It was on the day of Ari’s eleventh birthday that Graemoreax, precambrian archkthonios, Bearer of The Uncounted Toothless Maws That Snap At the Black Dawn, decided to devour the four universes. Even before she had any hint of this, Ari didn’t expect much from her birthday. She hadn’t had a birthday with any magic to it since Uncle Jacob Went To the Stars.
The term was his. Ari first heard it right after Grandma Cecily passed away. No one would tell her what happened. Grandpa just got silent and grumpy. Daddy said Grandma Cecily went on a long trip. Madre gave Ari one of those mysterious artist smiles and said, “She’s sleeping, darling. She’s gone for a long rest and she won’t wake up. Not in this place.”
Frustrated, Ari marched over to Uncle Jacob’s room in the hotel where they were all staying and pounded on the door. He answered and smiled down at her and said, “Hi, munchkin. What’s up?”
“Uncle Jacob, what happened to Grandma Cecily? No one will tell me.”
He bent down and took her by the hand, then walked her over to the wall made of windows. He looked out into the pinpricked blackness and said, “She Went To the Stars.”
“Yes,” Ari said, scrunching up her face, “But what does that mean?”
“It means she died,” said Jacob. “Do you know what that means? Died?”
“Yes,” said Ari. She was five years old. Of course she knew about died. Nevertheless, she got an uncomfortable feeling in her chest, like a damp washcloth was pressed over her nose and mouth and she couldn’t breath quite right. “So, why don’t people just say she…died?”
“Folks don’t like to say that,” said Uncle Jacob. “Especially to little kids. So we find other ways.”
“Well, munchkin, no one really knows what happens to a body after she dies. But none of us can accept that. Some people can’t expect that so much that they tell themselves they know, for absolutely sure. But no one does. So we tell stories. I like to look up in the night and tell myself she’s up there,” he waved his hand at the softly shimmering sky.
“Because it makes it less sad?” asked Ari.
Uncle Jacob shook his head. “My mother is gone. It’s always going to be sad. This way it can, just maybe, also be a little bit beautiful.”
It was “Went to the Stars” after that, for the two of them. Uncle Jacob was never around much, but every time was special. One day she walked out of school to find him waiting for her outside, ready to take her to a private exhibition of African masks displayed in the personal basement gallery of an exiled Swaziland prince. Another time he woke her up in her bed at 11 PM to drive her down to the beach to a secret ice cream shop that was only open at midnight, and that made flavors of ice cream Ari had never heard of before.
Ari used to wish that Uncle Jacob could be around all the time, so that they could constantly share these adventures. Then one day it occurred to her that, like diamonds, they sparkled all the brighter for their rarity. She didn’t really understand the word “maturity.” Not in a sophisticated way. But she knew without being able to describe how that this appreciation for the sporadic nature of Uncle Jacob’s visit was a sign of growing up. She never knew when he was going to show up. It could be any day at all.
Except one. One day a year he was always there, and nothing would ever stop him. She didn’t realize quite why her birthday was her favorite day of the year until Uncle Jacob Went to the Stars himself, a few years after Grandma Cecily. There was no more magic to that day. Not anymore.
There were parties, of course. Fully of chatty people and grilled foods and a painted man doing terrible things to perfectly innocent balloons. Daddy made sure of that. Every year he made calls to the parents of all of the local children to make sure that they would RSVP to the invitations they received in the mail, designed by his firm’s graphic designer.
The result was a shindig full of strange kids with strange interests who didn’t always know Ari by name. It was like those teenager parties in movies where the heroine’s house is full of people dancing and drinking beer and knocking over her mom’s Tiffany vase, and at some point someone says, “Dude, great party. Whose house is this?” Of course it wasn’t really like that. Not in specific. There were a lot fewer teenagers. But Ari thought that in that magical realm where there are only 8 or so different types of parties and all earthly parties are pale manifestations of those, it was pretty much the same.
This year’s party was sure to be particularly odious. It might be the first year where no one at all knew her name. Ari’s whole family had just moved to a new town a few months ago. They used to live in Summerfax. Now they lived in Blarn. It was actually called Blarn, a fact whose significance Ari couldn’t seem to fully impress upon her parents no matter how many times she brought it up. Blarn. It was like someone took blandness and a barn and smooshed them together, only they left out the good bits.
Ari realized intellectually that Blarn probably did have good bits. Everything had good bits. Even barns had good bits. But she hadn’t found them. Besides, she was hadn’t wanted to move and was eleven years old, so if she wanted to ignore Blarn’s tiny hidden good bits, well, she would just go ahead and do that. Besides, even if it did have good bits, it wasn’t Summerfax.
Summerfax, where she could smell two different bakeries from her house early in the morning. If she walked down the tiny street behind Carraway’s Pastries on the way to school Mr. Carraway would come out and give her a freshly baked hazelnut chocolate brioche for “his little princess.” Every time Ari wanted to tell him he was confused, and that she had neither the right to nor the desire for a title of hereditary monarchy. But she didn’t. Let the sweet old man have his dreams.
