It’s time again for my annual birthday story. Writers sometimes talk of stories that write themselves. The older I get, the more elusive I find such stories to be. This one, however, did write itself. Channeling this tale brought me comfort; I hope it does the same for you.
The car’s wheels fill my eyes with shine; they go up and back and up and back, and all I am thinking is nothing but go on, go on.
Go on, Red One, go on!
Momma gets on her knees next to my race cars and says, “Hey, Ray! How old are you today?”
I have been practicing this, and I’m getting good at it. I put down my favorite car, Red One with the booster on the back, (I like Red One best because red is fastest, and fastest is always firstest. That’s a rule). I hold up my hand––a finger, a finger, a finger.
“Fffrree. I’m fffrree today.”
Momma smiles pretty. She is the prettiest one I know. She has colors on her face, like crayons, blue on her chin and red on her cheek, the colors of my birthday decorations.
“Th-th-th-thhhreee. You are thhhree years old today,” Momma says and kisses the top of my nose.
She stands up slow and makes an it hurts sound. She puts her hands behind her back and sticks out her tummy that has gotten big. Momma says there’s a sister in her tummy, but I don’t know what that means. Once, I had a hurt in my tummy after I drank too much milk. After awhile, the hurt went away. I think if Momma stops drinking milk, the sister will go away.
She goes back to birthday decorations; I go back to racing cars.
“Go on, Red One, go on! You’re fastest; you go firstest.”
The front door knocks and opens, and Nana is here. She’s carrying a red bag with handles and a bow at the top.
I scream, “Nana!” and run to hug her.
She rubs the top of my head. “Hello, birthday boy!”
Nana smells good, the goodest smell I know.
I say, “Nana, I’m fffffrreee today!”
“I know you are; that’s why I’m here!”
Nana puts the red bag on the counter. I hold up Red One for her to see.
“The bag is red like Red One.”
“Yes, it is!”
She acts surprised, but she shouldn’t be. I know all the colors, not just red.
Nana asks Momma if she can help with stuff. Momma breathes deep and puts her hands on her back again.
She says, “I think I have the decorations under control. Maybe you could keep Ray busy while I finish?”
Momma has her tired voice on. Lately she’s had her tired voice a lot, but now it’s even tired-er. I think it’s cause Nana is here. I heard Momma talking with Daddy this morning, and Momma said she doesn’t like when Your Mother comes over (Your Mother is Momma’s name for Nana, if she’s talking to Daddy), because all Your Mother wants to do is talk about the Pall Tics. I don’t know what Pall Tics are, but the way Nana talks about them, they seem like mean old things who always want to take other people’s stuff. I wonder if Oscar the Grouch is a Pall Tic. I asked Nana once, but she said I’m just a kid, so I shouldn’t worry about stuff like Pall Tics yet. But I think that’s a silly thing to say. It’s hard not to get worried now when you know you’re supposed to be worried later.
Nana sits on the couch and puts her feet by my cars. I wish she would get on the floor and play cars with me, but that’s not how Nana plays, because she says, I got ole nees. Nana’s way of playing is to sit near where I play and talk with other grownups in the room.
I tell Nana about my cars––Red One and Green One and Yellow Stripes One––she says, “Those cars are amazing!” to me, and to Momma she says, “Did you hear Inslee’s press conference last night?”
Momma breathes loud and says, “No, I didn’t catch it,” and I know by her voice that Inslee must be one of them––a Pall Tic. Momma’s sad. I don’t know if it’s because she hates the Pall Tic or because she hates that Nana wants to talk about it.
Nana talks a long time about Inslee and some other Pall Tics she calls They. Momma nods her head and doesn’t say much; she just keeps putting on decorations, which are looking cool. Race cars everywhere!
I get bored of Nana’s talking, so I play cars with myself.
“Go on, Red One, go on! You’re firstest!”
The front door opens, and Daddy is home.
I scream, “Da Da!” and I run and hug his legs.
“Hey Ray, wha’dya say?” he says.
This is the same thing Daddy always says when he comes home after playing with the cows. I know Daddy plays with cows, since I asked him before where he goes all the time, and he told me, “Daddy’s got to go make the moo la.” Cows are the only thing I heard of that go Mooo, but I always wonder why he never brings one home with him. (A cow, I mean.)
He didn’t bring a cow home today either, but he did bring a cake, not just any cake, a car cake. Daddy sets it down on the counter. I climb on a chair to look at it, and there it is, a red one that looks a lot like my Red One, but the red one on the cake has fire coming out the back.
