trying to stifle a sigh. "You know that wasn't her fault."

"No one told her to bring the money to school."

Carolyn frowned at her husband, at the palpable distance that seemed to be growing between them lately.

"It was for show and tell," she said, resting four tomato slices on the avocado. "Bills are easy to lose, and who says the tooth fairy doesn't fly back to replace them?" She held up two metallic sandwich cutters. "Heart or star?"

"What?" Jack frowned. "Oh. Star." He gripped the kitchen table now, his eyes pleading. "Look, we just can't, okay? Not this time."

"The book I was telling you about says we need to be open and responsive to her needs. She's verbalizing a need. We just ignore it?"

"But this is too far." Jack gesticulated with his hand, indicating distance, extent. "Waaaay too far. Carolyn, please."

"Actually I'm thinking heart for tomorrow." She placed the other slice on top of the avocado and tomato to close the sandwich, then pressed the sturdy stainless steel into the center. The crust squished off on the cutting board like green dough. "Georgie's been showing us she loves hearts these days."

"What are you doing about your application?"

"Ms. Coleman says she's becoming quite a leader in class."

"Did you at least talk to your old advisor?"

"Reminding others of the routines. Helping supply teachers."

"Should I even bother asking anymore?"

"You know I have too much to do around here." She washed the cutter and placed it in the dish rack, then sliced the heart sandwich in half and arranged it tidily in Georgia's bento box beside a spread of carrot sticks, cucumber wedges and homemade tzatziki. Seeing the food neatly prepared and packaged gave her a sense of satisfaction that four years ago she'd never have expected of herself.

"At least play again, then," Jack said. "You'll still be a good mother."

Carolyn clicked the bento box closed, grabbed one of her glittery mermaid scale post-it notes and wrote, Georgie, Mommy and Daddy Love You, and stuck it on the top. "We are raising an empowered girl, Jack. That takes time and consideration and proper nourishment. I need to stay on top of things." She slid the bento box into Georgia's mermaid lunchbox, all the sequins stitched to the outside pushed in an upward position, a dazzling array of fuchsia and silver. "I'll be sending out the invitations tomorrow."


The birthday aisle at Party Mania glistened, its plastics and foils and display of erect helium balloons reflecting the rows of buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. Carolyn stood at the mouth of the aisle, staring it down. How was this any different, she asked herself, than taking pride when Georgia used her words to tell that Yuri Kaminski to keep his body to himself because he kept rubbing up against her in line? Or when she lauded Georgia for reminding her teacher that she needed her snack exactly 20 minutes into the start of the day to avoid getting hungry and grumpy?

A young man approached Carolyn, his hair combed to one side, a smattering of pimples above the collar of his yellow uniform. Kai, his name tag read.

"Welcome to Party Mania, ma'am. Big birthday coming up?"

Carolyn smiled. "My daughter's."

"Nice! How old?"

Carolyn hesitated for a moment. She gripped the handle of her shopping cart. "Three."

"Three! Well, at the end of the aisle," he pointed behind him, "we've organized decorations by age. You'll find all kinds of three stuff there."

Carolyn smiled again and nodded, then trudged ahead slowly, taking small deliberate steps, admiring the rainbow tassels and the Frozen piñatas, perusing the pompom party hats, the diversity of cake toppers, the Disney candles. The aisle had to be at least five shopping carts wide and more than the length of a football field.

Jack always talked about the PhD application and "have you spoken to your advisor" as if domestic concerns couldn't be enough for her. As if raising a child were something you could pencil in after university seminars and symphony recitals. "It's a miracle," he liked to say after Georgia was born, shaking his head disbelievingly, tears.

Now he acted as if he took it all for granted.

The "age section" began with the decades—20, 30, 40, 50, right up to 100—all squashed together. Then a condensed rush of the teens, 19 to 13, as if it couldn't be over fast enough. When she reached the invisible border that divided ages four and three, Carolyn stopped, her eyes darting between the two.

