“No Fireworks Tonight” by Annie Schoonover

28 September 2018 on Fiction   Tags: ,

Once, in a fit of rage, Megan Kennedy cut off all of her daughter’s hair. They had less than an hour before they had to leave for Carrie Mullen’s birthday party, and Megan had a thousand things to do before then—wrap the present and start dinner and let the dog out before she peed all over the new carpet—and on top of that, she was on the phone with her cousin from Vermont and couldn’t get her to hang up. So when Delaney walked in with globs of peanut butter smushed into her long blonde hair, something snapped.

Holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear, she grabbed Delaney’s shoulder with one hand and the kitchen scissors with the other. She was so furious that she could barely feel Delaney squirming underneath her, and instead focused on the satisfying snip of the scissors. Strands of Delaney’s hair floated to the ground like spider silk before they settled gently in long, curling spaghetti-noodle shapes on the blue kitchen tile. One of the dogs dove for the peanut butter chunks as they landed, trying to lap them up, and Delaney’s mother nudged him away with her foot. As if from far away, she could hear Delaney yelling, and she said, “Honey, if you wanted to keep it, you should’ve taken better care of it.”

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Megan knew that, later, she’d apologize to her daughter, and then she’d feel badly about it for a while, and then, years later, it would become a funny story they’d tell during family card games or late-night bonfires.

Delaney didn’t know any of that. All she knew was that, one ordinary afternoon, the world had ended without warning.

*

“One thing I like to remember,” Priya Warren often said to her daughter, Anika, “is that someone, somewhere, is probably having a worse day than you are.” This was, in fact, something Priya liked to remember. Much as everyone seemed to like to pretend that mothers were motivated by nothing but nurturing instincts and a sort of general goodwill toward their fellow man, sometimes Priya needed a little schadenfreude to get through the day.

For example, she was about to watch The Aristocats with her daughter for the twelfth time this week, but the thought that, somewhere in the world, some other mother was getting ready to watch an even worse movie filled her with a sort of grim satisfaction. She settled onto the green living room couch, unwrapped a stick of gum, and popped it into her mouth.

Anika giggled and crawled onto Priya’s lap. “I like the cats in it,” she said.

“So you’ve said,” said Priya, tickling Anika’s stomach until she giggled. As Anika declared at every opportunity, cats were her favorite animal. Once, she’d gone to school with her pockets filled with canned tuna, apparently hoping to attract and befriend a stray cat, and she’d thrown a tantrum when her teacher made her change.

When she heard about that, Priya took Anika out for ice cream.

“By the way, that girl Carrie from your class invited you to her birthday party this weekend,” said Priya. “Do you want to go, or no?”

Anika jumped up, beaming, Aristocats forgotten. “Really?”

“Really,” Priya said.

“That means she likes me, right?” said Anika. “Because she wouldn’t have invited me if she didn’t like me.”

Priya had resolved, early on, to lie to her daughter as little as possible. She didn’t bother with any of the Santa-Easter Bunny-Tooth Fairy crap, or made-up stories about monsters coming to eat little girls who didn’t eat their vegetables. And she knew that the invitation had very little to do with Carrie liking or not liking Anika, and a lot to do with Carrie’s mother’s desire to have the entire class’s families over to her very large and very expensive house. But this didn’t seem like one of those times that honesty would be appropriate.

“What kind of present do you want to get her?” Priya asked.

A cat,” said Anika. “A real cat.” She then began to scream the lyrics to “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” at the top of her lungs.

Priya smiled, chomped her gum, and thought about all the ways she would rain hellfire on the Mullen family if Anika experienced even the slightest discomfort at this birthday party.

*

Megan stood behind one of the tables in the Mullens’ yard. They were covered in white tablecloths, and looked like strange, blocky ghosts. A three-tiered cake sat on a table near the house’s back porch, next to a sign cheerfully proclaiming the name of the cake’s designer and her credentials. In a far corner of the yard, a man held the reins of a rented pony. In another corner was a bouncy house shaped like the head of a sad-eyed clown with broccoli-green hair. The entrance to the bouncy house was in its mouth, which hung open in a way that seemed somehow broken, and its tongue lolled out across the ground like some kind of grotesque red carpet.

