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Kids Fiction

I forgot to buy my niece a birthday present.

It’s unforgivable, really. There’s absolutely no excuse. Forgetting my nephew’s birthday? Understandable. I see him twice a year at most, and his birthday is in September, the same month as at least four of my closest friends, and I can’t keep track of the days. Go on, ask me when his birthday is. See? I have no idea.

My niece, though. I see her all the time. I pick her up from school, because I’m the only one who isn’t at work when school ends, and I can’t let my sister enroll her in an afterschool program. I remember those programs, the anarchy of children trapped at school. The hours playing alone on the playground, pretending I was a horse, or inside, playing with Transformers and Lincoln Logs and other toys I didn’t see the point of.

No, I don’t want her to go through that.

She’s been talking about her sixth birthday for over a year. When she was four, she counted down the days to her fifth birthday, until it got to be the week of, and she burst into tears because she wasn’t turning six. Her daily countdowns to her birthday are one of the most consistent things in my life. We even celebrate her half birthdays.

Maybe it is a bit understandable that I forgot. Our conversations are so oversaturated with talk of birthdays that I became numb to the countdown, and now her birthday—her birthday party—is  tomorrow, it’s 10 PM, and there’s no open stores or even overnight delivery to save me now.

What was it that she said she wanted? A dollhouse? Or was it a stuffed animal, a shark, maybe? Her favorite animal is an elephant. I can work with that. I’ll draw her an elephant. A card! Yes, that will work.

It’s only after I’ve grabbed a pencil and paper that I remember I can’t draw. I take out my phone and look up a tutorial. One minute into the video, I crumple and throw aside the paper, because it turns out that elephants are hard to draw, and I know she’ll see right through a shoddy sketch of an elephant. I close the video and start a search for what to buy a six-year-old. Nothing in my budget, nothing I can get by tomorrow. She’s too young for cold, hard cash. Tickets to something, maybe? A stage version of Frozen?

I nearly faint when I see the cost of tickets.

I’m desperate now, so I start digging in my closet and under my bed. A floral scarf? No, that’s probably a choking hazard, or something. Socks? No, that’s ridiculous, who would want used socks? She might like this hat, but it’s too big for her. I scan my bookshelf and briefly wonder if it would be inappropriate to give her one of my two copies of Walden. (Yes.)

Frustrated, I flop on my bed and call my mom. “Hey. Do you still have all my stuff in boxes? Okay. Yes. No. Okay. I’m coming over. I’ll explain when I get there. Yeah. Okay. See you soon.”

At my parents’ house, I dodge hugs and questions and head straight for the basement. My mom trails behind me and shows me where the boxes are. She asks what I’m doing, and when I say I forgot my niece’s birthday, she doesn’t even try to hide the disbelief on her face. “How? She talks about it every day.” I wave her off. I know what I’ve done. It’s not her birthday yet, and I can still fix this.

Going through boxes of my old belongings is always a dangerous endeavor. When I still lived here, I would bring up a box, determined to sort through and get rid of its contents, but I would inevitably end up laying on my stomach in the middle of my room, feet kicked up behind me as I read journal entries and yearbooks and notes from friends. Then I would take pictures and send them to friends from school, and next thing I knew I’d be on the phone, walking down memory lane, and the box would get packed up with not a single item missing.

This time, though, I’m on a mission. I go straight for the boxes of toys, and take inventory:

Puzzles and board games, their cardboard boxes taped tightly shut.

A Barbie van, big enough for two parents and two kids. The American dream in miniature.

The Barbies themselves, so numerous that I’m embarrassed to share the exact number. They’re all still in their outfits from the last time my best friend came over in fifth grade. We had concluded that we were too old for dolls, so we threw our them a going away party (quite the bash, if I remember correctly), then packed them away with a promise to never again occupy ourselves with such childish things.

