Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
I hope today's story finds you well, or at the very least safe and cozy. We know it's especially hard to focus right now as we careen toward the holiday season with Covid still hanging over our heads like a big grey cloud.
But since you're with us, we're very excited to share Birthday Crashers by Alan Barstow!
Birthday Crashers explores emotional intimacy within a couple who are struggling with fertility issues as our main character gets lost among the pastries and partiers at his wife's nephew's fourth birthday party.
And don't forget to PREORER our first chap of the new year, available here!
Happy reading, and please take care--
The Derailleur Press Team
It was Jess’s idea to arrive early, and now, Daniel could see, she didn’t know what to do.
“I could help with Nicolas,” she said.
Daniel followed her eyes across the park, past the concrete picnic tables donned with blue plastic table cloths, past where a caterer positioned a three-layer cake and platters of croissants and pastries. He looked beyond where a Star Wars bouncy house inflated and some sort of black cardboard mashup duct-taped into a dome sat. Beyond all this Nicolas stood as stiff as C3P0. He was four years old today. Jess’s younger sister, Amy, crouched with a hand on her son’s shoulder, but the birthday boy’s eyes were locked on his Velcro shoes. He wasn’t frowning, but he wasn’t smiling, either.
Daniel figured Amy was trying to psych him up for the party. He thought Jess should leave that to Amy. He knew better than to say that.
“I could take Abigail,” Jess said.
All chub and rolls and wispy, translucent hair, two-year-old Abigail sat balanced on Amy’s hip, gnawing on a teething necklace. Beads of saliva as fine as spiderwebs dangled from her sausage fingers. If Jess were to take her, Daniel thought, Abigail would sneer, Mama, want mama, like she were cussing.
“I have to do something.”
Daniel watched Jess watch her sister. Amy adjusted Abigail. She took Nicolas’s hand. She wore a flowing burnt orange maternity dress and cream knee-length sweater, a ready-to-burst baby belly falling to her knees as she crouched. Highlight reel worthy, Amy’s husband, Bill, had bragged to Daniel, mother of the millennium.
Daniel could guess what Jess was thinking. He watched her push the cuff of her sweater above her elbow and with nails bitten to the quick scratch the skin on the inside of her forearm. He knew this tell. He remembered watching Jess’s forearms go red and crack when Amy told her she was pregnant, then pregnant again, then pregnant once more. He remembered the tell and her hollow stare when the fertility doctor told Jess and Daniel they had a better chance of winning the lottery than conceiving. He remembered both again when they learned the birthmother they’d been matched with chose to keep her baby, when they had a room full of gear but no infant.
Pinpricks of sweat sprouted on his forehead. The skin on his arms felt tight. His hands inexplicably itched. He’d been told, when he and Jess started therapy, that witnessing her despair and grief allowed his own to balloon. He’d been told he’d never learned to give his emotions space, so they vied for it now like a jealous child, raging for attention, slamming against boundaries, leveraging the cracks they’d worried in his nervous system.
He tried crossing his arms, thumbs and palms pinching the soft meat of his biceps. Soon his hands grew sweaty, so he rubbed them together until they were dry. Thinking his hands would be cooler dangling, he hooked his thumbs into his back pockets. Now, embarrassed that he appeared too cool, too casual, too bro, he let them fall at his sides. They hung like baseball mitts, hulking, apathetic, cretinous. With that, something in his belly froze. His breath went ragged. The frozen thing grew to be an immovable something, a wedge. Nicolas’s party tottered on its fulcrum. It was so familiar he imagined it mocked him like a superhero’s nemesis: Did you really think I could be vanquished? Did you really believe you were free?
He had a mortgage and a car loan and healthcare and a pension fund. Shouldn’t he be past this? He was forty years old, six-foot-eight, 300 pounds. Wasn’t he too big for this?
Sweat gushed from his forehead, soaked his armpits, bled through his polo shirt. He dug his fingernails into his palms. He remembered he’d been training for this. He’d armored and girded and marched. Sound the war horns, cue the Rocky montage.