In Blarn, instead of bakeries they had three different fast spicy chicken sandwiches within two blocks of her front door. None of which tasted much like chicken, and all of which were served by a different teenager every time they went there, none of whom had any interest in giving anything to little girls, princess or otherwise.
Summerfax was a place where the old grass field next to the cemetery might secretly be a beach, lapped by the waves of an hidden ocean Ari could almost hear, if she closed her eyes tightly enough. Blarn had no such places. It had a lot of parking lots.
Plus, all of her friends were in Summerfax. Daddy and madre, in classic parent fashion, didn’t seem to care at all that in moving they took Ari away from the people she loved. There was Hobdob, the grass gremlin who lived in the tall weedy lot behind their backyard. And Lulu, the reluctant heir to the throne of the earthworms who had run a way from her royal destiny to open up her own hotel chain. And Sinifi, the first of the nightingales, who had sung herself into being out of her own beautiful song. She tried to tell daddy about how much she would miss these friends of hers, and how she was sure she would find no one like them in Blarn.
“Dear,” he finally said to her after the one millionth time she talked about her friends, “you realize that these friends of yours, Hobnob and the others…”
“Hobdob,” Ari corrected.
“Yeah,” daddy said, “you realize they’re not real, right? You know that, don’t you Ari? That they’re not real.”
“Yes, daddy,” she said. “I know that.”
He seemed satisfied, but Ari wast confused. What kind of question was that? Of course Hobdob and Lulu and Sinifi weren’t real. Not if real meant the kind of things you see with your eyes made of jelly, and taste with your tongue that gets burned if you eat your pizza too fast and you have to wait for it to get better before you can taste anything again. But just because they weren’t real didn’t mean they didn’t exist. It didn’t mean they weren’t her friends, or that she would miss them even one drop less for it.
Ari had been in her new school for almost two months by the time the day of her birthday arrived. Two whole months without anyone to talk to. Daddy always told her that he was always there if she wanted to talk about something, but he didn’t listen. Madre used to be wonderful to talk to about her friends and the stars and everything. But that was a long time ago. She was different, now.
Ari hadn’t made any new friends. As she feared, Blarn’s chicken joints and copious parking lots were frustratingly free of Hobdobs. School wasn’t much better. There was a girl who she ate lunch with most of the time, Wendy. Wendy liked comic books and field hockey, and hated the fact that she had such a dull name as Wendy. They spent their lunchtimes discussing theories about Steven Universe, and what kind of superpowers they hoped to get if they every were ever exposed to magic rays or radioactive molecules. But they never saw each other outside of school. And she wasn’t coming to the party. Ari had checked the guest list. She didn’t know if Wendy wasn’t invited or if she just hadn’t RSVP’d, but it didn’t matter.
In addition to Wendy, there was a boy at school that Ari found…interesting. His name was Stefan. He was always getting in trouble for doodling on his textbooks and talking in class. He seemed to say absolutely everything that came into his head, whether it was a good idea or not, and it almost always made Ari laugh. He was coming to the party. But that didn’t matter either. They had never really even talked, except for the day that Ari was asked by Mrs. Mithers to pass out the protractors.
“Is there a sparkly one?” Stefan asked as Ari approached his desk with her box.
“A sparkly one,” said Stefan. “A sparkly protractor. If there’s a sparkly one I want it.”
“A sparkly one?” asked Ari. “Why do you want a sparkly one?”
“So I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.”
“Wonder Woman has a sparkly protractor?”
“Duh!” said Stefan. “Would you think Wonder Woman would have a boring one? Like brown or something?”
Ari giggled. Stefan grinned, and she saw that his teeth were very white. They shone against his dark skin. His parents must care a lot about dental hygiene.
She searched for the box. Nothing in it sparkled. She pulled out a periwinkle-blue protracter and placed it on his desk.
“This isn’t sparkly!” he protested.
“Look closer,” she said. “It sparkles on the inside.” He grinned again, and she walked away, trying to tuck her smile back inside of her so no one else could see.
But that was it. They hadn’t talked since then. He didn’t catch her eye when arrived in the playground before school in the morning and scanned the yard looking for his friends. Every day she tried to catch his eye. She never did. They shared a single moment over a protractor, and that was all it was, for him. He didn’t know she was there, otherwise. He didn’t know she was real.
“I’m not real,” she said to herself as she she stood in the foyer in her new dress, waiting to greet the first guests to her 11th birthday party and offer to take their coats. “I’m not real. Just like poor old Hobdob.”
“What was that, dear?” said her father as he walked by with a tray of canapes.
What Ari didn’t know was that she had a lot more with old Hobdob than she realized. She also did not know that at that moment, Graemoreax, precambrian archkthonios, Bearer of The Uncounted Toothless Maws That Snap At the Black Dawn, was rising up to devour the four universes. Those two facts were about to collide into each other, and when they did…this was going to be a rather different sort of birthday.