Thursday afternoon, 17 July 1997
GM: “Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to yoouuu
Happy birthday, dear Celia,
Happy birthday to yoooouuuuu!”
Celia wasn’t allowed to invite any friends to her party. Still, it’s a crowded table between the birthday girl, her parents and grandparents, and all four of her ages one-to-six younger siblings. A modest collection of presents sits around the “starter home’s” cramped dining room. Celia’s mom and dad come from affluent families, but they’re barely out of college and have five kids.
Her grandmother’s smile looks strained but humoring. If Celia had to guess, the easily tired-out old woman is the reason for no birthday guests. Still, her parents’ eyes are earnest with desire for their daughter to have a good time despite no friends or pinatas. They feel like they’ve tried to make up for it:
Celia’s dad laughingly dubbed it a “chocolate explosion” after her mom finished baking, and the name stuck. It’s chocolate. White chocolate cake layers. Chocolate icing lathered with chocolate sauce. Chocolate candy bars of every size and shape, some dark and some white. Chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate.
There’s so much chocolate that Celia’s mom had seemed baffled what to do by the time she’d layered on the last piece of candy: “Oh, silly me! How the heck are we supposed to fit on any candles?” She’d seemed ready to give up and let the kids eat off the excess candy. Then Celia’s dad swooped in with a magic solution. It would let them save all the candy for the party—and get an extra helping of chocolate on top.
“Make a wish, baby girl!” Daddy beams over the cake’s adjacent cupcake.
Celia: Celia’s eyes are as round as the empty plate in front of her as her mother brings the cake to the table. When she’d said chocolate, she hadn’t even imagined that this would be the end result. Chocolate explosion indeed. Her little hands can barely constrain themselves from reach out to pluck at the candies and dig into the frosting. She sits on them—as her parents taught her—to keep the impulses at bay. Ladies don’t grab, Daddy is fond of saying.
She takes in a deep breath, glancing around at all the faces looking expectantly at her, and focuses on her wish. I wish for a pony, I wish for a pony, I wish for a pony. Pony, pony, pony. The word becomes a mantra echoing inside her mind as she leans forward, scrunches her eyes shut tight, and blows.
GM: Celia’s family cheers and applauds as the eight candles blow out.
“So many this year!” her mom exclaims. Her dad starts to carve the cake and distribute pieces. “Oh, that looks just decadent,” laughs Celia’s grandfather.
“Yes, just a little slice for me, please,” asks Grandma.
“I probably shouldn’t tempt fate either,” Grandpa agrees.
“More for the kids, then,” smiles Daddy as he sets a thick slice with several candy bars down in front of Celia.
The chocolate-lathered cake has a spongy yet thick texture. The chocolate sauce that’s seeped into it makes it extra moist. It’s pleasantly contrasted by the harder crunch of the candy bars; Mommy advises Celia to “break off a piece to eat with each bite.” After the kids stuff themselves into a sugar coma and the older adults ruefully regard the still-sizable cake, it’s time for presents.
The modest haul has most of the staples an eight-year-old birthday girl would want. There’s Barbie dolls, some Lisa Frank posters and stickers, and a Talk n’ View Magic Mirror from Beauty in the Beast. Most of the presents go to makeup, nail polish, and a face-painting kit. They’re all in glittery pink pouches and cases with the mermaid logo for Siren Cosmetics. Everyone knows how much time Celia likes to spend in front of Mommy’s vanity.
But no pony.
“Well, sweetie? Did your wish come true?” her dad asks.
Celia: Celia’s face lights up with unbridled glee as she digs into the giant slice of cake that Daddy puts on her plate. It is the one day per year that she indulges as wildly as she wishes, and on this day no one tells her to eat like a lady. Her face is smeared with chocolate and her tummy swollen with dessert. She still manages to scarf down another piece of candy before the cry of “presents!” breaks into her decadent, sugar-fueled reverie. She manages to remember to wipe her hands before she begins tearing into the assembled pile of gifts. She oohs, aahs, and squeals with each new trinket that she unfolds. Makeup, polish, the wild colors of Lisa Frank, the mirror she’d begged for when she had seen it and subsequently forgotten about. Her eyes are alight with joy.
She is half out of her seat—already planning on plopping down in front of Mommy’s vanity with her new haul—when Daddy’s question stops her short. Her wish. The pony. She peers up at him. The sanctity of birthday wishes is well known in their household. You cannot speak the wish or it will not come true. But she cannot lie to Daddy. Her lower lip trembles at the dilemma.
Slowly, she shakes her head.
GM: Celia’s brothers and sisters are still eating cake and chatting with their grandparents. A few are too young to do much talking. No one seems to see the shake of her head but Mom and Dad. The child’s honesty seems to take them both aback as the smiles fade from their faces.
“Oh. Well. I’m sorry, sweetie,” Daddy says as he lays a hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes… sometimes we can’t get everything we want.”
He tries to offer a comforting smile, but the look in his eyes is plain. The sense of failure, of having let her down. This is not a life lesson any parent wants to teach during their child’s birthday party.
Mommy brushes Celia’s hair as she offers a similar look of contrition. “Oh, sweetie, we are both so sorry. Do you want some more cake, maybe? We have plenty left.”
Celia: She is old enough to recognize there is something off about the expression on her parent’s faces. Was it her? Should she have lied? She doesn’t like that they’re not smiling, and that it happened after something she said.
She rises, unsteadily, onto the chair. She isn’t supposed to stand on chairs, but today is her birthday, so she gets to make exceptions. She leans in to her dad, her chocolate-smeared lips close to his ear as she whispers,
“Not yet, Daddy. I wished you’d play dress up with me.” Dress up is her favorite game. Mommy plays all the time, but Daddy hasn’t.
GM: Laughter breaks through on Daddy’s face, all his troubles gone in an instant. Mommy smiles and raises her eyebrows. Daddy cups an exaggerated hand to whisper it into her ear. Mommy breaks out laughing, but holds a hand to cover her mouth as she does. That’s what ladies do.
“Okay, birthday girl,” Daddy chuckles as he turns back to her. “Just this once, since it’s your birthday.” He smooths back Celia’s hair and kisses her forehead.