The defense began with his nose, a direct connection, he’d been told after their couples therapist recommended individual sessions, to his reptilian brain. Find three smells. There was the husky scent of new mud, of freshly cut grass, of charcoal just lit in a barbecue grate across the park. Find three sounds. Above the low thrum of the bouncy house’s motor, a half-dozen parakeets sang from a telephone wire. A dog expectantly yipped, waiting for its human to launch a tennis ball. Some of Nicolas’s friends laughed, a sound so open, so unrestrained, that he imagined laughing children to be like flowers aligning with the sun. Find three sights. He saw a narrow strip of ocean above the rooftops and palm trees, sunlight coming in sideways and hitting the water so it looked like a band of diamonds. He could see in detail each rock and bush on the Santa Monica mountains five miles north. It had rained in the night, the air free of smog and grime, everything for once clear and crisp. It was December on Los Angeles’s west side, cold-in-the-shade-but-hot-in-the-sun season, Daniel's favorite time of year in this city he now called home. He turned his eyes to Jess. She wore jeans rolled at the cuffs, a cable-knit V-neck sweater. Her hair had been sheared into a pixie cut. She’d put on the smallest bit of makeup.
He felt something rise in his chest, something warm. He’d been told to focus on that, to water and fertilize and nourish until it grew greater than the wedge in his belly. He imagined his nemesis scuttling on claws back to its hideout, warning, Until next time, Daniel, next time. But in that moment he didn’t care about next time. He remembered the words he’d been told would save them: compassionate curiosity.
He started with a message of support. “You’re a good sister, a good aunt.” Then, empathy: “You want to be a part of this. You must feel so torn.” And, then, a question: “How are you?” He reached for her hand.
“I just need something to do,” she said, nails worrying her forearm.
His hand fell. He focused on his breathing. It’s not about you, he reminded himself, don’t make it about you. He drew the fabric of his shirt between his fingers, fanned himself with fresh air pumped through the neck and arm holes. They watched Amy and Nicolas and Abigail.
The birthday boy wore the sequined T-shirt Jess bought him as an early birthday present. The sequins could be flipped one way to reveal Luke Skywalker, the other Darth Vader. Nicolas shrieked when he first wore it, until Amy realized the stitches from the sequins aggravated his skin. She found a pajama shirt for him to wear beneath it. Now, Amy told them, he freaked when both shirts weren’t laid out for him.
Recently Amy had worried to Jess, Jess to Daniel, that Nicolas was smaller than his friends, slighter. He was in the first percentile for height and weight, but whatever—most concerning was that he was more sensitive to stimuli, more sensitive in general, more difficult with transitions and making eye contact, not interested in letters or stories or peers.
“He’s missing benchmarks,” Amy had lamented. “He’s supposed to start kindergarten the year after next. We might redshirt him.”
“It’s not like he tore an ACL during the state championship,” Daniel later said to Jess. “I’m the special ed teacher. He needs to be assessed. He needs school.”
Now, they watched as Jess and Amy’s mother crept up behind Nicolas, filming with her ten-year-old iPad.
“Here we go,” Jess whispered.
Nicolas flinched when Grandma tapped him on his shoulder.
“Mom,” Amy said in surprise, in warning.
Grandma raised the iPad. “Give us a birthday message, Nicky.”
Nicolas turned and swiped a paw at the case, hard enough to knock it from Grandma’s hands. He shrieked in the toddler-ese way in which R’s become L’s, “Go away, Glandma,”
Chastised, Grandma stepped back.
Amy took Nicolas’s hand, said, “Mom, you know he doesn’t like to be surprised. You know you can’t get too close.”
Daniel figured Amy was picking which battles to fight on the boy’s birthday, but he saw hurt crease the lines on Grandma’s face as she stooped to retrieve the iPad, checked it for damage, wiped dew from its screen.
“I guess I’m on Glandma duty,” Jess mumbled, striding off towards her mother.
He wasn’t sure if she wanted him to follow, if she wanted space. He pulled out his iPhone and checked the time. Thirty minutes until the party officially began. He wondered if he should follow, or if he should act like he had to go to the bathroom, or like he forgot something in the car. He rubbed his hand across his forehead, sweaty, again.
Then he felt the pressure of a meaty shoulder in the small of his back, firm enough to force him to take a step forward. He turned, and there was Bill, Amy’s husband, lowered shoulder ready to drive him into the secondary. And, of all things, Bill was growling, like a lap dog in a handbag at a mastiff.
“Get in on this drink, buddy,” Bill suddenly chirped.