Behind the bouncy house, Delaney was curled up with her head between her knees, crying. Three years and two kids ago, this would’ve sent Megan into paroxysms of guilt. Now, though, she knew that it would blend in with every other tantrum Delaney would throw over the course of her life, and neither of them would remember it in a week.

She grabbed a fistful of tablecloth and bunched it up in her hand. In their little group of first-grade parents at the Wilmer Park Prep, Eileen Mullen was the richest mom, and Amy Weintraut was the mom who volunteered at school the most, and Deb Siegel-Graves was the mom who seemed to have her life together more than anyone else, so Megan had resolved to be the mom with the best-behaved kids. It was mostly working; Mason was a straight-A student and second-chair bassoonist in the high school band and Jessica had attempted to go to school while she had walking pneumonia a few months ago to preserve her perfect attendance record. She didn’t know what the fuck Delaney’s problem was.

From behind the bouncy house, Delaney let out another wail.

Like some kind of poltergeist drawn to the presence of maternal shame, Amy Weintraut appeared, carrying two glasses of champagne.

“Both for you,” she said, winking.

“Oh, you’re a sweetheart,” said Megan. She smiled, gritting her teeth.

“So,” said Amy, leaning toward Megan slightly, “I guess Delaney’s going through a bit of a scissors obsession now? I know how she gets with her obsessions, you know, I’ve spent so much time with her in the classroom.”

“You’ve mentioned, yes,” said Megan.

“Whew. I thought the Sharpie phase was bad,” she said, gesturing toward Megan’s white Versace purse, which was forever marred by a vaguely heart-shaped Sharpie squiggle. “Scissors are dangerous. Maybe Delaney should be in some sort of behavioral program.” She laughed sharply, as if it were a joke.

Megan briefly allowed herself to fantasize about dumping one of the glasses of champagne onto Amy’s head.

“Oh, she didn’t get into the scissors,” said Megan. “She made a bit of a mess, and I ended up having to cut it.”

Amy tilted her head. “Really?” she said. “You cut her hair?”

“Guilty as charged,” she said.

Amy winced. “If you need someone to show you how to cut hair, I’m happy to help. I actually only do home haircuts—it’s so much more personal. We really bond during that time.”

“Wow, what a lovely offer,” said Megan. “Excuse me, I can’t see Delaney from here.” She moved to a different table, craning her neck. Delaney was still crying behind the bouncy house.

Go play freeze tag with the other kids, goddamn it, thought Megan.

Priya Warren’s kid was playing freeze tag, and either didn’t notice or ignored the fact that whenever she tagged someone, the kid in question would conspicuously wipe off the area she’d touched and make a face. Priya was leaning against a tree near the cake with a small, concerned frown.

They saw each other at least once a week—that happened, when you lived on the same street, when your kids were in the same class—and that was just fine, most days.

It was always difficult for Megan to place any particular person’s scent. Priya smelled a little like cigarette smoke, she guessed, and a little like wet paint.  Sometimes, Megan walked into freshly painted houses, and found herself blinking back tears.

Megan looked down at her Versace bag. She’d never told anyone this, but she’d seen Delaney heading for the bag with her Sharpie. She could have easily picked Delaney up and distracted her with some other toy. But she didn’t.

She kept all her children’s art projects in a neat little file folder in the basement, but sometimes that didn’t seem like enough. The fact that Delaney had ruined the purse made the gesture more meaningful somehow. If she looked at the squiggle right, it really did look like a heart.

This was one of the thousand things she wanted to tell Priya Warren. She kept a list of them in her head, and every time she saw her, even if she just caught a glimpse of her black braid or the end of her slender brown elbow from around a corner, she felt everything she wanted to say bubble up. Every time, she gritted her teeth and thought, If I wanted to keep it I should’ve taken care of it.

She saw Amy talking to Deb at another table. Both of them were looking pointedly at her. Tapping her fingers against the table, she wondered how long it would take for Deb to come over and start picking at her. Everyone was always picking at her—the other moms, her husband, the older kids, everyone except Delaney. And Priya.

She grabbed a second Diet Coke and walked over to the table.