“Oh, mister, you don’t know the half of what you’re in for…” Mommy smirks at him.
Daddy starts to reply, then there’s the sound of the doorbell chiming.
“Oh, now who could that be?” asks Mommy.
“I’ll get it,” Daddy answers.
“Don’t think you’re off the hook, bub,” says Mommy, smirk returning.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Daddy laughs as he tussles Celia’s hair, then leaves the room.
Mommy starts to talk about Celia’s dress-up plans before she’s interrupted by a loud, “Max!” from beyond the kitchen. The house isn’t that big. Sound carries. “Oof, c’mere, you! Still in-”
“Jim, what the-”
“Oh, now is that any way to greet your old man? Gimme a hug! Oof! Okay, let’s see the birthday girl!”
A man strides into the dining room. He’s tall and lanky, with a full head of silvery-gray hair and a wide grin that looks at home on his face. The wrinkles around his mouth look like he’s grinned a lot over the years, unlike her grandparents. He’s dressed in a casual sports coat with the collar of his shirt unbuttoned.
Celia might not notice any of those things, though, next to the companion at his side.
It’s white, dressed in pink and magenta… whatever you call that stuff ponies wear. It’s tromping through her house at the older man’s side like it has every right to be there.
“Hey, birthday girl! I’m your grandpa!” the man exclaims, squatting down to eye level with Celia and spreading his arms. “Can I get a hug?”
Celia hasn’t seen him before in her life.
Celia: Celia hasn’t seen this man before in her life. She is barely aware of his presence, in fact, next to the shining, shimmering, glittering—
“PONY!” She is off the chair so quickly that it totters over in her wake. Her tiny feet carry her across the kitchen to stop just shy of the man now crouching at eye level, expectant, and the pony tossing its head beside him. Her eyes shine as she takes it in, and this man—this bridle carrying hero—is waiting. She does not hesitate. She launches herself into his embrace. Her arms fling around his neck, smothering his face in chocolate-stained kisses. She does not care that she has never seen him before; he is the granter of wishes.
“Pony! You brought me a pony!” Her voice is nothing short of a delighted squeal.
GM: The man laughs and squeezes his Celia tight in his arms. He shakes her around as she plants messy chocolate kisses over his clean-shaven face.
“She’s all yours, birthday girl! She needs a name, what do you want to call her?”
Celia: A name? Does that mean..?
“Do I get to keep her?” She stretches out a hand toward the pony.
GM: The pony’s muzzle is soft beneath Celia’s hand. Its eyes are silent and trusting.
“Yep! I said she’s all yours, didn’t I?” beams the man.
“Wait, Jim—we don’t have room to take care of a pony,” Daddy interjects in a flustered voice, but his eyes aren’t on the pony.
“You’ve got some nerve, showing up like this,” growls Grandpa. His face is turning red like someone has lit a stove inside his skull.
“Please, y’all, not in front of the kids,” Mommy entreats. She lays her hands over the newcomer’s arm as if to guide him out of the room. He shrugs her off.
“I’ll show up an-”
“Oh my god, are you drunk? I can smell it on your breath!” exclaims Grandma, her expression mortified.
“I’m fine! I wanna see my grandbab—hey!” the newcomer exclaims as Daddy scoops Celia out his embrace.
“Daddy? What’s… going on?” Isabel asks with a frown. Celia’s other siblings don’t quite seem to comprehend what’s happening. But the smiles are fading from their faces.
“Jim, this isn’t a good time-” starts Daddy.
“Stop calling me Jim!” the man exclaims in a hurt voice.
Celia: Any joy Celia has over the pony is cut short by the grown ups. The atmosphere in the room shifts. She doesn’t understand—why is everyone upset? The Wish Bringer is here.
“Daddy?” She looks to him, now in his arms, suddenly off the floor and away from the pony and the man. She reaches for the pony. “But the pony —”
GM: Daddy cups his hand over Celia’s and pulls her arm down.
“Celia, baby, I’m sorry. We don’t have room for a pony.”
Celia: “But he’s magic. He knew I wanted a pony and he brought it. He can fix Grandma!”
GM: Grandma’s mortified look still hasn’t subsided, but her brow furrows at the child’s words.
“Celia, sweetie-” Mommy starts with an embarrassed look. She runs a hand along her daughter’s head.
“See? Every girl wants a pony!” interrupts the Wish Bringer. “It’s not a problem, I can keep it at my house, and Celia can come over whenever she w-”
“Get out of here. Right now,” Grandpa growls at him.
“Oh, please,” psshes the Wish Bringer. “Or what? If you were a real man, you wouldn’t have raised my k-”
Grandpa decks the newcomer across his jaw. He falls backwards onto the table, which topples over with a terrific crash. The sauce-lathered cake, true to its name, splatters everywhere. All over the floor, the man’s clothes, and Celia’s birthday presents.
The seated Flores children start loudly crying.
The pony bolts.
Celia: Celia, still in her father’s arms, bursts into tears. Her presents are ruined. She squirms, trying to get down. The pony is going to trample them! Or get out! “Daaaaaaaaaadddyyyy!!” her voice rises in a watery wail.
GM: Daddy squeezes Celia close for a moment, then foists her into Mommy’s arms. He interposes himself between the two men as the Wish Granter ambles to his feet. “Oh, look who grew a p-”
“Stop it, both of you!”
“You have the nerve-”
“Help me get the kids!” Mommy exclaims. She lowers Celia to the floor but keeps a tight grip on her hand. Grandma gathers up the younger kids as Mommy grabs Isabel with her free hand. Heated voices, furious exclamations, and a slamming door follow the children upstairs to their bedrooms.
It’s anyone’s guess what’s happened to the pony.
This is the worst birthday ever.
Thursday afternoon, 17 July 1997
GM: It’s a little longer before the noises from downstairs are over. Daddy comes upstairs to the bedroom Celia shares with Isabel. He sits down on the bed next to Mommy.
“We’re… we’re so sorry you had to see that, girls,” Mommy says as she pulls Celia onto her lap.
“We’ll get your presents all replaced,” Daddy adds as he pulls Isabel onto his.
