Jeanette Perosa is a graduate of Arcadia University’s MFA Program. Her short fiction can be found in over sixteen literary journals worldwide including: Mamalode,, Euonia Review, Fiction on the Web and Delta Woman Magazine. Her debut novel The Secret Keepers spent over two months on the Kindle best sellers list. Jeanette lives in Limerick, Pennsylvania with her husband, four children, a pack of miniature schnauzers and a cat. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or check out her website: jeanetteperosa.org.
It was her birthday. Tina knew that there was going to be a party, even though Michael had tried hard not to let the secret out. She had tried not to know, avoiding piles of odd envelopes on his desk and not looking at his Facebook page— but still she knew. It was the way he talked, a nervous twitch in his tone. The constant checking his watch over dinner. So, when they made their way home from the restaurant. Tina reapplied her lipstick and checked her hair.
“I thought we could stop at your mother’s before heading home,” Michael said.
Tina gazed over at him, trying to put on her best smile.
“Why?” she said. She tried to fill her voice with indifference and yawned.
Michael squirmed in his seat, then readjusted the rearview mirror.
“Well, it’s your birthday and she is your mother. I am sure that she would love to see you.”
“We could go tomorrow. It is getting late and I am sure that she will have church in the morning.”
“No, let’s go tonight.”
Tina sunk into the leather and smiled. She had not been to her mother’s house in quite a while. Odd that Michael would have chosen to have the party there, but she was sure her mother wanted to be involved. Tina thought it might have been better to have a party at their house. Its grand rooms would be the perfect backdrop to celebrate her birth. Not at all like the small colonial where her parents still resided. They had the same drab, tan walls and over-patterned wing chairs.
“I wonder if my parents still have that floor model television. We should send them a new one for Christmas,” Tina said.
“You did, for your father’s birthday. Remember your father couldn’t figure out how to make it stand. They had it leaning against the wall for months before he called me.” Michael flipped on his turn signal after reaching for his phone.
“Alright, but let’s not stay too long.”
Michael turned the Mercedes off the interstate and toward the older part of town. The shopping center’s neon signs blurred the cloudy sky with their light. Tina watched as they melted into the distance.
“I didn’t know it got so built up down here,” Tina said.
Michael let out a sigh.
The shopping district gave way to simple houses, small boxes that seemed purchase and assembled from a discount chain. There were some leftover Christmas decorations spotting the porches and lawns. The neighborhoods looked worn and tired, nothing like the grand buildings in Tina’s development. Its faux stone-covered houses, sported trimmed landscaping, tasteful decorations, and fancy exterior lighting to match the name the developer hand given, Executive Estates. The name alone was a token of success.
“Hard to believe I used to live here.”
They slowed up as they made their way down a row of bi-levels and colonials, all with private drives and fenced yards. There were several cars that seemed familiar lining the street. Michael eased the car into the driveway and switched off the lights. Tina scanned the windows for movement, shuffling of guests waiting to shout out to her. She flipped the visor down and checked herself again in the mirror. Forty was looking pretty good on her.
Michael rang the doorbell. Tina strained her ears to hear the scattering of feet, rushing to a hiding place to shout, “Surprise” or “Happy Birthday” at the first opportune moment.
“We could just walk in,” Tina said, toying with him.
Michael scowled at her.
The door opened slowly. Tina’s father peered out at them from the opening.
“Tina? Michael? Come in.”
Tina braced herself, tossing her hair behind her shoulders and stepped into the threshold. Michael placed his hand in the small of her back. The foyer was dim, lit by a small lamp that sat on the side table. Tina moved in further, leaning past her father and scanning the rooms that lay next to the hall.
“Happy Birthday, baby,” her father said. His silver hair was perfectly placed, as always. It appeared like a news reporter’s, plastic and shiny. Tina nostrils were filled with his Old Spice cologne as he leaned in to kiss her cheek, his hand pressing down on her shoulder.
“Thank you, Daddy.”
“Michael,” her father said.
“Good to see you Arthur.”
Arthur extended his hand to Michael, but Michael reached out and hugged him patting him on the back. They both hesitated for a moment before Arthur turned back to his daughter.
“I’m so glad you came. My girl is forty! Wow, that makes me feel so old. Your mother is in the kitchen.”
“I can’t stay long,” Tina said.
“Mom made a cake.”
Tina glanced over at Michael. The dim light cast shadows under his eyes. He looked up at her then before following her father. Tina could hear the distant bells of game shows blaring on the family room television as she moved down the short hallway.