“Buddy, don’t mind if I do,” Daniel responded, some dormant circuitry leaping to life. Apparently, he’d come pre-programmed for this Adam Sandler bit. How do you do that, Jess had asked in a couples session, flip a switch from serious to silly? Daniel learned it was called disassociation.
Bill said, “It’s a bloody, buddy.”
Of course it was. Of course at 10:30 in the morning Daniel hefted a red Solo cup. He watched ice cubes slosh in cartoonish slow motion, saw the pickle and celery stick and olives and the rim dusted with—oh my goodness—Old Bay seasoning. Without the liquid touching his lips, he could taste the salty spice and the zest of the tomato juice blend, the undertone of vodka. He’d always liked vodka. He liked how it didn’t dominate a cocktail.
How easy it would be to take a drink. A blur would wash over him, the buzz easing the anxiety of a four-year-old’s birthday party. But he’d be drunk by noon and Jess would see it as the act of avoidance it was, call him out for having such a “lovely” time while leaving her with her mother, at this party she’d rather not be at yet that she wouldn’t miss for the world. Real great, she’d scold while he snored away the afternoon, real fucking great.
While this imagined future danced across his vision, he “buddy’d” this and “buddy’d” that. He growled and howled with Bill. They ran through a half-dozen ’90s commercials, all the gags blurring together.
“Light me, buddy,” Bill said, a cigar bouncing between his lips, another an invitation in his hand.
“Sorry,” he said, breaking character. “No lighter. No smokey.”
“Sigh,” Bill said.
Bill wore a light blue blazer over a white-button down shirt. His khaki shorts bore the swashbuckling University of Virginia logo in repeat across each leg. He was ten years older than Amy, an entertainment lawyer, originally from Virginia. Daniel, from rural Maryland, felt like he’d always known guys like Bill, who’d grown up with pool parties and horses, while Daniel spent summers cleaning pools, mucking barns.
Daniel stared into his untouched cup while Bill puffed his cigar.
“Quite the spread,” Daniel said. He figured—what?—$5,000 for a two-hour party in the park. Only Bill, he thought.
“You can’t buy happiness,” Bill said, “especially for my son.”
“But you sure can try. With magicians and bouncy houses and cake.”
“And a—?” Daniel gestured to the cardboard mashup beside the bouncy house. It stood six-feet tall and listed heavily to one side like a dumpling. Flecks in the black spray paint shimmered in the sun. There was something familiar to it. The top left quadrant had what looked like a satellite dish.
“Is that the Death Star?” Daniel blurted.
Bill laughed. “Most kids ask for piñatas or ice cream cake. A pony. My son asked to blow the Death Star.”
It took a while to figure out the design, Bill said. How to make it strong enough that it wouldn’t collapse on its own but not so strong a toddler couldn’t puncture it. And there needed to be something big, he said, so he rigged a glitter bomb that would detonate when the satellite dish was perforated.
Bill whipped his lit cigar as he detailed how the kids would launch torpedoes at it—meaning, hit baseballs from a tee. Nicolas would go first, but he couldn’t bust it on the first swing, even if he were able. Each kid needed a taste. So, Bill would organize the kids by height after Nicolas. He’d come prepared with blindfolds and different sized bats and balls. But, on Nicolas’s second go, Bill said, the force would be with him, he would sink the Death Star.
Daniel said, “This is incredible.”
“Epic,” Bill quipped. “Dangerous, though. Have you ever Googled bat accidents at birthday parties?” Bloody noses, he said, broken teeth, fractured skulls. “And the glitter bomb? Fucking wild fires. That’s why we picked this park. The sprinklers were just on.”
Bill nodded to himself, exhaled. “This is fatherhood.” He pointed with his cigar beyond Daniel, to Jess, who stood with Amy and their mother. Amy smiled, probably sharing some cute story about Abigail or eye-roller about Nicolas. Daniel couldn’t see Jess’s face.
“How are you two doing?”
Daniel shrugged. The untouched Bloody Mary felt heavy.
“When it happens,” Bill said, but honking from the parking lot made both men turn. The window of a Tesla slid down.
“Get in on this drink, buddy,” Bill shouted. The driver, Bill’s partner at the firm, gave a thumbs-up and pulled off to park.
Bill stepped backwards to the parking lot, cigar in one hand, drink held aloft in the other. “When it happens,” he said to Daniel, “you’ll be a great father.”
