Allison swayed her hips from side to side in front of the Barnes’ bedroom mirror, admiring Angela’s handiwork: a mottled sundress in pale greens and pinks.
“Well,” said Mrs Barnes, standing behind the girl with her arms folded. She was wearing the green suit and hat she’d worn for the Catalpa invite. Old church clothes. “What do you think?”
Allison knew Arnold’s mother was trying hard to make the question sound neutral. The woman was very proud of her sewing, and hid it badly.
“It’s nice!” the girl answered earnestly with a twirl. “You didn’t have to make me a new dress, though. My costume’s comfy.”
“Allison, you wear that costume of yours all day, everyday. You could at least let me wash it.”
“Doesn’t need it. It eats sweat and stuff.”
Angela suppressed a shudder. That should’ve been reason enough for her to burn the ghastly thing1. “It’s your special day, you should look special.”
“But I can make my costume look like whatever I want. You could’ve just shown me a picture.”
Mrs Barnes let out a sigh. How to explain this to a child. “Allison… I just wanted to make you something. Something you could use. A birthday present.”
Allison blinked. “Oh, I getcha… so I’m not getting another present?”
A smile like a lightning flash flickered across Angela’s lips. Sometimes, she understood completely why her son liked this girl.
Angela’s reserve reasserted itself. “Now, let’s get that hair brushed.” She picked up a brush from her chest of drawers and started running it through Allison’s chestnut hair.
The child winced as Mrs Barnes yanked her head to the side. It was clear to Allison the only girl whose hair Angela had brushed in recent decades was the woman herself.
“Do we have to?”
“The whole town’s coming to this party for you. You owe it to them to look your best.”
Allison resigned herself to grumbling. At least ten was apparently the cut-off date for being allowed to wash your hair yourself. Or turn into mist and back in the shower and say you washed it.
Mrs Barnes at least soon settled into a steady groove with the brush, leaving Allison to look in the mirror and think.
I’m surprised you still have a reflection.
“Allison, it’s not nice to frown on your birthday.”
“Alberto said something lousy.”
“Ah. Well, ignore him. Doesn’t sound like he ever says much worth listening to.”
Angela wished she had better advice for Allison. Or a solution. As it was, she barely comprehended the girl’s condition. The closest comparisons she could think of were what little she’d heard of schizophrenics, which felt insulting, and Legion from the Gospels, which made her feel like a superstitious fool. And Miri seemed like a nice little girl.
Mr. Moretti, on the other hand…
Allison meanwhile found herself wondering what her party would’ve been like if she’d never left Harvey. They probably would’ve gone to the dam again. Her parents would’ve made her invite Jesse Perks, even though she was a complete cow who deserved to be covered in glue. Her mother might’ve taken her up to Perth to pick out something nice.
And what about after? Did anything change when you were ten? Allison had a vague idea she’d be expected to dress more like a grownup. Maybe order from the grown-up menu. Probably have to wear bathers more. Stop running through the sprinklers.
She wouldn’t know the other Watercolours. Miri wouldn’t even exist. That stung.
And why did it have to be a choice? Why weren’t her parents here? They picked people up from Perth every month! She’d even made them do a pick up in Bunbury once, just for them. Bunbury. She’d made it so easy for them to be together.
“Before we came here, you saw my parents around, right?”
“Yes…” Angela answered warily.
“…Did they miss me?”
Angela didn’t answer for a moment, trying to puzzle out what Allison wanted to hear. Did she want to think her parents were okay? Or did she need to know she was wanted?
Honesty. That was the Christian thing to do.
“Dearly. I don’t know how they got out of bed.”
“Then why aren’t they here?”
Angela was prepared to offer a number of weak excuses for the elder Kinseys. Her father’s job. Their house. What their neighbours or Mr. Kinsey’s family would think.
Again, the Christian thing.
“I don’t know, Allie. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know.”
It would’ve been easier if Allison had cried. There were rote responses to that, programmed into every mother worth her salt.
Instead, the little girl only nodded. “Not your fault.”
What could Angela say to that? It wasn’t right that her parents weren’t here, but she didn’t know their hearts. Not really.
Why are you making me do your job?
To Angela’s quiet relief, her son flung the bedroom door open:
“Well,” said Angela, “can’t keep the other special guest waiting.”
David was waiting outside the Barnes’ house, impatiently tapping his foot on the dusty ground. Hundreds of overlapping conversations underscored by music and clinking glasses were pouring out of an egg-portal behind him.
“Come on, come on!” he whined as the family filed out the door. “The party’s starting!”
