The flowers were beginning to wilt. Huge bulbous peonies in violent corals and heavy white roses strained to open, their thick petals peeling backward obscenely, revealing powdery orange centers. Slumping over in their crystal vases, naked stems starting to give under the weight. The balloons were sinking, too, helium leaking into the dense cloud of human breath. While there were so many that the ceiling was still filled, some floated at half mast, their tasseled tails trailing along the floor.
The other children were fidgeting, casting sulky gazes toward the cake. Parents stroked silky heads, cooed into small ears. , they whispered. Lea felt they were all looking at her surreptitiously—first at her, then at her mother, who fluttered about dispensing vegetable punch and good humor, smoothing tantrums and assuaging concerns.
Her mother was behind her. Lea knew from the smell—a sharp, summery perfume, but also the salty sweet undertone of her body, a smell so indistinguishable from Lea herself that she could not tell if it was pleasant or unpleasant.
“Lea,” her mother said, kneeling down next to her.
She looked into her mother’s face, tried to find comfort in the golden warmth of it, the dark eyes and full, walnut lips. But it wasn’t enough; it was never enough. She couldn’t sink into her mother, couldn’t bury her face in her shoulder. Her mother was too strong, too solid, too tightly held. There was no opening for Lea, and she dropped her eyes again. She knew what her mother was going to say.
“He’s not going to make it, Lea,” her mother said. “His flight must have been delayed.” She turned to Samuel, who stood at her side. “Tell her, Samuel.”
Samuel repeated after his mother. “I don’t think he’s going to make it, Lea.”
. At those familiar words Lea felt something inside her squeeze, a heat gathering behind her eyes. But she was conscious of the awkwardness hanging in the air, the looks and whispers of the friends and classmates who still sat scattered about their living room, hours after the last games had been played and the vegetable punch was all gone. The sun slanted down in the sky, disappearing into an orange squint between the blinds.
Her legs felt heavy, but she let herself be brought to her feet. A rustle seemed to go through the lethargic room, the guests looking up, alert.
“Time to cut the cake!” her mother said firmly, less to the guests than to Lea.
A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd. Children got to their feet, abandoning streamers and toys, mothers brushed hair from their eyes, and fathers cleared their throats. They all gathered around the pedestal where the cake stood in the middle of the room.
Even as she allowed herself to be steered in front of the cake, as a pink plastic knife was pressed into her small hands, Lea never took her eyes off the front door.
But the doorframe, adorned with a rainbow balloon arch, stayed empty. .
“Time to cut the cake!” her mother said again. Under the brightness, Lea could hear the warning, the edge to her mother’s voice that always compelled her. Then her mother’s hands were under her armpits, lifting her up onto the high chair in front of the cake.
Lea gripped the sticky plastic knife between both hands. She scanned the faces of the crowd in front of her. Maybe he was hiding in the crowd, waiting to surprise her. . But he wasn’t there. She’d waited, she’d made everyone wait, and now the balloons were sinking and the ice was melting and they were going to cut the cake without him.
“Happy birthday to you,” her mother started singing, still in that loud, bright voice. Samuel joined in, and then the rest of the guests too, an uneven chorus. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to Leee-ee.”
Even sitting in the high chair, the table still came up to her chest. The cake loomed over her, tall and white, the red of the flowers as garish as a clown’s lipstick.
“Happy birthday to you.”
Lea’s mother leaned in behind her, wrapping strong arms around her shoulders in a hug. But it wasn’t a hug; she was holding Lea’s hands too, guiding the knife toward the cake.
Not yet. Lea looked up at the empty doorframe in panic. He wasn’t here yet. They couldn’t cut it without him.
But the pink plastic blade was already starting to sink into the clean buttercream corner closest to her, her mother’s steady hands wrapped around her own small and sweaty ones. Everyone was clapping, the applause like firecrackers going off. It hurt her ears.
Lea tried to pull the knife back, but it was too late. They were through the ivory layer now, and she could see the dark chocolate sponge within. He wasn’t here yet. But now it was too late.