Daddy says, “Isn’t it cool? Which part you wanna eat first?”
“The fire part.”
“Ooooooo! You think it’ll taste hot?”
“Super duper hot!”
Then Nana asks Daddy if he heard about Inslee the Pall Tic, and Daddy says, “Not today, Ma,” and Nana keeps talking anyway.
The grownups are talking to themselves while I’m talking to the red one on the cake. “Go on, red one, go on! I’m gonna eat you later!”
The car looks like it could jump right off the cake and race across the kitchen floor. I wish I could draw a car that looks that good. Whenever I draw a car, I picture one in my mind, but the picture I make on the paper never looks like the one in my mind. Maybe I could try a picture now. Maybe if I look at the one on the cake as I draw, it will come out looking good.
I jump off the chair and ask Momma to please get my crayons, but she doesn’t hear me. She’s just standing there with some rainbow paper in her hand while she watches Daddy and Nana talking the Pall Tics. They sound angry, while Momma looks kinda sad.
I ask her again, “Momma, can you please get my crayons?”
She doesn’t answer. She drops the rainbow on the floor, grabs her tummy and moans.
“Momma? You okay? What’s wrong?”
“It’s okay,” she says, “Momma’s okay. I think sister is coming.”
It’s happening. The sister in Momma’s tummy is coming out!
“Get a bowl, Momma!”
When your tummy is upset from having a sister in it, sometimes you have to throw up, so it’s best if you have a bowl in front of you; otherwise you’ll throw it all over your shoes. That happened to me before.
“No sweetheart. Momma has to go to the hospital.”
The hospital? This must be a really bad sister.
Daddy takes Momma’s arm, and they go to the car. I want to go with them to the hospital. I run for my shoes and ask Nana to help put them on, but she says, “No, sweetie. You’re staying here with me.”
Stuck at home with Nana on my birthday.
FIRE! Hot fire all inside my body. Hotter than the fire on my birthday cake.
Momma and Daddy won’t be home tonight. That’s what Nana told me, but that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is also not that the only friend who came over for my birthday was Zoe from next door and Zoe’s momma. Zoe is okay fun to play with, but her momma is always right next to her and barely lets her touch anything and wouldn’t even let her have a piece of my birthday cake because she said it is “uploaded with sugar” and “we’re trying to stay away from glue ton”. I have eaten glue before, not a ton of it, but enough to know it isn’t good to eat. I didn’t taste any glue in my cake.
No, the worst part is the hospital took the sister out of Momma’s tummy, and she is bringing it home with her tomorrow. Sister is a person. Can you believe it?
Nana shows me a picture on her phone of what a sister looks like when it’s inside a tummy––a big round head on a curled up body with a string sticking to it––and then she shows me a picture of Momma in the hospital and Sister. She is holding it.
Momma looks pretty in the picture, except her hair is messy, and her eyes look like she was crying. She is smiling, looking down at Sister in her arms. Sister is not looking back. Sister is sleeping; a pink hat is on her head and a polkadot blanket around her body. Just part of her face is showing.
“Isn’t she cute?” Nana says.
“She’s puffy,” I say.
Nana laughs and tells me it’s time to put my pee jays on because it’s almost time for bed. I get out a new pair of pee jays with race cars on them that someone gave me for my birthday; I don’t remember who. While Nana is putting the race cars on me, I ask her how the sister got into Momma’s tummy. She stops what she’s doing and wrinkles her nose up like a person does if they smell something bad.
“It’s kinda hard to explain.”
Before turning off the light, Nana reads me a story, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, which is not my favorite, but it’s still a pretty good story about a little caterpillar who eats and eats until he gets really big. I wonder if the fat caterpillar at the end of the story has a sister inside him, and that’s why his tummy got so big. I look down at my own tummy and think, I better be careful not to eat too much, so I don’t get a sister in my tummy.
The story is done, and I get into bed. Nana kisses my head and leaves the room but keeps the door open a little so I can see light from the hall, just how I like it. It’s so quiet in my room, and it isn’t until now, with the quietness on top of me like a heavy blanket, that tears come into my eyes. I think my eyes were thinking before my head was: that it is night, and Momma is not here. This has never happened before in my life. I cry with the pillow over my face, because I don’t want Nana to hear me. I love Nana, but she is not the person I feel okay to cry around.
I cry into the pillow until my tears turn dry, and when I take the pillow from my face, I hear Nana talking. She’s talking on the phone. Maybe it’s Momma she’s talking to! I climb from bed and go to the door. Nana is loud, and she sounds angry. I hear her talking about the Pall Tic Inslee and something called his Crow Nees, and now I know it’s not Momma she’s talking to. It must be one of her old lady friends.