Bill turned and bounded off like a toddler. Daniel poured the Bloody Mary into the grass.
The party started when heads collided in the bouncy house. Children screamed when a magician pulled handkerchiefs as long as ropes from their noses. Impossibly big and exquisitely wrapped presents overwhelmed the gift table. All this for Nicolas, who kept drifting away from the gathered, whom Amy cajoled to greet his friends, whom Glandma prompted to smile, whom Jess offered to take for a “re-focus” around the park.
Daniel watched from the shade, close enough to be part of it, far enough to be apart. At heart he considered himself quiet, shy even. Head, shoulders, and chest above the crowd, he’d always felt his personality was better suited for someone five-foot-three, 120 pounds. Can a giant disappear, he’d asked himself since forever. Could he simply stay really, really still? Moss growing-between-your-toes still? Visible, yes, as were the oak and fig trees around him, but like them a part of the background?
If he brought this up at his next session, he’d be asked why he wanted to disappear.
He watched Amy drift from friend to friend, a monarch amongst her subjects, baby Abigail a scepter. He didn’t remember his mother ever looking like that.
Bill preened like a politician, kissing women’s cheeks, shaking men’s hands, a joke for all. In his wake a group of fathers followed like disciples. Some were well-muscled in designer shirts and shorts. Others were rounder, dressed in penny loafers with no socks like Bill or in faded jeans and T-shirts that bore the names of old metal bands. Bill led the fathers away from the catered food, to a grove of trees where he’d stashed a cooler with beer and Bloody Mary mix.
Daniel had to reach to remember his father. He’d once found a photograph of him standing on the shore of the Persian Gulf during the buildup to The Gulf War. In desert fatigues he faced the water, the camera at his back, head turned to reveal his profile. His nose was sharp like a hawk’s. His lips were ready to smile, like a joke filled the air. He pointed beyond the frame, to a spot Daniel would never know.
Daniel wasn’t much older than Nicolas when his teacher beckoned him forward, put her hands on his shoulders, whispered, “Be a good, brave boy.” He remembered following the principal along the puke-green tiled hallways. He remembered sitting in a mustard yellow chair. Even then, he was big enough to fill it.
“I’m sorry, son,” the principal said. A pouch of loose skin hung beneath his lip where the flesh had gone sallow from chewing tobacco. “Your daddy was killed in combat.”
When he was old enough to find news clippings and Army documents, he learned that two Coalition A-10 Warthogs had spied a caravan in the desert of northern Kuwait. They banked and came around, opening up with the 30-mm Gatling guns mounted on each plane’s nose. It would have been another successful sortie in an easily won war, if the caravan they opened fire on wasn’t friendly, if Daniel’s father wasn’t among the fatalities.
He remembered how his mother looked through him, beyond him, how she barely spoke. She smoked, blasted the TV without watching, knitted things that she tore the yarn out of before they were finished. They moved into Grandpa’s house, which looked like it had vomited tools and car parts. Grandpa never mentioned Daniel’s father. He took Daniel to the barn, asked him to fetch oil pans and filters, hand him wrenches and spark plugs.
Daniel remembered being an ugly crier. Blubbering, spitting, gasping. But when his father died, he implicitly understood he was too big for tears. Now, he’d been told, he had to re-learn how to sit with his emotions, how to feel them, how to cry.
When the partiers moved on from the food tables, Daniel found himself before the pastries. He thought about emotional intelligence and carbohydrates and cholesterol. He thought about sadness and grief and coffee cake and croissants topped with almond slivers and crumbled sugar. He wasn’t hungry, but cupcakes crowned with Nutella whipped cream sweated in the sun.
“So much to choose from,” a voice said behind him. He turned. A woman took a plate.
“It’s a lot to take in,” he said.
“I’m going for this chocolate croissant. Party of the year, huh? Which kid is yours?”
“Oh, I’m with the family.” He cleared his throat, scanned for Jess. “I’m just an uncle. Amy’s sister’s husband.” He turned back to the woman. “You?”
She fished a Limonata San Pellegrino from a cooler. “I’m not with the party.”
Daniel started to laugh, but then he took in her bathrobe and faded UGG boots.
“Some days brunch comes to you,” she said, popping the can’s top. Daniel watched her walk off towards the line of trees that bordered the park, look both ways before crossing the street, and key a code into a gate.
