All summer and into the fall, my father tried to sell his bottles of edible algae at the farmer's market like some kind of gourmet treat. Dad thought he still had it, the salesman's magic that had once made him rich selling tropical fish, but the farmer's market drew a tough-minded, earnest crowd. By winter he'd branched out into another kind of farming: harvesting what he could from our closets and drawers, selling off the antiques he and Mom had collected in more prosperous times.
My mother experimented with keeping a vow of silence. She kept trying to go a little bit longer and a little bit longer without speaking. Then something would happen and she'd snap at one of us or she'd just say good morning, and then she'd give herself a day or two to regroup and try again. My father was all gung-ho, a champion of her alternative spirituality, but then he'd turn around and bait her, try to get her to crack. My brother and I did, too.
Until Mom lost her job at the bookstore and started staying home on Saturdays, Dad made me go along to the market, supposedly to help. Across the way, Jackson Cho's father did a land-office business selling ricebowls—just exotic enough to make folks feel special, but nothing that didn't look like food. Jackson was a year older than me, but so shy it hardly mattered. He wasn't tall, probably about my height, but he had this way of bouncing on the balls of his feet, like he was always ready to run, and he had a smile that took over his face. Sometimes he came over to say hi; he might have felt sorry for me.
"How come Jackson?" I asked once. With a name like Miranda Acer Maple, you wonder about other people's names.
"My grandfather thought Jackson would be funny, since my father's named Jack, plus they were living in Jackson, Michigan, when I was born."
"So you're named after the town?"
"Or my dad. It's not a town you would name anyone after, but I don't really remember it. My mother did her internship there." Jackson's mother was some kind of doctor, maybe a radiologist. His father did something with computers, until he decided to stay home with Jackson's twin baby sisters, Mira and Ming.
After the market closed for the season, I only saw Jackson at school. He was friendly—he didn't try to ignore me—but he was as shy as ever, and he had no ricebowl to give me, offering it with both hands and a little bow. Once or twice I sidled up next to him by his locker, but then I couldn't think of anything to say. For instance: "Does your dad make your lunch?" I asked. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
"I mostly buy it."
"Do you have math now?"
"Life sciences. What about you?"
"Pre-algebra with Mrs. Meredith." Then I remembered I didn't have my homework. I'd done it, but the worksheets hadn't made it into my backpack.
"Are you okay?" Jackson was looking at me funny.
"Fine," I said. "Sorry."
"Algebra's better," he said. "Mr. Lynx is nice."
I couldn't do much more than nod, but it was already one of the longest conversations we'd ever had.
"See you later," Jackson said when the bell rang. Our custodian had rewired the bells to play the first few bars of "Give My Regards to Broadway" at the three-minute warning.
"See you," I said. The music was too loud to say anything more.
I was crossing the atrium lobby when Laura came in from the math class she took at the community college. Her mother had just dropped her off. She had a plastic to-go cup in her hand; whatever was in it gave off an orangey glow. She waved when she saw me.
"Did you ever have bubble tea?"
"No," I said, taking the cup.
Bubble sounded like froth; it looked like a smoothie. I took a long sip. It was soft and delicious, like a mango slushy, and then there was something slick and pliable between my tongue and my teeth, like a slimy ball bearing, and then there was a cork in my throat. I don't know what a choking person sounds like: I couldn't hear myself. Laura said later I didn't make much noise. I just doubled over, waving my arms, with my face turning red and then purple.
I felt a punishing pressure in my gut, a fast hard pull like a belt tightening under my ribs. I could feel arms around me—I thought they were arms—and then the glob flew out of my mouth and across the room and splat against the glass display case, where it stuck, hanging right above the cast pictures from last year's musical. That's when I looked around and saw Jackson. It wasn't Laura at all. He looked embarrassed and started to back away, but Laura snagged him by the backpack which he hadn't even put down. Maybe there wasn't time.
"How'd you learn that?" she asked.
