Birthday Pony

Bobby Crewe couldn’t sleep for several reasons. First of all, it was hot. It was late August, and a recent spate of fall-like weather had broken his mother’s dependence on air conditioning, so now, even with the night air returning to the muggy, stagnant qualities of summer in the Midwest, she had merely opened the windows and brought in a fan. “It’s too hot,” he had complained, even before the lights went out, but Mom moved as if she hadn’t heard him. She dimmed the light, hugged him until it was hard for him to breathe, then, as he laid back on his pillows, she pulled all of his blankets up over him. “It’s too hot!” he repeated, kicking the blankets back down. “You know everyone’s had a long day,” she said and brushed his hair across his already sweating brow, then leaned to kiss him on the forehead, whispering “Sweet dreams, little angel. I love you.” Then she got up and tip-toed out, leaving the door open just a crack. He heard her whisper something to his Dad. He couldn’t hear what over the whirr of the fan. But Bobby was sure it was about Jimmy.

That was the second reason Bobby couldn’t sleep. Something was going on at the Ross’s next door. A police car had come just after dinner. Bobby had been sitting in the back yard, playing with some Transformers, lost in his thoughts. He heard Mrs. Ross let out a little cry from the front of the house and he walked around to see what was happening. He moved slowly once he saw the police cruiser in his neighbors’ driveway, Optimus Prime still clinging to his right hand. As Bobby rounded the front corner of the house, his parents had come out the front, letting the screen door bang, a noise which always led to Bobby getting a time-out if he did it. They didn’t even see him until he said “You’re both in time out!” pointing accusingly and grinning a Cheshire grin. His Dad quickly, roughly, shoo’d him towards the front porch. “Bobby, go in the house,” he said. Bobby went in. In protest, he let the screen door bang closed.

Bobby’s bedroom was upstairs, with a window facing the Ross’s home, and he went there to watch. He saw his Mom hug Mrs. Ross and Julia. Julia was crying, which made her less scary to Bobby than she usually seemed. Bobby’s Dad talked to the police man for a moment, both men with their arms folded. Then Mr. Ross pulled up in his big pick-up truck, which was weird because Bobby knew he worked at night, and he should have been at work by now. He jumped down from the truck and walked first to Mrs. Ross and Julia, but quickly turned to the policeman and Bobby’s Dad, who both put their hands in their pockets and looked at their feet for a moment. But they looked up again as they shook Mr. Ross’s hand.

Bobby suddenly wondered where Jimmy, the Ross’s oldest, was. Julia looked up and caught him in the window. Her face was streaked black with make-up and tears. Bobby had heard his mother say a girl her age shouldn’t be wearing make-up. She had lots of earrings, too, and wore mostly black. Even though she never really seemed to notice Bobby, he had always been afraid of her. At least that was how Bobby translated the way she made him feel. Fascinated might be a better word. But in that moment when she looked up and saw him staring down at her, she looked, to Bobby, like they were the same age. She looked like a little girl.

Startled, Bobby backed out of the window and went over to his reading chair. He turned on the light and opened an adventure story called “Hatchet,” about a young boy lost in the Canadian wilderness. His Mom came in to check on him shortly after. “Mom, did something bad happen next door?” he asked. Mom had started to cry, just a little, and gave Bobby a big hug.

“Yes, Bobby,” she said. “Something very awful has happened and Mommy is going to be at the Ross’s for a while, and Daddy too. But we’ll be right next door.”

“What happened, Mom?”

But Mom just let out a little noise before saying “You stay here and read. When it’s 9:00 I want you to brush your teeth and put on your pajamas. I’ll come back and tuck you in.”

“Ok, Mom…” said Bobby, but his Mom had already left the room.

Bobby climbed down from his reading chair and went back to the window. He saw Mr. and Mrs. Ross getting into his Dad’s car, both in the back seat, holding each other. Bobby’s Dad talked to Bobby’s Mom for a moment before he got into the car, behind the wheel, backed out and followed the police cruiser out of the cul-de-sac.

Bobby’s Mom put her arm around Julia and led her into the Ross’ home.

 

So a few hours later, Bobby was lying in bed, upset there was no air-conditioning on and struggling to hear, over the whirr of the fan, his Mom whispering to his Dad. He was a bright, but not very sensitive child, and while he knew something bad was going on, and he felt sorry for the people it was happening to, it was not happening to him, and his thoughts had moved on to what were, to Bobby, more important things. Like the fact that after four more sleeps, Bobby’s notation for marking the passage of time, he would be ten years old. Which was the third reason that Bobby couldn’t sleep, increasingly frustrating to Bobby, as sleeping was the only way he could make his birthday happen sooner.