What was a year older, she thought? An adjacent box on the calendar? The flip of the hour to midnight; the anniversary year after year of a harrowing, near-death day? "One pound," the nurse had said, carrying something in the palm of her hand, and Carolyn, weak from blood loss, had wondered what the size of life was.

A year older seemed nothing more than the invisible demarcation between cake plates in the birthday party aisle, a line that isn't perpendicular to anything, skews a bit left up the rack to accommodate the larger plates that have "four" plastered like boat sails on them. Carolyn stood back and looked. Three to four. Three to four. Three to four.

'One pound,' the nurse had said, carrying something in the palm of her hand, and Carolyn, weak from blood loss, had wondered what the size of life was.

How was this any different, she thought, than Georgia requesting from her teacher another spot on the carpet because Harriet Cline kept having stinky accidents and copying her word work? Or Georgia reminding her father quite matter-of-factly in the airport taxi van in front of his colleagues to put his seatbelt on, thank-you-very-much, because seatbelts save lives? Or Georgia stealing her Uncle Ted's pack of Marlboros from his leather jacket and stomping them into the April sludge on Easter day last year? "They'll turn your lungs green!"

Carolyn walked ahead two steps and reached for a set of plates with the number three written in turquoise bubble letters front and centre, her hand suspended in mid-air. This was no different, she told herself. Georgia was self-advocating. She was living her truth.

The package of three snack plates resisted at first, too much plastic packaging in the punched hole that kept them hanging on the metal hook. As she tried yanking it off, her cell phone dinged. Apparently Jack ran into Senna Iafanti, a flutist from the university's philharmonic, at the gas station. They miss you, Car, his text read, a sad-face emoji after.

Carolyn turned her phone to mute and slid it back into her purse. One harder, swifter yank this time and the three plates gave. She tossed them into the cart, reminding herself that birthday parties happened only once a year and it was okay if she chose plastic instead of bamboo; disposable instead of reusable. Any parent would allow themselves the concession.

Overhead, Karma Chameleon rang out with its depressingly upbeat bounce. She paused for a moment and stared at the three on the snack plates, at its two-humped bubble shape and the sparkles that glittered inside. How was this any different?

She quickly reached for the three cups, throwing them into the cart, and the three balloons, and the three streamers, and the three invitations. Three, three, three.


"Honey, there's been a mistake with the birthday invitations."

Carolyn's mother's voice had that restrained urgency it often did when she felt a grave impropriety had occurred that needed immediate fixing but she refused to succumb to the indecorous error of losing her own composure.

"Mistake?" Carolyn said calmly, carrying the LOL doll and Disney Princess Castle she'd bought earlier that day down the basement stairs. She had expected this phone call. Maybe several of these phone calls. Not surprisingly, the first was from her mother.

"Yes. They say three on them."

Carolyn hugged the boxes and looked around her unfinished basement. The workshop Jack rarely used was too messy for hiding things; the laundry room too open.

"Honey, do you think there's time to call Canada Post to stop the others from arriving?"

"Why would we?"

"I think if I spoke to Sandra at the post office she might be able to figure something out. Sometimes all it takes is a box of truffles."

"Please don't."

"It's no trouble at all, honey. We wouldn't want to bewilder people."

"I bought the invitations, Mom. I sent them out."

Carolyn glanced at the rec room area. Georgia often played Barbies there after school—she'd find the toy boxes in no time.

"I'm confused. You bought them with three?"

"I did."

"But why?"

"Georgia has chosen not to turn four this year."


"She would prefer to turn three again, not four."

Carolyn swiveled around and eyed the furnace room, a heaviness forming in her chest. Should she? The room had a metal fire-proof door the insurance company required, something about adequate storage parameters if she wasn't going to play anymore. She made Jack keep the door shut and refused to go in there.

"Honey, sorry, what are we talking about here?"

"She won't be turning four this year, Mom."

"That's not something she can just choose."

"Why not?" Carolyn's arms were growing tired.

"Because she was born four years ago on November 27."