Mrs Barnes stopped pushing her husband’s wheelchair and looked around the street. She looked down at her son. “Arnold, I thought you said David was waiting for us,” she said very evenly.
David tilted his head. “I’m right here.”
Angela made another show of searching for David. “Can you see him anywhere, Fred?”
Fred Barnes gave David a cruel smile. “Fraid not, wife.”
Angela folded her arms and looked right at David. “Strange, his costume is so distinctive.”
David looked down at his bare body. Allison and Arnold both stifled giggles as he balled his fists and fumed:
A flash of light dressed David.
Angela blinked. “Ah, there you are David. Happy birthday.”
“Thank you, Mrs Barnes,” David replied through grit teeth.
Arnold smiled playfully. “Happy birthday, Dave.”
David’s face brightened. “Hey Arn.” He turned his attention to Allison. “Hey birthday-partner!”
Allison laughed. “Hey David.”
David pecked Allison and Arnold on the cheek in turn. They kissed him back.
Almost too quick to be seen, the water-sprite shot Arnold’s mother a very satisfied smile.
Well, he is French…
“Let’s not hold up the party…”
As the guests of honour, David and Allison stepped through the portal first. They came out into the canteen in Freedom Point, done up in theatre curtains and mood lighting like a senior school social. Someone had even hung up a mirror-ball.
A crowd of hundreds swarmed the pair. Dozens of variations on “Happy birthday!” buzzed like a beehive. The children got so many pats on the back, it bordered on a beating.
Allison hunched her shoulders and smiled bracingly against the onslaught. David meanwhile was waving and blowing kisses:
“Mwha! Mwha! Thank you, I love you all!”
Allison stifled a laugh. Where was this David at Parliament House?
A foghorn blared, parting the crowd like a spear-thrust. Mistress Quickly and her young assistant Doc Danny2 marched up to the pair in matching hot pink lab-blazers.
Maude Simmons nodded to the kids in turn. “David, Allison.”
Doc Danny nudged her lightly.
“Oh right, happy birthday.”
“Hi Quickly,” said Allison. “Nice party.”
Danny scoffed. “This?” He gestured about at the decorations. “This isn’t the party.”
David tilted his head. “Then where are we?”
Maude enthused, “The vestibule.” She took Allison’s hand and pulled the girl behind her. “Come on, we’ll show you.”
Allison didn’t resist. Mostly she tried to keep from sliding on her heels. She shot a glance back at David, who shrugged and grabbed her hand in turn, forming a chain. They passed a well-stocked snack table, as well one ladden with rainbow and green-blue wrapped presents. Allison and David slowed to admire their haul, only for Maude to insistently yank them past.
The centrepiece of the room was a topaz statue of David, standing triumphantly atop a milky jade crocodile lying on its back. It would’ve been positively Grecian, if it weren’t for the topaz David’s broad, pearly grin.
Allison glanced at her friend. “You do that?”
He grinned proudly. “Yep. Well, Billy helped, but it was my idea.”
At the back of the canteen was a rosette of twelve egg-portals, each floating under rustic wooden signs hanging from lengths of fishing line:
Mistress Quickly spread her arms. “Behold, the world’s first intercontinental birthday party3!”
Allison blinked. “Intercontinental?”
Maude pointed at the portal under the “WATERCOLOUR ISLAND” sign. “Take a peek through that one.”
David and Allison poked their heads through the pocket of interpolated space. They found themselves looking out on a familiar stretch of white-sanded beach. Kids splashed and played in sapphire waters. A woman with a mane of purple amethysts carved from bleached concrete was sunning herself on a deckchair. Ralph Rivers waved at the birthday children from the barbecue he was manning. Jungle bordered the edges of their vision.
David grinned at Allison. “It’s our island!”
“Yep,” said Doc Danny, looking very impressed with himself. “We got the cords from Arnold’s magic atlas thing.”
Allison glanced back at Danny. “The ‘cords’?”
Danny folded his arms. “It means ‘coordinates’.”
“I know! It’s just…” She laughed. “The cords…”
“Check out another one,” suggested Maude.
The children took her advice, picking “THE SLOPES”. They stepped out onto white, powdery snow. The ground sloped at their feet. Ant-people skied far below them with varying grace. Snowflakes settled and melted in their hair.
Thousands of miles away right behind them, Mistress Quickly spoke, “You are currently standing in a suitably anonymous stretch of mountain range in northern Montana. It’s no Aspen, but the tourists haven’t found it yet, so swings and roundabouts…”
David smiled wryly at Allison. “I guess it’s good Mrs Barnes made you that dress. Otherwise you’d be invisible here…”
Allison grinned toothily. The red glow of her eyes flashed white just long enough for a wave of snow to rise and fall on top of David.