On Saturday he was going to have his final soccer game of the year, and then Derrick, Justin, the other Bobby, and Quentin were all coming home with Bobby’s Dad. They were going to go see the latest Spider-Man movie, and Bobby’s Dad promised he would let the five boys sit alone in the theater, and he himself would sit somewhere else; a huge deal to Bobby. They were going to pick up pizza and soda on the way home and then have a little party and open presents. Bobby was sure he was finally getting an Xbox. Some of his friends would give him extra controllers. Some would bring the games that he had bargained with his Mom to be allowed to play. His Dad would hook it all up to the big TV in the basement and then Bobby and his friends would set up an island of sleeping bags, dig in with an all night supply of candy and Coca-Cola, and play Rayman all night long. He had played the evening through, in his thoughts, in its entirety, every night for the past couple weeks, and his excitement was reaching heights only possible in the heads of fortunate pre-adolescent children, those who understand enough of the world to see endless possibilities, but don’t yet understand limits. If Bobby didn’t stop thinking about Saturday, he would never sleep, and Saturday would never come. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was watching himself sleep, he tried focusing on the drone of the fan, he tried to make out his parents’ conversation… anything to take his mind off his birthday when, “… the game, but I think the party will have to wait until the next week,” passed through his young, excitable ears.

Bobby sat straight up. There was no chance he was going to sleep now. He climbed down from his bed and turned off the fan near the window, crept toward his door and opened it just a few inches further.

“It’s going to crush him,” came his Dad’s voice, floating down the hall, flat, stating a fact.

“I know, Rob, but I just don’t see how we can host a memorial luncheon and a birthday party at the same time.”

“No, you’re right,” said Dad, crushing Bobby. “Don’t cry, Darlene.”

“It’s just so horrible. He was such a good boy.”

“I know.”

“It’s like losing one of our own.”

“I know, Darlene. I know. I loved him too.”

“The party cannot wait until next week.” Bobby stood in the doorway, deciding to take a standing tall approach. His parents were sitting on his Mom’s side of the bed, Mom nestled under Dad’s arm, her face red and puffy, eyes swollen. The both looked at Bobby.

“Bobby, go back to bed,” said Dad. “We’ll talk with you about this tomorrow.”

Bobby pressed what he felt as his advantage. His parents were sad, they wouldn’t fight him. “You’re not taking away my birthday.” He threw in a little foot stomp.

“Bobby, tonight’s been hard for every—“

“I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING BAD!” shouted Bobby. His Mom flinched. His Dad didn’t react at first. He just looked at Bobby. That was not the effect Bobby had hoped for. “I didn’t do anything bad,” he repeated, but quieter.

His Dad stood up, and Bobby felt himself shrink. “Bobby, I know a lot happened tonight, and I know you have a lot of questions,” said Dad, turning Bobby around, pushing him down the hall with a gentle hand. “We’ll talk tomorrow, but right now, your Mom and me just need some time.”

Bobby felt himself losing control of the entire situation. His Dad was walking him back into his bedroom and his party was still ‘going to have to wait’ and this wasn’t Bobby’s fault at all so why was it happening to him? He felt a sweat break out on his brow and sobs started quaking deep in his chest. He fought it, but a sniffle escaped just as tears started to well up in his eyes. His Dad crouched down to hug him right by the side of the bed, and Bobby realized he had lost and they were not going to talk about his party and everything released, tears and sobs and sniffles.

“I know Bobby. It’s ok to cry.”

This just made Bobby cry harder. If his Dad knew how upset this was making him, then why was he still cancelling the party?

“We all loved Jimmy very much,” said Dad.

Bobby pushed away and glared at his Dad with all the shock and anger his nine, no ten year old eyes could muster and screamed “I LOVED MY PARTY VERY MUCH!” which sounded childish even to Bobby. In his embarrassment he started to cry harder. “This is Jimmy’s fault! Not mine!”

“Bobby, I know you’re upset but we’ll talk this through in the morning. You don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I do understand,” said Bobby, climbing into his bed. “You love Jimmy Ross so much that you’re punishing me.” That ought to put it in perspective for his parents.

But his Dad stood up and towered over Bobby with a grunt and a look that frightened Bobby a little bit. “Bobby go to sleep.”

