ReadingRoom

Short story: Party Games, by Emma Neale

"She blindfolded each of the children with a scarf, saying, ‘There’s going to be a surprise!'": a horror story set at a children's birthday party, by Dunedin writer Emma Neale.

As soon as the last child arrived at Bevan’s ninth birthday party, the bashing began. Allan walloped Bevan with a balloon. It was a friendly thwack, on the head, the only harm done being that Bevan’s hair stood up joyously with static electricity and all the children laughed. Bevan was a little perturbed by the implication that he looked ridiculous, so he bopped Allan back with another torpedo-shaped balloon.

"Sausage, sausage, sausage!" he yelled. All the boys thought that was hysterical, so each one seized a balloon in camaraderie. Globe-shaped, rocket-shaped, crinkle-cut fry or frankfurter-shaped: all designed for them to pummel and pummel.

Jacob bashed Gregory, Gregory bashed Mohammed, Mohammed bopped Manish, Manish biffed Nakale and Turoa, Turoa and Nakale blammed Peter full in the face. None of it hurt, and it was exactly what they all wanted to do, with that warm tickly lift in the pits of their stomachs, the curious little worm of ‘I want something’ that sniffed the wind and waved its blind, blunt head. Yet even so, discontent and boredom soon rose. Abruptly, the episode abandoned them. The children milled around, confused; anxious critters that had lost a vital and savoury scent.

The battering seemed to have left a flat, rubbery pressure at the back of their tongues and in their hearts. Bursting the balloons suddenly became the answer. Turoa discovered the sharp corner of a foil birthday card was just the thing. Other children stamped or sat down on their balloons. Gregory, a clever fellow, experimented with holding his balloon with one hand against the doorframe to the living room balcony, and slamming the sliding glass door shut as fast as he could, to see if he could generate a colossal boom! that way.

As their own balloons were just tiny, coloured shreds the size of Barbie bikinis or cut-out puppy tongues now, and the sight made them melancholic for weightlessness, bounce and drift, Allan and Manish pushed Nakale down onto the floor. They wedged him between an armchair and the couch. They yelled, "Pretend we’re sand! Pretend we’re sand!" willing themselves into a trillion tiny golden particles so they could cover every part of his body with theirs. They shouted merrily, "Get him, bury him, get him, bury him!" When Jillian, Bevan’s mother, hauled them off, they said they only did it because he was their friend.

Jillian already had a sore throat from bellowing each successive, recalcitrant child’s name over the general din of a crowd of nine-year-olds all wanting to sound the biggest, strongest and rightest about balloons, football, Match Attack, trampolines and the school production’s finale song, "He waka eke noa".

Last year’s party had been such a dream run! Was it different this time because Rosa and Meena couldn’t make it? Or was the very fact that Jillian could even ask that another sign she still lived in the binary dim-darks? She had broken out in mother-sweat from rushing between each small pending crisis. First off: the balloon-swipe that struck a glass ornament and knocked it into dithereens: shards of indecision. (Stand guard by the glass, and send a child to get brush and shovel? Or just pelt off to get the brush and shovel?) Next up: intervene in another floor-bound strangulation. Ice a hand jammed in the sliding door. Finally, scurry back to the kitchen to halt the over-boiling and burning of the saveloys, which had set off the stove-top’s inbuilt alarm. In the pell-mell helter-skelter of crazy-town triage, she’d forgotten that her husband, Rye, had left the food on to simmer, and had asked her to turn the element off ‘in five’. He’d gone to collect the birthday cake, which they’d ordered from a friend — who made themed desserts at giddily affordable don’t-double-check-she-meant-that prices.

Jillian stared at the cooking pot in appalled paralysis. The saveloys had either split their skins entirely, or the tips had burst through the casing and expanded like toadstool hoods. It looked as if the adults were going to serve a dish of fat pink penises to the children. Horrakapotchkin! Her hypnosis snapped when she heard a hoot of "Throw IT! Throw IT!" from the living room.

One of the boys had put the pet guinea pig inside a transparent Tupperware container, which usually stored Bevan’s fluorescent Lego pieces. A game of catch ensued.

Desperate measures. Jillian grabbed an empty laundry basket and swept all the still-wrapped presents off the coffee table into it. She shouted at Bevan, the only one who couldn't report her explosion to his own mother, "NO PRESENTS UNTIL YOU PUT THE GUINEA PIG DOWN AND EVERYONE IS QUIET!!" Bevan paled, but none of the others even blinked. God, she was slow: of course, none of them was scoring birthday bounty.

