“Yeah, I can come!” Brittney said. “This is going to be so frickin’ fun!”
I held the cell phone tight to my ear, dangling my feet over the edge of the dock, the cool water licking my ankles. I just couldn’t keep it a secret any longer.
“Brit, we’re goin’ to have over sixty water balloons. It was supposed to be a surprise but –“
“I bet Robbie throws all his balloons at you!” she interrupted.
Only Brittney knew how I felt about Robbie. His dark eyes, his cool clothes. I never could figure how he could play “Who Let the Dogs Out” with his arm pit like some kinda nimrod, yet still make my knees weak every time he looked my way.
He was different than the other boys and certainly not from around here. He was from California which is 2,160 miles from Peshtigo, Wisconsin.
I looked it up. Twice.
A large white crane stepped from the weed bed, its long legs high stepping through the river like a tenderfoot.
This time of day was always my favorite. The sky, purple like that, and the houses ‘cross the river all silhouettes. Black boxes with amber windows. The people nestling inside for the night. Everyone settling in while the whole world took a breath.
I watched a dark brown warmouth swim past my right foot.
“I wonder if he was ever in the movies?” I asked, my voice sounding like it was floating on clouds.
“Probably. He is from California,” Brittney said, matter-of-factly.
Mama’s voice rang across the river, “Chloe! Your Dad’s home!"
The crane stretched her long neck, listening. Her spindly legs bent backwards the way they do and she launched in the air, her wings flapping like sheets blowing on Mama’s clothesline. Made me wonder how far I’d go if I could fly like that.
“Gotta go. My dad’s home,” I said and flipped my phone shut with a snap.
“Coming!” I yelled, using my free hand to scoop up some river water and splash it onto the back of my neck as I ran towards the house.
I was glad to have Dad home and healed. The explanation Mama gave when he went away was that he was sick and had to be quarantined for two weeks. We both pretended I believed her.
We never talked about how she’d stopped wearing perfume and started spending a lot of time in her room after he’d left, how she’d stopped singing while she made supper. There’s just some things, with Mama, that nobody’s allowed to speak of. And even though she’s happier, smells like her old self again, she still don’t sing much.
“What’s up ChloeChloeDavidBowie?” my Dad said as he picked me up and swung me around the kitchen. I was, I thought, a little old for that but it was one of the things I never minded pretending to like. He says me and David Bowie are gifts from God and that always makes Mama smile.
Mama sat the meatloaf on the table and said, “Tomorrow’s the big day, huh Chloe?”
“Whatcha got going on?” Dad asked.
Trying to keep my face from frowning, I looked at Mama and she said, “Bruce, don’t be mean. You know it’s Chloe’s birthday tomorrow.”
He cocked his head like Brittney's chihuahua does when the poor thing’s confused.
“Hah! Got ya!” Dad said, pinching my cheek. “You think I’d forget double digits?” He reached across the table and pierced a slice of meatloaf. “Remember that magician you told me about? The one that Jordan had at her party?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling all tingly inside.
“Well I talked with him, worked my magic a bit and he’s coming to the party. Believe you me, he’s got a bunch of new tricks. Now, he’ll perform the same good ones he did at Jordan’s, but he’s been working on some brand new, never seen before ones that ain’t nobody ever seen!”
“Are you kidding?” I screamed and looked at Mama who smiled that short smile she makes whenever Dad gets excited about something.
“Booyah! This is the best present ever!”
I ran to Dad, gave him a big ‘ol hug. His face got all red and he grinned, making his dimples show. I poked my fingers in them like I used to do when I was a little girl.
Don’t ask me how, but I managed to sit through lunch and eat what was on my plate. Mama could tell I was antsy and wanted to tell everyone.
“Go ahead,” she laughed and excused me from the table.
Jordan always had the nicest parties and now mine was going to be even better. Water balloons AND a magician! I called everyone who’d been invited, saving Robbie for last.
“Hello,” Robbie said, his voice sounding like cotton candy and root beer.
“Guess what Robbie? I’m going to have a magician at my party tomorrow. It’s gonna be awesome! You’re still coming right?”
“Yeah. I got you a present. My Mom’s gonna drop me off at eleven.”
My heart stopped. I hadn’t even thought about what he would get me for a present. Robbie is getting me a present. I let that just sit in my head and that tingly feeling was back full blast as I spelled out Robbie + Chloe with a stick in the dirt.
“Super!” I said, grasping for something to say as this weird silence sat between us. It was like waiting for a bullfrog to burp. “I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
See you tomorrow? That’s the best I could come up with?
I said bye not wanting to but following my late Granny's advice to leave all boys wanting more.
I hung up the phone, danced, twirled and spent the rest of the day picking daisies and pulling the petals off in that He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not game. I imagined what our house would look like and how many kids Robbie and I would have, that is until I realized I had nothing to wear.
