Sophie watched fourteen flames nibble at dollar-store candle wicks and felt numb. Her fingers traced dried ketchup smears near the table’s edge as Justine and Rayina, eight and six, shrieked “Happy Birthday!” by scraping notes against each other.
“Blow ‘em out! Cut the cake! Cut it! I want a big-ass piece!” screamed the gangly boy, tugging at her dirty sleeve. Her brother was so dang skinny—she learned just last year that Momma had been smoking something bad before he was born.
“Justin! Watch your mouth. You ask for a ‘big’ piece and you might get one.” She wanted to smack him. Daddy would say he’s being rude. God—this whole day is just—stupid.
“I’ll take Momma’s piece up to her!” Ray’s voice floated as she skipped around the small kitchen.
This is before the sugar rush? They’re hopping like poodles, and I’ll never get them down by eight. What would she pack in their lunches? They were out of bread and fruit.
She glanced at the big knife’s splintering handle high above the counter. Sophie always feared she’d pull too hard trying to sever the magnetic holder’s grip and whack off someone’s arm. Daddy used to sharpen that blade lots of times, whenever Momma would ask him. She pulled it down with deliberate care.
Had it been two years? That ugly policeman tapped on their front door, had knocked like a girl scout with Snickerdoodles the day before her birthday. She hated that cop. Hated him for making Momma scream on her knees, for scaring Ray so badly she wouldn’t eat for three days. Momma said later that Daddy flew to heaven after a car accident, but she said it with her weird face. The one where her smile is really big when it shouldn’t be. The one she had when that neighbor-man came out of Daddy’s bedroom with Momma. He was putting a t-shirt on over a carpet of chest hair and Momma said he was fixing the bedroom wall.
Daddy didn’t have chest hair.
And Momma’s face was wrong.
Before the cop had left, Sophie heard something about road rage and a Glock. She didn’t understand either at the time and quickly hurled her bedroom clock into the closet. And how could a road be mad? That was the week she started biting her nails.
Trying her best to look happy, Sophie puffed her cheeks and blew out the candles she had arranged in the frosting herself. The kids whooped and cheered as they pranced around the table while Sophie aimed the awkward blade and served up three large pieces.
“Here’s one for Ray, one for Justin, and…let me see.” She tapped her chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Who was it who wanted to bring Momma her cake?”
Ray looked horrified. “I said I want to!”
Sophie chuckled. “Okay, listen up—you guys eat your cake, then Ray can carry Momma’s piece up to her. Justin gets to go too, but Ray holds it. I’m going to start some laundry and grab ice cream from the garage freezer.” Her shoulders dropped with relief as little feet tromped up the stairs and she was able to trudge alone down the hallway into the cramped laundry room.
Sophie remembered when Momma wasn’t so sick and could still be normal if she kept her pills handy, but that was before Daddy left and before the bone cancer hospitalized her so many times. Now Momma stayed in the upstairs room all the time. The room that smelled like throw-up, bleach, and lemons. That mean, fat nurse, Blanch, used to come twice a day to help Momma until she said the Meddy Care wasn’t enough. Aunt Silvia moved in and promised to make things better, but she was never home. When she did swing by, she’d look at Sophie with bloodshot eyes and drag a different man in through the door. Most of them had chest hair.
Sophie grabbed the little red step-stool with her name stenciled across the top in purple flower-letters and pulled it up to the washer. She threw in Ray’s underwear and Justin’s socks, clicked the dial, and crouched by the stool. With a marker she doodled little hearts around her name as she thought about the week to come. Sylvia didn’t know about Justin’s play on Thursday or Ray’s appointment for glasses on Friday.
Whiffs of hot wax from re-lit candles crept through the doorway and her lip began to quiver. Dammit. The kids can’t see me like this or they’ll be wailing all night.
Daddy’s stubbly chin was bristling against her cheek again, and her heart felt pinched. When would it not hurt? Would she have gray hair first? She pictured him punching the neighbor-man. Then that cop. He’d kick out Aunt Silvia, too. Tears flowed and she hugged herself, tried to rock away the hurt, tried to feel numb again.
Muffled tromping noises approached. “We love Sophie, and we love cake! We love Sophie, and we love cake!”
She lifted her gaze until it settled on the doorknob. She felt cold.