Loneliness. Acceptance.

“50,” Henry said. A slight sigh escaped through his smile as he held up a red plastic cup in a toast to himself. He moved around a lot in the eight years after the end of the world; but, he currently made his home in the best hotel he could find. The extra rooms would come in handy for his friends at the party. The portly 50-year-old man stood in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms in his best black suit. Although most of the tables were unoccupied, a single table in front of the podium was populated with several stuffed animals.

“I couldn’t have made it to 43, much less 50 without all of you,” Henry said. He hopped off the short stage with ease and approached the table of plushes. “I’d be here for another year or two if I took time to thank every one of you,” he chuckled. “But, there is someone special I have to thank.” He approached a ratty, one-eyed stuffed unicorn with a mostly brown horn.

The person who saved my life. The person that found me, showed me the world wasn’t as bad as I thought, and introduced me to all of you.” Henry gestured at the room full of empty tables. He paused his speech to allow for imaginary applause. Then he gestured at the unicorn with the cup in his hand. “Thank you, Amalthea,” he said. He paused but did not hear imaginary applause. The next part of his speech blanked out of his mind.

“Damnit,” he mumbled under his breath. “I know I had something else.” His gaze roamed over the rest of the stuffed toys at the table hoping one of them would remind him of what he planned to say next. Five sets of marble eyes stared at him in return; two teddy bears, a bulldog, a clown, and a frog. All in various states of disrepair with stains, loose strings, and leaking stuffing.

Henry had fond memories of his father’s 50th birthday party and his 75th. His father always made a big deal about milestone birthdays for everyone in the family, and that habit stuck with Henry. When the world ended at 42 he thought his 50th birthday was doomed to failure until he found friends. Now he had more friends than he knew what to do with and had been stressing out about making his special birthday perfect. He practiced the speech dozens of times and each time he forgot something new. He hoped that now, in the final moments, he’d find his way through. Staring at the beady, lifeless eyes before him; Henry gave up.

“This is stupid,” he said sourly. His shoulders slumped and he sighed; he dropped the empty red cup. “I’m stupid,” he mumbled with a heavier sigh. Henry was always honest with himself and was able to admit and learn from his failings. He did not mean he was stupid; but he knew deep down inside that he was on the wrong path. He had enough experience with himself to know that forgetting his speech meant he didn’t really want to give it. As much as he wanted his 50th birthday to be special, he realized making an elaborate speech came off as trying too hard. Especially as much as he practiced it.  Henry closed his eyes and concentrated on the advice Amalthea first gave him when they met.

“People can feel alone when they’re not,” she had said shortly after they met. “Even as the last man on Earth; me, and others can help fill your social needs. We’ll make sure you don’t feel alone even when you are.” Amalthea kept that promise and then some. Over the years, Henry’s excitement for milestone birthdays became common knowledge. She was the one that organized the party for him.

“Yeah,” he nodded to himself with his eyes still closed. “I’m dropping the speech,” he said.

“Didn’t we already decide that?” Amalthea asked suddenly. Her voice startled Henry; he jumped in place as his eyes flew open.

“God, you scared the hell out of me,” Henry said with a chuckle. His hand was on his chest as he caught his breath. He nodded at the woman in front of him with long pink and purple hair. She wore a bright red party dress and crossed her arms with a smirk.

“So you’re still practicing the speech we decided to drop?” Amalthea asked. Henry nodded twice, then transitioned into shaking his head.

“I was, but I gave up,” he said.

“Good,” she giggled. She reached down and grabbed the unicorn, then the frog. “C’mon, let’s dump your practice audience before the guild starts showing up.”

“Too late,” Henry said with a chuckle. He gestured at the room around them. Dozens of black portals were open while his friends and guildmates walked out carrying gifts and bags.

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