I stand at the door a long time, listening to Nana talk about stuff I don’t understand, and it’s not fun, but I do it anyway, because anything is better than being in bed, thinking about how Momma is not coming home tonight. I stand there so long my legs get tired, so I sit on the floor. When I’m on the floor, my eyes start to feel tired too, so I lie down. There is something here beside me. I can’t see in the dark, but I know this shape. I know exactly what it is. I take Red One in my hand and squeeze him tight. And Nana’s voice goes on and on, like a train made of words, words, words…
We are at the store, me and Momma. We’re here to get food. You might think the food store is boring, but I think it’s fun because I am always here with Momma, and she lets me help with the food getting, and she sometimes lets me get a treat. The store is weird today. It seems like we are the only ones here.
Our cart is full, and we are ready to get in the pay line, but there is no line. There is just a worker there who looks like Daddy, except instead of normal clothes, he’s wearing food store clothes.
“Hey Ray, wha’dya say?” says the worker Daddy. He is smiling, showing all his teeth, but the smile is only on his mouth. His eyes look bored.
Momma says, “Ray, help me put the food on the counter.”
I’m not big enough to reach into the cart, so we work like a team; Momma hands stuff to me, and I put it on the counter, which is supposed to move things to the worker, but today the thing mover isn’t moving. The Daddy worker has to reach for the stuff and put it in the bags. He smiles as he does this, only with his mouth, not with his eyes. I don’t think Daddy is happy to be working at the food store. The food cart is almost empty when I notice something is missing, something very important.
“Momma! We didn’t get the Bee cereal!”
“Oh gosh, you’re right. Be a good helper, and go get the cereal, will you, Ray?”
“Don’t be scared. I’ll be watching the whole time. You see? It’s just down there.”
I look where she’s pointing. I see all the cereal boxes lined up like cars on the road, and no one is down there. No one is anywhere in this crazy store. If I run to the cereal and back, I won’t be away from Momma long, but when I move, my feet are slow. What’s wrong with my feet? It feels like they are sticking to the floor.
When I finally get to the cereals, I see there are a lot boxes, and they all look almost the same. I’m looking for the one with the O’s and the bee on the front. I start at the bottom row, but there are only bags down there, no boxes. I look to the next row and the next, but still no O’s, no bees.
“Ray, honey, hurry up!” Momma says.
My heart is beating fast now, like the fastest heartbeat there ever was, fast like Red One. Where is Red One, anyway? Oh, here he is, in my hand. Go on, Ray’s heartbeat, go on. You’re firstest. Firstest is fastest.
Another row and another row, and none has the Bee cereal, until there it is. Top row. Too high to reach.
“Ray? What is taking so long?” Momma says.
“Hey Ray, wha’dya say?” Daddy worker says.
I have to climb.
Climbing is hard. There are so many boxes in the way, and my feet keep sticking to things. Cereal is falling down, making a huge mess on the floor. I hope I don’t get in trouble with the store worker people.
I slip! I stop myself from falling, but I drop my car. Red One disappears into the mountain of cereal.
Momma calls, “Hurry up Ray!”
I’m so close to the Bee cereal. I just need to grab it, climb down, then find Red One on the floor. I step up one more shelf, and a box of bird cereal, the one that is cuckoo for coco, falls and explodes on the floor.
My hand is on the Bee box. I say, “Got it, Momma!”, and then something bad appears on the shelf above me––a gross, slimy something with wings like a bird, but it has no feathers.
I know what it is! It’s a Crow Nee!
I scream and drop the Bee cereal. It explodes on the floor, little O’s rolling everywhere, and I’m so scared I forget to keep holding on to the shelf, so I fall.
Something catches me. It’s isn’t Momma. It isn’t Daddy worker. It’s something cold, and it scares me so much I can’t even look at it, because I know what it is. I’ve been caught by a Pall Tic. I may be little, but sometimes little kids know things, especially when it’s about monsters. I know the Pall Tic is thin, like his body is made from jump ropes, and his skin is sticky and gray like chicken bones. And his eyes. I don’t want to talk about his eyes.
A voice comes over the store speaker––you know, the speaker where you sometimes hear a guy say like, “Good afternoon shoppers! Be sure to visit our deli, where we have a great deal on noodle salad that’s so good it will blow your mind!”––only the voice on the speaker now isn’t a worker guy who wants to sell noodle salad; it’s Nana’s voice. She’s saying, “Ray! Can you hear me, Ray? It’s Nana. I snuck in here to warn you––don’t look, Ray! Don’t look at the Pall Tic’s eyes! If you do, it will rob you blind!”