"I remember the date clearly, Mom. Trust me." Carolyn walked slowly toward the furnace room despite herself.

"I don't know why you keep insisting on viewing that day with such sadness, honey. It was all good news. All good news."

Her mother loved saying this.

Carolyn rested her hand on the doorknob. It really would be the best place to hide Georgia's gifts. The boxes were large and only Jack went in there.

"Honey, I just don't see how this can be done, this birthday business. Let me see what Sandra can do."

Carolyn turned the door handle, a cool apprehension running through her. It was years ago, she told herself. She needed to get over it.

"What does Jack have to say about this? He can't be happy."

The door swung open and she stepped inside. In front of her, the furnace room was a place of large, unusual shapes darkened by background window light. The cylindrical drum of the water heater skewered by piping at either end. The stacked metal boxes that made up the furnace with its eternal torch visible through a tiny plastic window. The coming and going of vents overhead like a silent superhighway. Then, of course, what loomed in the corner. What Carolyn sensed but avoided, her body cocked unnaturally away.

She strode toward the water heater, staring straight ahead at its peeling Reliance label. Crouching, she stacked the toy boxes neatly behind it, one on top of the other, so that looking straight on from the doorway, you'd never see them.

"What am I going to tell your aunts? My friends?" Her mother's voice rose an increment, and Carolyn pictured her with her hand on her hip, her head shaking in that familiar, disapproving way. "What do I write in her birthday card? Happy third birthday? I'd be lying."

As Carolyn turned and stood up, she caught a glimpse of it. Had she meant to? There it was, hidden beneath its velvet dust cloak, large and formidable, its triumphant swan-like curves nothing more than a malevolent deception. She remembered wanting to burn it back then. Jack wouldn't let her.

She shuddered and turned away.

She remembered wanting to burn it back then. Jack wouldn't let her.

"Carolyn, the bridge club is making her a quilt with four of everything. Four clown faces. Four ponies. What do I tell them? Rip off one of each? And what do I tell your father? You know he'll think this is uncouth, this is unheard of, and frankly so do I. And what about the ladies at golf?"

The furnace room door slammed shut behind Carolyn as she stood again in the large open space of her basement, a shakiness in her chest.

"Carolyn, tell me Jack isn't on board with this, tell me he has some sense. And what about the neighbours? They remember that day like it was yesterday. What do I tell them? Darlene and John were at the recital. They'll do the math."

Carolyn lifted her left shoulder, wedging her phone, then put her palms on her temples and pulled upward at her hairline. The tight pain felt good.

"And the church ladies? They are bound to ask, they always do. Especially Martha, she's so nosey."

Carolyn pulled harder.

"And my hairdresser, she just loves little Georgia. Remember the gift basket she sent, how big it was for someone like her? Even if a bit gaudy. What am I going to say?"

"I don't know, Mom," Carolyn said, almost a shout. "I don't know, how about tell them that your granddaughter doesn't conform to societal norms. That she knows what she wants and is determined to have it at all costs. Tell them she doesn't care what others think, she is a young empowered female, even if it makes her a social pariah in her kindergarten class and the fancy dinner parties you like parading her around at, even if it sends her straight into poverty." Carolyn gripped the phone, heat coursing through her. "Tell them they can do whatever they want with the quilt, sew four million clown faces on it if they want to, because your granddaughter knows her own mind and won't be easily persuaded. Tell them nothing will stop her from pursuing her dream. If she wants to turn three again, who says she can't?"

Carolyn pressed her eyes shut and took in a deep breath. The sound of her mother's shock rattled across the line. When she opened her eyes again the workshop, the laundry room, the rec room were very still. The afternoon sun cast hazy rectangular boxes of light on the floor. The sudden ordinariness seemed to make a mockery of Carolyn's emotions. She frowned, straightening. "You'll figure something out. See you at the party."


Carolyn watched as Georgia smoothed her jean pinafore and smiled at her friends and their parents as they arrived. "Welcome to my third birthday party," she said, her voice confident, her hand firm, waving them into the house like a maître d' might.