*

Of the stories Priya told, Anika’s favorite was The Story of How Mommy Quit Smoking. Priya always ended the story by saying, “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I did it because I was pregnant with you. Because you’re my special girl, and making sure you’re safe and happy and healthy is the most important thing in the world.”

She left out the part where she quit Megan Kennedy at about the same time.

Priya didn’t see Megan walking over to where she was camped out by the cake. She was busy simultaneously watching Anika and avoiding Eileen Mullen, who had been coming up to her all night, asking her if the man with the pony looked professional to her.

“How’ve you been?” said Megan Kennedy.

Priya did not turn to look. “What do you want, Megan?”

Megan’s pale hand seemed to glow under the fairy lights as she placed a Diet Coke on the table in front of Priya. “Just to talk.”

Amy Weintraut was herding the kids into a circle while Eileen Mullen brought out the presents. Anika was bouncing in place. Priya had managed to talk her down from getting Carrie a real cat, so, after much deliberation, Anika had picked out a stuffed cat from the unsteady pyramid of stuffed animals on her window seat. His name was Salmon, and Anika had decided a while back that he wanted to fly, so she’d made paper wings and taped them to his back. “He’s a flying cat, so that’s extra good,” said Anika. Priya had nodded and slipped a Target gift card into the bag so Eileen Mullen didn’t think she was cheap.

“Where’s Delaney?” said Priya.

“Crying behind the tacky clown head,” Megan said dismissively. That shocked Priya into looking up. It was the first time she’d seen Megan up close for years, and everything about her—the few strands of hair escaping her strawberry-blonde ponytail, the smell of Diet Coke on her breath, the almost manic brightness in her eyes—was achingly familiar, like looking at a photo of a long-dead relative.

“Why?” said Priya. Instinctively, she glanced around the yard to see if anyone was watching them.

“Can we go somewhere else?” said Megan. “Where people can’t see us? Maybe the weird area behind the hedges where we watched the fireworks that time?”

Priya remembered. They’d held hands, and she’d been struck by how normal it was, how passionless and comfortable. It wasn’t like making out secretly in the back of Priya’s car when they were supposed to be running errands, or sliding her slipper-clad foot up Megan’s thigh during Megan’s church’s annual Pajama Picnic fundraiser, or running down the street to her house at 3 AM wearing Megan’s bathrobe—that was about the thrill more than anything. But the night of the fireworks had been the first time she and Megan felt settled, like they were in a real relationship. It had scared her.

“Why?” said Priya. “It’s not like we have anything to hide anymore.”

“I know, but,” said Megan. “Still a bit paranoid.” She half-shrugged.

Priya knew the feeling. “All right.  Let’s circle.”

They each walked in different directions, trying to look aimless. No one was watching them, not that it would matter if they did. Still, Priya felt a bit of the old thrill, and she felt guilty for enjoying this as much as she was. If they got caught this time, it wouldn’t just hurt Priya, it would hurt Anika, too.

Not that they were going to do anything they needed to hide.

They met up behind the hedge a few minutes later. Megan was giggling.

“I miss that,” she said.

“Me, too,” said Priya.

They stood behind the hedge and peered at the circle of girls, standing close enough that their hands could touch. Neither closed the gap.

Priya thought about all the things she’d wanted to tell Megan since they broke up, all the little observations and hopes and fears she’d stored away. She thought that maybe this was the time to let one of them free.

“When Delaney and Anika were born,” she said, “did you ever wonder, since they were born so close together—”

“If they’d become friends?” said Megan. “Close friends? Like…sisters?”

“Exactly,” said Priya.

“Yes,” said Megan. Priya glanced over at her. Maybe it was just the soft glow of the fairy lights, but her face seemed to have softened.  For a second, she seemed more mature, like all the sharpness had finally eroded away. Like she’d been baby-proofed, and it was safe to tough her again.

“So, why’s Delaney crying?” said Priya.

Megan let out a soft, self-deprecating sigh. “She got peanut butter in her hair, and I sort of lost it and cut it all off.”

Priya took an involuntary step back. “That’s awful.”

“She’ll get over it,” said Megan.

“But she’s not over it now,” said Priya. “When you’re a kid, that’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Megan let out a short laugh. “She’s my kid.”