A fair number of Build-A-Bears, which I’d like to say I got at birthday parties, but the truth is that I wasn’t invited to many birthday parties, especially not fancy ones like that, so I got most of them on mall trips with my mom, where she’d patiently wait as I thought up the perfect name for my newest stuffed friend.

There are so many toys here. I can’t believe I ever asked for more. How was this not enough? I can see the phases I went through, which my parents indulged, making up for what, I’m not sure. I stop myself from changing a Barbie’s outfit, and sit on the basement floor, surrounded by ghosts of myself. There is nothing here I can give her. It’s all outdated, musty despite my mom’s heroic efforts to keep the basement tidy.

I’m going to show up at this party empty handed. I’ll have to lie and say her present hasn’t arrived yet. She’ll say it’s okay, because we’ve taught her to be polite, but she won’t be able to hide the disappointment on her face. She’s old enough to know that it’s not hard to make sure a present arrives on time.

There is still time to learn how to draw an elephant, I think, when suddenly my eye is drawn to a shelf in the corner, and I see her: my lookalike doll. We mailed my first-grade school picture to some factory far away, and in return they sent me a doll that was supposed to, but didn’t, look like me. I knew that, but I pretended I didn’t, and I carried her with me everywhere for about a year. She was my closest friend that year. My mom complained that people in the grocery store gave her funny looks, because even if the doll didn’t look like me, she did resemble some child.

And maybe I’m desperate, or maybe it’s dark down here, but I know now what child she looks like.

I spend the morning unable to focus on anything, and I arrive at the party far too early, my gift tucked in a brown grocery bag. I feel bad about that, too, but I printed a picture of an elephant and glued it over the store logo, so I think it’s fine. When she sees me, my niece runs over and throws her arms around me. “Happy, happy birthday!”

“I’m six!”

“I know!”

She eyes the bag. “Did you go to the store? Did you get chips? Mommy forgot to buy chips.” She says this quietly, with a touch of disdain, as if her poor mother’s efforts on the cake and decorations and guests is all undermined by the absence of chips.

“Nope. This is your present. Would you like to open it?”

She glances over her shoulder and whispers, “I’m supposed to wait to open my presents.”

“Well, this present is from me, and I say you can open it.”

Her face splits in a wide grin, and I hand over the bag. She runs her little fingers over the elephant. “I love him,” she murmurs before peeking inside and taking out the shoebox inside. I feel bad about that too. “Did you get me shoes?”

“Open the box.”

She lifts the lid, and squeals. I can’t help my smile. “She looks like me! You got me a sister!”

In all my worries, I’d forgotten that she’s an only child who has always desperately wanted a sister. I decide to let her think that was my intent, so I say, “I sure did! Do you like her?”

“I love her,” she says, pulling the doll in for a hug, their dark curls mingling so that I can’t tell where one ends and the other starts.

Even though I haven’t picked up this doll in nearly fifteen years, I still feel a pang seeing her in the arms of a child who is not me. I need to let her go, but before I can stop myself, I say, “Her name is Rachel.”

There is only so much I can give away.

October 03, 2020 01:42

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18 comments

Rexiho Fleur
20:00 Mar 31, 2021

Hello! Man, I need to stop looking at those old stories. :) JK. This was so good! I could almost feel the aunt’s anxiety and fear. It so funny about the chips!

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23:02 Apr 08, 2021

Sorry for the late reply! I love getting comments on my older stories :) That was a fun one to write because I spend so much time with my actual niece (whose birthday I did not forget!)

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Thom Brodkin
16:34 Oct 05, 2020

I've discovered over the years that the things I put in bins in my closet or basement or attic are not valuable for what they are, they are valuable because they are time machines that take us to different points in our lives and help us to remember different versions of ourselves. It's why giving them away is so hard. Most anything can be replaced by a duplicate, but it's never quite the same. It doesn't look exactly the same or feel exactly the same or smell exactly the same. That being said I think we all love it when they get a secon...