"Was that a Heimlich?"
"A man started to choke on one of Dad's Ricebowls the first week he had the stand," Jackson answered.
"So then he made us all take first aid, even if we weren't going to work there. Even my little sisters, they have to take First Steps to First Aid as soon as they turn three."
"Cool," Laura said. "I need to learn that."
Each unobstructed breath still felt surprising, as if it were my first. I had no air left to speak. I tried to sort of wave thank you but, Jackson probably thought I was waving him off.
"Wait!" I squeaked, but the vice principal rushed out of his office, then and I was hustled down to the nurse's room. Our school shared a nurse with the high school and two elementary schools, meaning she was available on site only two mornings a week. This wasn't one of her days. But the vice principal took me back there, sat me on the nurse's table, and peered at me anxiously. He dithered back and forth in the little room, practically bouncing off the walls. Should he take my temperature? He had six sons of his own—the oldest had been in my class since kindergarten—so he should have known what to do with a possibly sick or injured kid.
"Smile!" he said at last, with the cheerful authority of the habitual bully.
"No," I answered stubbornly. "I just about choked to death."
He looked hurt, as if no one had ever thought to answer back. "Did your parents talk with your teachers about this at conferences?"
"About the bubble tea?" I really didn't know what he meant.
"Has this happened before?"
"I have math now," I said. Mrs. Meredith's room and her dogged insistence on graphing coordinate pairs appeared in a new light: the one at the end of the tunnel.
"I won't make you late for class," he said, polishing his glasses with a handkerchief. His hands were clumsy and he jumped along with the minute hand in the wall clock.
"But this shouldn't be a habit. This shouldn't happen again."
I was about as eager to drink bubble tea as I was to drink poison, but why give him the satisfaction? "Does my mom need to call you?" I asked sweetly. I figured he was unlikely to know my mother no longer made phone calls.
"No," he said, conceding a great favor. He helped me down off the examining table.
"You go on to Social Studies. And smile, Maple, smile!"
"It's math," I muttered, but I took the tissue he handed me and skedaddled.
He didn't walk me to the door. He had done what he knew how to do. Jackson was still standing in the lobby. Under the skylights, he was too brightly lit, like a shell on the sand after a high tide. And then I saw him pull a tissue out of his pocket and use it to scrape my incredible flying tea bubble off the display case and throw it away. I stood at the office door until he turned down the hall. I didn't tell my parents about the bubble tea right off. We were all a little more careful what we said that year—those of us who were regularly speaking—and I was learning to choose my moments. And a little beverage-induced near-death experience could hardly compete with seeing the first floor of our home left all but empty, its contents carted away in a matter of hours.
The furniture buyers were tall and thin as undertakers, and pale, too, as if they spent most of their time in attics and basements. They pulled into the front drive in a panel van painted black (glossy black the way Dad's Mercedes used to be, rich black like a Chinese lacquer table) with spidery gold script on the side. Antiquing isn't science, there's much of luck and art and sneakiness, but in collecting (as in science) persistence, voracious reading, and patience bring results. My father loved accuracy—provenance was a favorite word—but both my parents were happy to mix and match so long as the effect was harmonious. So long as the davenports and credenzas played nicely, my mother said. They had completed two perfect rooms when the bottom dropped out of Dad's business: an untouchable room my mother called the parlour, which we hardly went into, and the dining room decorated like something out of Masterpiece Theatre. With all the leaves in it, the three-pillar table could comfortably seat sixteen, but we always ate in the kitchen.
Mostly the furniture we lived with was ordinary, modern upholstered stuff. The better pieces gathered dust. My parents didn't actually tie museum ropes across the sofas, but they might as well. There might have been dead people in the front room, for all I knew.
"Dining room's this way," Dad told the men, in a voice that wasn't quite welcoming.