There are hugs. There are apologies. There are words of comfort. There are talks about how to behave ‘when you’re mad.’ There is the promise of another chocolate explosion cake.
The only thing there isn’t are explanations.
Celia: Celia’s eyes are finally dry as Daddy comes into the room. She listens to what he says, the promise of new cake and presents.
“What about the pony?” she dares to ask.
“Is Grandpa okay?” she tacks on, belatedly.
GM: “Grandpa’s fine, sweetie. He and Gradma went home,” Mommy answers first.
She and Daddy trade looks.
Mommy adds, “He’ll be very happy to hear how much you care about him.”
“That’s… good,” says Isabel. The six-year-old looks at a loss for how to process this.
Celia: “And the pony?” she presses.
GM: Daddy lays a hand on Celia’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, baby. We just don’t have room for a pony in this house.”
Celia: “He said he could keep it,” Celia protests.
GM: Celia’s parents trade looks for a moment.
“He said he was our grandpa,” says Isabel.
“He’s not,” Daddy quickly answers. “People say… people say things that aren’t true, sometimes.”
Celia: “But who was he? How did he know it was my birthday? Or to bring a pony?”
GM: “He’s someone who…” Daddy starts again, then trails off and looks to his wife.
“He’s someone who means well,” Mommy says after a moment. “But if we invite him back, people will get angry and sad again.”
GM: That simple question makes Celia’s parents trade looks again.
“You’ll… understand when you’re older,” says Daddy.
“But you don’t want people to get angry and sad, do you?” asks Mommy as she looks between her daughters.
“No…” answers Isabel.
Celia: “But… what about the pony? Will she be okay? I picked out a name.” She looks between her parents, eyes wide, afraid for the pony that bolted from their home. “Where is she going? Does she have a home? Or a mommy? If the man gave her to me does that mean I’m her mommy?” Her lower lip trembles. Tears shine in her eyes.
GM: Mommy hugs Celia close and murmurs assuring things. They caught Sugar Cube before she got too far away. The pony will go to a loving home. Celia would need to have told Sugar Cube she was the pony’s mommy to be Sugar Cube’s mommy.
But it doesn’t escape the newly-eight-year-old that Daddy isn’t saying anything.
Mommy’s holding her sister and saying reassuring things. When Celia steals a look past Mommy’s arms, she sees Daddy’s face buried against his wife’s shoulder.
He’s making faint noises.
That sound like… crying.
Celia: The logic makes sense to Celia’s eight-year-old mind. Of course the pony doesn’t know Celia is her mommy; she wouldn’t have known if Mommy hadn’t told her… right? She doesn’t think too hard on it.
She’s focused instead on Daddy, on the way he buries his face against Mommy the same way she does when she’s upset. Her heart sinks. Does Daddy know this was her secret wish? But she hadn’t said anything. She climbs carefully off of her mother’s lap to displace her sister, cuddling up against Daddy. She hums the song Mommy always sings when they’re sad, the melody soft and lilting.
“Why are you sad, Daddy?” she asks, patting his hand.
GM: Daddy quickly pulls his head away and wipes his eyes.
“It’s nothing, sweetie. Just… had something in my eye. And being so proud of how big you’re getting.” He ruffles her hair.
“Say,” Mommy remarks, “I think someone made a birthday wish to play dress-up, didn’t she?”
“That’s right, she did!” exclaims Daddy. “What should we start with? How about…”
Friday night, 18 July 1997, AM
GM: It’s well after bedtime and lights out that Celia feels something painfully bang into her head. She’d been sleeping. The alarm clock’s flickering red numbers stare up from her pillowside.
Her head really hurts.
“Um… are you awake?” asks Isabel from the other bed.
Celia: “Ow!” Celia is instantly awake, head smarting where it’s been struck by… the alarm clock?
She glares across the room in the dark towards where she knows her sister’s bed is. “What?”
GM: “The lights are on,” says Isabel.
Celia can see out the window that the lights are on downstairs. In the living room.
The alarm clock says it’s 2:32 AM.
“Do you wanna… go listen? To what they’re talking about?”
Celia: Her eyes dart towards the light. There is no hesitation.
“Yes,” she says, slipping from beneath the covers.
“Shhh,” she whispers, though she knows Isabel does not need to be told.
GM: Isabel doesn’t get out of bed.
“Um…” she whispers back.
“I think there’s a monster under my bed…”
Celia: Celia is quiet for a second. Monsters. She wants to jump back into her own bed and pull the blankets up over her head. But Mommy says monsters aren’t real. And if they are real she can’t let her sister face them alone, even if she threw an alarm clock at her head.
“I’ll check.” She takes a step toward the bed. “Where’s the… flashlight?”
GM: Isabel doesn’t know, but Celia is able to find one in the bathroom after a brief search.
The lights are off.
She approaches the bed.
It’s dark and full of space for any monster to hide.
There could be a hundred monsters down there.
Celia: Celia’s heart pounds in her chest as she approaches the bed, flashlight in hand. She imagines all the horrible things that could be hiding under there: the boogeyman, the ugly monster, the swamp monster…
GM: Celia shines the flashlight.
But she sees none.
No monsters down there.
Celia: In the dark, her sister cannot see the way her hands shake. The light bounces across the floor and she can probably hear the exhale of relief once the bed has been cleared.
“No monsters,” Celia whispers. She holds out a hand for her sister to grab. “Come on.”
GM: Isabel looks apprehensive for a moment, then takes Celia’s hand, closes her eyes, and jumps down.
The two creep down the hallway and approach the staircase. They descend several steps, kneel down, and press their faces between the balusters. It’s every child’s favorite place to eavesdrop on living room discussions between the grown-ups.
Then Celia realizes why she found no monsters under Isabel’s bed.
They were already here.
