Bonnie dreamed of the perfect birthday party. Perfection was a bowling-pizza party or a slumber party with a movie and makeovers. When she had invited four girls on the last day of school before summer break, she didn’t think they’d remember to come. When she handed Jenny and her entourage the handmade invitations, Jenny said, “I’ll try to make it, but we are probably going to Disney World.” Jenny’s friends quickly affirmed that they would be busy, too. That was the problem with a July birthday.
So when the day arrived, Bonnie convinced herself that there would be no party. It had been a dumb idea anyway. Bonnie was embarrassed about the yard and house. She lived in a suburb with ranch style homes and manicured lawns. Her grandpa’s house, by comparison, was out of place. The yard was just patches of weeds and dirt, with piles of wood and an abandoned broken-down truck. She was glad that the girls wouldn’t be showing up.
Tucked in a shady corner of the yard, there was a secluded nook that her brother and his friends used as a clubhouse. Bonnie loved to play house there when Garth wasn’t around. There were a few old chairs and a sturdy table made out of a wood slab set on tires, where Tabby now sat and licked her paws.
“Shall we bake a cake, Tabby?” Bonnie asked as she pretended to stir a bowl of batter. Tabby rubbed and cleaned her ears.
Just then, Bonnie saw a car pull into the driveway. She crept out of the clubhouse and cautiously walked across the yard. Bonnie watched the passenger side door open and Jenny emerge, and her friends spill out the back doors.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” Bonnie said. She kicked at the dirt with her sandal.
“When my mom cleaned my room yesterday, she found your invitation and said I had to come. So I convinced the others to come, too.”
Jenny looked Bonnie over, while waving her mom off. Her mom gave a short tap on the horn as she backed out. Bonnie realized she must look scruffy in her cutoffs and tee shirt. All the girls wore brightly colored party dresses, and Jenny held out a wrapped present.
“Here, my mom got you this,” Jenny said. Carla and Megan held presents, as well. Bonnie’s heart pounded hard in her chest.
“Gee, thanks guys,” Bonnie muttered.
They stood awkwardly, while Bonnie tried to decide what to do. “We can go inside the house,” she offered.
Jenny glanced around the yard and said, “That’s a good idea.”
Once inside, Bonnie led them into the living room. The girls lined up on the burlap couch, knees together and hands in their laps.
“I’ll be right back.” Bonnie went to find her mom.
Her mom worked nights as a hostess in a bar, so she usually slept until noon. It was one o’clock already, so Bonnie figured she’d be up. Bonnie had convinced her mom to buy a cake, chocolate with white frosting, and some chips and soda pop, so at least they’d be prepared if the girls came.
Bonnie walked down the hallway to the kitchen, calling for her mom, until she found her leaning against the sink, smoking a cigarette. Sharon’s black hair was pulled up in a high bun and she wore a tight slip dress.
“Mom, they’re here. I can’t believe it,” Bonnie said in a low voice. “And they brought presents.”
“Who’s here?” her mom asked. She then blew smoke in a long stream from her nose.
“My friends from school. They came for the birthday party.”
“Oh yeah, right. That’s great honey.” Sharon took another deep drag and faced her daughter, giving her a weak smile. “So, what are you guys going to do? Hang out?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know. But I’ll take out the chips and soda,” Bonnie said brightly as she grabbed the bag of potato chips off the counter. Then she opened the fridge and pulled out the two-liter coke bottle. Bonnie carried them in both arms down the hall, adding, “You can come and hang out with us, Mom.”
Bonnie set the snacks on the coffee table. “Here you go, Jenny. You guys can have some too,” Bonnie offered. Jenny opened the bag, took a handful and passed the bag to Carla.
“How are we going to drink the coke?” Jenny asked.
Bonnie had been standing next to the table, watching the girls. Her face turned red when she realized that she forgot to buy plastic cups. She wasn’t sure she had enough glasses–they were always breaking.
“I’ll be right back,” Bonnie told the girls.
“We need glasses, Mom. For the coke.”
Sharon gave a sigh before saying, “Here, you’ll have to use cups.” Sharon gathered five ceramic cups, all different sizes and designs, looping one finger through the handles.
In the living room, Bonnie asked Jenny to help her with the cups. Together they poured and passed out the soda. As they sipped coke, Jenny asked, “What are we going to do now?” Bonnie thought about the birthday parties she’d seen on TV. She didn’t have a magician or clown, karaoke machine, or even a manicure set.
“We can play Monopoly,” Bonnie said.
“That’s boring,” Carla said while gazing into the chipped mug in her hand.
“I hate board games,” Megan whined. She got up from the couch and walked over to the window facing the backyard. The backyard was smaller than the front, with plenty of shade, and ivy growing up a retaining wall, with a huge Jack and the Beanstalk tree. “Is that your cat?” Megan asked.
Bonnie looked out the window. “Yep, that’s Tabby. Hey, do you guys want to have an adventure?”
