“Why did she even invite us?” James asked after rapping on the heavy wooden door.
“She’s our neighbour.” Patty replied. “After everything that’s happened — shh she’s coming.”
They stood smiling on the step as Frankie opened the door. She was grinning from ear to ear, tears prickling at the corners of her eyes.
“Thank you so much for coming!” She beckoned them inside. “So nice to have good neighbours here for Zachary’s big day. Presents go on the table there in the kitchen. And please, help yourself to refreshments. We’ll be cutting the cake soon.” She closed the door behind them, then looked at them through her tired eyes, hands clasped in front of her. Knuckles white. “Where’s—”
“—We really wanted to bring Joel. We did. It’s just he picked up this virus at daycare and we’d hate for him to spread it around.” Patty hoped her smile looked sincere.
“It’s a shame. It would have been nice to have some other children at Zachary’s party, but it seems they’ve all come down with the sniffles.” Frankie’s voice was far away.
“Bad timing.” James shrugged.
“Yes.” Frankie pondered. “But let’s not let a thing like that spoil a good party. Zachary will only turn two once so let’s show him a good time.”
With that, Frankie flitted away to the kitchen where it seemed everyone else had gathered. A steady drone, the low murmur of forced small talk, was coming from that direction. James and Patty made their way there.
A sickly sweet smell of flowers choked the air in the room. Trays of assorted meats, cheese, and fruit covered half the table. Another table for gifts stood at the back of the room. Patty added their brightly wrapped gift to the bunch of blue-bowed birthday presents already there. Helium filled balloons sprouted up through the boxes and bags like weeds on a hill . Birthday Boy, one proclaimed.
James and Patty recognized a few parents whose children went to the same daycare as Joel. A solemn nod between them was all that seemed appropriate.
Frankie took her place at the head of the table and began clinking a spoon on the side of her wine glass to get the attention of the party-goers.
“I want to thank everyone for coming,” she swayed on her feet, nearly dropping her glass, “to Zachary’s second birthday! The birthday boy is asleep in the other room.” She tilted and drained what remained of the red wine she’d poured herself, then began filling the glass again from a nearby bottle. “I’m going to go and get him, so we can sing happy birthday and open presents.”
She turned to leave the room when another of the attendees stopped her.
“Maybe we should just let Zachary rest.” The man said. Neither James nor Patty recognized him.
“Nonsense! He can’t miss his own party!” She looked at the crowd with a disturbingly wide smile plastered to her face. She stumbled and almost fell into the hallway toward her son’s room.
“Jesus Christ.” A woman to their left said. “We shouldn’t have come. This is insane.”
Uneasy glances were exchanged around the room.
“They let her bring him home?” A man asked.
“Alright everyone, start singing Happy Birthday!” Frankie burst into the room holding Zachary in her arms.
The crowd started to sing. God, it sounded awful. Frankie placed the boy in the high chair, gently bending his arms and legs, then rolling a blanket to prop his head up. A man in the crowd fainted, followed by a woman vomiting onto her own shoes. Several guests started crying.
“Isn’t my baby boy handsome?” Frankie exclaimed. “Happy birthday sweet boy!”
“They really didn’t do a bad job with him.” James whispered to his wife. “He almost looks alive.”
Featured photo by Adi Goldstein at Unsplash