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‘“Make a wish, sweetie.” Mommy whispered. “Anything you want.”
Our family room had been transformed into Pooh’s Thinking Spot for my seventh-birthday party. I sat on a plastic log and there was a paper tree hanging behind me. Blue balloons floated everywhere. The room was filled with my friends who were dressed in bright orange and pink costumes. In front of me was my birthday cake, a yellow batter honey pot with thick blue butter cream icing and marzipan bees resting atop smears of honey. I looked up at Mommy. She smiled and motioned for me to blow out the candles. I thought hard for a second, sucked in my breath, then released it with all my might.’
The alarm buzzed. I held onto memories of my magical seventh birthday for as long as I could. Dad always conveniently forgot. My therapist told me it was because he’s a busy man and he couldn’t put a whole day aside for me. I knew a darker truth. He had taken Mommy away and he felt his guilt most keenly on my birthday.
I forced myself to stop thinking about Dad and got dressed. Today would be different. After all, the most popular girls in school had offered to throw me a ‘Thrilling Thirteenth’ slumber party. I went to the kitchen, gathered my homework together, and stuffed it into my backpack. I saw a bundle of cash and a note on the table.
“Suzy”, it said, “here’s some money for the pizza and anything else you girls might need. I’m sorry I can’t be there. I have to work late tonight. I should be home by 9. Happy Birthday!”
I crumpled the note, dropped it to the floor, and crushed it under my foot. Why did he have to come home at all? He would ruin everything. I wished he’d been taken away by the police six years ago and I had never seen him again. I headed for the bus stop.
‘“Daddy?” I asked. He tore his gaze away from the TV, where men were throwing a ball around, and grinned at me.
“Yea Suz?” he said, opening his arms to me. I climbed into his lap and buried my head in his warm chest.
“Why do I have to walk home alone?” I asked. “The woods are scary. I know Mommy needs her rest, but I thought she liked picking me up.” I was so scared of the dark forest path and I knew Daddy would make it better.
Daddy jerked and grabbed my arms. He stared into my eyes, looking utterly confused. “What did you say?” he demanded.
“I don’t wa-want to walk alone. It it ma-makes me scared.” I stammered.
“No, no. . . Mommy resting?… oh no. Suzy, how long? How many times have you. . .?” He lifted me off his lap and stood. He looked mad.
“Well, I-I..” I stuttered. What was so wrong about Mommy sleeping? She said it made her feel good inside. Why was he mad about that?
But Daddy wasn’t listening to me anymore. He said a forbidden word and called out Mommy’s grown-up name. “Don’t worry Suz, I’ll make sure you don’t walk home alone anymore,” he growled before running to find Mommy. I was about to follow when I heard the bathroom door slam shut. Daddy yelled something I didn’t understand and Mommy shrieked. I heard a crash and the soft tinkle of glass shards falling to the floor.
“I thought you quit, Jane,” Daddy yelled. “ You said you quit!” I buried my head into a pillow, but the angry words still found me.
Mommy sobbed. "I did, but...” she choked out.
“There’s no excuse! Suzy knows!” he bellowed. “What are you thinking?” I was terrified. “Get rid of it.”
“Wait! No, don’t…” Mommy protested.
“Where is it? …”
Daddy gasped. “Dear Lord Above! Could you possibly hoard anymore?” The toilet flushed and Mommy shrieked. I curled into a ball and tried to block out the fight.’
At the bus stop I joined the herd of middle schoolers milling around. In the center of the mob Lucy, Rose and Jane, the queens of Oakland Junior High. were paying attention to their phones.
“Hello,” I said tentatively. I never knew how to approach these girls. Lucy looked up and recognized me. She seemed disappointed that I wasn’t someone else.
“Oh, it’s you.” She said, hint of disapproval in her velvet voice. “What do you want?”
“I just wanted to make sure you’d be at my house a six. I can have the pizza ready.” She looked confused for the briefest moment, then grinned and hugged me. I just stood there, baffled by the sudden change.
“Right! It’s your b-day! You can bet your life we’ll be there at six! Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she giggled and turned back to her friends. As I walked away, I could hear them laughing about something. I wondered if I would act strange if I were popular.
‘Why hadn’t Mommy picked me up? I was walking home alone, in the dark. Nothing looked familiar. I started to panic. I ran and ran, and then my house was there. When I threw open the door, the warm air rushed out to greet me, wafting away my fears.
I found Mommy in her bed. She hugged me lovingly. Then she forgot about me and stared in the distance. I smiled, happy that she was getting her rest.’
Memories haunted me all day. Pleasant memories of days spent with Mommy. Horrible flashbacks of the police coming and taking her away while my father watched from the side.
Despite my unwanted visits to the past, I was determined to enjoy every second of my birthday. My classmates didn’t make it easy. They kept staring at me. They turned away to avoid me. They whispered behind my back. I had more attention than I’d ever gotten before, and not in a good way. Lucy, Rose and Jane were the only people who would look me in the eye. I checked everything, my clothes, my face, my hair, but I could find nothing wrong.