“It’s her hair,” said Priya.

“Are you seriously trying to tell me I’m not a good parent?”

“I’m trying to tell you that having well-behaved kids isn’t the same as being a good parent.” Megan crossed her arms, a familiar gesture that would’ve made Priya soften a few seconds ago, but now just made her angry, reminded her that Amy Weintraut had never had an unkind thing to say about anyone until Megan made her cry at the kindergarten class’s field trip to the pumpkin patch.

“Interesting.  You think you have the moral high ground.”

“I’m not doing this,” said Priya, turning to leave. Megan grabbed her arm.

“I wanted to be above-board about it,” said Megan. “I was ready to leave with you.”

Priya knew. She remembered the night she’d ended it, in the front seat of Megan’s minivan, an uneaten chili cheese dog on her lap. Megan had wordlessly stepped on the gas and driven down the road, ignoring Priya’s pleas that Megan let her out of the car, tears streaming down her face.

“Priya,” said Megan, and her voice had taken on a tired softness, her I-had-such-a-bad-day-I-don’t-have-the-energy-to-say-this voice. “Could we have a girls’ night sometime? Just friend stuff, not… Just opening a bottle of wine and watching a movie or something.”

Priya wanted to rip Megan’s ponytail out, for coming over drenched in the stink of her own vulnerability, to throw their breakup in Priya’s face like this. For bringing back the nights of lying in bed, paralyzed by her fear of being caught. For trying to guilt Priya into taking care of her again, when Priya had made it clear that she couldn’t.

“You shouldn’t have children,” said Priya, without thinking. “You should have dogs that you can train.” She turned away before she could see the hurt on Megan’s face.

Just then, she heard someone shout, “Ewwww!”

Carrie Mullen was holding Salmon the cat over her head.

“Cats are gross,” she said, and then, looking at Anika, “You’re gross.” She threw Salmon the cat at Anika as hard as she could.

Priya marched over to the circle, grabbed Anika’s hand, and led her away. She passed the other moms without acknowledging their fake concern or mealy-mouthed apologies. Instead, she held Anika’s hand tight, murmuring comforting words, promising her they could go to the Target and Anika could pick out a brand new toy if she wanted. Anika wasn’t crying. Her jaw was set, and her chin was trembling.

“Why did she invite me if she didn’t like me?” Anika said in a small voice as they passed the giant inflatable clown head.

“She probably thought it would be mean to invite everyone else except you,” said Priya, squeezing Anika tightly.

“I think it was meaner to pretend,” said Anika. “It’s like lying.”

They arrived at the gate. The lock jammed, and Priya kicked it a few times to knock it loose.

Then Anika said, “Wait,” and let go of Priya’s hand.

Priya turned to look and saw Delaney Kennedy watching them through red, swollen eyes. Anika knelt down next to her and pressed Salmon the cat into her hands, then ran back to Priya’s side.

“Someone’s always having a worse day than you,” Anika said solemnly.

Like sisters, Priya thought, and for a second, she wanted to run back to Megan and apologize. She wanted weekly movie nights and mid-afternoon library raids. She wanted to tell Megan everything she’d ever held back, from “Anika’s first tooth just came in” to “I wasn’t lying when I said I loved you.”

Instead, she took Anika’s hand, and led her away.

---

Annie Schoonover is a Minnesota native and creative writing major at Oberlin College. In her spare time, she enjoys trying cool new foods and petting strangers' dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @AnnieSchoonover.

"Cuentos de una cludad II (3)" is a photograph by Tenerife-based artist Seigar, and is part of an urban series of individual tales from London, 2017. Seigar is an English philologist, a high school teacher, and a curious photographer. His passions include reflections, saturated colors, details, religious icons, pop culture, travel, and social documentary. His aim is to tell stories with his camera, capturing moments within a new frame and perspective, and creating a continuous conceptual line story from his travels. He has participated in several exhibitions, and his works have been featured in international publications. He writes about photography for The Cultural Magazine (Spain), and about music for Memoir Mixtapes (L.A.). You can find his work at www.seigar.wordpress.com, on Instagram at @jseigar , and on Facebook, also at @jseigar.

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