Riding into town, I look at the rearview mirror, see my daughter in the back, bouncing with the bumps on the road. She gazes out of her window, got a big smile, big enough to be the last smile anyone needs to see.
Mum looks anxious, cheeks flushed, hands fidgeting with her purse, the passenger seat holds her, but doesn’t hold her. She hates planning things like this, birthday parties. I do my best to help, but I seem to just get in the way.
She said it once and never again, and I suspect she hopes I don’t remember. It was years ago. Might’ve even been her first birthday. But, I do. I remember. She said, ‘I hate her birthdays.’ Our daughter’s, she meant. I placed my arm around her then; Mum’s head fell on my shoulder. She sighed. I didn’t ask her to clarify. No need. I got it. I still get it.
I suppose I hate them, too. I know I hate them. Not her happiness, certainly not that. We love to see her smile, that big smile, don’t forget. Mum and me, watching her race around laughing and jumping, all that good stuff on her birthday, that’s what we live for. It’s just that switch. Turning from a one to a two, a two to a three, three to four, so forth and on, it makes me want to lose damn track of it all. I don’t want to know at this point. I don’t want to see her any older.
I know Mum’s afraid. Thinks she’s gonna run off already, gonna lose her so soon, thinks the years are drops of sand into the bottom of an hourglass and that we’re at the end of the sand. Mum knows it’s nonsense – Lulu’s barely up to my waist, still keeps dolls for company, but mostly that beagle, that’s her real company. A better pair of friends I’ve never seen.
We’re almost there, it’s an indoor amusement park of sorts. Probably five other parties going on there right now. Gonna be too loud. But, it’ll make Lulu smile, and that’s all we need, her mama and me. She’s gonna love the cake, had it baked to look like Benny. A beagle cake, I swear you’ll never see another cake like it. Her and her little friends’ll tear into it, make a right mess of the place, a bigger mess, I should say.
Someday, these birthday parties will end. Lulu will feel too old, it’ll all seem too immature. And that’s when she’ll be on her way out. When she’ll start packing her bags, and we’ll lose our baby. I see Mum, I watch her when she sleeps. Some nights she seems so distressed, looks to be struggling in her dreams, that I get to thinking, Well, those must be nightmares in that beautiful head.
Another glance in the rearview mirror, and Lulu, our birthday girl, she sits back there, bouncing and smiling that big, white grin. Mum goes on fidgeting, her thin hands working themselves over, always so radiant and full of a lavender glow, mama is.
‘Calm those hands,’ I say to Mum, quietly. She looks at me. I smile, not nearly as wide as Lulu’s, but still I try. Mum returns the smile, and oh boy, fellas, her smile, the way her lips curve, the lines forming at the edges of her mouth, she is always my girl, doesn’t matter how old she gets, there isn’t much that matters, not even death could pry her from me. Just try me, you scoundrel.
We end up in a fair bit of traffic. ‘Ah, come on,’ I groan. I turn to Lulu – ‘Gonna be late for your own birthday,’ I tell her, but we laugh. Mama really loathes traffic, gets her pretty anxious, if we’re being honest. She starts moaning and whining and fidgeting even more. Sometimes I want to hold her close at the worst times. I want to say, Hey, Lulu, take the wheel for a sec. I gotta hold Mum until she knows we love her and that the traffic is only here for a moment and gone.
The cars creep along and we creep right on with them. Police lights flash ahead. And the red lights of an ambulance and a fire truck. As we come closer, I can almost make out what’s happened.
‘Oh, no,’ Mum whispers. ‘That looks bad.’
It does look bad. Real terrible. Lulu sees it, too, of course. But, we can’t always hide these kinds of things from her. She’ll have to learn about the bad things that can happen.
There’s a car flipped, laying wrecked on the sidewalk, looks like it took out some fence, as well. I think I see some blood.
I hear mama’s voice against her rolled-up window. ‘There’s blood… Looks like someone got dragged.’ And then, quickly, ‘Don’t look, Lu.’ Mum checks to make sure Lulu has turned her head. She has. She knows to listen to her mama. I also know that.
Mum laughs and takes my hand in hers. ‘What a way to start a birthday, huh, Lu?’
Lulu doesn’t laugh, but says, ‘I’m glad Benny didn’t have to see that. He’d be up all night with terrors.’ She’s always so sincere.
The traffic soon thins out, once more, and we make it to Lulu’s party on time. For two hours she seems like she runs the place, chasing her friends, climbing up slides, going around and around on the carousel. The Ferris wheel carries Lulu and her friends up, brings them down, then up, and back down, until I’m dizzy from watching. Never once do I let go of Mum’s hand.
Mama agrees, the party is worth the anxiety and stress, if only to see our girl smile that smile and rule her own world.
At night, back at the farmhouse, with Lulu tucked tightly in her bed, Benny at her small feet, Mum and me settle in to watch some television. As always, I have to fiddle with the antenna for a good block of time, but I eventually get it to work. I hold her near and can’t imagine not always having her so close.