He must have asked them to come, but it's all a lot more real when they show up with their handcarts and clipboards. The men dusted and measured. They pulled out magnifying glasses and crawled on the floor; they shimmied up the highboy to check the top for damage. I marched right up to buyer number one and said,
"I don't know what he told you, but you can't have my bed."
I loved my sleigh bed, with its rails as smooth as skin, the grain honey light and burled. American bird's eye maple, because we Acers had to have maple, and that's just not a wood you find in old European beds.
"Not the beds, Miranda, don't worry," my dad said, nudging me aside—pushing me, really—and then the second buyer smiled, showing a mouthful of gapped, horsey teeth, and though he was probably a perfectly friendly man plagued by a bad chewing tobacco habit, I ran for cover. The sale was a done deal, but the men would be there a while. I hid in my room and listened for thumps or grunting to trace their progress, but they were pros, practically silent. I came back out when I heard the van doors slam. To say good riddance, maybe. Mover number one, all good cheer now that his van was full of loot, handed over the check with a little bow of his own.
"I'd offer you a drink," my father said, "but you're driving."
"Can't drink on the clock," the man said.
"Do you want a soda?" I asked. It would just rot his partner's yellow teeth, but we could still show our good manners.
"Thanks, but no thanks, little lady," he answered. "Still, it's a nice offer."
Just as well. Dad used to buy us root beer (mostly because he wanted the empty bottles to raise brine shrimp in) but family cost-cutting and his algae-inspired healthnut makeover had banished soda from our lives. At least it wasn't a hot day. The furniture men never broke a sweat. To celebrate the sale, we went to the coast for the weekend. My mother's expression was dubious, like could we afford that, but Dad said he'd gotten a special deal on the room. Then he showed her the furniture check and her eyes popped. He wouldn't show me.
"Generous," was all he said.
My brother William was allowed to stay home alone; something about a band rehearsal. I didn't even ask. The Sande Inn would have been a good home for some of those antiques we'd just sold. Fancy, but not fussy. Before, we'd always just rented a house; this was the first time we'd stayed at a bed and breakfast. The ancient Mercedes clattered into the drive with such a racket, I wished we could hide it in the bushes and walk up to the door as if we were hikers. But I had heard my father on the phone lying about my age, so I made a point of being well-behaved and looking down my nose in a mature and worldly way, just to be sure they didn't kick us out. The breakfast was amazing. We ate custardy eggs and sticky buns, little sausages and fruit salad. I cleaned a full plate and then another. I was about to reach for one more sticky bun when my mother laid a hand on my arm. Of course I was hungry, but perhaps I should breathe? She didn't need to open her mouth to say that. It didn't help my case that my own mouth was still full.
"Good walk this morning?" my father asked, interrupting our tug of war.
"Uh huh. And I'm hungry."
We'd taken our walk when it was just barely light. Mom usually went alone, but this time I waited for her. I heard her moving around, making a quick cup of coffee on the hotplate, and I got out of bed and accosted her in jacket and shoes. There was no way she could leave me behind. Slip, slap, down to the sand, across a narrow slope of salal and manzanita scrub beside a creek. Little ribs of foam leading the narrow waves burst against the gray morning, water and sky almost the same color, except the water moved. My mother, who liked to go barefoot even in winter, had worn sandals and wool socks down to the beach. She sat on the first drift log to take them off, wadding the socks into a jacket pocket and hooking the sandals together. She jerked her head up and then down the beach, as if asking me to choose a direction. I chose into the wind so the walk home would be easier, though the wind wasn't high. It wasn't a breeze to lean into, but we walked bent forward, ready for treasures we might find on the sand. I waited until we were underway.
Then I said, "Jackson Cho saved my life on Wednesday."