Know what I think? What I know? The Pall Tic has no eyes, just holes where his eyes are supposed to be, and if you look into those eye holes, it will rob you blind. The Crow Nee on the shelf is speaking with its slippery voice.
“Turn and look, kid! You know you wanna. Go on! What’s the worst that could happen?”
He could rob me blind; that’s what could happen!
Momma calls out. “C’mon Ray, stop messing around! Bring the cereal so we can get out of here!”
Daddy worker says, “Yeah Ray, wha’dya say? We haven’t got all day!”
I wish I could get out of here, but I can’t move, not while the Pall Tic has me. Can’t Momma see it? Why won’t she help me?
The Pall Tic puts its cold, sticky hand to the back of my head and turns me. He’s gonna make me look. He’s gonna take away my eyes; he’s gonna suck them right into his eye holes. I’ll never see Red One again. I’ll never see Momma again.
Nana’s voice crackles on the speaker.
“Ray! Don’t look, Ray! You have to get free! Speaking of freedom…ahem…Attention shoppers! Be sure to visit our bakery for an amazing deal on our patriotic red, white, and blue sugar cookies! Buy three boxes, get a pack of sparklers free!”
Cookies? Who cares about cookies and sparklers when there’s monsters in the store?
The Pall Tic’s face is almost touching mine. I can’t see him because my eyes are closed tight, but I can feel his freezing breath on my cheek.
Momma yells, “Ray, get over here right now! Honestly, I’m starting to lose patience with you!”
“Run Ray!” Nana says on the speaker. “Get away from those cold, sticky hands! Speaking of cold and sticky…Attention shoppers! Be sure to stop by the produce department and pick up some refreshingly cold and sticky watermelon!”
I can feel my eyes opening. I don’t want them to, but it’s happening. Maybe the Pall Tic has some sort of eye opener power, or maybe I’m just sick of fighting.
Through the cracks, the world is blurry and bright. This is how it works, how the Pall Tic robs me blind. It pours brightness into me until I can’t see anything ever again. This is how I lose my eyes. This is how I lose everything.
Through the cracks, the world is blurry and bright.
“It’s so bright!” My voice has a frog in it.
“Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head!” Nana sings.
Her voice is not far away or crackly; it’s right here next to me. She’s in the room. In my bedroom. The light coming through the window is beautiful because it comes from the sun, not from a Pall Tic’s empty eye holes.
Wow, what a scary dream. Scariest dream ever.
“I came in last night to check on you, and you were asleep on the floor, you silly boy! I had to pick you up and put you in bed. Now get up, sweetie. Let’s get you dressed, so we can go!”
I climb from bed. My foot lands on something hard and pointy. Red One. He’s on the floor, right where I left him when I went to sleep.
“Where we going, Nana?”
“To meet your new sister!”
In the car on the way to the hospital, Nana wants me to practice saying Sister’s new name. She looks at me through the little mirror.
“La-La-La-Lily,” she says.
“La-La-La-Le-Le,” I say.
“Close! You’re getting close.”
Close? I think I said it right, and anyway, I don’t care. I never wanted a sister, and I wish I didn’t have to go see this one, whatever her name is.
“Ray, you want to know something fun?”
I’m rolling Red One back and forth on my leg. It’s hot today, and Nana put me in shorts. Red One’s wheels leave pink tracks on my skin.
“Ray, honey, you listening?”
I look into the mirror. “Huh?”
“Your new sister was born at 11:58 last night. Know what that means?”
I shake my head, no.
“It means, you and Lily share the same birthday!”
I don’t believe this. First the sister wrecked my party, then she stole my birthday.
I push Red One hard against my leg and watch the tracks in my skin turn red.
Momma’s room at the hospital is small and hot inside. She is in a bed, but it’s a sit-up kind of bed where the back goes straight like a chair. Her hair is stuck to the side of her face; she seems tired but still pretty. I yell her name and run to the bed to hug her.
Before I jump up, she says, “Careful, Ray, careful.”
“Meet your new sister!”
And there she is, the sister. Momma is holding her. I couldn’t see her at first because she’s small and all wrapped up like the caterpillar in my book, before he gets turned into a butterfly, I mean. The sister’s face is peeking from polkadot blankets. She’s sleeping, but I don’t care about that. I’m here to see Momma, and the birthday stealer is in my way.