“I can’t sleep. All I can think about is that I don’t get a birthday this y—“

“Then don’t sleep,” quickly, with a force that stole Bobby’s voice. “But you stay in this bed until I come and get you out of it. You’re supposed to be growing up son, and you’re acting like a baby. Sometimes things happen and plans have to change and we have to be strong for those around us and those we love.”

Bobby turned his back to his Dad and pulled his covers up to his ears.

“Bobby.”

Bobby closed his eyes very tightly. After a few moments, he heard his door close tightly and his Dad walked back down the hall. Bobby lay in bed feeling anger surge through him, but he actually fell asleep rather quickly.

 

Bobby’s Dad never came and got him out of bed. The next morning Bobby got up and went downstairs. His Mom was sitting at the counter in the kitchen looking through an address book, making notes. She didn’t look up when Bobby came in, his Spider-Man pajamas half twisted around his little body. “Good morning Mom,” he said.

“Good morning Bobby,” she responded, without looking up.

Bobby stood there for a moment, waiting for more. An offer of cereal, a hug, a ‘what would you like to do today?’ anything. When it didn’t come he went to the refrigerator and got out the orange juice.

Mom’s phone rang and she answered it before the first tone finished. “Hi Mary,” she said.

Bobby pulled one of the breakfast bar stools over to the cabinets to climb up and get a glass, something he was never supposed to do. He was short for his age. He hated the fact that he couldn’t yet reach the lowest cabinet shelves on his own. His Mom didn’t look up.

“We’re keeping it together,” she said. “I think we’re all still in shock.”

The stool wobbled as Bobby began his climb.

“He was just being a kid,” she continued. “They were riding their bikes down by the river. Some of them had skateboards. I guess they built a ramp on the footbridge and were launching themselves into the water. It was so hot yesterday.”

Bobby was kneeling on the seat, using one hand to steady himself on the back of the stool, and reaching with the other to open the cabinet. Mom was listening on the phone, making a list of names on a pad in front of her. As Bobby pushed himself up using the back of the stool, it wobbled. He paused to steady himself.

“The divers said his jeans got caught in the chain, and the bike tire hit the bottom, the river’s not that deep there, got wedged between some rocks and the mud on the bottom,” said Mom, her voice breaking a little. “The boys said they thought he was goofing around and no one jumped in to find him right away.” A pause. “How do you think they’re doing? Adam Koblewski hasn’t spoken more than a few words. He’s the one who finally jumped in to see what was wrong. I think he almost drowned trying to pull Jimmy out.”

Just as she said that, Bobby was pulling the glass from the shelf, but he looked over at his now crying Mom, trying to absorb this new detail from yesterday’s events, and the stool swiveled, tipped, he quickly moved his reaching arm to find a stable surface, and the glass flew, the stool fell, and Bobby crashed down, glass shattered.

“Let me call you back,” said his Mom, already up and moving toward Bobby.

He started crying immediately, more scared than hurt, even though it was a pretty bad fall.

“What are you doing?!?” screamed Mom, before she was even clear on what had just happened or whether Bobby was okay or not.

“I wanted orange juice,” he said, sobbing.

Bobby’s Mom sat down on the floor and hugged Bobby, hard. His face pressed hard to her breast, he felt her spasms and she began to cry too. She squeezed tighter. “You’re hurting me,” he tried to say, but it came out muffled.

She held him like that for a minute. Both of them crying until their eyes were red.

 

That night Bobby had nightmares about drowning. He could not get the image out of his head, Jimmy from next door, struggling at the bottom of the river. Jimmy was big. He was in high school. He drove a car and listened to loud, angry music. Jimmy was strong. But in Bobby’s dream, it was Bobby who had to dive in to try to save him. He was there on the side of the river, and all the other kids were staring at the water. In the dream, everyone knew Jimmy was drowning, they weren’t confused, or thinking Jimmy was playing with them, they were just waiting. Bobby was crying and then his Dad was next to him saying “You’re supposed to be growing up son, and you’re acting like a baby.” In the dream, Bobby understood his Dad wanted him to dive in and save Jimmy, but Bobby was scared. His Mom was there on her phone, sobbing silently. Julia was staring at Bobby, her make-up running down her face. Then Bobby walked into the river, and as he dove under, he thought it odd that it was so bright under the surface, the water was clear, and it seemed like lights were on somewhere. And then he saw Jimmy, and knew he was already dead, floating straight up, right ankle stuck in the gears of his bicycle, body rigid, neck bent, eyes open and upward, like the image of a man hanging had been spun around and the world above the water was pulling on the body with a force stronger than gravity…

 

Over the next few days Bobby moped around more than anything else. His Mom and Dad thought that the tragedy had finally sunk in for Bobby and tried to talk to him about it, but Bobby didn’t want to talk about it. He spent most of his time in his reading chair in his room. Bobby did understand what had happened, and he was horrified by it, but he was still mourning his birthday party more than he was mourning Jimmy. And he was ashamed. He didn’t want to talk to his parents about it, because he felt ready to lash out, and a sense of self-preservation told him this would not be a good idea. So he stayed in his room and avoided conversation.