“What kind of adventure?” Jenny asked with interest.
“The street above our house is really fun. There are always kids up there skateboarding, and sometimes they use cardboard for sliding down a big hill. Come on, I’ll show you.” Bonnie was thrilled to have thought of it.
“How do we get there?” Jenny asked.
Bonnie thought for a moment. The best way to get to Bluff Street was to climb the tree next to the retaining wall. It had plenty of sturdy branches that led straight up to the top of the cement wall, where there was a yard they could cut through. The problem was their neighbor Mr. Sherman.
Garth knew all about it. He told Bonnie that Mr. Sherman kept a shotgun by his backdoor, and whenever his German shepherd started barking, the old man was on the alert. More than once Garth had almost gotten blown to bits when climbing the tree.
Bonnie led the girls to the backyard and asked, “Can you guys climb?”
The girls stood in silence, staring up at the tall, twisty oak. The sturdy branches extended out like a staircase of Middle-earth. Bonnie knew that the first branch was the most difficult to reach, but from there it was fairly easy to climb. Though once at the cement wall, climbing over it was another challenge.
“How are we supposed to climb in our shoes?” Megan asked while looking down at her white patent leather Mary Jane’s. All the girls wore dress shoes except Bonnie, who wore strappy sandals.
“I think I can still do it,” Jenny said while lifting her foot and examining the bottom of her shoe.
“Me too,” added Wendy.
Megan wore a frown as all the girls agreed to climb.
They all listened intently as Bonnie began to explain the logistics of their climb. Megan bounced up and down nervously, while making a slight chirping noise.
“I’m going to help boost you all up the first branch, from there just follow those branches that are leaning on this side,” Bonnie said while pointing. “When we get to that branch, the really thick one, wait for me and let me pass you, so I can show you how to get over the wall.”
The girls nodded. Megan bounced and chirped.
“And there’s one more thing. We have to be really quiet. We can’t even talk at all.” Bonnie looked directly at Megan.
“What do you mean?” Megan asked.
“What I mean is if Mr. Sherman’s dog starts barking, we are in big trouble–the old man keeps a shotgun by the backdoor.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Carla, crossing her arms across her chest.
“It’s true. My brother told me that Mr. Sherman fought in some war and came back crazy in the head.”
The girls began to protest, but Jenny’s eyes were twinkling and wild. She said, “Listen, you guys have to do this. We’re not chickens!”
Jenny offered to go first, so she and Bonnie stood under the lowest branch. There was a dirt slope, which gave Bonnie some leverage as she boosted Jenny up. Jenny’s dress bunched up, and the girls could see her pink underwear. Megan began to whimper. Bonnie lifted her index finger to her lips, warning Megan to be quiet.
The girls took turns silently, as Bonnie helped lift each girl to the branch. Every once in a while the girls would pause, intuitively at the same time, waiting for the rustling of leaves or the crackling of branches to die down.
Midway up the tree, the girls stood together on the biggest branch, waiting for Bonnie to reach them. When Bonnie finally got there, Megan’s eyes were shut tight and she was breathing heavily. Bonnie nudged Megan gently, and Megan shook her head violently. Bonnie needed to pass them so she could show them how to climb over the retaining wall.
Bonnie whispered in her ear, “Megan, scoot over.” But Megan was frozen in place, only her head jerked from side to side. Bonnie noticed Megan’s hand gripping a branch so hard that her knuckles were white.
Megan let out a chirp, and in that instant the German shepherd began to bark. The girls crouched down and began whispering to one another. Megan and Wendy started to cry. The dog’s barking got louder and more frantic, and it seemed he was right up against the fence.
Bonnie used hand gestures to try to quiet the girls, and she made eye contact with Jenny. Bonnie was surprised by the smirk on Jenny’s face: a look that said the whole thing was just a prank. But Bonnie knew it wasn’t a prank. Her brother Garth had warned her several times, and her mom had even called the police to complain.
When Bonnie heard the loud clap of a backdoor banging against a frame, she knew she alone was responsible for the girls. It was one of her dumb ideas to convince them to climb the tree, but she didn’t have a magician or a karaoke machine, and she wanted them to like her. Her mom didn’t even remember that today was the party.
Bonnie’s attention was brought back to Megan when she heard Mr. Sherman yell out. Without hesitating, Bonnie leaped up, hoping to catch him by surprise. In case he had his shotgun aimed, he’d be startled and miss. Instead, Bonnie’s foot slid from the branch and she lost her balance. As she began to fall, she felt her head hit and scrape against a branch and her foot collided with another thick branch on her way down.
When she hit the ground, she thought she had landed on her feet, but suddenly she was on her back. The swaying branches, the rustling of leaves, and the German shepherd’s frantic barks clouded her thoughts and numbed her body. She watched party dresses billowing high up in the tree–yellow, pink, and white flapping like butterfly wings.
Then she closed her eyes to rest–to rest for only a moment before it was time for a slice of chocolate cake and presents.