The kitchen was in the back of the house. Its linoleum floor still held a slight shine under the light that hung over the old table. Her mother was sitting in one of the lime green, vinyl chairs that had been purchased years ago as a set with the laminated table. In front of her mother was a cake, not store bought but homemade. It sat in a Pyrex pan, white with small, blue flowers on the side. Her mother smiled as she placed small, wax candles into the top—pink.
“Emily, Tina is here,” her father said.
Tina stood in the doorway, looking side to side.
“Oh, my baby! Happy Birthday, Sweetie. Ethan, your sister is here. Come wish her a Happy Birthday!”
Her mother rushed towards her, smile etched across her painted face. Tina stood there—frozen. Her mother smelled of vanilla. Tina could practically taste it when Emily squeezed her. Emily stood back, with Tina’s hands in hers and sighed. Emily’s face was round, blue eyes set deep within her wrinkled brow. Her short hair was brushed and curled into large waves that sat on her head as if the curlers were still in place. She turned to move towards the table and Tina could see that she had missed a spot with the brush. A tuft of hair in the back of her head stuck straight out. Tina reached out to flatten it.
“Mom, you forgot a spot,” Tina said.
Emily flushed as she ran her hand down the back of her head.
“No matter— just family here.”
Tina looked down at her mother’s clothing; gray wool pants that seemed tattered at the cuffs drifted loosely over pink bedroom slippers. This was not party attire.
“Such a great girl! The pride of my life and now your forty. Seems like just yesterday that you were born, then off to college, and now,” Emily’s voice trailed off. “Arthur, get some matches and some plates. We have to sing to Tina. Oh, and yell for Ethan again.”
Tina walked over to the counter, her heels clicking across the floor. She stood there glaring at Michael and pasted a smile on her face for her mother. Emily fussed, commanding Arthur to get knives, forks and ice cream.
“There’s Ethan,” Emily said.
Ethan moved into the kitchen from the other doorway, the one that attached the garage to the house. His hair was spiked up, like a sea urchin. His face was decorated with various silver rods and balls that had been pierced into his flesh. A large tattoo graced his neck, a screaming dragon that wrapped its tail around his shoulders disappearing into the back of his shirt.
“Hey, Sis. Happy Birthday,” Ethan said, “Mike, how’s going?”
“Alright, how about you?” Michael responded.
Emily glared at Ethan from across the cake.
Ethan pulled a chair out, flipped it around before tossing a long leg over, and then sat down backwards on it, arms crossed over the vinyl, green back.
“What brings you to this part of town?” Ethan said, “On your birthday even. We must be special.” His tone was flat and cynical.
“Ethan, its your sister’s birthday, please,” Arthur said.
The room got quiet; only the hum of the fluorescent lamps hissed in the air.
“Let’s sing for Tina,” Emily announced. She clapped her hands before beginning to light the candles. Tina watched the wax drip down onto the white icing, gathering in small, pink balls.
Tina felt annoyance rush through her like ice as her mother sang loudly and off key. Her father stood there mouthing the words. Ethan gave his rendition with an air guitar display, stomping his foot and almost losing his balance, bumping into Tina. Tina shoved him with her hand.
“Knock it off. You’re going to ruin my coat!” Tina said.
Arthur whispered something into Ethan’s ear before pulling an extra chair to the table. They sat there in silence as Tina blew out the candles and cut the cake into slivers.
“It’s vanilla, your favorite,” Emily said, “You have to tell us everything you have been doing. You do such great work.”
Tina looked over at her mother. Her face was round and flush. Emily smiled at her, making her cheeks seem rounder and full. The cake was dry and the icing canned. Tina poked at the piece that laid on the plate in front of her, its light pink icing matching the small roses that lined the china plate.
“So, tell us Sis. Tell us all about the great work you are doing at the law firm. Still getting paid to divide rich people’s money,” Ethan said. He shoveled cake into his mouth, letting crumbs fall like snow.
“Now, Ethan, your sister is a family law attorney. Very important,” Emily said, patting Tina’s hand.
“I know. Just like I said, getting paid to help break up families. You know, divorce?”
“How’s your job search going, Ethan? Still sucking off our parents I see,” Tina said, eyes shrunk to slits.
“No, actually I am working in the tattoo shop over on King Street. Lets me use my creative side.”
“Got a problem with tattoos, Sis? Damn and I got you a gift certificate for your birthday.”
“Ethan, please be nice. It’s your sister’s birthday. It’s her day,” Emily said.
“It’s always her day. When was the last time she visited? Called?”
“She’s busy. She’s very important,” Emily said. She reached out and touched Tina’s cheek.
“No, she never comes here. Not on your birthday, Mom, or yours Dad, only hers. I am sure that she would rather be on the other side of town. She doesn’t care about us. Why are you here?”