When he got tired of reading, he would just stare out the window. Julia had been spending a lot of her time in the Ross’ back yard, and since there was no fence, Bobby felt self-conscious playing out there while Julia was also out there. He also would have felt like he had to say something to her, and he didn’t know what to say. In a way, he was mad at her that her brother got hurt and that had cancelled Bobby’s birthday party, which he knew was terrible, and never would have admitted to anyone, but was afraid she’d be able to read it on his face. Bobby had shared the bus stop at the end of the cul-de-sac with her for years, but there was just enough of an age gap between them to keep him from ever really knowing her. He was about to turn ten and enter the fifth grade. Julia had just finished at their elementary school, the kind that ran kindergarten through eighth grade. She would be starting high school this fall. Her brother Jimmy would have been a senior there.

When Julia went and sat in the back corner of her yard, Bobby could see her from his window. She would sit at the base of Jimmy’s tree and stare out at the empty field behind their houses. She usually had ear-buds in, and Bobby wondered what she was listening to.

He called it Jimmy’s tree because Jimmy and his friends had put a rickety looking tree-house in it a few years ago. Bobby’s Mom had been mad when the Ross’s let Jimmy build it. She thought it looked unsafe and made Bobby promise never to go up there. Bobby had just shrugged and said “sure mom.” He never played with Jimmy or Julia anyway. But Bobby had always hoped to be invited up there. He was at an age when secret places, private places… kid places, were sacred. But he had never been invited, he and his friends contented themselves with sheet forts anchored with pillows and cushions, close to the ground.

Julia never went up into the tree-house. She just sat at the base of the tree, staring out into the fields.

 

On Saturday, Bobby didn’t even want to go to his soccer game. The other boys would be there and would wish him happy birthday and remind him he wasn’t getting his party until next week and things would be just horrible. But his Mom was too busy to hear his objections. Bobby followed her around as she made quick phone calls, giving directions and information about times and things to bring, organizing food for the luncheon, saying nice things about Jimmy and commenting on how tragic this all was. Every once in a while she’d glance in his direction and say “Bobby, get ready… Mrs. Thorant will be here at 9:30,” but Bobby could tell this was more reflex than anything else. There was no muscle behind it. She hadn’t yet said Happy Birthday.

And so when 9:30 rolled around and Bobby was still in his Spidey-suit and the Thorant’s car pulled in with car-pool kids in tow and started honking the horn, Mr. Crewe, freshly shaved and tying a black necktie, became the muscle.

“Bobby,” he said loudly, appearing in the TV room, “Your friends are outside and you’re making them late for their last game. Your Mother and I have to leave fifteen minutes ago for Jimmy’s… for the service, and you’re making us late too. You have five minutes.” Again, no Happy Birthday.

Bobby was about to unleash his objections to this treatment on his, HIS, birthday, no matter whose ‘service’ was being held, but Bobby’s Dad had disappeared from the room as quickly as he had appeared, leaving Bobby staring impotently at a cartoon he hadn’t even been paying attention to. Five minutes later, his Dad stood in the doorway again, now with tie tied and jacket on. He looked at Bobby for just a second and Bobby shrunk a little further back into the couch. For the first time this morning, he considered he may have pushed things just a little too far. But Bobby’s Dad just walked out. Bobby heard the front door slam and through the front curtain could make out his Dad’s silhouette walking toward the car in the driveway. A few seconds later the car backed out. Bobby waited for his parents to come back, but all he heard was his Mother’s heels walking across the kitchen linoleum, and the door to the garage open and close. He knelt up on the couch and peeked through the curtain as the car backed out of the garage and drove away.

