A pretty, polka-dot envelope comes for me in the mail. My mother says I am too young for secret admirers, so we open the letter together. “It’s an invitation,” she smiles. “You’ve been invited to Lana Steeley’s birthday party.” Then, she wedges the cardstock square in the corner of my bedroom mirror and beams her approval at me. “See? And you thought you didn’t have any friends at school.”
When she is gone, I take the card down and inspect it more closely.
LANA STEELEY IS TURNING EIGHT, WON’T YOU HELP US CELEBRATE?
I scan the date and times to confirm it is not a slumber party. We will not stay up late watching scary movies and braiding each other’s hair. This is important since scary movies give me nightmares and my hair has never been long enough or smooth enough to braid. Also, I don’t know how to braid anyone else’s hair, though I have tried many times with my dolls. It’s a secret I carry with me, like the years before I could tie my shoes or balance on a bicycle without training wheels. My father says everyone learns at a different pace, that we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Then, he reaches for a business word because he is a businessman—aptitude. We all have different aptitudes. I have a high reading aptitude but a low practical-skills aptitude. My father had trouble learning to read, but he could take apart an engine and put it back together again. Both of us are good at deciphering codes, though only I can win at word search. “But your mother,” he says—“she can do anything. Your mother has only high aptitudes.”
At school, I learn that all the girls in second grade were invited to Lana Steeley’s party. “My mother said I had to invite everyone,” she announces in the Double Dutch line, then glosses her lips with a glittery tube from her pocket.
Erin Sauter, who is her new best friend, asks if Lana’s baby sister will be there. “Probably. She’s everywhere I go. I can’t get away from her. I wish my mom would put her out as a party favor.”
Their laughter is light and pleasing like their bodies, and they face each other now as mirror images so you could almost believe, from a distance, that they were the same girl—a smooth line of synchronized gestures. “I know what you mean,” Erin sighs. “David just started walking, and he’s already gotten into my room. It’s worse for Julia, though. She has to babysit him.”
“I wouldn’t do it,” Lana says, smacking her lips in defiance. “I would look my mom right in the eye and refuse.”
This is another thing: I am the only girl in second grade that doesn’t have a real brother or sister. It has been years now, years of wishing and praying, writing want ads to send to The West Seattle Herald: “Baby sister needed right away. Please leave on doorstep. Baby brother OK. Address listed below.”
And right there, in the Double Dutch line, is where a new idea hatches in my mind. “We have a new baby at our house, too,” I say, the words slipping out before I can stop them.
Erin spins around to study my face, and Lana puts her hands on her hips and frowns. “Your mom had a baby? How come she never got fat?”
“She didn’t actually give birth to the baby,” I clarify, then swallow hard to stretch the muscle used for make-believe at the back of my throat. “We adopted her. She’s my adopted baby sister.”
“What’s her name?” Erin asks, teetering between suspicion and belief.
“Lacey—Lacey Eleanor Wade.”
“I never heard of that name before,” Lana replies.
“Well, it’s a real name,” I tell her sharply, and I should know since it’s the name of my new baby cousin.
“Get your mom to bring her to my birthday party. Cara needs someone to play with.”
Now Lana leaps between the twirling ropes, and I turn my shoe toe-down on the asphalt like a plane in tailspin. This is what being eight years old is. This is what Lana has to look forward to. (Or maybe it’s different for other girls.) My stomach turns, and the whole of me plunges to my feet.
“You’ve been awfully quiet this morning, Smidge,” my father says, returning to the table after breakfast with newspaper in hand. “What are you working on?”
“Nothing—just a collage,” I murmur, but the blue numbers on the microwave tumble forward so any minute now my mother will appear in a checkered blazer beneath a halo of hairspray and tell me that it’s time to go.
I have taken the single photograph of my cousin Lacey—the only proof we have that she exists—and placed it on the first page of my powder blue photo album. On the side panel, despite my trembling hand, I have printed: “Welcome to the family, Lacey!” I wanted to put our last name, too, but my cousin Lacey is a Smith and not a Wade, so this way, if my mother sees the picture, she won’t question the inscription or take the book away. Lying is hard work, I realize. It makes me sweaty and short-tempered, trying to think of everything that could possibly go wrong.
To fill up the album, I have cut out pictures of baby furniture from one of my mother’s discarded Sears catalogs. I write “Lacey’s stroller” next to a picture of a purple buggy with big white wheels and “Lacey’s crib” next to a Care Bear-themed bedroom set. Still, I know what the girls at the party are going to ask, and this is why my cheeks are scorched and the hairs at my neckline damp to the point of dripping—“Why isn’t there a picture of you with Lacey? Where’s the picture of Lacey and you?”