He turned to look for witnesses. He wondered if anyone would believe this. He spotted Jess at another table, reaching under a table cloth. She pulled out a box filled with loot bags, began arranging them. She stepped away, and just as she did, another woman took her place, gathering up the loot bags, undoing what Jess had done. Jess didn’t notice. Daniel bristled.
He approached the woman, said in his teacher voice, “Excuse me, miss, are you with the party?”
“Am I,” she countered, and with a small smile, added, “sir?”
Then Jess was there, spearing him with a what-the-fuck look. “This is Amy’s best friend, Daniel. Remember?”
He did. Her name was Molly. Molly, he saw now, was alphabetizing the loot bags.
“Sorry,” he stammered, wiping new sweat from his forehead. “There was just a woman over there. She stole a croissant. I swear.”
Jess said, “Maybe you should guard the baked goods, honey.”
“Croissant theft is notorious,” Molly said.
The women locked eyes and burst into shared laughter. Then, Nicolas’s scream shook the party.
They turned to see Amy pulling Nicolas out from under the gift table, where he’d already torn off the wrapping from two presents. Daniel watched one of his tiny hands ball into a fist. He saw him break free, saw him wind up like a boxer and uncork a side-armed punch that Amy took right on the chin.
Her head jerked and she tottered back-back-back, landing with all her weight, and Abigail’s, and her unborn baby’s, on her butt. A collective gasp rose at the oomph of impact.
Nicolas bounced up, cracking his head on the table. “Ouchy,” he screamed, “ouchy.”
The table began to list, and Amy put up a hand to stop it from tipping, but nothing could stop the presents’ inertia. A box hit Amy’s head.
Abigail wailed. Amy shifted to shield her, and then a tidal wave of wrapped boxes and decorative bags crashed over them. Jess and Daniel rushed to right the table.
“Abby’s okay,” Amy said reflexively. “Everything’s okay.”
Bill swooped in to take Abigail and scoop up Nicolas. Glandma, Daniel noticed, still recorded.
“Really,” Amy said, prone amongst the presents. “Everything’s fine.” Her eyes were wet and heavy. She tried to stand. Daniel took one arm, Jess the other.
“I grazed my lip.” She sucked on a narrow, shallow cut where Nicolas’s fist pinched her bottom lip against a tooth. She called to the crowd, “It’s not a party unless someone’s bleeding.” Laughter from the half-drunk fathers seemed to help her recover. “I’m okay,” she whispered confidently. Then, Nicolas crept up behind her, wrapped his arms around her legs and planted his face in the back of a thigh.
“Oh, Nicky,” she said. “That was quite the scare, baby. But everything’s okay when you hug me like this.” Bill ruffled his hair and kissed Amy’s cheek. Abigail said, “Mama,” and reached for Amy.
Daniel turned to Jess. She shook her head, at what he wasn’t sure. Nicolas’s tantrum? His apology? That he punched his mother, could have hurt his sister and unborn sibling?
He remembered how Jess had pored over videos of Nicolas when he was born. Baby Nicky sleeping like, well, a baby. Baby Nicky’s first smile, first word, first blown kiss. Baby Nicky’s pout when gassy. Jess would stay up scrolling, bemused, beguiled. “You used to look like that at me,” Daniel had chided. He was being playful. He was serious.
He remembered one night, sitting with Jess on their balcony. They could smell the ocean, and if they craned their necks far enough, they could see a sliver of it.
He didn’t remember what news they’d just received. Maybe that his sperm had low mobility and motility, or that Jess had fibrous tissue in her uterus, or that her age (only 38) mattered, or that all of these combined made their chances at conception unfathomably low. Or that after years of trying, sex had become a duty, a chore, a box to tick off on a calendar. Or that months of hormones and procedures had left her ravaged body and soul, that nothing was taking, that nothing would take. Or that after completing an adoption profile, after photoshoots and drafts of introductory birth parent letters, after waiting and waiting and waiting, the expectant mother they’d been matched with chose to keep her baby. Or that their savings had depleted, tens of thousands of dollars gone for the promise of a baby that wouldn’t come.
“I always thought I’d be a mother,” Jess had said. “Didn’t you picture yourself a father?”