It was mean of me to tell her on that silent beach, a perfect place for meditation or whatever she was trying to accomplish, but it was like a dare, that stupid vow of silence, a scab for the rest of us to pick at, and I was sitting on the kind of news that makes a mother go completely insane. She'd think of the absolutely most mortifying thing to say and then she'd say it more than once. She might even call up Jackson's mother to thank her for raising such a fine young man. She looked at me with all the horrified surprise you might expect, and maybe real fear. Then I knew she was imagining switch-blades in the lunch room, gunshots, blood, so I added,
"I was choking on Laura's bubble tea. It's got these slimy, hard blobs of tapioca or something in it, and they get in your throat like a plug in the bathtub."
She put her hand to my forehead, as if I might have a fever. I guess that's what parents know to do in a crisis. She stood still for a few minutes.
I said, "I'm okay.
Jackson came up behind me and did a Heimlich. Then Mr. Fredericks took me into the nurse's office, only she wasn't there and he was clueless and finally he sent me back to class.
Mom touched my forehead again, touched her hand to her own face. She shook herself like a dog leaving the surf. She looked out to sea. Then the let-down. Her shock was thrilling for about ten seconds, then gone. Poof! I didn't want to live in the moment. I wanted to hash things out; I wanted to fester, reconsider, obsess. But that only works if someone festers with you, asking questions and making little uh-huh noises and then expressing their own outrage at length. My mother pointed down the beach and gave my thigh a little slap and took off running. Even barefoot, with her sandals banging against her shoulder, Mom was fast. She stayed just above the water line, where the sand was flat and hard. When she dodged inland, I went straight, splashing crazily in a half inch of water, but then a wave caught me up to my ankles. The water was gasp cold, worse than I expected. My gym shoes were soggy and my cuffs dragged, but I began to catch up. I thought my chest was going to explode. When I looked sideways at my mother, I saw she was wheezing, too. She pointed again, and I guessed she meant the stump ahead. We both charged forward and reached it at the same time, a colossal stump upended, settling into the sand, what must have been a thousand-year-old tree a hundred years ago, washed and revealed and buried again—and hacked at by vandals, the overrun of saw blades crosshatching the silvered grain.
We collapsed on the sand and sat for a while, panting, feeling the damp soak through our clothes. She put her arm around me, rummaged in her jacket pocket with the other hand, and came up with one of our hike chocolates. The foil was battered, but the candy was no worse for wear. Mom bit off half for herself and gave the rest to me.
I read aloud off the wrapper, "Beauty is the beholder."
Mom shook her head and mimed gagging herself. Then we went up to breakfast. So of course I was hungry. Running, true confessions, cold-water wading, all before seven a.m. I wanted another sticky bun, possibly two. I sipped at my juice, waiting for my chance. The breakfast room had a fish tank. A huge one. Most places at the coast don't have fish. Why evoke tropical warmth when tide pools are there for the combing? My father avoided the tank at first: he focused on breakfast. He helped himself to plenty of eggs, he looked at the newspaper, and he ruffled my mother's hair and bent his face to the top of her head as if to smell the salt on it. But at last we were done eating. Extra coffee had been stirred, the view admired, the weather predicted. Our host, a woman a little older than my parents, sidled up just as my father raised his head, at last, to examine the fish.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered. "This is quite awkward. . ."
She picked an imaginary crumb off the table and crushed it against her palm. "I believe there was a mistake when your reservation was made. A mistake about the rate".
"Oh?" My father looked wary, not at all like a man with a high credit limit and not a care in the world. My mother froze, a reduction in movement that probably only I saw, since she wasn't exactly vibrating with nervous energy before. The woman handed my father a slip of paper—the sum was too immense to speak aloud. The bill was obviously way more than he expected. You could tell this was killing her. She knew perfectly well this kind of mistake always goes in the guest's favor, if you ever want to see them again, or any of their friends. But I guess she needed the money, because she stood there trying to come up with a way to soften the blow but still get the cash. There were only two other guests. I couldn't guess their ages, but they looked at me once, as if unsure I was allowed to be there, and at my parents, as if in sympathy, and then they had eyes only for each other.
"Karen was looking at the low season rates, but it's a holiday weekend, and the whale migration will be starting soon."