He looks like a man, but only in the way that latex knows how to pour into a mold. How to approximate the shape despite its foreign nature. He’s a hair below average height, clean-shaven, and has short, neatly combed black hair. He’s dressed in a black turtleneck shirt and any navy slacks. He looks as if he could be the host for a gallery opening or wine tasting event… were it not for his eyes. They are the sea-gray color of troubled skies and distant storm clouds, harbingers of a coming doom. They are as frigid as the Arctic’s blackest depths and as remorseless as any shark’s. Even without staring at Celia, those awful eyes seem to pierce through to the child’s very soul. Against that dead stare, the rest of him stands revealed. There’s the too-cold, too-white skin like a porcelain doll’s. There’s the utter stillness, the statue-like way he never blinks, never smiles, never makes any of those little movements that people do. There’s how the very air around him feels colder. Celia can already feel goosebumps breaking out along her flesh as her teeth chatter. She knows, in that way only children can know, whose imaginations can roam nightmare vistas that grown-ups explain away as ‘impossible’:
This is the monster missing from under Isabel’s bed.
And Daddy is trapped in the room with it.
Celia: Celia’s mind freezes along with the rest of her body. The man—monster—is not looking her way, but she knows that he knows she is there. She and Isabel, her little sister, the one she said she would protect from the monsters. Even at a freshly-turned eight Celia knows that it is her job, as the eldest, to keep her sister safe. Not only her sister, but all her three other baby siblings. And Mommy.
A fist clenches in her gut. Where is Mommy?
She reaches out a surprisingly steady hand to her sister, leaning in close to whisper in her ear.
“Go back to bed. Get under the blankets. Keep quiet.”
Monsters can’t get you under the blankets, everyone knows that.
GM: Isabel trembles in place for a moment, seemingly paralyzed with fear. Celia wonders if she’s even heard the whisper until her sister all but bolts back to their bedroom.
Yet if the monster hears the child’s panicked footfalls, it gives no sign. It’s talking with Daddy in the living room. They’re sitting down on the couches like this is normal. Daddy seems to be doing most of the talking, because Celia doesn’t ever see the monster’s so-pale lips move. His expression is… a lot of things.
But mostly, it looks like when he was crying against Mommy.
Mommy is nowhere to be seen.
Celia: Celia waits until she hears the faint click of the bedroom door down the hall to ease her way down another step, closer to the living room. She turns her head to press the side of her skull against the empty space between the balusters, as if that simple motion will make their words clear. The flashlight is still clutched in her hand. Monsters hate light. As long as she has it, she is safe.
GM: Daddy and the monster continue talking. Their words are an indistinct murmur, but Celia can read their faces. The monster’s doesn’t change. It hurts her head to look at. It’s scary to look at. Easier to look at Daddy’s.
Daddy’s face seems to set. Grow more resolved. Grow, somehow… agreeable. In fact, he doesn’t look like he’s afraid of the monster, anymore.
Is that worse than seeing him cry?
Celia: Terror kept her still, but loyalty moves her feet. Step by step she creeps down the stairs until she is at the bottom of the staircase, crouching low—almost bent double—to avoid notice. She holds her breath as she stops near the open doorway, pressing herself against the wall that leads inside. She is still for a moment, long enough to judge if she has been heard, before she peeks around the corner.
GM: Adults seem tall to any child. But right now, when Celia is doing her utmost to avoid notice, to crouch as low as she can to all but swim against floor, the two seem as giants.
But she can hear them.
She can hear Daddy.
She hears him say to the monster, “It’s a deal.”
And as her every instinct and common screams for him not to, Celia sees Daddy reach out… and touch the monster.
He shakes its hand.
He stands to do it.
So does the monster.
It looks past his shoulder.
Its gaze fixes straight on Celia.
Celia: The breath whooshes from her lungs. She has half a mind to move back behind the wall, but she is caught by his gaze, rooted to the spot. Her mouth pops open.
GM: As the child gapes, all her heat, all her warmth, all her life suddenly seems to leech out through her open mouth. She’s so cold. Howling winds seem to shriek in her ears as her head swims. Her vision tunnels, like she’s plummeting into ice water. She’s sinking. Drowning. She thinks she hears Daddy screaming, but she can barely hear. Barely see. Except for one detail:
The monster getting closer.
Friday morning, 18 July 1997
GM: Celia’s in her bed. It’s bright and sunny out, and Mommy and Daddy are there. They laugh at “what a sleepyhead” she is. They cheerfully proclaim how breakfast today will be blueberry pancakes. They’ll have a “second birthday” later in the afternoon, along with replacement presents and cake for the birthday girl. Or would she like to invite her friends and have the party a few days later, so there’s time for invitations to go out?
Celia: Blueberry pancakes? And cake? Two days in a row? The prior night’s events fade in the light of day, banished by the laughter in her father’s eyes and the promise of an extra cake. A glance at the alarm clock shows that it has been reset on the stand next to Isabel’s bed. Or… had it never left?
She is faced with a dilemma: cake today, or extra presents if she invites her friends.
“…can we have pony rides?”
GM: “Of course, sweetie!” proclaims Daddy, hugging her close with Mommy.
“You can have everything you want.”
Saturday morning, 23 August 1997
GM: As the months pass, Celia does get everything, and a good deal more. The family moves out of their rental home to a nicer place in a nice neighborhood. A really nice neighborhood. It’s a gated community called Audubon Place. The barbed wire-tipped concrete walls, masked guards, and leashed attack dogs might be frightening for the child. She’s safe from behind the car window, though, and their new home is a dream:
It’s a stately Queen Anne home with beautifully landscaped grounds. Those include lush gardens with organically grown citrus trees and grapes, a heated inground pool lined with Italian tile, and pretty slate patio. There’s seven bedrooms, so Celia and her siblings all get a room of their own now: they don’t have to share anymore. There’s even a dedicated game and crafts room, and a big deck where the whole family can eat dinner outdoors when it’s nice out. Mommy loves the place and plans to convert one of the bedrooms into a dance studio.
There’s also a familiar face waiting outside.
They have room at this place, so Sugar Cube is Celia’s now, if she feels she’s up to the responsibility of taking care of a pony. Being an animal’s mommy is a serious commitment.
There are also some new rules, like no more TV. Daddy thinks it’s better if the kids play outside and “practice their hands and brains” instead of watching cartoons. Mommy agrees. It’s better for kids to be active.
Everything is going to be better now.