At six, I was glad that I wasn’t having a huge party. Although nobody but the Middle School Queens was willing to spend time with me, all I needed to do was impress them. After that, everyone would love me. That’s how popularity worked. They arrived at the same time as the pizza.
They pushed past me into the Family Room. As they plopped onto the couch, I winced.
‘I walked into the Family Room, licking peanut butter from dinner off my fingers. Mommy was sprawled in the same position I’d last seen her. Surely it was time to say sorry by now. I went over and shook her. “Wake up Mommy,” I cried. Her skin was cold and stiff. Her face was pale. Tears were streaming down my face. Why wasn’t she waking up?’
“Hey. HEY!” Lucy snapped her fingers in my face. “What’s your problem?”
I shook my head, trying to focus. All that mattered right now was the party. I smiled and shrugged. “Nothing. I just spaced out, I guess.”
Lucy peered at me suspiciously, “Whatevs. We were just saying we should play a game.”
“What kind of game?” I asked.
Lucy thought for a moment, though it seemed to me she knew exactly what game she wanted to play. “Maybe a reenactment would be fun?”
Jane clapped. “I LOVE acting!” she squealed, “We should totally do…”
Lucy interrupted with a wave of her hand. “Yea, that sounds great Jane. But I’ve got a better idea.” She paused before going on, “We should reenact a death.”
Suddenly I felt uneasy. These were the girls who screamed at feeding frenzies in biology class videos. I didn’t see why they would want to act it out during my party. But instead of protesting, Jane and Rose were enthusiastic. “Uhh… whose gonna die?” I asked.
Lucy began ticking names off on her fingers. “Well, we could do Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson . . . wait! Your mother died, right?” She looked at me expectantly. I was shocked. I laughed nervously.
“I don’t really want to. . .” I objected.
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. Jane can be your Mom,” Jane immediately hunched over and started moaning. “You can be yourself . . .”
There was no way I could do that. “I can’t . . .”
“Fine, I’ll be you, and Rose can be the drug dealer.” Lucy nodded at Rose, who hobbled over to Jane and pretended to jam a package into her hands.
Jane perked up and giggled. “Oh thank you kind druggie. I shall feel so much better now.” She imitated swallowing countless pills, then fell over and began panting.
“Please don’t,” I pleaded. Why were they doing this to me?
They ignored me. Lucy hurried over to Jane, who’d faked death, and shook her.
“Wake up, Mommy!” she wailed in a high voice. I gasped. I’d done just that when Mommy hadn’t moved. But . . . nothing else seemed right . . .
Something clicked. A memory that had been creeping at the edges of my mind flashed before me. She wasn’t dead because of an overdose. Not at all.
‘Another frightening walk through the woods just days after Mommy promised to stop taking the pills. As I opened the door, I wondered why Mommy couldn’t come this time. She probably had a good reason. She’d explain and say sorry. It would never happen again.
“MOMMY!” I called. No response. I finally found her in the kitchen, bent over a glass of water and one of those plastic bottles.
“Mommy, what…?” When she looked up I stumbled backwards. She was grinning like a maniac and her eyes were crazy. I immediately knew she wasn’t herself.
“Hi Swee…” Mommy began before trailing off. I tried to deny it. This couldn’t be happening. Daddy had gotten rid of all the pills.
Mommy had snapped out of her reverie. “You know what… think I’m gonna… just have to…” She struggled out of her seat and tripped towards the couch. Once there, she collapsed into a heap and started snoring.
I stood in the kitchen, trying to calm my racing mind. Daddy had gotten rid of the pills. Mommy had promised not to take them anymore. So why was this happening? Then I was angry. Rage crashed through me in waves. She had promised. Daddy would find out, and they would fight again. How could she do that? My body burned as the anger swelled and grew. I would make her understand. Then she’d never do it again. She’d stop, and things could go back to normal.
I stormed towards her sleeping form. There was a pillow in my hand. There was a cushion over her face.’
‘Her arm reached out. She moaned. She tried to turn her face away. I pushed harder. She had to understand.’
‘Her moan turned into a whimper, then to silence. She’d say sorry now…’
I couldn’t have. I was having a nightmare. That had to be it. This was a product of my imagination. But I could smell pizza. I could hear Lucy laughing, and Rose high-fiving Jane. That didn’t happen in dreams.
‘A plush pillow. A soft moan.’
“NOOO!” I forced it away. It had to get away.
‘Her arm reaches out. She whimpers now.’
There is no way . . . right?
‘Blinding rage. She needs to understand.’
I can’t hear Lucy anymore. Guilt, overwhelming guilt. I . . . No, I didn’t. She is Mommy. I love her.
‘Mommy glows in the soft candlelight of the cake as she laughs.
Her face turns away. I push down harder.’
I’m a murderer.
‘I can hear her gasp, feel tremors from her body. . .
“Make a wish,” Mommy whispers. “Anything you want.”’