At first, I was going to wear my yellow shorts with my Harry Styles T-shirt but after talking with Robbie, I decided on my dark blue sundress. I knew I wouldn’t be able to dodge all of Robbie’s water balloons in my dress but, really, did I want to let him miss me every time? Besides, all the magazine covers say dark colors make girls look skinnier.
That night I couldn't sleep. I’d put my hair in curlers and didn’t want them to fall out so I tried to lay real still but that just made my head itch and when I tried to think about something else to forget about the itching, I came right back to Robbie and my party.
Mama and I got up really early, hung the giant banner we’d decorated, then strung the yellow and purple streamers she’d bought at Dollar General in all the trees, dangling balloons from some of the branches. Mama brought out the One Direction tablecloth, paper plates, cups AND napkins and laid everything out on our picnic table. By myself, I dragged some palettes over and made a stage for the magician, then cut out little red construction paper triangles to trim the edges.
We stood back and stared at it all. The giant pink box that held the chocolate fudge cake, the streamers, the balloons, the confetti, the stage, was all perfect.
The first car pulled up and Brittney jumped out with a big pink and yellow present. She stopped just before reaching us and squealed, “It’s frickin’ beautiful!”
I knew as soon as it come out her mouth, our day was doomed. Brittney’s Mom hated, and I mean hated, the word frickin’.
“Brittney Lynn,” her Mom said sternly from the car.
“Sorry,” Brittney said, standing right still, our eyes locked together with the same wish.
Our Mamas looked at each other and smiled and we both knew it was an aren’t-these-kids-cute smile and not the embarrassed-you’ll-be-in-trouble-later kind that would leave her grounded.
Everyone came. Carol, Jodie, Kylie, Jordan, Madison, Joey (because Mama said Robbie shouldn’t be the only boy) and, the last one to arrive: Robbie. When he handed me my present, I think he said he liked my dress but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself but I think I said thank you before he walked over to the picnic table. My head was spinning.
We played Charades, ate hamburgers and then Mama said everyone could go swimming in the river. Everybody peeled off their clothes and had their swimsuits on underneath.
“Surprise!” she said. “I knew it was going to be hot so I called everyone and told them to bring their suits. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” I said. “That’s frickin’ awesome!”
She laughed and shook her head.
All of us took turns jumping off the pier, doing our best cannonballs and measuring the biggest splash. Robbie could do backflips like an Olympic gymnast. He said it was easy and that he could teach me how and I about died when he winked at me.
“Cake and ice cream, anyone?” Mama yelled and that caught everyone’s attention. Robbie raced me back to the picnic table.
I let him win.
Mama started to light the candles and it dawned on me. “Where’s Dad?”
“He had to work but he should be here soon,” she said and began singing “Happy Birthday” extra happy in the same voice she uses when I ask her to read me one more story before bed. Everyone joined in and I made a wish that Robbie would teach me how to do backflips. I blew out all the candles in one breath so that wish’d come true.
Mama started slicing the cake. She came to the corner piece that had the most frosting and I quietly reminded her to give that piece to Robbie.
She winked at me and we watched Robbie’s eyes light up.
“Thanks Mrs. Stewart. Frosting’s my favorite part!”
Mom kicked me under the table and we both tried hard not to smile.
After cake, we broke out the water balloons. Mama and I had spent forever filling each one, piling them into two metal wash-bins. I watched as she struggled to get them all to the safe spot we had agreed upon.
“Now there are enough balloons for each of you to use six, so use them wisely," she said. "The battlefield is just beyond those two birch trees and all the way down to the riverbed. Throwing any balloons within the safe zone will get you disqualified so wait until you clear the trees. Look around out there, there are lots of places to hide.”
She clicked on the portable CD player and the theme to the Hunger Games began then cleared her throat. In her best Claudius Templesmith voice she said, “Let the games begin and may the odds be forever in your favor.”
Madison was the first one hit and she ran back for a second balloon.
I hid behind some bushes and tried not to make any noise. I heard Robbie laugh and Jordan cry out, “You butthead!”
Robbie ran up beside me. The bush was so small, our knees touched when he crouched down to hide. I let my leg lean into his and we stayed like that for a bit, watching our friends dart from tree to tree.
“I just got Jordan,” he said as if we was in our own private bubble of secrets.
We looked at each other, all smiles and high-fives.
The theme music continued to play in the distance. The sound of balloons exploding, all my friends busting a gut, carried across the river and I felt my heart swell like it might pop any second.
Robbie took off again, with his second water balloon in tow, looking for his next victim. I followed, nailing Kylie in the back.
I threw my other balloon at Joey and missed and then noticed something strange. Robbie was hiding, holding his balloon and not throwing it even though Joey and Brittney were right in the open. Jordan slinked behind a tree and when Robbie caught sight of that, he snuck up behind her, real quiet like. He shook his head a little, making his hair fall ‘cross his forehead, then he stood real tall and tossed the balloon on to the back of her legs.