Something inside her surged, and she pressed the knife harder, more freely. It went through the thick sponge layer messy and jagged, crumbs spilling out of the cut, until the knife hit the hard surface of the pedestal.
The clapping intensified. Lea’s mother took her hands off her, straightening up. “Thank you, everyone,” she said, satisfied. The party had been a success after all.“Still, shame of being caught in the act prickled at her neck, and she began to close her mouth, dropping her hand. But then, something about the way her father was looking at her made her stop.”
But the guests weren’t looking at her. They were looking at Lea, who sat in the high chair, both hands still tightly gripping the handle of the plastic knife. The knife that she hacked into the cake again, making another cut parallel to the first, and again, this time swinging carelessly, going for the second perfect layer of the cake. She sank the plastic knife into the cake’s innards, so far in that her fingers were covered in soft buttercream.
The clapping melted away into silence. Lea froze, looking up to meet her mother’s eyes.
A flicker went across her mother’s face, something she didn’t recognize or understand.
“Oh, Lea, look what you’ve done! Silly girl,” her mother said, an easy, wide smile plastered across her face. She pried the knife from Lea’s sticky fingers, holding it between her forefinger and thumb, playing to the crowd. “That’s the problem with our Lea,” she went on. “Always overenthusiastic.”
Everyone laughed. It started as a canned, mechanical sound, awkward and forced, but then it eased into something more natural, something more like relief.
Lea sat silently, staring at the dark wounds in the cake’s ivory surface. She wanted to plunge her hands into it, grab fistfuls of the creamy, buttery, poisonous sponge and stuff them into her mouth. She wondered what it would taste like, just the smallest crumb.
Lea looked around. No one was staring at her anymore; if anything, they were consciously avoiding it. Hats and coats were being handed out, pulled on, kisses being exchanged.
She turned her right hand up. She could feel the oily slick of buttercream in the web of her fingers, could see the crumbs that dotted her palm.
Her mother was taking presents, saying goodbye to the guests. She wasn’t looking. Samuel had already started to tidy up, busy picking ribbons and used napkins off the floor. And her father—well, he wasn’t even here.
So Lea brought her hand to her mouth, pressing her tongue against her palm. She thought it would be bitter, like all the other things she had been told were poisonous, the acrid burn of her father’s black shoe polish, the dull tart of the wetness inside her ears. Bitter was the taste of something going wrong, she understood that even then. And she wanted to taste it now, on the one day that he said he would be home and was not.
But the taste that tingled through her mouth was unlike anything she had ever tasted before. It had the hint of a certain vegetable purée that her mother sometimes fed her, an aspect of it that she hadn’t noticed before, blown up and magnified and made wonderful. Lea rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth. No, there was no mistaking it. It tasted nothing like poison.
Lea had stuck her tongue out again and was about to bring her other hand to her mouth when she looked up. Her mother was still saying goodbye to guests, who were milling about collecting goody bags and tying shoelaces, but in the midst of the chaos he had managed to come in unnoticed.
Her father stood by the front door. The bulk of his stomach strained against his wet shirt; his coat dangled from one hand. His nose was shiny, shinier than usual, and sweat glinted at his temples.
Part of Lea wanted to run to him, jump into his arms, bury her face in his bulk, but another part wanted to skulk away, crawl under a table and hide.
The look on his face, though, kept her rooted in her chair. He was looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. A frown gripped his forehead, and his cheek dropped toward his shoulder. He was studying her.
Lea realized her mouth was still open, her tongue still aimed toward her other buttercream-covered hand. She would be in trouble, she realized, now that he had seen her eating the poisonous cake. Strange, though, that he wasn’t shouting or running over to stop her. It only confirmed what she already suspected, that it wasn’t poisonous after all.
Still, shame of being caught in the act prickled at her neck, and she began to close her mouth, dropping her hand. But then, something about the way her father was looking at her made her stop. She stuck her tongue out and brought her fingers to her mouth again. She did it slowly, so he would have the chance to stop her.