Parents nodded awkwardly, mumbling happy birthday, their children dressed in their birthday-party best hugging Georgia as they entered.

"I did math with Daddy," sweet little Jaxon Achebe said, taking off his boots. "You're actually four. Isn't that great?"

"What makes four better than three?"

Carolyn loved her daughter's directness.

Exactly 20 minutes late, as was their usual "fashionable tardiness," Carolyn's parents arrived, dressed so formally that at a child's birthday party their attire had a tinge of the obscene.

Carolyn helped her mother first, peeling off the heavy fur that seemed to cling like a second skin; then she took her father's wool trench and hung them both in the stuffed hall closet.

Her mother straightened her blouse and necklace. "Where's the birthday girl?"

"The kids are making a craft in the living room."

"You're really doing this, Carolyn?"

"Georgia will be so excited to see you."

Carolyn turned and walked toward the party. She watched as Georgia ran to her grandparents, hugging them with that gusto she seemed to bring to everything in life. Georgia moved through the world as if on a constant mission. She walked hard, she sang hard, she questioned hard, she laughed hard, she loved hard.

Carolyn wondered if she'd ever been like that as a girl.

A few seconds later, she watched as her father, with his usual silent brooding, sat on the wingback chair, smoothing his moustache. Carolyn knew that silence all too well; it could smoke out a room; it could make a person leave home at 18 and not call for a year. She caught her mother rolling her eyes looking at the sparkling three banner and the three helium balloons shaped as mermaid tails swaying beside the couch.

Parents mingled by the craft table, helping their children. When the mermaid clown arrived everyone gathered round and Carolyn marvelled at how kids were the same as they always had been. They still laughed at she sells seashells at the seashore. They still stared wide-eyed at the mesmerizing creation of balloon animals.

Harriet Cline's mother and Miranda Flowerday's mother stood hunched toward each other under the three birthday banner, laughing.

Carolyn eyed them discreetly from across the room while she set out napkins and cutlery on the food table, then inched closer in their direction, pretending to fix the sequins on the mermaid throne she'd rented for $100.

"Another year older, I guess?" Harriet's mother said.

Miranda's mother chuckled. "They grow up so fast!"

"But, honestly—" Harriet's mother looked up at the banner emphatically. "Why?"

"Doesn't she know how weird it seems?"

"I guess Georgia rules the roost around here."

"Hashtag wait-till-she's-a-teenager."

Carolyn felt the blood rush to her cheeks. She smoothed the large teardrop sequins into their sea foam display. What did these two mothers know about raising empowered female role models? Harriet had to bring four sets of clothes to school to accommodate her inability to get to the bathroom in time. Miranda, whose upper lip was never without a stalactite of crusty snot, had a habit of stealing things from classmates' backpacks then denying it.

Carolyn went to the kitchen and took the 16" square cake from the freezer, resting it on the island. Thick mauve and turquoise frosting encased the cookie dough ice cream in waves like swirling sea swells. Happy 3rd Birthday, Georgia was written in hot pink letters on top.

Standing there, she could feel Jack's frown without having to look. "You really leaned into it, I see," he whispered.

"Can you just dim the lights?"

"It's a spectacle, Carolyn. Don't you care?"

She stuck three pink candles into the frosting, pressing them hard and deep into the frozen cake below.

"Look," he rested his hand on her shoulder, his voice softening, "birthday party aside, I know today is always hard for you."

She shook him off, and leaned back to open the utensil drawer.

"We can talk about it if you want," he said.

"Make sure everyone knows the cake is coming in two minutes."

"It was hard, I know."

She looked at him pleadingly. "I'd just like to get the cake out, okay?"

He clasped his hands and nodded, then left the kitchen.

Carolyn took a stainless steel cake server from the drawer and rested it on the counter. She knew what would have followed. A glossing over of the past, followed by a cascade of condescending advice to "get back at it," to "overcome," to "play again."