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01:09 Oct 07, 2020

Yes, you've put it into words perfectly: the things we hold onto are little time machines. In my desk I have a tattered yellow folder of notes and drawings from a good high school friend of mine, and I can't imagine losing those things, even though they don't appear to have any worth at all. My journals from first and second grade are special, too - they never fail to make me laugh. I wouldn't pass either of those along to a child, which is something that sets that kind of sentimental object apart from something like a doll. I'd much rather ...

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Thom Brodkin
12:35 Oct 07, 2020

I have game day tickets of sporting events I've attended with my dad and programs from my daughters recitals. I have a tattered shirt my mom bought me on a trip to Disney more than twenty years ago and a cup that has no matches that my wife and I bought when we moved into our first apartment in Alaska. They are all portholes to memories I never want to lose. Your story helped remind me of them. One day, maybe soon, I will write a story about a time machine and it will be nothing more than a simple box of keepsakes. When I do I will know...

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20:17 Oct 07, 2020

Based on the recent prompts I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a time machine prompt sooner rather than later, but I think that's an idea you could work into any prompt. I'm glad my story reminded you of those objects, and I'd be honored to have a part in their story whenever you decide to tell it.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:33 Oct 05, 2020

So sweet! I love the simplicity of the story and the gift. I pretended I was a horse too, as a kid.

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Tobby Fadeyi
09:22 Nov 04, 2020

I really do like the way you write, I want to be you when I grow up. The way you engage your readers so effortlessly and have us feeling all sorts of stuff as we read on, amazing! Thank you. This was a beautiful read.

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14:42 Nov 06, 2020

Aw, thank you! I'm going to fold that compliment up and put it somewhere for safe keeping.

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A. K. Wilson
21:54 Oct 03, 2020

This is so cute love the reference to frozen! 😅 can relate the character been on hard times and digging through my old stuff not fun place to be lol but your story made it into.such a sweet memory thank you for sharing

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00:44 Oct 05, 2020

Thank you! My real-life, 4-year-old niece just loves Frozen, so I had to throw it in here.

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A. K. Wilson
01:56 Oct 05, 2020

Totally can relate my 4 and 3 year old love it too 😂

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Elle Clark
06:25 Oct 03, 2020

This was such a lovely and relatable story. Just beautifully written and very real. The last line was a perfect fit and I really enjoyed seeing the bond with the niece build as the story progressed. I have 100% done the thing where you start to tidy or go on a mission to throw out things and end up doing nothing except reminiscing. To be honest, I didn’t realise it was universal - I just thought it was me being easily distracted! I really enjoyed this - such a good piece of writing.

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15:34 Oct 03, 2020

Thank you Laura! I suppose there might be people out there who can throw things out without a second thought, but I'm not one of them. I brought a few bins up to my room about two months ago with the intention of cleaning them out, but all I did was look at my yearbooks and send pictures to my friends. Oops.

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Elle Clark
15:58 Oct 03, 2020

The only time I’ve ever thrown anything out from a session like that was when I found my yr 8 diary (12/13yrs old) and I couldn’t read it because it was so cringy. I threw that out with gusto (but all other diaries were kept - I was much more tolerable at 10 and 15).

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16:13 Oct 03, 2020

I still have my journals from age 12/13, and they're definitely cringe-y, but I can't part with them. I didn't write much about myself, but I did write stories that were mostly exaggerated accounts of my life with thinly-veiled pseudonyms for my friends. They are...stunning.

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Maggie Deese
03:21 Oct 03, 2020

This was so sweet, Natalie! I have loved seeing everyone's take on this prompt because you can clearly tell that they have some kind of personal meaning. I can't help but wonder if you had your own Rachel as a child! This was wonderfully written and I loved the last line. Well done!

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15:38 Oct 03, 2020

Thank you Maggie! I did in fact have a lot of dolls, mostly Barbies and American Girls, but I also had a MyTwinn doll who, like Rachel, didn't exactly live up to the 'twin' name.

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