He thought about it for a long time. He smelled salt in the air, heard the crash of waves so deafening in one moment and so quiet in the next it was like they’d receded into forever.
No, he realized, he never had.
Daniel jumped at the touch of a hand on his shoulder. Bill pulled him down to whisper level. “Nicolas is losing his shit. It’s go-time.”
“Time to go? We can take Nicky home if it helps.”
“No, no, no,” Bill said. “It’s go-time. I need you.”
He had no idea what Bill was asking, but he let Bill guide him to the cardboard mass hulking in the grass. All of the jocular energy from his banter gone, Bill sounded serious now, nervous, an exec with an impossible target to reach.
“Remember, Nicolas wants to blow the Death Star, so by God he will.” Bill pointed to the zones he’d coned off. “He goes first. I’ll line up the other kids by size. There are some older boys we have to watch out for. A fourth grader. He plays travel ball.” Bill hunched over a duffel bag next to the tree, unzipped it, extracted a thin yellow plastic whiffle ball bat. He handed Daniel a tee and an orange baseball and pointed to a cone that faced the Death Star.
Bill called to Amy that they were ready. She, in turn, called to the parents. They shouted directions as the kids lined up: August shouldn’t push Phoenix; Dylan should keep his hands to himself; Nina, who’d already been in timeout twice, was in danger of losing cake; and Millie, even smaller than Nicolas, should get a turn.
Bill brought Nicolas forward, the boy’s eyes big and round like he was being led to the dentist’s chair. Daniel could see over the top of the Death Star, but to Nicolas, he realized, it loomed like the real thing. Daniel heard Bill’s whispered advice: “You don’t have to crush it on the first swing. You got this.”
Bill called to the crowd, “All wings report in.”
“Red Twelve standing by,” a father shouted, just like in Star Wars. “Red Six,” another chorused, and others: “Red Two,” “Red Seven,” “Red Five.”
Bill pointed to Nicky, who whispered, “Red Leader standing by,” the R-sound sharp like he’d been practicing.
With a stiff swing that was all forearms, Nicolas made contact and the orange baseball glanced off the side of the Death Star. Everyone cheered. Daniel bounded after the ball like the good uncle he was. As the crowd shouted encouragement, Nicolas squinted in concentration. He swung hurriedly, hitting the tee, the ball dropping to the grass. Daniel saw Amy grimace.
“Stay on target, Nicky,” Bill said, “stay on target.”
Daniel ran forward and reset the tee. Nicolas held the bat like a light saber. He adjusted his grip, started a swing but checked it.
“Any time now, honey,” Amy said with a nervous giggle.
Then, like a rattlesnake uncoiling to strike, Nicolas unleashed a swing that originated in his hips and traveled through his hands. The bat connected with a loud thwack and the ball broadsided the Death Star, denting the cardboard. Bill hurried forward while the crowd erupted. Without a smile or any sense of accomplishment, Nicolas ran to the back of the line where Amy waited.
Then, Bill led Millie and the younger children one by one to the tee. Daniel retrieved the ball each time. The cardboard easily absorbed their hits.
For the next-sized kids, Bill directed Daniel to move the tee a cone farther back. When the first graders who played little league came up, he switched the hard ball to a whiffle ball. He blindfolded the second graders, spun the third graders until they were dizzy. Soon the Death Star was pockmarked from the blows, the duct tape separating in places, but it held. After each kid’s turn, Daniel watched Nicolas, earnest and patient, step forward.
When the fourth grader stood before the tee, Bill eyed him up. He was ten years old. Half of his hair was gelled to one side, the other half freshly shaven. Bill handed Daniel a neon green softball to place on the tee. The boy clapped his hands in anticipation. He reached for the bat but Bill shook his head. From the duffle bag he pulled out a pool noodle.
Before he could be blindfolded, the fourth grader jumped into his batter’s stance and swung. The sound of noodle on softball was a hollow clap and Daniel feared Nicolas wouldn’t get another chance. But the noodle didn’t launch the ball like a grand slam. A slow grounder trickled forward to rest against the cardboard. The boy turned and shook the noodle at Bill. When Daniel replaced the ball, the boy hopped forward to generate momentum and swung with so much power the noodle bent like a scimitar, but the cardboard easily deflected the ball. In mock anger he tried to break the noodle over his knee like a raging major leaguer. Bill fake yawned. The crowd loved it. Bill offered him a fist bump. The boy slid his fist forward, but before the pound could be consummated, he dropped it, leaving Bill hanging. Everyone laughed. Except Nicolas.