The girl ran laughing back into the canteen, a volley of snowballs hurtling through the portal after her. One of them struck Doc hard in the face:
“Harden up,” said Maude.
Allison caught sight of the portal labelled “FANTASTIC PLANET.” It looked like the night sky had laid an egg.
Why didn’t I look at that one first?
She charged through the portal, only for her feet to meet thin air. Allison tumbled through the black, planets and stars flitting past her.
She bounced against something unseen and spongy. As she rose, she saw Lily Nichols—wearing a body formed out of silvery gallium—ricochet off a red ringed gas giant.
“Happy birthday Allie!” she called as she sailed past Allison.
Either Lily was very big right now, or that planet was incredibly small.
Allison’s upwards momentum died. She started plummeting back into infinity. Curious, the girl angled herself towards an orange wormhole.
It sucked Allison into a twisty, gravity defying fibreglass tunnel, depositing her in the air above the egg portal.
Allison hurtled spinning back into the canteen, landing on her feet to some small applause.
“Where the heck was that?” Allison asked Maude.
“We fixed the juvenile wing,” answered Doc Danny. “Burned that freaking clown out of the code, first.”
“I’m afraid the other planners nixed any real offworld venues,” said Mistress Quickly.
A dimly lit portal labelled “GROWN-UPS ONLY” forcefully ejected David.
“People in there don’t have to wear clothes inside…” he grumbled.
Maude Simmons launched into a speech. “This is just the beginning.” She gestured around at the portals. “Why should a superhuman city’s border be dictated by geography? Like it’s the bloody Dark Ages and ‘mass-transport’ just means a really strong mule! We can make a city that spans continents! Whole worlds—”
“Um, Mistress,” interjected Doc Danny, “they’re gone.”
Maude looked about. Allison and David had in fact departed into the depths of the party.
“Bloody kids. We’re wasted on them.”
Doc Danny was looking pleadingly up at his mentor.
Mistress Quickly sighed. “Yes, Danny, you can go play.”
Doc whooped and leapt into the beach portal.
David and Allison romped across the entire planet. They ran through fields of yellow wildflowers at the bottom of Australia. They wrestled dolphins. They surfed avalanches and battled through space.
They were playing off their old beach when the party started going peculiar. David’s grandfather had turned up. Now him and David were riding on the shoulders of an icy giant while dozens of kids tried to fell it4.
Allison and a few of Catalpa’s other flyers weaved and dived around the ice-giant’s swinging glacial fists. Honestly, apart from the one girl who could make it rain steel droplets, they weren’t accomplishing much, at least not next to the children chipping away at the giant’s feet.
Allison was trying to melt a tunnel into the giant’s side when she heard a familiar song. Well, it wasn’t so much the song itself that was familiar. It shifted too constantly for that.
Allison cleaved from the giant and looked in the direction of the inconsistent music.
Far below, almost around the other side of the island, two children were playing alone in the water.
Allison focused her more-than-human eyes. One of the children was a faintly blue-skinned boy, wearing nothing besides a white, wide-brimmed hat rimmed with tiny roses. The other was an Arab girl in a sailor outfit, long white trousers pulled up around her knees. Her hair was striped, blonde and brunette.
A memory from what Allison thought was long ago stirred in her. Another party being thrown for her. Those children, standing on the other side of the river…
She swooped down into the sea, splashing down in front of the two children. “Okay, who the heck are you?”
The pair paused in their frolics. The blue boy looked at Allison and said, “…Uh, hi. I’m Sky.”
The girl gave a small wave and smiled. “I’m Eve.”
Their accents were odd. Slightly Australian, but put through some sort of strainer. A bit like David’s, actually.
Sky pointed a finger at Allie. “You’re Allison Kinsey, aren’t you?”
“Duh! It’s my bloody birthday party!”
Eve’s eyes widened. “Really? How old are you?”
“Ten! What are you doing here?”
Sky sucked his lips. “Um, we just moved here.”
Allison put her hands on her hips. “This is my town. I meet everyone. No you didn’t.” She frowned and leaned forward. “And I saw you two at the Institute. Why are you following me?”
“We’re not!” insisted Sky. “It’s someone else!”
Eve glared at his companion. “Don’t tell her that!” She pulled him around and into a huddle.
“…Told you she wouldn’t be here.”
“But I can feel her…”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Allison pried the two apart. “Don’t go whispering when I’m asking you something.”
Red blood showed under Sky’s blue cheeks. He blushed rectangles.
Allison’s eyebrows knit. “Are you from Enlil?”