That day four years ago had started like any other. A Christmas recital, the orchestra arranged in its usual half-moon with her to the left of the conductor at the very back, so as to not block the string section's line of sight. Around the orchestra the stage was set in a festive display: an enormous decorated tree with a toy train chugging on wooden tracks below it. White twinkling lights and tinsel garlanded in swoops above. Behind Carolyn, a display of six wrapped Christmas gifts, all different sizes, one the size of a shoebox; the largest almost as tall as her standing harp.

She should have told the stagehand her folding chair was shorter on the left rear leg. She should've asked for a new chair, or folded a program and wedged it under.

Carolyn lifted the cake and serving utensil. With her head high, she walked into the dining room where guests stood around the table. Happy birthday was sung. Georgia blew out all three candles simultaneously then took an embellished bow, making everyone laugh.

"Are you one? Are you two?" Jack began, clapping.

"Are you three?" the kids joined in, then cheered uproariously, acceptingly.

Carolyn's mother's voice called out: "Are you four?"

The room went silent.

"Because you are four, little darling," she continued. "Four."

Parents looked away; they knelt down, they pointed at the cake, distracting.

"I am not little," Georgia said.

"That's right. You're a big girl. You're four."

"Being three doesn't make me not a big girl."

"Georgia, do you want to cut the first slice?" Carolyn asked cheerily. "You'll have to press hard, it's pretty frozen."

"Darling, three is less than four."

"I know how to count."

"Who wants cake?" Carolyn hoped the smile plastered on her face was at least partially convincing. "It's chocolate-chip cookie dough flavour."

Carolyn noticed Harriet Cline's mother smirking. What did she know about challenging antiquated stereotypes? What did she know when her own daughter's teeth were conspicuously bucked from years of thumb-sucking? When her daughter still needed help tying her shoes?

"Let's count together then," Carolyn's mother started. "First comes one. Then comes two. Then comes three, count with me, then—"

"Frances, can I speak to you in the kitchen?" Jack interrupted his mother-in-law.

"Next comes four. Four years old, darling." She held up four French-tipped fingers. "Easy as pie."

Jack took Carolyn's mother gently by the elbow. "I want to show you something."

"Cake? Anyone?" Carolyn said again.

"Me please." Jaxon Achebe's sweet little voice, a reprieve.

Carolyn gave Georgia the serving utensil. "Start wherever you'd like."

Georgia cut into the frozen cake methodically, with surgeon precision, plating and serving each slice all by herself. Soon the room buzzed. Kids licked their spoons; parents laughed and chatted; melted ice cream dripped on the floor. It felt like a third birthday party again, except for Georgia, who set her unfinished cake on the table and left the room.

Carolyn gave her a few seconds before going after her. When she did, she found her on the powder room floor with her arms crossed, teary-eyed. Her brave girl suddenly vulnerable. It happened so rarely that Carolyn felt her throat clench as she bent down and drew her daughter close to her chest.

"Grandma is right," Georgia said.

Carolyn bristled but rubbed Georgia's arm anyway.

"I can try and try, and I can want it so bad," Georgia went on, "but I can't be three. I can't go backward."

Carolyn nodded slowly, pulling Georgia closer.

"But Grandma doesn't know something I just thought of."

Carolyn raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"

Georgia wiped her eyes. "I can be four on the outside and still three on the inside."

Carolyn smiled. "You could, and you'd be the best four-year-old three-year-old ever." "I can be both."


That night Carolyn left Jack sleeping and crept downstairs to the kitchen. She took the unfinished birthday cake from the fridge and dug a spoon into the centre, forming a creamy white hole. When all she could see was white, she dug more, piling the plain ice cream in a clump on the counter, digging as an animal might, sweating with intent, until she finally found a tiny sphere of cookie dough. She scooped it out and ate it slowly, eyes closed.