“I came to visit. See Mom,” Tina said.
“Yea, you probably thought there was some sort of party or something.”
Tina felt the heat rising to her face. She quickly turned away.
“Oh my God! You did think there was a party! That’s so awesome!” Ethan’s laughter filled the room like fire.
Tina could feel her face turning red.
“That is classic! Worth the price of admission!” Ethan wouldn’t stop. Tina felt dizzy with anger.
“Stop it Ethan!” Emily’s chest was heaving and tears streaked the makeup of her face.
Silence filled the room. Arthur and Michael stood like two statues on the edges of the kitchen light. Tina could hear Michael shuffling some. Ethan froze, then slipped down into his chair like a balloon being deflated.
“I wanted to see your sister on her birthday. There is no harm in that.” Emily’s voice seemed to hang in the air. “Now we are going to have cake. Arthur get out the ice cream.”
Arthur moved towards the olive green refrigerator and retrieved a carton of Blue Bonnet.
“I got Peanut Brittle, just for you, Tina. I remember how much you liked it as a child.”
Her hands shook as she tried to force the scoop into the frozen ice cream. Her face poised into a shaky smile that blended into the creases that lined her face.
“Emily, let me help you,” Arthur said, stepping out of the shadows.
“No! I want to get my baby girl some ice cream.” Emily reached out and touched Tina’s hand.
It was cold and damp, startling Tina.
“Mom, please don’t. Its fine It’s getting late and I am sure you have church in the morning,” Tina said. She pushed herself away from the table and motioned for Michael to follow.
“But dear, you didn’t even take your coat off—or finish your cake.” Emily seemed to deflate in her chair as Arthur reached out to place his hand on her shoulder.
Tina snatched her purse off the counter and gave both her mother and father a quick peck on the cheek.
“Thank you so much for the cake. It was lovely.”
“Please don’t wait so long to come back. We miss you,” Arthur whispered in Tina’s ear as he hugged her.
“Maybe you can come over for dinner next week. Right, Michael?” Tina shouted more toward the room. She could almost hear the scowl from Ethan.
Tina left, leaving her mother sitting there in a pool of fluorescent light that tinted everything green.
It had begun to rain as Michael backed the sedan out of the driveway and headed to the interstate.
“Well, that was awkward,” Tina said. She leaned back into the soft leather of her Mercedes, “I thought there was going to be a party and then to see Ethan.” Tina closed her eyes and listened to the rain drumming on the roof of the car. It soothed her.
“Why did we go there Michael? We could have had them over to our place if you felt domestic or something.”
“Your Dad called me last week. He wanted you to come over to see your mother.”
“Why does he always call you? I hate that. I’m the daughter.
He should have called me. It’s all because you gave Ethan money that time when he was in rehab. Now dad thinks you two are buddies. I thought there was going to be a party. God I feel stupid.”
“Tina, it’s your family. The just wanted to see you.”
Tina opened her eyes and gazed out the window at the world. The rain coated everything, making it shiny and slick. The passing headlights and taillights seemed diluted in the wet surfaces—distorted.
“You should have told me. I could have been better prepared, and for Ethan to be there. God, he gets on my nerves. Did you see that tattoo?”
“Tina, your mom has lung cancer. That’s why your dad wanted you to come. There’s nothing the doctors can do. They said maybe six weeks. That’s why Ethan is there. He moved back in to help out,” Michael said.
It was like something rammed into Tina’s stomach. Her chest tightened and her mouth dropped open. She couldn’t catch her breath. Everything inside her stopped, froze for a moment as Michael’s words saturated her mind.
“He called yesterday. He forgot it was your birthday but your mother didn’t. I thought it would be nice if you came by on your birthday.”
Tina took a deep breath, letting the damp air flow into her. Her heart began pounding, sounding off like an alarm in her mind. She fumbled for the window switch, letting it fall mechanically and allowed the cold rain to run onto her face. Michael reached out and grabbed her hand, his warmth pulling her back. She turned to him. His eyes shimmered with tears that reflected the streetlights, glowing orbs that sent their light down into the night.
“Are they sure?”
“But did she go to the University? The hospital is the best in the nation. Michael she needs to go to the University.”
“Tina, she did.”
Tina squeezed Michael’s hand. Its warmth filled her.
“I should have known,” Tina said.
“I was going to tell you tomorrow. Your mother didn’t want it to spoil your birthday.”
“I want to go back.”
“What about the time?”
“I forgot to get another piece of cake. My mom always made me the best vanilla cakes of my birthday.”
Michael kept her hand in his as he found the next exit and turned around.