Sunday afternoon, 9 September 2001
GM: Celia is 12. Daddy is away a lot: his job at the state legislature takes up a lot of time. Mom always seems to be so grateful when he’s home. Mom says she’s getting on in her years. Even though she’s 29, she tells the Flores girls during dance practice that “Ballet is a young woman’s game.” She’s at the age she needs to start planning for her retirement. It puts so much strain on dancers’ bodies. There’s a few times Celia thinks she’s heard her mom puking from the bathroom. She’s so proud of Celia, though: dancing doesn’t come easily to her daughter, who Isabel calls a “robot dancer.” But she puts her everything into the lessons, until her toes are black and blue and falling apart. Even if she’s a little stiff, Mom couldn’t be happier. The family has so much to be happy about.
They have some downs as well as ups, like any family. There’s that time Celia finds some blood on the staircase. Isabel gives her a funny look when she brings it up, screams, “YOU’RE A LIAR!” and slams the door to her room. They don’t talk for several days.
But God has provided for them. They have much to be thankful for in their prayers at dinner. It’s not long after Celia has her first period that her father sits down with her. He explains how he’s taking away her makeup.
“You’re getting to be a young woman now, sweetie. Boys can get ideas. I want you to be safe.”
Celia: “But, wait, all of it? Even my concealer? Foundation? Dad! That’s not fair! Why is it my fault if some stupid boys have ideas? You’re not taking things away from Isabel!”
It doesn’t make any sense to her. With her period came the bad skin; she needs the makeup now, or people are going to see.
GM: “Celia, if we do things half-baked, a half-baked result is exactly what we get,” her dad explains.
He’s bald now. There was something he didn’t like about his hair (Celia isn’t sure exactly what), so he decided to shave it all off. It definitely makes the well-muscled former quarterback look more imposing.
“We don’t want half-baked, in anything. All in or all out.”
“But you’re right it’s important to be fair. Isabel is going to give up those things too.”
Celia: “Then I want a dermtol… a skin doctor.” She stumbles over the word and crosses her arms.
GM: Her dad looks at her for a moment, then lays a hand on her shoulder.
“Sweetie, I want you to realize… you’ll always be beautiful to me just they way you are. You don’t need to cover yourself up.”
“Your husband will feel the same way. He will see and love you for who you are.”
Celia: “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one with acne all over your face!” She points at the red, splotchy marks on her cheeks and jawline, still visible despite the concealer.
GM: Her dad looks at her for a moment. He pulls a tissue out of the box on the bedside table and starts to wipe the concealer off.
Celia: “What are you—stop it!” She jerks away from him, shoving at his hands. “You can’t do this to me! I’m telling Mom.”
GM: Her dad plants his strong hands around her shoulders and seats her back into place on the bed. “Sweetie, sit still.”
The tissue resumes wiping away the concealer.
Her zits are huge.
Celia: Celia tucks her chin against her neck, as if that will hide the horrible marks on her skin.
“See? I can’t not have makeup. That’s just… that’s against the Constitution. Cruel and unusual punishment.” She says it with enough gusto it sounds as if she might believe it herself.
GM: Her dad lifts her chin up to wipe away what’s left.
He gets up, then sweeps away all of her bottles and brushes and cases into a trash bag. There’s nothing left of her once-sizable cosmetics collection. Even concealer.
He then kisses her forehead.
“I love you the way you are, Celia.”
Celia: She makes an effort to hide the concealer before he can grab it. But he is faster than her, or knows her tricks, and it, too, gets swept away. Tears roll down her cheeks, and her father ignores her pleas.
“I hate you!” she screams at him, red-eyed and snotty.
GM: Her dad isn’t faster, but he is stronger. He pries it out of her grasp and drops it into the trash bag too with a tiny thump.
“You’re beautiful, sweetie. You always will be.”
Celia: “Get out, get out, get out!” She shoves him toward the door so she can at least have the satisfaction of slamming it in his face.
GM: She’s denied that satisfaction too. Her much larger dad doesn’t budge at the 12-year-old’s shoving, but he does frown. There’s an edge to his voice as he says,
“Celia, you need to apologize for that. Right now.”
Celia: She doubles down instead.
“Get out of my room!”
GM: “Okay, if that’s the way you want to be.”
He opens her dresser, pulls out one of her favorite tops, and drops it into the trash bag too.
Celia: “No! What are you—MOOOOMMM!” Her voice cracks. She starts toward the door herself to find a sane adult.
GM: Her dad takes her by the shoulders, less gently this time, and sits her back down on the bed. He pulls out another favorite top from her dresser and drops it into the trash too.
“This will stop when you apologize for your behavior, Celia.”
Celia: “You can’t do that!”
She twists and squirms beneath his grasp, but she is still a child. She watches him grab the pink sparkly top from the dresser—the one she wears at every opportunity—and bolts toward it. “That’s mine!” she yells, yanking at the bag.
GM: Her dad yanks her hands away, then pulls out that white floral-patterned sundress she likes. He drops it in the trash bag after the sparkly top. There’s anger in his eyes.
“Ladies don’t behave this way. Last warning.”
Celia: “Or what?” the words hiss out from between her teeth. “You’ll burn my wardrobe? Make me go to school naked? I bet the boys would get all sorts of ideas then!”
GM: Celia’s dad drops the bag, grabs her hand, then sits back down on the bed and pulls her over his knee. He pulls up her dress, then delivers a sharp spank to her rear with a loud smack.
There’s footsteps, then Celia’s mom pokes her head through the door.
Her expression freezes.
“Go back to what you were doing,” says Celia’s dad.
Celia: Sprawled over her father’s lap, bottom already red, with tears streaming down her face in humiliation and pain and rage, Celia kicks her feet and reaches for her mom, sobbing.
GM: Her mom kneels to the floor and reaches out, taking Celia’s hands in hers. She starts to say something, then catches her husband’s eye.
“I’ll just hold her hands,” she hastily amends. “That’s all.”
Celia’s dad doesn’t say anything. He brings his palm down hard on her throbbing rear with another sharp smack.
“This will stop when you apologize for your behavior,” he repeats.
Celia: She hates them both. She tells them as much as her father brings his hand down upon her again, screaming wordless fury. Three, four, five times, she hisses and spits and screams in her mother’s face. There’s no relent, though. Not until her rage abates. Not until she lies still when her father’s hand strikes her again, her throat as raw and hoarse as her bottom.