Sometimes the exact moment came back to her, violent and inviolable. In the middle of an intense instrumental version of What Child Is This? on the car radio. In the midst of grocery shopping, the date printed in bold black letters as an expiration. She could see herself leaning back too far, too much to the left, the chair swaying but her ignoring it, her eyes pressed closed while she strummed, transported. Then a hall full of gasps louder than the orchestra as her chair slid from under her, as she fell backward on the stage, her harp plummeting on her stomach. The only thing keeping it from crushing her completely: the display of presents behind her.

It was November 27. She was 25 weeks pregnant.

Months later she'd ask the conductor about those presents. Apparently they were heavy wooden boxes covered in Christmas wrapping and ribbon. The light operator's son, apprenticing as a carpenter, had made them for the concert. Carolyn sometimes wondered if Georgia owed her life to him.

"All good news, honey," her mother had said, squeezing her hand in the neonatal unit the day Georgia opened her eyes.

Mostly all good news today, too, Carolyn thought, digging into the ice cream again. Her mother had ruined nothing. Georgia was over-the-moon and powerfully her own person. The birthday party went mostly as planned. What more could she ask?

She left the cake melting on the counter and quietly descended the stairs to the basement. She'd made Jack retrieve Georgia's presents from behind the water heater, determined not to go in there again. Yet here she was, in the middle of the night, facing off the furnace room like it owed her something.

"I didn't pay for music lessons so you could throw your life away as a musician," her father had said when she was 18.

She rested her hand on the doorknob, felt its metal cool against her palm. Opening the door, she saw the outline of the furnace, the water heater, the vents. Then she turned sharply and stared the harp down.

"Oh, honey, you'll never be the best, so why bother?" her mother had said.

As if that would've dissuaded Carolyn back then. As if it wouldn't have emboldened her further.

"Honey, did you know Anne's daughter is studying law at Harvard? She's three years younger than you."

What differentiated 1 lbs between fetus and newborn was a heart that could beat on its own, and Georgia's had been beating rapidly that day. Doctors told her to brace herself, it might not last more than a few hours. But it beat right into that first cold night, then straight into a fluke snowstorm the next day—a tiny but determined flicker that Carolyn watched for hours in the neonatal unit, and still wished she could sometimes. Now it was Georgia's breath that she watched at night, her turquoise duvet moving up and down in an oceanic rhythm, a movement of nature, reliable, miraculous. Georgia stronger and more determined than anyone could have predicted.

"Honey, don't you think it's time to pursue a real career?"

Carolyn removed the dust cloak and ran her fingers along the harp's neck and shoulder. Its curves were unblemished; the strings perfectly taut. How did it come away that day unscathed?

Four years ago, satisfaction belonged to her fingers on this harp, her eyes pressed closed, the music vibrating through her. But then she saw Georgia's tiny chest moving up and down for the first time, Georgia's heart trying so hard to live, and Carolyn knew right then she wanted to be a mom.

"I can be four on the outside and still three on the inside."

But then she saw Georgia's tiny chest moving up and down for the first time, Georgia's heart trying so hard to live, and Carolyn knew right then she wanted to be a mom.

She thought now how it was a matter of a new satisfaction grafted onto an old one; a new joy taking root, vibrating differently, but as real as before. Jack brought up the PhD application like she needed saving; but her life was her choice. He could never understand this. When she needed more, she took it. 18, she'd left home. She became a harpist. She eloped with him, a musician, whom she'd only known for three months. She lived with him in that Harlem apartment for two years until the money ran out. Then she went back to school, living on coupons and scraps from the cafeteria on campus where he worked, back to school too. She gunned for the symphony, didn't sleep more than three hours a night for years.

When she wanted something she went after it. But what more could there be now than Georgia?

Carolyn touched her fingers to the strings, the strings pressing into her fingertips, her fingertips remembering. She hummed and she remembered and that remembering stilled her. She didn't need more, she thought. But maybe both.

About the author

Christine Miscione is a Canadian fiction writer. Her short stories have either been runners-up or won contests organized by PRISM International, ELQ, Prairie Fire, and The Antigonish Review. Her debut short fiction collection, Auxiliary Skins, won the ReLit award for short fiction. She is currently at work on a novel and a short fiction collection.