Finally, I cut out a picture of a baby in a playpen. She looks reasonably like my cousin Lacey and is far enough from the camera I doubt anyone can tell. I superimpose this picture over a new picture of me in my Easter dress, complete with bonnet and white patent leather shoes. With a small piece of tape, I stick the two images together. Please work, I pray, not sure if the whisper is out loud or in my head, then slam the book shut and close my eyes.
“You doing all right there?” my father asks again. “Is that something for the party, or something for school?”
Before I can answer, my mother’s heels click loudly on the linoleum floor. I jump to my feet, force my widest smile, and charge past her out of the room. To appear less conspicuous, I shout over my shoulder a phrase that is certain to please—“All I need is a light spring jacket, and then I’ll be ready to go!”
Lana Steeley lives on a narrow street without sidewalks. Her house sits back from the road and is sunken down like the swampy front yard is trying to swallow it whole. Still, there are pink and purple balloons in clusters and streamers dangling from the trees and a banner over the door that reads “LANA STEELEY IS TURNING EIGHT!”
“Just let me find a place to turn around,” my mother says, and I can hear the disdain surfacing in her voice, a judgment forming at the back of her throat that comes from the same place as my lies.
“Actually, the mothers are just dropping us off, Mom. You don’t have to walk me to the door.”
She raises the sunglasses from her eyes and looks past me to the empty planter boxes and the curtains drooping on their rod. “I plan to get inside that place and have a look around.”
“Afterwards,” I plead. “Just let me go in now.”
At the first sign of consent, I bolt from the car, holding Lana’s present in one hand while gripping the photo album under my coat. Mrs. Steeley greets me at the door in sweat pants with yellow socks and a baby strapped to her stomach and wailing. “Hi Julie, come on in. We’re very self-serve around here, so get some punch and chips and join in the fun. I think the girls were just about to start Twister.”
I tiptoe around toys and shredded wrapping paper and look for some place to lay my gift. When Lana sees me, she points an accusatory finger, and all the other girls spin their heads and stare. “Where’s your baby sister?” she demands.
“She’s with my grandma today. And later they have to take her to the doctor.”
“Is she sick?”
“I don’t think so,” I stammer. “I think it’s just a check-up like they have to do for babies.”
Now Lana turns to Erin and smirks. “I told you she wouldn’t bring her.”
Erica Gregory, who is always angry with me for reasons I don’t understand, rolls her eyes and puts her heels together in butterfly pose. She is wearing a jean skirt with thick, colorful tights, but no one scolds her for spreading her legs and hiking her skirt all the way to her hips.
“I brought a photo album,” I reply, with a well-practiced shrug. “Do you want to see it?”
Lana scrambles over the other girls and takes it from me. She studies the first picture a long time before looking up. “This baby doesn’t look like you or anyone in your family.”
“Duh,” I say, though my heart has come up through the hole in my throat and is threatening to stop my breath. “She’s adopted.”
“From China or somewhere?”
“Japan,” I correct her, thinking of my Aunt Arlene and the time she made sushi for our whole family. Nobody liked it but me.
The album passes from girl to girl, their faces perplexed, discerning. “Why do you have so many pictures of her stuff?” Erin asks. “Most people would rather have pictures of their baby.”
“My mother likes stuff,” I say. “She likes buying it and arranging it and taking pictures of it,” and my throat relaxes, now that I am telling the truth.
“Is that a letter in the corner?” Erica asks suddenly. “A little white n. See it?” She has moved into frog pose now and is perched on her forearms, leaning over Erin’s shoulder.
“Like from a catalog?” The heads swivel around again, and Lana starts to giggle until the garland falls out of her hair.
“It is from a catalog. Are these all from a catalog?”
“And what about this weird picture at the end?” Erin says. “Is that a catalog baby?” They all crowd together so I can’t see anymore, and then I hear the crinkling sound that means I am done for. Someone has pulled the catalog cut-out and the Easter photograph free from their sleeve, and one by one all the girls turn around and gape at me in horror.
“You are such a liar,” Lana says, but she is smiling somehow, each word a staccato burst of pleasure in her mouth.
“It was just make-believe,” I murmur.
“It’s only make-believe till you tell somebody else. Then—” she draws out the pause since it’s her birthday and her prerogative—“it’s lying.”
I can hear Mrs. Steeley rummaging around the kitchen humming to herself. It is not sweat now but tears trickling over my skin, and all the girls stare at me, unblinking. Now she pokes her curly head out the pass-through and lays her hands on the ledge. “Who wants cake?” she calls sweetly. “Raise your hands.”
Oh man, I suffered right along with this child. Great description of how hard it is to be a kid in kid world. Great writing.
“Lying is hard work” — especially for an 8 year-old with mixed aptitude. Oh this made me laugh, and cringe for that little girl. Been there too often. Well done!
This is such a heartbreakingly true story; makes me want to hug the 8 yr old you. I loved Small Fires and this had the same, intimate feel. Lovely.