The apology he’s waiting for is whispered, her voice thick with tears, when he pauses between spankings.
GM: “That’s better,” her dad says.
He pulls her dress back over her bottom and sits her down.
“I accept your apology, sweetie.”
He gives her a hug, then kisses her head.
“I love you. You’ll always be beautiful to me.”
He gathers up the trash bag and walks out of her room.
Her mother, still seated on the bed, looks at Celia with a mortified expression. Her nose is still wet with saliva. She reaches for her daughter’s hands, then seems to reconsider and sets hers down on her lap.
“I’m sorry, Celia. I am so, so sorry.”
Celia: Celia can’t muster the strength to even glare at her mother.
“You just let him.”
Maybe the lack of righteous anger is worse. Her voice is flat. Her eyes are on the floor.
GM: “I’m sorry. It… it would have just made things worse for you, if…”
With her eyes on the floor, Celia cannot say what her mother’s face looks like. There’s a pause before the woman’s voice resumes,
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She feels her mother’s hand hesitantly reach out to take hers.
Celia: “Why?” She doesn’t pull away, though she doesn’t make it easy on the woman. She is stiff.
GM: Celia’s mom squeezes her hand and scoots closer to her on the bed.
“When your dad’s mind is made up, sweetie, it’s…”
She trails off for a moment, then asks, “What happened here? What was this about?”
Celia: “It’s what?”
The chance to mourn her makeup distracts her, though.
“He said I can’t have makeup anymore. Because boys will look at me funny. He took it. He took all of it. Even my concealer. I have to go to school like this now. Everyone is going to see! Everyone is going to laugh at me! It’s not my fault, it’s not fair.” She wipes at her eyes.
GM: Celia’s mom wraps an arm around her daughter and hugs her against her shoulder.
“Okay. Okay. You can have some of my concealer, as much as you want. Just… be sure you use it every day, so your dad can’t tell the difference. And that you store it someplace out of the way, too. Your bathroom cabinet, maybe.”
Celia: Celia sniffs, wiping at her nose to prevent it from staining her mother’s shirt.
“Okay.” The offering placates her for now, but it only goes so far.
“Did his dad used to hit him? Is that why he doesn’t come around?”
She hasn’t forgotten the events of the Worst Birthday Ever. Or the magical reappearance of Sugar Cube months later.
GM: Celia’s mom pulls out some more tissues to wipe her daughter’s nose.
“The history there is… complicated, sweetie. And very painful for a lot of people.”
“Your dad is under a lot of pressure right now, with the elections looming. He was very young to get elected to state office. There are a lot of older people who’d like to take his job.”
“It’s… I’ll be honest, it’s possible he could lose that. Then I don’t know where we’ll be. If we’re not able to afford the mortgage payments, we could lose the house. This is a very expensive house.”
“Your dad wants to provide for us. There’s nothing that would make him feel like more of a failure than not being able to.”
Celia: “What does that have to do with another grandfather?”
GM: Her mom pauses. “Maybe it doesn’t, sweetie. It’s just… why he got so upset, right now.”
Celia: “…because of something that has nothing to do with me?” Celia scoffs.
GM: Celia’s mother hugs her closer. “I know. It isn’t fair.”
“But things will get better. I promise. Your dad still loves us very much.”
Celia: “I don’t love him. He took my sparkle shirt.”
GM: “I think I remember the place we picked that up from,” her mom says thoughtfully. “I’ll see if I can get you another one for Christmas.”
She winks. “Just don’t tell Santa you’ve had a peek inside his sack, all right?”
Celia: Celia drags two fingers across her lips, twists her hand, and throws away the imaginary key.
GM: Her mom hugs her again.
“I love you, sweetie. Things will get better.”
Saturday night, 15 November 2003, PM
GM: Celia’s mom comes through with the concealer and sparkly top. Her dad doesn’t seem to mind after the months-long period without. He also wins re-election. Life is good in the Flores household. Celia’s dad doesn’t spank her again and loves her very much too.
She attends a purity ball with him when she’s 13, where she pledges to remain a virgin until marriage. He decides it’s better if she and Isabel don’t attend McGehee’s school dances: they’re the only co-educational part of the all-girls school. Even not getting to wear any makeup besides concealer isn’t that bad. Lots of girls don’t even bother to put on makeup without any boys on campus.
Celia is 14 when another very important election comes up: Senate district 9. Her dad is often away with her mom on the campaign trail (such as it is in the 11-mile or so long district). It’s neat, being on her own. Celia’s dad is so busy come the campaign’s final days that the Flores children all spend multi-day sleepovers with friends. There can be no distractions.
The efforts pay off on election night as the results stream in. Representative Maxen Flores is now Senator Maxen Flores.
Celia doesn’t think her dad is even home on the big day. She’s gone home, to filch some booze for a friend’s party. Their parents are also out of town. Celia’s dad has a private stash but she’s not seen him touch alcohol in years. She doubts he’ll notice it’s missing.
Turning on the lights feels like it would alert her parents. It’s as she’s making her way through the house’s darkened hallways that she hears it. Shattering glass. Coming from upstairs.
Celia: The bottles clink together in her hands as she moves toward the door. She is ready to dip outside and make a run for it when the sounds echo down the stairs. She stops. No one is supposed to be home. Her parents are out of town. Her siblings are with friends.
Are we being robbed? What should she do? Call the police? She glances toward the kitchen. But if she calls the police her parents will know she was here. Maybe it’s one of her siblings…?
She sets down the bottles and grabs the first weapon-esque thing she can find, an umbrella, before she moves up the stairs as quietly as she can.
GM: There’s an abrupt crash and the sound of something hitting the ground. Voices. Furious. Shrill. Slurred. It’s enough noise that Celia doubts anyone hears her. She ascends the staircase, and sees that the lights are on from the third floor. Mom always says not to waste electricity.
“YOU—WHORE!!! RIGHT NOW!?”
It’s her parents. Celia can see their outlines through the gloom. Her dad grabs her mom by the hair and slams her face-first into the one of the mounted family pictures. The frame hits the floor with a sharp thump as glass tinkles and her mom hits the ground with another thud. She babbles and crawls backwards with raised hands.