But all he did was stare. He didn’t stop her. Something moved inside her belly, a chasm opening up, and she didn’t want the icing anymore. The sweetness suddenly tasted sickly in her mouth. She wanted to spit it out, to wash it clean with water. She started to cry.
He was beside her in a flash, even before her mother could react.
His arms were around her, tanned and solid as wood. She eyed the tiny black hairs tufting his forearm, familiar in the way that they stopped far before his wrist. The comforting specks of dark and light, varied in a way that her mother’s smooth, poreless veneer was not. The folds of skin inside his elbows.
She breathed in the smell of him. He smelled savory, like a cut onion on the rare occasion that her mother cooked trad. Her head was pressed against his chest, her sticky hands resting around his neck, buttercream mingling with the sweat that seeped through his shirt.
When Lea pulled her face away from the damp fabric of her father’s shirt and blinked her eyes open, almost everyone was gone. Quietly ushered out by her mother—who was now picking streamers off the floor with a single-mindedness that Lea recognized as anger. She had done it again, she knew, with a tired sinking feeling in her stomach. What was, she wasn’t entirely sure, not yet, but she recognized the stiff angle of her mother’s mouth, the tautness of the skin over her collarbones.
“Oh, hello there.”
Lea looked up into her father’s face, immediately forgetting her mother’s anger. There he was, there was the familiar fold of his double chin, the flat, wide nose, the piercing eyes. The indentations on the left cheek that fascinated her so—no one else she knew had holes in their skin. They were caused by pimples, he had said. He’d had bad skin when he was younger, he told her, which meant that pores sometimes got infected, turning into red pus-filled bumps that left holes when they popped. Lea had never seen a pimple before.
Something rustled in his hand. Lea looked down.
It was crudely wrapped, as if it had been done in a hurry, the gold paper crumpled and folded, the tape ineptly applied. But she grabbed it anyway, a grin spreading across her face.
“You’d think she hadn’t gotten any presents at all,” her mother said, an edge to her voice.
But Lea wasn’t listening. She was ripping the paper off as quickly as she could, the shiny gold winking as it tore. The tail emerged first, mustard colored and plated with fins. Then the legs, the body, the small, pointed head. It was made of a rubbery plastic, as they always were. She saw now that the plates went all the way up its back, from the very tip of the tail to where its head began.
She held the toy dinosaur by the tail, stared into its face. It looked almost human, she thought. She recognized it from the picture books. Lea furrowed her brow in concentration.
“Stegosaurus,” he said. “That’s right.”
“Stegosaurus,” she said, her grin growing wider. “Look, Mom!” She waved the dinosaur at her mother by the tail. In spite of herself, Lea’s mother began to smile.
“Look at that, honey,” she said. “How about you take that upstairs and start getting ready for your bath?”
Lea nodded and slipped down from the chair.
She hesitated, turning her face up to her father. “Are you coming?”
That was how they always did it. Most days, her mother would bathe her, but whenever she got a new dinosaur, she knew that her father would do it, humming the familiar bath-time song as he always did. As he shampooed her hair, he’d tell her funny stories about the plastic dinosaurs lined up against the white bathroom tile. Stories about the tyrannosaurus rex, who wanted nothing more than to be able to clap his hands, or the pterodactyl, who used his wings as sails when he learned to windsurf. Lea wondered what the stegosaurus’s story was.
He looked up at Lea’s mother, something passing between them that she couldn’t read. For a moment Lea felt her mood teetering—if he said no, she knew it would all come crashing down. She knew she would do it again, her mother would be angry again, they would fight. It would be her fault.
But then he gave her a smile that showed his gums and hid his eyes. “Of course,” he said. “Why don’t you go ahead? I’ll be up soon.”
A crash of happiness. Lea grinned back and bounded up the stairs, dinosaur in hand.
Excerpted from SUICIDE CLUB: A Novel About Living by Rachel Heng. Published by Henry Holt and Company, July 10th 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Qingpei Rachel Heng. All rights reserved.