“Ah, we gotta go,” said Sky, smiling a bit shakily.
“Have a good birthday!” said Eve.
“And look out for the witch!” Sky added.
“Don’t tell her about the witch!”
The two flickered lime green and vanished.
Allison growled and stamped her foot in the ocean.
There was a splash behind the girl. Allison turned around to find a glowing Louise standing next to a happily shaken looking Billy. The girl was naked, but Billy’s costume had turned into a shockingly old-fashioned, blue and white striped bathing suit. He even had a little boater hat.
“Happy birthday Allie!” cried Billy.
“Thanks Billy,” said Allison.
She looked at Louise. The girl was shaking with ecstatic energy. Like standing still was physically painful, but she was too happy to care.
Allison smiled. “Hey Miri.”
“Hey Allie!” With viper quickness, Miri pulled Allison into a bear hug. “Gosh, Louise has a fun body!” She let go of Allison and plunged her fist into the ocean, pulling it out clad in a shiny second skin. “Ice-glove!”
Allison giggled. “Yeah, it’s neat.”
“You felt really cross a sec ago. What’s wrong?”
Allison shook her head. “Weirdos I don’t know were here.”
Billy asked, “Like when David’s granddad brought that fire-girl to play?”
Allison shook her head. “I saw them before. At the Institute.”
“Huh,” said Miri. “They gone now?”
“Yeah,” answered Allison.
Miri kicked the water, making it steam. “I could’ve played with them!”
Allison laughed. People were too good for her sister.
There was a sound like a mountain being cut down. Children cheered around the ice-giant’s carcass.
David exploded out of the water between Miri and Allison, causing both girls to stumble backwards. “Allie! You missed the best part!”
Miri frowned. “I really don’t get why Louise likes you.”
Allison smiled. “She’s not lending you her body again.”
Eventually, people from the four corners of the party gathered around the birthday cake: a fifteen-foot monster in the shape of Freedom Point. Four hundred odd voices sung “Happy Birthday.” Allison and David cut the cake with sharpened fingers of ice, and extinguished the ten candles with floating water-droplets.
“I don’t think that’s how you get a birthday wish,” commented Arnold.
Allison shrugged and smiled. “I don’t need em’.”
That was a lie, of course. Allison had at least two wishes.
After that, it was time to unwrap the presents. There were less than you might’ve thought. It wasn’t as though people tended to come to Catalpa with much. Mostly, David and Allison received trinkets. Handicrafts. Old bank notes. Pretty much every one of David’s presents included shorts or shirts:
Fred Barnes got Allison a book on origami:
“How’d you know I don’t know how to do that?”
Fred smiled crookedly. “Because I’ve seen you doing it, girl.”
Despite some very politely worded discouragement, Ocean himself had brought a present for his grandson: a dead false killer whale.
He dropped the dead, unmarred dolphin wet and dripping in front of David.
“Eat this and grow strong, my child.”
David looked at Arnold’s mother. “Can you cut up dolphins, Mrs Barnes?”
Angela hissed through her teeth. “I can try…”
Mabel gave her gifts last. They were both very flat and square.
Arnold wrinkled his nose. “You said you weren’t getting them anything!”
Mabel poked her tongue at Arnold. “Yeah, because you’d try to say one of them was yours.”
Allison unwrapped hers first. It was a painting of her clad in knightly armour in front of Freedom Point, holding aloft a gleaming sword while a divine spotlight shone down on her.
Allison smiled and nodded appreciatively. “Nice.”
Now gripped by suspense, David ripped the wrapping of his present, only to blink when he saw what Mabel had painted him.
David and his mother sported and swam together through a green-blue ocean. Françoise was clearly laughing, holding her son’s ankle as he chased after silver fish.
Mabel watched David stare at her painting, suddenly wondering if she should’ve waited till they weren’t in front of the entire town. “Ah, sorry if that’s—”
David hugged her. “Thank you.”
“…It was nothing.”
Sarah Allworth put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Do you want us to hang it in my house. It’s very nice.”
David nodded. “That’d be nice.” He beckoned over the Ocean Beast. “Hey, Grandpa, come and look at this. It’s Mum!”
The crowd parted hurried as Grandfather Ocean misted through them, rematerializing at his grandson’s side. His dead, grey face lit with wonder at the sight of the painting. He looked at Mabel. “How did you… create my child again?”
Mabel shrugged. “I knew her a long time, sir.”
Mabel didn’t know David’s grandfather knew that phrase.
David gently set the painting on the present table and clapped. “Cake. I want cake now.”