Nana says, “It’s hot in here! Can we open a window or something?”
Momma says, “I wish! But you know hospital windows don’t open.”
Momma looks at me, then the sister. She says to Nana, “Here, why don’t you take Lily so I can visit with Ray?”
Nana takes the sister, and I climb up on the bed and squeeze next to Momma. She wraps me in her arms. Her hands are sticky, not sticky like the Pall Tic from my dream, but a good kind of sticky.
“Did you have fun at your birthday party? I’m so sorry I missed it.”
I lay my head on Momma. Her hospital dress itches my ear, but I keep it here; I listen. There it is: the best sound, the sound I love to hear more than anything––Momma’s heart. It’s like music, like medicine. It’s the sound of the world breathing in and out.
“I had a bad dream,” I say.
“You did? Want to tell me about it?”
I’m about to tell her the dream of the store and the monsters, but I can’t because Nana starts talking. She has the same voice she has when she’s talking on the phone with her old lady friends.
“Honestly, the heat in here is ridiculous! Can we call a nurse or something?”
“You can try,” Momma says.
“I think I will. Where is my son, anyway?”
“He’s in the cafeteria, getting breakfast. Why don’t you put Lily in the bassinet? She’s sleeping. You can join him for breakfast and maybe find someone who knows how to cool things off in here.”
Momma says this in her tired voice, but I don’t think she’s tired from it being hot.
Nana puts the sister down and waves her hand in front of her face like a flapping bird’s wing. She walks through the door. “Good Lord, this heat!”
“Okay, honey…” Momma yawns, one of her slow yawns that goes on and on until she snaps her mouth shut with a CLAP!
“Tell Momma about your party. Did Zoe…” another yawn, “did your friend Zoe come over?”
I tell her about it. I tell her how my party was boring because Zoe is mostly boring and because Nana talked the whole time about Pall Tics and mostly because Momma wasn’t there. I’m ready to tell her how terrible the Pall Tics are, so terrible they come into your dreams, but before I can say it, I hear her breathing deep, deep, deep. Her eyes are closed. She’s sleeping.
“Momma?” She can’t hear me. I’ve never seen Momma so tired. It must have been hard work, getting the sister out of her tummy.
I have had bad days, but this day is the worst bad day ever––Party wrecked! Birthday stolen! Pall Tics and Crow Nees! and worst of all––Momma is too tired to even talk to me. Sister is there, in a small glass bed with polkadot blankets inside. It’s her fault. Everything was good before she came.
I climb from Momma’s bed and walk to Sister’s. I hold Red One in my hand, squeezing him so tight, his pointy parts could rip through my skin. Red One is a good friend, my only friend. He’s fast and strong, and I know he will help me now. I hold him high above my head and stand on my toes to look down at the sister. I freeze like a stop sign.
What did Nana say her name is? La-la-la-Le-Le? Whatever she’s called, she’s not sleeping. She’s awake, and she’s looking right at me. I want to be mad at her. I want to hate her for being here. Nana says the Pall Tics will rob you blind, and that’s just what the sister did, robbed me, except I’m not blind. If I were, I couldn’t see her eyes––gray, blue, brown circles that make me think of clouds and rain and mud puddles and rainbows.
Mostly, her eyes make me think of Momma.
Sometimes I make myself think so much, I forget to think at all, like when I play with cars; I put my head on the floor and watch Red One’s wheels roll up and back and up and back, and I watch the wheels so long, they fill my eyes with shine. I feel like I am the wheels. Sister’s eyes are the wheels. I stare at them until I am part of them, part of her, and this is how I lose myself.
Sister is small and weak, and she doesn’t know a thing. She doesn’t know who I am; she doesn’t even know who she is. She doesn’t know about Pall Tics and Crow Nees and all the other monsters that want to rob her blind. I know she doesn’t know these things, because I can almost remember when I didn’t know. It’s like when Momma bakes cookies, and I remember by the smell how tasty they are, how they are like happiness in a circle. Like being Home.
That’s how Sister is; she’s Home. She doesn’t know anything about anything, but she’s Home. I feel silly for being mad at her. What’s there to be mad about? After all, I’m Home, too. I know, because Sister’s eyes tell me so.
I set Red One in the bed next to her, very careful so his pointy parts won’t poke her. Red One is a good friend to me; I know he’ll be a good friend to Sister. When I speak, I whisper, so only she will hear me.
“What’s it like? What’s it like to feel Home all the time? Please, tell me, ‘cause I’m beginning to forget.”