“You…” Jordan yelled and started chasing Robbie.
As my grandma used to say, “I wasn’t born yesterday.” I knew what this all meant and sure enough, Robbie used the rest of his balloons on Jordan.
I quietly pierced mine with my fingernail, watched it shrink and shrivel until there wasn’t any water left.
Mom called Time! and everyone crept out of their hiding places soaking wet.
“Wow Chloe!” Robbie said. “You’re good at this game. You didn’t even get hit!”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Robbie, look at my hair,” Jordan said, piling her long brown hair atop her head, strands falling down the sides. She looked like a model and I pulled at my stupid dress, the waist suddenly cutting into my stomach.
My Dad’s red pickup pulled fast into our yard, kicking up dirt, making a big announcement, the sun lighting up the windshield like a movie marquee. At least now the magician was here. We all turned as my Dad’s car door flung open, each of us holding our breath just waiting for the guy in the tuxedo to get out of the passenger’s side.
Instead, my Dad folded out in slow motion and weaved toward us. The closer he got, the tighter the knot in my stomach got. I tried to stop my face from reddening, my eyes from tearing, but I knew what all this meant.
“ChloeChloeDavidBowie,” he yelled slurring his words and catching his foot on an overgrown tree branch.
“Who’s David Blowie?” I heard Jordan whisper to Robbie. She giggled and Robbie took a step closer to her, like she was something he needed to protect.
“Hey kids! The magician sends his apologies. He got sick and is unable to attend this fine, fine party.” He threw his arm out in a grand gesture and burped loudly, then mumbled, “A’scuse me.”
Please, please stop talking. Mama shot me that look that I had long forgotten about.
“Hey, you hungry honey?” Mama said, her eyes never leaving mine as she put her arm around Dad. “All the kids wanted to save you the biggest piece of birthday cake. Let’s go inside and find you something to eat.” She knitted her brows together, her eyes saying, This is the last time, I promise.
Don’t you think I’m a little old for that? my eyes saying right back.
“Really?” Dad said, the slurring getting worse, his legs turning to rubber. “You kids are the breast. I mean the best.” He covered his mouth with his hand, laughed way too hard and said, “My bad,” drawing his leg in like a bashful schoolgirl. He winked, snapped his fingers and pointed at me, “Double digits! Par-tay!”
Mama ushered him inside and everyone turned around, staring at me.
Brittney clapped her hands and said, “We have presents to open,” in that happy voice she uses when she feels like crying.
Brittney handed me presents and I opened them, hoping I looked happy too. Mama came back out and “oohed” and “aahed” each time I pulled the paper away. She handed out popsicles much too quickly as her eyes darted nervously toward our front door.
Mama studied me as she pulled the last popsicle for herself, but I didn’t have it in me to smile back.
“Okay! Everyone got one?” she said, her voice pretend-happy high. She raised her popsicle and everyone clinked them together like some adult dinner party.
The heat began melting them before everyone could finish and drips of purple and red ran down their arms which made me swallow hard.
Parents started pulling up which was a good thing because no one was really having a good time anymore. One by one, my guests disappeared until only Brittney was left. Mama gave me a long hug, kissed the top of my head, and went back in the house without a word, just a long exhale as she wiped her hands on the back of her jeans.
Brittney and I went down to the pier where less than an hour ago, Robbie had told me he would teach me how to do a backflip. I didn’t really feel like talking but that’s the thing about best friends. They just seem to know and can stay quiet so you aren’t alone.
Rain began to fall and the air grew muggy, heavy and tight like last year's Christmas sweater, and I stared at the dark sky realizing I never did have any idea which direction the lightning would come from.
Mama didn’t come out to check on us, didn’t remind us to get off the dock, away from the water. I knew she was placing the silver barf bowl next to the couch, pulling his work boots off, heading to her bedroom and closing the door.
“You okay?” Brittney asked.
“Yeah,” I said, watching the water bury my feet making my toes disappear, wishing the rest of me could too. “Do you think I could spend the night?”
“You know you can. My Mom said anytime was fine with her.”
The sky opened up and Brittney hugged her legs against her chest. We sat like that until the rain stopped. The laughter and play that had filled up the river was long gone, nothing but the occasional clicks of a snapping turtle left to break the silence.
“Hey look,” said Brittney, “a rainbow.”
It was one of those big rainbows that fill the sky and reflect off the water and we studied it for a long time without talking.
“Do you think the other side of a rainbow, the side no one can see, is dark?” I asked.
“No way. It’s colorful no matter which way you look at it,” she said quietly, trying to meet my eyes and adding brightly, “My Mom says it’s the reward for making it through the storm.”
I smiled back but knew that was only true for some people.