The party soon resumed, albeit with a more languid, cake-battened energy. Lily Nichols offered up her body to Miri, who promptly possessed a bowl of raspberry jelly. It was widely agreed to be a worthy sacrifice.
Fantastic Space had transitioned to a bouncy, rose-tinted skyscape, which played host to a game of hide and seek. Allison was hiding behind a cumulonimbus cloud when Arnold crept up to Allison in his costume. He was carrying a cardboard box.
Allison jerked. “Jeez, Arn, don’t sneak up on people dressed like that. You look like the Grim Reaper.”
Arnold smirked. “Okay, now I’m definitely going to do that.”
Allison pointed at the box. “What’s that?”
“Oh, yeah. So, I did getcha something. I just didn’t want to give it to you in front of everyone.” Arnold offered her the box. “Here.”
Alison took the box and looked inside. It contained two stuffed animals, and she recognized both of them. One of them was a grey rabbit called Mr. Wuzzler, the other a yellow bear called Miss Fluffers. The former had been a literal birthday present, given to her by her father the day she was born. The other was from the New Human Institute’s commonwealth of plush.
Allison found her eyes stinging with tears.
“I know we’re ten now and they’re for little kids, but I thought you’d… yeah.”
Allison looked up at Arnold. “How’d you get them?”
“Blancheflor helped. Miss Fluffers was in a plastic bag in some weird lab thing back at Circle’s End. Not sure what they thought a teddy bear was going to tell them about us…”
“But what about Mr. Wuzzler?”
Arnold stirred the clouds underfoot. “I um… I kinda snuck into your house. Your mum and dad haven’t changed your room at all.”
Allison stared at her friend. “You snuck into my house?”
Arnold threw his hands up. “I didn’t sneak. Blancheflor just teleported me in. I promise they didn’t see me. Your dad was at work at thing, and your mum was asleep—”
Allison shouted, “You saw my mum and didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t want to spoil the surprise…”
“Who cares about the surprise?”
Billy appeared from around the crowd. “Found you!”
Allison turned on the tiger-boy and screamed, “Buzz-off!, Billy”
Billy jumped backwards and stammered, “I—I—sorry…”
Billy ran off, breaking into tears just on the edge of earshot.
Arnold scowled. “Now look what you did—”
Allison turned around and took to the air. “Go steal more of my parents’ stuff.”
She flew back out into the canteen and through the ski-portal, up into the frigid grey clouds.
Allison let the cold winds buffet her across the sky, clutching the box to her chest.
The girl wasn’t sure why she was so angry. It wasn’t like Arnold had been trying to hurt her, or her parents. He hadn’t broken anything. But she kept imagining her mother or father walking into her room, and seeing her oldest toy missing…
But if they cared so bad about her stuffed rabbit so bad, if they missed Allison so much, then why weren’t they here yet?
Oh, for Christ’s sake, Alberto said from some locked down corner of her mind. You know exactly why.
Alberto screwed her eyes shut, trying to ignore Alberto and her own thoughts. She focused on the cold, and the wind, and—
There was a note in the air. A note of living music. Not a whole song. It was to a song what a candle flame was to a forest fire. But it came from everywhere, like the background din of the universe.
Curious, and desperate for distraction, Allison grabbed onto the note—
For the first time in Allison’s life, she saw the clouds for what they were. A vast, interconnected sphere dancing above the world. She could sense where it opened, where it wept. She could see the intermolecular bonds and ionic forces that made up every drop of water…
Twin ruby beams erupted from Allison’s eyes, blasting into a bank of clouds and scattering it like feathers.
Allison forced the note out of her own song, breathing heavily.
The music was gone. The sky was empty.
So were hands.
Allison looked down. The box and the stuffed toys were falling through the sky.
Allison squeaked and dived, just managing to intercept the teddy-bear and rabbit. She found herself clinging to them for dear life.
Not for the first time that night, Allison was confused. She also knew being stupid.
Arnold was talking to David at the snack table.
“…It was so weird! I know she likes that stupid rabbit. She brought it on sleepovers.”
David shrugged, sucking some lemon cordial through a straw. “Yeah, Allie can be crazy sometimes.”
Arnold narrowed his eyes at his friend. “You actually going to eat that dolphin for your birthday?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I.”
Someone hugged him from behind.
“I’m sorry,” said Allison. “It was a good present.”
“I know,” was all Arnold said.
It was a good birthday.
1. Not that that would’ve worked.↩
2. It would be some years before Daniel O’Connor shook his original supernym. In later years, he’d sometimes be known as Doctor Dream. ↩
3. Aside from Joseph Allworth’s twenty-first. ↩
4. This game would come to be called “Giants and Jacks.” ↩