 

A few hours later, Bobby was wearing a suit, over at the Ross’s, trying desperately to stay away from everyone. His parents had come home from Jimmy’s funeral service to find Bobby dressed and ready to go, but initially, after their unexpected departure, he had continued to sulk. In his parents’ absence, he had rummaged around the house and found the supplies for his now cancelled party, all Spider-Man themed; paper plates and napkins, plastic masks instead of party hats, a pin-the-tail-on-The-Green-Goblin game, wrist mounted silly-string “web-shooters,” lots of things. It was all stored in the walk-in pantry off the kitchen. He had taken it all up to his room, feeling conflicted as he did it. He was terrified when he pictured his Dad’s reaction, but he envisioned his Mom tearing up as she realized how much she had hurt Bobby by taking his birthday away; ultimately Bobby felt kind of giddy and queasy inside as an unfamiliar little voice echoed in his head, telling him to stop acting like this, but instead of listening to this new-found advisor, he just kept on. He carried the party favors up in a few trips, and on the last one he saw his parents’ bedroom door, open just a crack…

The voice in his head turned to a shout, and with each step he took, it got louder, finally becoming a claxon-like naval alarm, but the stubborn boy inside Bobby was winning this fight. He went first to his Mom’s closet and slid the door on its runner, looking up and down, in the corners. Nothing. He giggled a little, slightly crazed as he crossed the room to his Dad’s closet, repeating the same process. Nothing again. And then, just as he was about to accept the fact that this was going too far, and just as he was considering that he should go and put everything back in the pantry, get dressed, be ready when his parents got back… he saw the bed. And as he lay down on the floor and raised the low-hanging blanket, first he saw a few rolls of wrapping paper, and he knew he had found it. The X-Box. And then he was holding it. The box seemed so big in his little arms. His Mom hadn’t even wrapped it. His feet carried him down the stairs like co-conspirators, possessed.

He glanced briefly at the TV in the living room. It was nice, but it was the old TV. The prize was in the basement. Just a few months ago, the basement had been converted from a cold, cobwebbed, concrete dungeon into the family’s entertainment center. Mounted onto the wall was a huge screen. Bobby didn’t know how big it was in numbers, but before they had hung it, Bobby had laid next to it on the floor. It was longer than Bobby was tall. Bobby remembered how his Dad had grinned when the men had delivered it.

Bobby flipped on the light at the bottom of the basement stairs. He stared at the big black rectangle on the wall, and then his heart sank. All the wires had to be fed through a tube behind the dry-wall. The entertainment center stood in a tower to the right of the screen. Bobby had watched, fascinated and impatient as his Dad, with Jimmy and Mr. Ross, had fed the plastic tube behind the wall and then patched it up, then fed wires using straightened coat-hangers. It had taken the three of them to make the final connections, because two had to hold the TV while the third plugged in the various cables and then pulled back the slack from the end by the entertainment rack, until the screen was snug against the wall, hanging on sturdy, mounted hooks. Clearly, Bobby was not going to be able to hook this up on his own.

But instead of going back to the TV in the living room, or better still, putting the box back beneath his parents’ bed, safe in the knowledge it would ultimately be his, Bobby began struggling with an oversize, plush recliner, slowly inching it toward the spot under the TV. He turned it sideways to the wall, giving himself the arm of the chair as a perch to stand on. From this height, he could just stretch his left hand over the top of the TV with his right hand on the bottom. By Bobby’s reckoning, he’d be able to lift the screen and pull it off the hooks, then rest it on the armchair while he connected the proper cables, then hang it back out the wall. Easy. But what happened was this.

As he balanced on the arm of the reclining chair, which, as anyone who has ever attempted to balance against a wall knows, is oddly difficult, as he focused on his footing while also trying to manipulate his arms around the large piece of furniture, the back of the chair reclined, the footpiece swung out, and as Bobby lost all balance he inadvertently put all of his purchase into his left hand, clawed over the top of the TV, after which, gravity took over, pulling Bobby, TV, hooks, bits of drywall, all… tumbling down over the chair and onto the floor, cracking the screen, trapping Bobby underneath.

 

Bobby was oddly calm as he pulled himself out from under the oversized screen, collected the still unopened Xbox package and trudged up the stairs, turning off the light and pulling the door to the basement closed. He put the box back under his parents’ bed, and then made a few trips up and down the stairs to return all of the party favors he had pillaged from the pantry. His mind was blank as he dug his suit, the one purchased for him for his Great Aunt Florence’s funeral last spring, out of the back of his closet. He went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth, wetted his hair down, and got dressed. He didn’t even grab a book as he left his room and went and sat in the living room downstairs and stared out the front window. When his parents came in, they found him dressed and ready to go.

 

 

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