We are interrupted by the violently loud RRRIIIINNGG of the phone.
I grunt. ‘Damn it.’
I leave Mum on the sofa and pick up the phone from its cradle.
‘Yeah,’ I answer. No Hellos when I’m aggravated.
The man on the other end of the line talks fast. Talks nervous. Talks through sobs.
‘No,’ I hiss. ‘No, god, oh, god.’
The man talks terribly, horribly, frighteningly.
I pull a chair out from the kitchen table. I sit, firmly, and hold my head up with my free hand. ‘Oh, my god. Jesus.’
He talks horrors, he talks blood and death and he weeps. He speaks his Goodbyes and thanks me for answering so late. I don’t know the words I talk, don’t know what I can say. So I say my Goodbyes and tell the man I can do anything he needs of me.
I stand and fit the phone into its cradle. I step carefully back into the parlor, Mum sits on the sofa, watching me move so slowly.
‘Lulu’s friend, Abby,’ I mutter.
Mama cranes her neck. ‘What?’ She can’t understand me.
I speak clearer. ‘Lulu’s friend. Abby. She’s dead.’ I sound like a recording.
Mum’s hand shoots to her mouth. She mumbles something. Maybe something about noticing that the little girl didn’t make it to the party. We both noticed. Didn’t seem strange at the time. Not everybody is going to make it to every party. The reason is not always so horrifying, however.
‘The car we saw earlier. The one on the sidewalk.’
Mama says nothing. Just shakes her head over and over. I see tears falling down her cheeks.
‘Hit her and it dragged her. Flipped when it hit the fence.’ I feel so cold repeating what I know.
Mum cries softly, no no no no, she says. The tears drip from her chin. She stares at the floor, but soon finds my eyes. ‘What do we tell Lu? How do we do that?’
I’m not sure what we tell her, how we tell her, so I say nothing, I just think.
She’s gonna be packing those bags sooner, now. The neck of the hourglass widens, the grains of sand cascade down. We lose her, our little girl – death is real, Lulu, and he comes for us all.
‘In the morning,’ that is what her mama and me decide. We’ll tell her in the morning. No point in waiting, putting it off. Mum’s face is lit with the gray glow of the television in the dark parlor. I reach down, brush her knee with my hand as I walk by.
I climb the stairs to the second floor. Outside of Lulu’s room, I hold my hand against her door. I listen for her breathing, hearing her chest rise and fall with the tiny snores of the beagle. The door squeaks as I gently push it open. Gotta oil the hinges.
Benny lifts his head, eyeing me, suspiciously. Maybe wondering, What brings you so late?
‘Hey, boy,’ I whisper, petting his head as I sit on the end of Lulu’s bed. ‘Keepin’ a good eye on her, right?’ Benny lowers his head back down, content with the petting.
I look to my girl, sleeping on her side like her mama, curled up, with the window open. A chilled wind fills the room. I don’t stop petting the beagle’s head.
Happy birthday, Lulu. I don’t mean to spoil it for you, I don’t. I’ve got your bags here, okay? A suitcase, a carry-on. But, I don’t think you need ‘em, yet. We don’t wanna bring death to you, Lu, not yet, not ever, but that doesn’t mean pack your bags, doesn’t mean the hourglass neck needs to grow, you don’t even need to grow, Lulu! You can stay small, and you can stay out of your own head! You and Benny, you can both stay small and here. You can stay here, Lulu. Mum and me, we’ve got your bags, but we can hide ‘em on you, and we might.
I stand to leave Lulu’s room, but not before touching her short hair, and pulling her blanket up to her neck. If she insists on sleeping with the window open when it’s forty degrees outside, I insist on keeping her warm.
Benny watches me leave with one eye open. Good dog.
Back in the parlor, Mum isn’t on the sofa, and the television is turned off. A quick check of the first floor and I find the front door open.
Outside, mama is standing on the porch, leaning against the railing. In her hand she holds an hourglass, tipping it up and down. The sand can’t make it from one end to the other.
‘This is what I wanna do, Jon,’ she tells me. ‘I wanna keep time steady.’
‘Can’t do that,’ I reply. ‘Gotta put down the hourglass, eventually.’
She stands there, looking up at the connected stars in the black sky. ‘I’ll put it down on its side.’
I reach out for her waist, wanting to feel her in my hands. ‘Mum…’
She extends her arm back, the hand holding the hourglass, looking like she’s about to throw it into the road where it will surely shatter. And then she loosens her muscles and her hand slides down to her side. The hourglass held next to her thigh.
Now my hands find her waist, and I embrace her, mama’s head fitting perfectly into the crook of my neck.
We go inside, I close the front door after us. Leave the night breeze and silver stars behind for this evening. Mum sits the hourglass back on the mantle above the fireplace, laying it on its side.
We sit on the sofa in darkness, and not long after, mama is asleep in my lap. And I remove her glasses. And I don’t want to move her. And I don’t know what to do. And my eyes on the sideways hourglass, because there it rests, sand not falling.