The speakers below the brightly lit stage announce Happy Birthday, the animatronic mouse opening and closing his mouth as the little girl looks on. A medley of oldies songs streams forth from behind the robot band. She watches the empty eyes of the enormous gorilla flit unnaturally back and forth as his hands hover above the blinking neon keyboard. She smiles as the cheerleader backup singer moves her head in time with the jerky movements of her pom-pom hands.
She sits at the head of a paper-covered rectangular table, filled to bursting with steaming hot jumbo-sized pizzas and plastic pitchers of bubbly soda. She watches the pink and purple balloons tied to her chair sway gently under the air conditioning. She clasps her hands under her chin and clinches her jaw. She feels happy. She’s turning 8 today.
All around her, the muffled conversations and intermittent squeals of delight recede into the background of her sensory overload. She sips lemon lime soda through a chewed-up straw and nibbles at a slice of pepperoni pizza.
Her mother comes up behind her and places a hand gently on her shoulder to turn her around. She looks up at her lovingly. Then he appears beside her and wraps one territorial arm around her mother’s waist. His other hand juts out awkwardly in front of the little girl’s face. She looks down at the tiny blue package. It is bowless with hurried edges. She scowls at it but takes it from him when her mother opens her eyes wide and mashes her lips together, an instruction. Say thank you.
Thank you, she says and turns around, pulling the straw back into her mouth.
I don’t understand why she keeps rejecting me like that, he says. She’s just excited, that’s all. She’ll open it soon, you’ll see, she says.
The music is so loud that she can’t decipher their whisper-shouts, but the twisting in her belly makes her feel like she’s done something wrong. She puts the greasy slice back down on the paper plate and closes her eyes. A little friend with colorful beads on swinging braids skips over to the table. She claps with joy, and her laughter brings the little girl’s spirits back up. Let’s go get some tickets, she says and reaches out her hand. The little girl rises from her plastic chair and follows her friend to the row of Skee-Ball machines, ringed with flashing bulbs and trilling sounds.
They try their hands at the game, flinging the heavy balls up the ramp, aiming for the center, but mostly missing, sometimes having to catch the ball as it rolls back down toward their feet. Then they relocate and make many unsuccessful attempts at catching a stuffed toy with a giant gleaming claw. As they start to migrate toward the Miss Pac-Man machine, the overhead speaker beckons them back to their table. Cake! they scream into each other’s wide-open mouths.
When they make it back, he’s waiting for her at the table, standing off to the side while her mother hands out sugary slices to already vibrating children. Are you gonna open this now or what? he says, prodding. She shakes her head and takes the gift with both hands. She tears at the paper carefully, slowly, the contents a mystery.
As the paper falls to the ground in jagged shards, she realizes it’s a cassette tape. Synchronicity by The Police. She’s never heard of them before. She looks up at him, confused, but then adjusts her face instinctively. He laughs and squats down low, wrangling her into a hug, smashing her face against his chest.
Aww, look at you two! her mother says. Wasn’t that so nice of him to bring you a special gift? The little girl looks up just as their mouths meet in a sloppy grown-up kiss.
She takes the tape back to the table and rejoins her friends. As everyone uses their voices to sing an endearingly off-key birthday song, she picks at the pink petals of icing, tasting their sweetness in tiny bits. She lowers her head and uses her plastic fork to slowly stab the cake into pitiful little crumbs.
On long, gangly limbs she stands, scanning the contents of the pantry. He walks up behind her and she startles, dropping the bag of ramen noodles onto the floor. What are you humming? he asks. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, she says and starts singing a little bit of it, her mouth beginning to bloom into a smile. Where did you hear that? Did you listen to that while you were at your father’s house? he accuses. We don’t listen to secular music in this house. Only music that glorifies the Lord.
From the couch in the other room, her mother turns her body slightly and cranes her neck toward their voices. The girl stops humming and puts the noodles back on the shelf, closes the door. He goes back to his office and sits down at his desk. He takes inventory of all of his special mechanical pencils and starts to calm down a little. She ascends the stairs to her room, thumbs a paperback Nancy Drew off the bookshelf, and plops down onto her double bed.
After a chapter or two, she bookmarks it and returns it to the shelf. She crouches down and peers underneath her bed. Dust bunnies dance in a ring around a big cardboard box. She reaches out and pulls it to herself, stops to listen for any movement downstairs, and then releases the flaps.
She removes the ratty old t-shirt that covers the contents and peers down inside. Michael Jackson, dapper in his white suit and shiny black shirt, looks up at her. He’s relaxed in his pose. Thriller written across the corner in gold. It’s one of her favorites. Holding it in her hands now, she instantly remembers it as the soundtrack of the before times, when she had her mother all to herself. The French toast Saturdays, the cuddly movie nights, the dance parties with just the two of them. Their own little bubble.
She moves Thriller to the side and stacks two Fleetwood Mac LPs on top of each other, then stacks those on top of Michael. Then the flash of red, blue, and yellow streams across her face. She looks down and sees the tape, Synchronicity. She frees it from its plastic case and pops the tape into the boombox. She pushes play and fast forwards to Every Breath You Take. Every move you make, I’ll be watching you. His grip seeps out through the speakers. A familiar feeling descends into her stomach.
She turns and sees him standing at the top of the stairs. Oh good, he says. Put those back in the box and bring them downstairs. We’re having a little bonfire.
She stops the tape, stows it back in its case and stuffs everything back into the box. She pauses on her way downstairs to peer through the blinds out into the backyard. She sees him standing in the shed squirting lighter fluid into the smoker, flames licking the sides, growing hotter and taller.
She passes her mother in the kitchen busying herself with the dishes in the sink. She pauses and starts to speak but the words are a log jam in her throat. She clutches the box to herself as she descends into the backyard and walks toward the shed.
He’s stabbing the vinyl and plastic and paper down into the shell of the smoker. Give me the box, he says, impatient. She takes out the tape and holds it up, her eyes pleading. But you gave me this one, she says. His only response is to snatch it away and dump it into the fire. Then Michael follows, and then Fleetwood Mac. Donna Summer and Olivia Newton-John find their way into the flames too.
Her mother watches from the kitchen window as a little piece of time is snuffed down into the ash. She sees the tears in her eyes before she backs away, out of sight. She chokes back tears of her own and pushes the bile of confusion and sadness back down into her gut. She moves closer to the barrel and watches, bewildered, warming her hands in the orange glow.