The Unhappiest Birthday

May 22, 2024

Justus is without a doubt overdressed for the party he’s going to; none of his friends are going to show up in a button-down shirt or dress pants. It’s never occurred to him to question this discrepancy between how he and his cousins are dressed for special occasions and how his friends look when they show up to birthday parties. He’s five and a half, and parties make him excited, not introspective. Especially this one — one of his kindergarten classmates is turning six, and the invitation was not to the boy’s home but to the local playland.

His baby sister, nearly two, isn’t old enough to really understand what’s going on, but she’s picked up on his excitement and has been following him around most of the morning. He doesn’t mind; he likes his sister and is proud that he can be a Good Big Brother to her. When Dad finally tells him it’s time to go, he pauses long enough to tell her goodbye.

“Bye, Fee-Fee! I’m gonna go to Dylan’s party now, but I’ll tell you about it when I get back, okay?” He hugs her, and then Mom picks her up to keep her from trying to follow him and Dad into the garage.

Walking into the playland is like entering a different world. It’s like a giant playground and the McDonald’s ball pit at once, but bigger, better, more. The birthday party has its whole own room, with windows looking out at the main play area with its tunnels and climbing nets and slides and just about anything else imaginable. In that room, under the supervision of Dylan’s parents and a playland employee, the birthday boy opens his presents — Justus doesn’t mind that his isn’t the best gift of the lot — and they all sing Happy Birthday before they get hot dogs and fries and a cupcake cake that starts out looking like a lumpy red sports car. Dylan blows out all the candles.

It tastes like store bought cake, but they’re all five or six; nobody cares as long as the cake is cake. Colorful paper bags of party favors wait on a table at the back of the room, next to Dylan’s gifts, to be distributed at the end of the party. The air buzzes with excitement as they’re released to play in the bright children’s wonderland for two whole hours. Practically forever.

Teenagers wearing polo shirts and shorts wander the perimeter of the play area, along with a couple of older employees. Once or twice they tell the children to stop doing this or that thing, but they don’t seem overly interested in their tasks, and avoiding their notice soon becomes a game in itself.

Someone gets the idea of playing hide-and-go-seek, and the playland with its nooks and crannies and criss-crossing tunnels seems like the perfect place for it. They enlist Dylan’s dad to eenie-meenie-miney-mo who’s going to be it first, and scatter as Blair starts counting. A few rounds in, it becomes harder to find a really good hiding spot, and maybe they all also start getting a little more competitive.

“Last one, kids!” Dylan’s mom calls out when the fifth child starts counting.

Justus is determined to find a really good spot for this last round. He climbs high up, and finds a spot where he can slip through a gap that probably shouldn’t be there — there’s holes that look like something should be holding the sides together, like a bolt or a rivet. The space is longer than he is tall and narrow, walls farther apart at the top like a lopsided letter V; he has to squeeze to fit, but there’s no way he’ll be found here.

Magdalene has finally managed to get her daughter down for a nap; leaves her husband reading an old novel and ready to step up if she wakes while she makes the short drive to pick up her son from a friend’s birthday party. She still isn’t sure how she feels about the practice of leaving strangers to organize parties like this, but accepts that it’s probably fine, she’s probably just old-fashioned when she wants to take care of all such arrangements herself.

There’s an ambulance parked outside when she arrives. She tries to tell herself it’s probably just something relatively innocuous, the kind of thing that could happen anywhere boisterous children get a little too absorbed in their games. Ignores the police car that pulls into the lot behind her. She’s parked her car and is halfway to the business’s doors when a jingle starts playing in her purse.

She stops, retrieves her phone from its depths. “Magdalene White speaking.”

Two policemen pass her, enter the playland.

“Magdalene? You need to come here as soon as you can.” It’s the boy Dylan’s father; she recognizes his voice, though not the tone he speaks in, like he’s seen a ghost.

“I’m just outside. Did something happen?”

“It’s Justus.” It sounds like he wants to say more, but he doesn’t elaborate. Just repeats his previous words. “You need to come in as soon as you can.”

She doesn’t hang up, but she removes the phone from her ear, half-runs as fast as she can between her high heels and the uneven gravel lot. Pushes the door open to see EMTs kneeling on the floor above a too-small, too-still body, the child’s white button-down shirt open and his skin nearly as pale as his light blond hair. Her child. Her son.

“Justus!” She doesn’t have eyes for anyone else as she stumbles forward, instinctively struggles against the hold as hands grab her to hold her back.

“Ma’am. Let the medics work.”

The words reach her through thick fog, barely have any meaning. Her only thoughts are for her son, her baby, who needs his mother.

They never take Justus to the emergency room. It was already too late when the playland staff found him — after his friends had failed to and he hadn’t responded to calls to come out on his own — and called 911.

The coroner’s report lists cause of death as asphyxiation.

Too long spent in a space too tight to let him breathe freely. A space he should never have been able to access, through a gap that should never have existed.

Magdalene doesn’t blame God for what happened, not exactly. He didn’t kill her son, didn’t make Justus squeeze into a death trap. But she finds it difficult to accept that He allowed it to happen. That the world He has created allows children to die, allowed her child to die, and allows a whole class of kindergartners to be traumatized at what should have been an occasion of joy.

She confides in her husband, and Victor doesn’t tell her God has a plan. Doesn’t give her any of the platitudes she hears at the funeral. He simply holds her and cries with her. Her strong, stoic husband whom she hasn’t seen cry since their daughter was born — and those were tears of joy, not grief. It doesn’t make her feel any better, but she feels less alone knowing he hurts as much as she does. Maybe more.

Magdalene never tells her sister about her doubts. Rachel has always been her confidant, whom she tells everything, but this is one thing she won’t understand.

She desperately hopes Rachel will never have cause to understand just how deep her pain runs.

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