My father nodded, "Yes, of course."
Everything under control. But I knew he was lying. And then, the revelation.
Dad stood up—he was done with breakfast, and he was done ignoring the fish— and walked over to the tank. We had a good view from our table, but he liked to see things up close.
"It was my husband's aquarium," the woman said. "I try to keep it just as he had it. Two of his fish died last year, and it just broke my heart. They know me, you know. They practically eat from my hand."
"Fish will do that," my father said. "Not quite as often as people claim, but they do become conditioned to regular feeding."
"I cherish those fish as I might have cherished the children we never had. That probably sounds crazy," she said. "I know it's not the same..."
My mother shook her head, fast; it sounded perfectly normal. "He got his fish from a man here in Oregon," the woman went on. "I don't think he's in business anymore, or I'd try to replace them. I don't want to go anywhere else."
At this, my father perked up. So recently the shocked and marginal gambler who had overplayed his hand, hoping things could come right by some miracle of God, now he was in his element.
"That was probably me," he said modestly. "Aquatic Life Specialists?"
"Yes," she breathed, amazed.
"Adam Maple, a pleasure," he said, extending his hand.
"Audrey Matins," she said meekly. "The pleasure, truly, is mine."
"You have the same initials," I said, but nobody cared.
"That is a beautiful Black-Backed Butterflyfish," my father said seriously. "You've obviously cared for it well; they're often long-lived, but this is quite unusual." She swelled—glowed—with pride. "I remember your husband," my father added. "I never had many customers from the coast. People tended to seek out something more local, or just concentrate on the outdoors, but he was very clear about what he wanted. I did a couple of searches for him, for fish I didn't usually stock. But that one, the Butterflyfish, that one's mine. I bred that. It had never been done—not since, either, unless I'm mistaken."
The way he was bragging made my skin crawl, but maybe he had a right to be proud. He evidently had the fish secret of eternal youth down cold.
"You'll have to stay as my guests, I had no idea," Mrs. Matins gushed. "Oh, if only Matthew. . ."
"You're too kind," my father demurred. "It is truly a pleasure."
He leaned over the tank, raised one hand as if to make some slight adjustment, then restrained himself. A glance at my mother revealed that her eyes had begun to roll back in her head. She could have slipped into a coma for all the other two would have noticed. My father had found a kindred spirit, a grateful customer, and he was going to milk this for all it was worth. All the same, he was flabbergastingly sincere. The man just LOVED fish. I had always known that, but here, away from home, it was obvious in a new way. I was pretty excited, ready to share my discovery with my mother, but she'd known him a lot longer than I had. She smiled blankly in their direction. A stranger might have thought she was listening with interest.
"You've planted the aquarium beautifully. And the tetras—sprightly, aren't they, Miranda?"
I nodded eagerly. Who doesn't admire a sprightly tetra?
"Matthew left me his notes," Mrs. Matins said. "Otherwise I couldn't have done it. He worked so hard to acclimate that fish. At first it wouldn't eat and he was just so worried. But he read about soaking the food in garlic, and it worked like a charm."
"We do that," I piped up. "We chop garlic for our koi. Except in the winter, when they don't eat much."
She turned to me. "Do you help your father?"
"I'm largely retired now," my father lied. "More time with the family."
"Good for you! You have a lovely daughter."