Bill beckoned the birthday boy forward. He asked Daniel to move the tee over to the last cone, grab the final ball and bat from the duffle.
Daniel unzipped the bag. The canvas parted like an incision. The ball was a red lacrosse ball, the rubber so hard there was little give when he picked it up. When Daniel saw the bat, he knew Bill had been Googling more than party accidents.
Bill placed a hand on his shoulder, whispered, “My kingdom for that boy.”
It was a 32” DeMarini Voodoo Insane end-loaded aluminum bat, the kind that launched homers in the College World Series. He twirled it, feeling the torque the heavier end provided. It was designed for power and, weighing under two pounds, for speed.
A dad shouted, “Why not a cannon, Bill?”
“Because that’d be cheating,” Bill said.
Daniel set up the tee, realizing that Bill had positioned the final cone within point-blank range of the satellite dish. He placed the lacrosse ball, flipped the bat to offer Nicolas the grip. He told Nicolas to choke up, but when Nicolas made no move Daniel took his hands and moved them up the shaft. He stood behind him, and with his big hands on Nicolas’s little ones, guided him through practice swings so he would grow accustomed to the bat’s heft. Then, Daniel retreated into the crowd, and Nicolas held aloft the $200 bat. It was as tall as he was.
“Use the force, Nicky,” Bill called. Like a coach he clapped his hands.
Daniel remembered his father’s hands. He remembered how they held cigarettes with dark filters between thumb and index finger, how they held fishing poles. He remembered his stomach turning at the live worms wriggling in a Styrofoam cup, how his father told him to look away, to cover his ears if needed, while he baited the hook and cast the line. He remembered the quiet of the river, the soft splash when his father paddled, the smells of cigarette smoke and life jacket, the excitement when the pole was in his hands, the expectation that a big fish had his name on it.
In quick succession Daniel heard the ping of the aluminum bat and the boom as the lacrosse ball hit the cardboard and then the crowd’s cheering.
Daniel had been told he still grieved his father. He’d been told there was no end to grief. He’d been told he grieved more than the person. He grieved what his father would have shared with him, would have shown and taught him, the guidance and wisdom he would’ve offered through Jess’s and his fertility struggle, the disrupted adoption, the ups and downs in their relationship. He’d been told he was still, emotionally, that boy filling the mustard yellow chair in the principal’s office.
Daniel heard another ping, another boom, and the sound of cardboard tearing. Voices called, “Go, Nicky,” but Daniel’s vision blurred. All he could see was a silver smear as Nicolas swung the bat.
What he grieved, he realized, was what Bill was giving Nicolas. The opportunity to be more than the worst parts of himself, to be worthy, an ace, which was what Daniel’s father had called him. The opportunity to feel what it was like to be a hero, so that one day he might be one.
A hot lump split his throat. He couldn’t breathe. There was too much pressure in his chest. It was another attack. He thought to shout, Help, but no sound came. He turned and pushed through the crowd, a lumbering Wookie amongst humans. His knees were going to buckle.
Like a frightened child, he scanned for Jess, found her across the ring of cheering parents. She wasn’t scratching her forearms, he saw. She was recording with her iPhone. And, she was smiling. She loved Nicolas. She loved Amy, even Bill. He knew she loved him. He’d been told how impossible it was for her to balance all that love with hurt, with grief. Now he felt like he understood. He felt like he could feel it: wanting to be a good aunt and sister while mourning the loss of something that had never taken on physical form, the loss of an imagined future—a child of her own—that had been no more tangible than a dream.
He felt how hard this was for him.
He put his hands to his eyes. They were wet. So was his nose. This was different than an attack. It was in his chest and throat and nose and eyes, not his belly. Nothing had frozen, but a big lump of something heaved and shook. Was this crying?
He saw the silver bat flash, heard another ping and then a pop. Glitter exploded through the tears in the cardboard. Glitter shimmered in a corona around the collapsing Death Star. Nicolas’s friends rushed in like a wave.
Alan Barstow's work has appeared in The Sun, Witness, Terrain.org, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Univ. of Wyoming and lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Birthday Crashers is part of a longer work in progress.