“Ple, ple-ple-plea, I did, I-I, di-”
“RIGHT NOW!?!?! WHEN I FUCKING WIN!!!?!”
Celia: Celia creeps up the stairs, but halfway up, after the shout, she abandons that. Whoever it is cannot hear her. She recognizes her father’s voice, and then their silhouettes. Her mother on the floor, pleading. Her father, angry. The same anger she has seen him in before. She watches him smash her mother’s face into the photo and lets loose the breath she had been holding.
She freezes, makeshift weapon in her hand.
GM: Her dad’s open hand comes down, knocking her mother’s head all the floor with another sharp smack. She gives a strangled cry and half-scampers, half-crawls away on all fours. There’s blood leaking from her nose.
Celia’s dad yanks her up by her hair, making her cry out again. He seizes her shoulders, flips her around, and slugs her in the face with a closed fist. Blood flies off his knuckles amidst a hideous crunch.
Celia: The sound of her mother’s skull hitting the floor propels her forward. She starts up the stairs, rage fueling her steps. She is, after all, her father’s daughter.
“HEY! GET OFF OF HER!”
GM: Her dad’s head whips to the side. If he’s puzzled to see her there, it’s only for a second. Spattered blood droplets frame his hate-twisted face as he thrusts out a finger and bellows,
“GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
Celia: Celia keeps coming. The umbrella feels like bringing a knife to a gun fight, but its weight is steady in her hand.
“Let go of her.”
GM: “I said—GO TO YOUR ROOM!” her dad bellows. He grabs Celia’s mother back off the floor as she screams and flails. Blood, snot, and tears run down her cut face as he tosses her down the stairs like an overlarge football. She screams and flails as she crashes into Celia, knocking her daughter off her feet. Each step smacks into Celia like a bare-bottom spank. They hit her everywhere: her stomach, her back, her breasts, her arms, everywhere. She comes to in a heap at the bottom of the staircase. Her father’s footsteps tramp down.
Celia: Heck, heck, heck. Even inside their minds, ladies don’t swear. Celia’s body is banged up and bruised and hurting by the time she collapses in a pile at the bottom of the stairs, her mother on top of her. She should have called the police. She struggles to rise, trying to drag her mother up with her.
“Come on, Mom, get up.”
GM: Celia doesn’t have to tug very hard before the long-time ballerina springs to both feet with a grace that the younger Flores never quite had. Her eyes are wide with terror as she shoves Celia away, screaming, “GO! GO! GOGOGO!”
Celia: Celia tugs at her mother’s hand, urging her toward the stairs. “Come on!”
Celia’s mom is cut off as her dad jumps the last of the stairs. He tackles his wife like a rival quarterback in a football game. It’s not even a contest between the mass and momentum. Celia’s cheek screams as he backhands her away. Then his fist comes down with another bloody crunch as he screams at the pinned and flailing woman,
“HOW, HOW, HOW, YOU DO THIS TO ME?! ME?!?! ALL I DO, ALL I DO FOR THIS FAMILY!!! YOU! FUCKING!!!! LIAR!!!!!”
Celia: Celia bolts for the stairs, her intention to find the phone and call the police. She concocts the story in her head as she goes, black man, attacking my mom, please help.
GM: Celia doesn’t see what happens next. But she hears it. The crunches. The smacks of impact. The shattering glass and furniture. Her mother’s high-pitched screams amidst her father’s ranting and raving.
“911, wha’ is ya emergency?” asks the Cajun-accented dispatcher.
Celia: “Home invasion,” she whispers into the phone. “There’s a man inside my house attacking my mom, I can hear her screaming, please help, I’m only 14, he knows I’m here, he’s coming for me next.” She gives the address, 3 Audubon Place. “Please hurry, hurry, he’s going to kill her.”
GM: “Off’cers will be on deir way righ’ over, ma’am,” answers the dispatcher. “May I ax who I’m speakin’ to?”
Celia: “Isabel Flores. Please tell them to hurry.” She doesn’t know why she lies, only that she does.
GM: “Okay, Isabel, dey’re on deir way ovah, soon as dey can be. I need you ta stay on da line an’ stay calm fo’ me, okay? Can dey get into da house? Is da door locked? Is…”
The dispatcher stays with her the whole time. His name is Billy Baker. He has lots of questions. Can she describe the suspect? Are weapons involved? Where in the house is the violence taking place? Can she unlock the front door? Can she go over to a neighbor’s house?
Their neighbor at 2 Audubon Place is Mr. McGregor. He’s the president of Tulane University.
All the while, Celia can hear the noises from upstairs.
They don’t stop.
Celia: Celia is adamant that she will not leave her mother alone. She says the door is unlocked, but she hesitates on describing the attacker. “I didn’t see…” she says. “Are they close?” She edges toward the stairs, as if to look up at them.
GM: Ominously, they no longer are. Celia can see some more smashed pictures and kocked-over furniture.
And she can still hear.
Billy Baker asks Celia if she’s been hurt. He repeats that she needs to get out of there. She’s already helped her mother, but she will make it harder for the police to if she’s also injured by the attacker.
Celia: “What do you mean they’re not close?” Celia demands. “I am a senator’s daughter, you send someone right now!”
GM: “Dey’re on deir way ovah, Isabel, but we cin nevah respon’ to dese calls as fas’ as we like. You cin help us an’ ya mama mos’ by goin’ to ya neighbor’s, all righ’?”
Celia: “It’s fine,” Celia says, voice suddenly calm. “I know where my daddy keeps his guns.”
GM: The dispatcher immediately tries to talk Celia out of it. He says responders will be here soon. The cops work together with Blackwatch, which provides the neighborhood security. She will put herself and her mother in danger by getting involved!
Celia: Celia hangs up.
GM: Proper gun safety is to keep the gun and ammunition in separate parts of the house under lock and key. But Maxen Flores wants to respond to a home invasion himself. He has a variety of firearms from pistols to shotguns stored in a variety of locations. There’s a handgun and ammunition stored in separate boxes in the master bedroom.
The ammunition is in a gun safe, but she remembers the combination.