My mother returned to earth; my parents beamed. I took advantage of the lull to snag another sticky bun. They talked a while longer, empty, fluffy stuff you had to agree with about the importance of family and counting your blessings. When she thought no one was looking, Audrey Matins crumpled up the slip of paper my father had carelessly left beside his coffee cup. The crumpling seemed deafeningly loud to me—like one of those computer-generated paper crumples—but if my parents heard, they gave nothing away. It was pretty amazing how, hanging on my father's every word, Mrs. Matins didn't notice that my mother never opened her mouth. There was an old pioneer cemetery behind the middle school, forbidden but tempting, endlessly full of kids smoking and making out and poking around. There wasn't a lot of cover—the trees were too tall—plus there was a caretaker. Filled with the graves of covered wagon riders and Civil War veterans, the cemetery saw its last interment around the turn of the last century. But even with no real woods to hide in, the cemetery was a source of worry. Some parent would write a letter, convinced the graveyard must be teeming with rapists and pedophiles, or even just vandals. Then the history buffs would chime in, the preservationists, the self-described heirs to the state's heroic past, and then someone would point out it was really a history of racism and genocide against the Native Americans, who did the pioneers think they were, and then it would all blow over for a while and the caretaker would go back to his weeding, trying to keep the poison oak in check, and the kids would go back to spying on whoever was kissing behind a tombstone.
The inevitable vandals showed up from time to time, but mostly they just left beer cans. Some of the more neglected graves were spooky, and there was always the chance of stumbling across couples who didn't want to be found. Still, the cemetery was one of my favorite places. I liked to read the old names, where they were legible, and puzzle out the family configurations, and I especially enjoyed encroaching on a forbidden space when I had no intention of getting into trouble. I just wanted to walk. I wanted to be outside—fresh air, exercise; youth and virtue on the hoof. When Laura and I started through the cemetery, we had an excuse about a shortcut we planned to trot out if confronted. Then Jackson caught up with us. He hadn't said much, just fallen in beside me. Now we were all in it together, gaping at a modest obelisk—six or eight feet tall, in no way a tower—held together with duct tape. Real tape, the kind my dad used to repair his car.
At first, we thought someone had defaced it. But then we saw it had been done with great care, like a puzzle. Vertical cracks that would have sent chunks of rock sliding to the ground had been closed with silver tape. It had rained earlier in the day, but the sun had come out and the silver glinted, blinding. Rainwater caught in a curved lip of tape and funneled down, splashing a spider's web as it fell. There were no flowers at the base, no sign of care beyond that hopeful but hardly elegant repair. It would have taken two people, at least, to hold the stone in place and unspool the tape without tangling it. I went closer and tried to scrape some of the moss out of the date, but all I could read was an 8. All the lettering—names or prayers or survivors — was long gone.
"Whose is it? Do you know?" Laura asked.
"No clue," I said.
It wasn't the fanciest monument in the cemetery, but it was one of the tallest. Jackson looked at the obelisk and picked at a corner of the tape.
"Good adhesive," he said.
Laura had already moved on, drawn by a lower stone festooned with plastic flowers.
"Look, Miranda, it's the same birthday as yours," she called out, scratching at
the moss with a fingernail.
The stone was better kept than most, and more detailed. Sure enough, Moira Maeve MacKinnon, beloved daughter and wife, had been born on March 4, 1893.
Laura started humming, "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!"
My birthday, March 4, is the same as my great-grandmother's. Back when she was born, in 1913, it was still inauguration day. So she was named Wilson after the incoming president (middle-named, I guess you'd say); since the swearing-in happened in January by the time I was born, I was middle-named after a tree. I was too old for a party-party, and my two best friends didn't really like each other, but I had decided to have Lisa and Laura over anyway. Home-schooled Lisa didn't always fit with the school crowd—as if I did—but we'd spent a lot of time feeding my dad's surviving fish or just drifting back and forth between houses in search of better snacks in the other fridge. I couldn't leave her out. Then I invited Jackson, too, in a crazed attack of geekiness. We were there in the cemetery and I just blurted it out. I couldn't tell from Laura's expression if I had just been brave or a total moron, but it was too late, either way.
Jackson was nodding, "Sure, okay," he said.
I hurried to backpedal. "It's not a party-party," I said. "More like dinner."
"Her mom's a great cook," Laura said generously.
Jackson slipped his hand into mine. I was too shocked to pull away. His skin was warm and a little rough. There was no pressure. Either of us could have slipped free in a second; if anyone asked, we weren't really holding hands. March is a terrible time for a birthday in Oregon. It always rains. But dinner was okay. We had pizza (homemade, with pepperoni and olives) and potato salad and my mother's famous Cornish pasties.