Jillian snatched the plastic container from the animal torturer, and gently put the shaken animal back in its cage. She grabbed a wicker basket of old scarves where it sat in the hallway coat cupboard, and retrieved the long, purple-striped climbing rope her husband had left coiled at the top of the stairs. While she was gathering all this for the organised games (blind man’s bluff, tug of war), an impulsive, but usually sunny child (what were the letters that came after his name? one of those chains that people often said like a slightly frightening specialist qualification – PhDD, WMD?) had decided that the glass cake-platter, which stood in the centre of the dining table, ready for the superhero-shaped cake’s arrival, would make a good Frisbee. Because it was Bevan’s house, and Bevan’s party, but not, it was revealed, his real birthday, which was still two days away, this child suddenly felt it right to remind Bevan of his proper place. With a wild urge that seemed to startle even the boy himself, and only belatedly calling, "Catch, Bev!" he flung the heavy dish towards his friend. Bevan was knocked out cold. To be fair, it wasn’t exactly by the flying platter, although it did hit him in the temple; it was because he swung around and tried to run, charging full tilt into the recently cleaned sliding glass doors.

Jillian felt an instant, full-body surge of tingling shock, as if her entire nervous system had been rolled in wasabi. She rushed over to Bevan, and  — thankgodthankgodthankgod — he came to mercifully quickly. Yet she still found herself shaking as she made him lie on the couch, and managed to say, very cool and clear, "You need to stay still for a bit, sweetheart. If you move before I say so, No Screen Time for a Week." The dilated darks of his eyes said he believed it.

Jillian knew from a neighbour’s recent experience that an ambulance would take too long to get here. Faster for her to take charge herself. The other children were now slightly subdued. Perfect. She announced the games were to begin. "It’s a kind of musical chairs!" she fake-jubilated, and swiftly lined up a number of dining table and oddment chairs back to back. "The first challenge is — who can sit still the longest? There will be a prize!" The children jostled each other for a seat. Over the peeping and piping of various pitches of hullaballoo and whine, Jillian worked fast. She blindfolded each of the children with a scarf, saying, "There’s going to be a surprise! See if you can guess what it is, just from listening hard." They giggled and made outrageously spoilt or disturbingly surreal guesses. It’s okay, she told herself. They’re just children. Surely they don’t mean it. Next, she gently, nurse-like, bound their ankles with duct tape, which she’d grabbed from a kitchen cupboard. When Gregory asked what she was doing, she said, "It helps everyone to play the game well. It stops your feet from wriggling."

Sweat trickled down her armpits. More pooled in her cleavage as she tried to work fast. Gregory’s father was a banker. Gregory’s father had a lot of investments. Gregory liked to tell Bevan so. Therefore, Jillian lied through her coffee-habit teeth, "I promise if you sit still, you’ll be amazed at the prizes. We decided to spend a lot of money." Gregory liked the sound of that.

Now Jillian looped the purple climbing rope around them all, tying them in a set, like a tidy bunch of spring onions, to the chairs.

One or two more of the boys were asking querulous questions now. She put some Pop-Your-Top Top of the Pops Volume 8 from Spotify on airplay over the stereo. "The trick is," she said — sprinkling laughter over them light as crystalline dust on fruit jubes — "You have to sit really, really still and quiet even if your absolutely favourite song comes on and you want to dance."

Fury fully coursing through her now, she sent a group text to all the other parents. "Party’s over. Bevan injured by guest. Come & get yr children ASAP. They’re safely secured. Am taking B to A&E."

Partway through hustling Bevan off to the car, Jillian halted. She pivoted in the hallway then shot back to the kitchen to station a bottle of wine — vigilant and upright as a Queen’s guard — in the fridge for her return.

She texted her husband. "E.T. A.?"

No calming "ting!" chimed in reply. Stress clamped her torso like a tightening iron bustier as she buckled herself and a dazed Bevan into the front seat of the Toyota.

Sometimes she forgot to feel guilty about the climate crisis effects from still having two cars: they were a hangover from when Rye was an itinerant climbing guide, but her own job kept her anchored to the city. Times like now, as she prayed for Rye to chunter up with his old diesel truck. At the thought of the other parents arriving, and calling the cops, she felt a sharp pain in her head, as if extra blood had suddenly tried to storm all brain channels. Two small twigs of realisation bobbed atop the tide, but she couldn’t quite work out how they were linked. I am taking a little medical event to hospital. I should not be driving. The Toyota sailed on down the hillside suburb’s dark asphalt wave.

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