Celia: A gun. Celia hadn’t even considered it an option until she said it out loud. Now her feet take her towards the stairs. She looks up to see what is going on between her parents, and to find out where they are. Will her dad see her if she ascends? Should she run to her neighbor’s, as suggested? Why aren’t the cops coming?
GM: Celia creeps up the stairs. She does not see her parents down the hallway that leads to the master bedroom.
But she can hear the noises.
Celia doesn’t know what that next noise is. She barely hears it under the wet, raggedy p-p-pleases. Or the weak thump of hands smacking against floor.
It’s only there for a second. A meaty, grisly tearing. Then her mother’s screams rise to a fevered, throat-bleeding pitch.
Celia: Hatred hardens her heart. Her father is the monster. She runs down the hall to the master bedroom, dialing in the combination.
GM: Every second feels like an eternity as she unlocks the under-the-bed safe and pulls out its prize. The M1911 pistol is heavy and brutal-looking, all the more so in the 14-year-old’s small hands. The .45 caliber rounds take eternity to remove from their case and load into the weapon. Celia was never much interested in learning how to shoot. Nor was her dad much interested in teaching her. (Her brothers were another matter.) All she has to do is point and pull, right?
Celia: Point and pull. She repeats the words to herself as she trudges back down the hall toward her sister’s bedroom. She strains to hear the sounds of her parents over the hammering of her heart.
GM: Celia’s mom isn’t screaming anymore. She’s motionless. A limp hand is splayed out over the floor, over a pool of red. Her dad is kneeling over her. Celia can’t see exactly what’s happening, with the lights off, but she smells it. The overpowering coppery odor of blood.
But most of all, she hears it.
The grisly scrape of the hacksaw sawing back and forth through the ballerina’s leg.
Celia: Cold fury shoots through her at the sight of her mother’s body. She raises the handgun, the barrel pointed straight at her father.
“Get off of her.” Her voice cracks. She is young yet. Whatever thought she had of appearing cold and intimidating is a fantasy. But she has a gun. And he has… a saw. Guns beat saws. Right?
GM: The figure’s outline turns around.
Celia can’t see his face. Just his looming, shadow-drenched, so-wide physique. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear it was a monster crawled out from under the bed.
There’s a low chuckle from the darkness.
“Celia, sweetie,” sounds her father’s calm and affectionate voice, “what are you going to do? Shoot me?”
There’s another chuckle.
“Put the gun down. You could hurt yourself with that thing.”
Celia: She takes a step backward, but doesn’t lower the gun despite the ache in her arms. It’s harder than it looks to keep it steady.
“You’re killing her.”
GM: The darkness laughs. It shakes its head.
“Your mom’s fine. You’re imagining things.”
“I love your mom very, very much. Just like I love you very, very much.”
Celia: “I’m not imagining things. I saw you.”
GM: “Oh? What’d you see, baby?” her father’s voice asks indulgently. “Are you sure it was me? Are you sure you didn’t just dream it?”
“It’s very late, baby girl. It’s past your bedtime.”
“It’s okay, though.”
The voice from the darkness is calm. Warm. Serene.
“It’s all okay.”
She sees the dark figure’s arms spread wide.
“Can your old man get a hug?”
She can smell the blood. She saw him. She did.
She takes another step backwards.
GM: “I love you, Celia. You’re my special baby girl.”
The darkness shifts. The shape rises from the floor. It’s tall. So tall.
“You make your mom so proud. She can tell how much you put into those dance lessons.”
“You try and try and try. You make her so proud. You make me so proud.”
“We love you, so very very much.”
She stumbles backwards, away from it. This is wrong.
“I’m gonna… sleep.”
She lands on what he said earlier, past her bedtime.
“I’m gonna go to bed.”
GM: “That’s right, Celia. That’s just right.”
The shadows advance towards her.
“You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“I’ll tuck you in.”
Celia: She matches it, step for step.
“I have to pee,” she says, bolting for the bathroom. Get inside. Lock the door.
GM: “Oh, Celia…”
Lovingly strong arms encircle her. Cradle her.
Hold her fast.
“You’re my special little girl.”
“Can Daddy have a kiss?”
Celia: “N-no. I have to, I have to pee.”
She clings to that idea as steadfastly as she clings to the gun in her hand, as if it will protect her, as if he will believe her and let her go.
GM: “You don’t need to pee, sweetie. You’re just fine.”
“Your mom’s just fine.”
She feels large hands closing around the gun.
“We’re all just fine.”
Celia: “I do,” she insists, “please, and then we can… tuck in…”
She squirms, clutching the gun all the tighter. Anything to buy time.
“Daddy, please let go.”
GM: The lights are dead. It’s just her and Daddy, Daddy whose face she still can’t see, floating alone in the darkness. She doesn’t smell any blood. She doesn’t hear any noises-
“-or hear any screams. It’s all in your head, sweetie. All in your head.”
He hugs her close and pulls the gun away.
“Can I have a kiss? Pretty please?”
What? Everything was… in her head. The things she had seen. The fighting. The blood. She twists, looking past him, but there is nothing to see in the dark hall. Just her dad, his arms around her, holding her close. Her hands are empty, the weight of the gun gone. Her fingers close around his arm instead, clinging. How had she gotten so confused? Had she been… drinking?
“Dad? I was… can you tuck me in?”
Her voice is small. Adrenaline fades from her body, leaving in its wake the crash.
GM: “Of course, sweetie. Anything for my little princess.”
He guides her to bed. He fluffs her pillow and tucks the blankets up to her chin.
Then he leans in to kiss her goodnight.
“Goodnight, baby girl.”
Celia: A cold lump settles into her stomach. It’s him. She knew she hadn’t imagined him. He’s real. He’s real and he’s here and he’s… he’s…
That lump is in her throat now, she can’t talk around it, she can’t scream, she can’t even think. She’s in a house with a monster. She is too old to believe the nonsense about being safe under the covers, but she wants to yank them over her head. As if the thin cotton will protect her.
Where’s my mom and dad, she wants to ask. Is she supposed to pretend she doesn’t know that this is wrong? That she doesn’t recognize him? Maybe, if she doesn’t look…
She closes her eyes.
“G-goodnight,” she squeaks.