"Awesome menu," my brother pronounced, grabbing a pasty before leaving to meet a friend.
Lisa picked around the edges of her food, but Laura and Jackson had thirds on everything. I had invited my friends on the assumption my mother would suspend her vow of silence in honor of my special day. No such luck. She was on a roll, up to twenty-seven days and counting. I was beginning to think it was time for her to just go ahead and find a nice monastery to move into. Somewhere quiet. My father looked surprised that I'd invited a boy, but he made conversation.
"Your father has the Ricebowl stand at the market, doesn't he?" he asked Jackson.
"What's he do in the off season, with the market closed? If you don't mind my asking."
"Catering. And, you know, when they have the holiday craft show at the VFW, he sets up a booth. Things like that."
"Catering," Dad repeated slowly, like it was a new word to him.
"And he takes care of my sisters," Jackson added, for which I blessed him. My father wasn't the only one without a regular job. "They're little."
"He must have his hands full," my father said diplomatically. "He's put together a nice operation."
"Thanks," Jackson said.
"Aren't you going to blow out the candles?" Lisa asked.
"There isn't any cake," Laura said.
It was the opening my father had been waiting for. "Close, but no cigar!" he crowed.
I sank a little lower in my chair. My father drew a package from behind his back, a narrow box, eight inches long. It was crushed on one side where he'd partially sat on it, but it had a big, beautiful satin bow, emerald green, that I recognized as salvage from Christmas. I'd already gotten my family presents (a soft blue sweater and jeans, an opal ring that had belonged to my grandmother), so I didn't expect gifts at dinner. My friends and I had moved to no-gifts parties a few years before. Even so, Jackson had brought me a square box, a perfect cube with a lid that came off when you undid the ribbon, with a delicate handkerchief inside, something I knew his mother had chosen, or maybe his grandmother.
My father had bought me a Wilson cigar. Not too many people even know what that is, but Dad had pointed them out to me before. Now I had one of my very own, nestled in white tissue like a tiny mummy turd. A bespectacled Woodrow Wilson looked out from the shelter of a red, white, and blue garland on the paper band around the fattest part. There was even a little gold. I passed it around for everyone to see. My mother stood up. Regal, imposing, with steam coming out of her ears in little puffs. What was he thinking, a cigar for a twelve-year-old girl? How much did that thing cost? But not a word. Her skin darkened two entire shades. She nodded to my father— she knew just what he was up to—and she put a hand on my shoulder and gave a squeeze.
"Man, what is that?" Laura asked.
"Campaign propaganda at its finest," my father said. "And a family heirloom to boot. Believe it or not, my great-grandfather actually saved this from Wilson's campaign. Maybe he was waiting to smoke it when the baby was born? I don't know."
"Thanks," I said.
The cigar smelled like paper and dust. The band made a whispery, crinkling noise. It weighed nothing. "You've been saving this for me?"
"I found it in a box of my grandmother's things," Dad said. "I've been sorting, you know, trying to tidy up, get rid of some of the junk." Looking for more things to sell, I thought. He wagged a finger at us. "I'm sure it's no good for smoking anymore, but I trust you're all too smart to smoke."
We rolled our eyes.
"Thanks," I said again.
I'm probably the only kid on the planet who never really liked cake, so my mother always surprised me with a different birthday dessert—chocolate éclairs one year, lemon bars the next. This year, Mom unveiled a stack of cookies in geometric shapes, and then she started pulling out her stockpiled sprinkles, leftovers from the gingerbread houses we used to make. She had sanding sugar, jimmies, nonpareils, edible glitter, red hots, gumdrops, and the candy rocks we used for paving the walkways and landscaping the gingerbread grounds. It was everything she'd stashed away the year before. We hadn't built a house this year. I think after William scattered half a package of genuine gold dragées across the floor like ball-bearings and my unsuspecting father slipped and fell, Mom finally decided we really were too old. Dad swore the dragées were subsidized bythe dental association in search of repair work when people cracked a tooth, but they were still my favorites. I waited to see how my friends would react. The last time we decorated cookies at one of my parties, I think I was seven. But Lisa jumped right in.
"Did you bake all these, Mrs. Maple?"
Mom nodded and waved her hand, palm up, above the cookie platter, which I decided meant each of us could eat one before we started decorating. There were sugar cookies, and caramel spice cookies, and melty gingersnaps. Mom put out half a dozen little bowls of icing and the tubes and jars of the special food coloring she ordered through the mail.
My mother used to pride herself on the array of colors she brought to the annual decorating extravaganza, but she hadn't restocked, so we were out of green, red, and my favorite pale blue. Laura looked over the inventory, shrugged, and chose orange. Lisa did her first cookie in white icing with a perfect rainbow in narrow bands of sanding sugar. I tried to scrape the last dregs out of the blue tube, but they really were dregs, and all I did was ruin a bowl of white icing with crusty bits of desiccated gel that wouldn't soften or dissolve. Fortunately, you can always make gray.
"Do you have a baggie?" Jackson asked.
But my mother had already handed him one she'd retrieved from the bag drawer. I hoped it wasn't a used one full of crumbs. Jackson didn't inspect it or anything; he wasn't suspicious. He just filled it with his glossy gray frosting and started piping a thin line along the edges of two cookie triangles.
"What are you making?" Laura wanted to know.
"An obelisk. Like the one at the cemetery."
"Ooh," Lisa said. She looked pained, like she expected a lecture any minute. "Isn't that a little. . . creepy?"
"Downright macabre," Laura said happily. "If we use toothpicks, maybe we can build little ghosts out of gumdrops."
"But they're all the wrong colors," Lisa said reasonably.
"Have you ever seen a ghost?" Jackson asked.
"If the cookies break, we can put it back together with duct tape," Laura said.
"No," Jackson said. He had this already planned out. "We'll do it with frosting, in stripes, see? Like the pioneer one."
"Very resourceful," my father said. He wasn't decorating, just admiring. He loved those gingersnaps.
And then it got quiet, each of us working away. Mom had used cutters for some of the cookies—there were circles and diamonds and hearts—but she must have been thinking construction, too, because there were stacked rectangles regular as bricks and triangles in three different sizes. Lisa watched for a few minutes. She made a scrumptiously innocuous smiley face on one of the round cookies and ate it in tiny bites. But then she began her own construction project, a pyramid five inches tall, decorated with gumdrop hieroglyphics.
My mother was making a fishbowl. She assembled diamond-shaped cookie panes like leaded glass and she painted the most beautiful fish on the outside. It was gorgeous. And hollow, a little upturned cup of frosted hope. She waved us closer. At the bottom of the bowl, on the inside, she had piped an icing koi.
"Marie Antoinette?" I asked.
She nodded. Marie was my dad's best fish, killed by a raccoon, or maybe a heron, in the fall. The markings weren't exactly right but, making allowances for scale, this was a remarkable fish. Another unsuspected use for black frosting. It was a little memorial, or maybe an offering.
"It's beautiful," Laura said. "Like, too pretty to eat."
"I like pretty desserts," I said.
Thinking, prettiness never stopped me taking that first bite. Lisa looked right at my mother. "You should have been an artist," she said.
It was the wrong thing to say. My mother jumped as if her chair were on fire. The cookie bowl dropped. It broke like glass.
Amalia Gladhart is the author of Detours (Burnside Review Press), and translator of Trafalgar (Angélica Gorodischer) and The Potbellied Virgin, and Beyond the Islands (Alicia Yánez Cossío). Recent short fiction in Parcel, Paper Nautilus, Oblong, Eleven Eleven, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and Literal Latté. She is Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon.