You would think that having your birthday after your little sister’s would be an advantage: you could see what her party was like, what presents she got, how fancy her cake was and make sure the things that you asked for were more awesome. But that wasn’t the way with my parents. By the time my sister’s whole birthday business was over, they were too tired to do anything special for mine. It took me a couple of years to figure this out, and work out how to use it to my advantage. I determined that for my ninth birthday, I would definitely get what I wanted, and I would make sure my parents knew what it was before my sister’s birthday.
I approached my mother in the kitchen one morning, a month before birthday season. “I decided what I want this year, Mom,” I told her.
“Honey,” she said as she reached for the coffee pot, her tone telling me I should have waited until after school to start on the topic, “Isn’t it a little early to be putting together your Christmas list?” I glanced at the calendar, which had been covered in heart stickers by my little sister, so many that they crowded out and almost obliterated the word “February.”
“No, I mean for my birthday,” I said, fiddling with the salt shaker.
She sipped on her coffee and gave the calendar and I a significant look, but didn’t say anything, which I took to mean, “this conversation is still a bit premature, but I’m listening.”
“I want a tree house.” I stopped to take a deep breath and went on as fast as I could before she could interrupt: “I’ll build it myself, and if Dad can find the time he can help me, but if not I just need some wood and nails and stuff and I’ll do everything!”
I watched her expectantly and breathed a sigh of relief when she nodded. I knew well that a nod was not a yes, but that it also wasn’t a no. “I’ll speak to your father and we’ll see what he thinks.”
A solid maybe! Progress. “I’d also like…” I began hesitantly, wondering if I was pushing my luck, “to have a sleepover. Just Jamie and Chris and maybe a couple of other girls. Nothing huge or fancy, and you don’t have to get a cake, or decorate, or anything. Just pizza and a movie and sleeping bags on the living room floor.” I wisely left off an unnecessary “plllleeeeeease?!” which I knew would not help my case.
This time she stared at me over the top of her coffee cup. What? I’d been doing my chores, sometimes without being asked, for the past week and a half. I didn’t think a small party of my friends would cause that much fuss, especially since I was getting the idea in so early instead of springing it on them a week in advance like I had last year.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to do that,” she said finally. My face must have spoken the question, because even though I didn’t ask, my mother continued as though I had. “Because I’ve already spoken to some of the other moms from Sofie’s kindergarten class, and it’d be a letdown to quite a few people if she didn’t get to have the sleepover she wants for her birthday. She asked me about it at Thanksgiving.”
I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t even thinking about how lame an excuse she was giving me, about how troublesome it would be to have to have two sleepovers within five weeks of one another. I was thinking about how my parents wouldn’t let me go to my best friend’s seventh birthday sleepover. I’d had to go home with my dad at 8 pm while the rest of my friends changed into their pajamas and sat down to listen to Jamie’s older brother tell them ghost stories. They hadn’t even let me sleep over at a friend’s house until just before my eighth birthday. And my sister was just turning six.
It wasn’t fair.
Jamie wasn’t the best to ask for advice in a sibling situation, since she was a little sister, but she was a pretty good listener, so I poured out my woes to her on the bus.
“Well?” she asked when I was finished. “What happened? Did you just leave and let your sister win? You can’t do that in a negotiation! You should have held out for, like, a night at the museum or a hot air balloon ride or… or at least a party at the skating rink.”
“You’re right!” I declared. I patted her on the shoulder. She could always make me feel better. “My parents don’t like to have a lot of parties at our house, so I could probably talk them into the skating rink thing. And I’d be able to invite a lot more people that way, too.”
“That means more presents,” Jamie pointed out with a grin.
As the bus pulled up at the school and we filed off, Jamie and I stopped to watch my sister skipping off to her class with three of her friends.
“It’s not enough,” Jamie said.
“The skating rink is cool, but a sleepover is better. You deserve more compensation. Ask your parents if you can spend the night at my house instead of having to stay home and witness your sister’s party. It’s a fair compromise.”
I smiled. “You’re the best."
Even though my parents agreed to the party at the skating rink and my long guest list and to allowing me to sleep over at Jamie’s the night of Sofie’s party, I was still upset that an idea I had for my birthday party last year was stolen my by sister for hers this year. I tried not to blame her, asked my mom if I could have a slumber party for my tenth birthday (she said, “we’ll see”!), and looked forward to having a good time sleeping over at Jamie’s. It was hard to watch my parents buy tons of decorations and princess hats for my sister’s party, and listen to her daily demands for “a castle, Daddy, I want a castle!!” But I felt better when I saw my dad come home one evening with a trunkload of lumber and cart it into the backyard. Even if I wasn’t going to have an awesome party, at least I’d get my tree house!
About a week before my sister’s party, my mom took the two of us to visit her parents for the weekend. Dad stayed home, saying he had to work on some stuff. My grandparents lavished my sister with gifts and gave me a huge package of those glow stick necklaces for my guests to use at my party. When I told my Grandpa thank you and gave him a hug, he winked at me, and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll send your real present in the mail so it gets to you just in time for your party!”
I smiled the whole car ride home. This wasn’t so bad. Sure, my sister wouldn’t shut up about what she’d received from our grandparents, but soon it would be my turn to get all the presents, starting with my tree house. I thought about the perfect spot for it in the tree, how many different levels I’d build, and how I was going to make a big sign that said “NO LITTLE SISTERS ALLOWED.”
When we got home, my dad was waiting for us in the driveway. It was getting dark, but we could see the smile on his face as he motioned for us to follow him into the back yard.
“Come on,” he said, “Want to see?” My little sister ran around the corner of the house and my dad followed her. My mom and I walked after them. By the time we got there, my sister was jumping around and squealing.
“A castle! Thank you, Daddy, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!” She leaped up to give my father a hug, and he picked her up and spun her around, laughing.
They spun out of the way and I saw it. It reminded me of one of those houses on stilts in the tropics, where they build them high enough to keep them out of the water, only it was a castle, with windows and battlements and one corner that jutted out for a tower. I couldn’t think of a reason that Sofie’s castle had to be two feet off the ground, or why it had to be built around a tree, until my mom said, “Happy birthday, girls,” and my dad said,
“What do you think of the tree house, Claire?”
I stared at it. My sister had asked for a castle, and I had asked for a tree house. Here was a blending of our wishes that seemed to be just for her and not for me at all. I’d said that he didn’t have to do any of the work if he was too busy. I’d promised that I would do it all! I didn’t want this! It wasn’t for me! It was for Sofie. The entire thing was all for her.
I swallowed. “It’s great, thanks,” I lied, and went inside so he wouldn’t see my tears.
It was really hard to watch my sister’s party guests run out into the backyard and up into “my” tree house when they arrived. I was watching them out of my bedroom window as I tossed some stuff into a bag, preparing to go to Jamie’s, while thinking about how much stuff I’d need to take with me if I decided to run away.
Jamie hadn’t been happy either, when I’d told her about the “tree house,” and she’d offered the most comforting solution out of all my friends. Before she and her mom came to pick me up, I’d ask my dad if there were any materials left over to build another tree house that could be mine, just mine.
I picked up my bag and went to wait for Jamie and her mom somewhere that I’d be out of the way of the party guests. As I went downstairs, I heard my mom talking to the parent of one of Sofie’s friends.
“About ten o’clock, or whenever you’re comfortable picking her up,” she was saying. “We’ll make a big batch of waffles for everyone in the morning, so you don’t have to worry about breakfast or anything.” Waffles? My favorite. “Oh, by the way,” she went on, “while I have you here, I wanted to ask you about next month. We’re having Claire’s birthday party at Cosmic Skating on 3rd Street, and Sof’ would love it if Mandy were able to come so that she’d have someone her age to skate with.”
I didn’t hear Mandy’s mom’s delighted response. I couldn’t. The bag on my shoulder plopped onto the stairs and tumbled slowly down to the bottom. I sat down and rested my face on the wall.
I asked for a slumber party. My sister got a slumber party. I asked for a tree house. My sister got a tree house. Now, with the “Sofie Birthday Season” about to end, she was going to get to have a friend come to my birthday party? Why didn’t my parents just give her all my presents while they were at it? Why invite my friends at all? Why not throw Sofie two birthday parties, since apparently everything I wanted in my whole life became hers?!
Someone knocked at the door. Mandy’s mom opened it, since she had finished her enchanting conversation with my mother, and Jamie came in as she left. “Hey, are you ready to go?” my friend asked me. I nodded numbly and Jamie grabbed my bag, and said something to my mom as we left. “Are you okay?” she said as we walked out to the car. I shook my head hard, wanting to tell her everything, but not in the car in front of her mom.
She looked concerned, but I said, “Later,” and she let the subject drop.
We stopped to pick up pizza for dinner on the way back to her house, and while her mom was inside paying for it, I managed to tell her what happened without crying.
“Messed up. That is so messed up!” she declared, making me feel twenty times better. “Don’t even think about it,” she advised me, “because I’ve got an awesome surprise for you. I was gonna save it until we got home, but I changed my mind. I’m gonna tell you now.” She took a breath and continued: “Well first, it’s not just me and you tonight. My mom let me invite Chris and Ondrea too, and Morgan is coming if her dad says it’s okay. The other thing is that my brother brought home an extra ice cream cake that his manager messed up on yesterday, so tonight can be like your slumber party, only we’re having it at my house.”
I hugged her like I had never hugged her before. “You. Are. The. BEST!” I said, squeezing her tighter with each word.
“I can’t breathe!” she squeaked, but when I let her go she was laughing.
It was a month before my birthday, but sleeping over at Jamie’s house that night was the best birthday party I’d ever had. We had movie-style popcorn in a red and white striped popcorn box, watched three movies that I’d never seen before, had my favorite kind of pizza from my favorite place, and Jamie’s brother cut us huge pieces of his ice cream cake. They put a candle on top of my piece and sang me “Happy Birthday.” It didn’t matter that there weren’t any presents. All that mattered was that I was finally getting what I wanted and I didn’t have to share any of it with my sister.
Later in the evening we were sitting in the den floor on top of all the couch cushions and listening to Jamie’s brother tell ghost stories. It was a little hard to pay attention because I kept expecting the doorbell to ring and my dad to walk in and tell me it was time to go home. After about ten minutes of silence from the front door, I decided to forget about it and go back to enjoying myself.
Jamie’s brother was telling a story about a witch who was jealous of a beautiful princess and wanted everything that she had. She cast a spell and sent the princess a nightmare, and everything in the nightmare came true. But the clever princess figured out how to change her nightmares, and dreamed that she told the king and that he dispensed justice upon the witch.
“A witch’s ghost is much more potent than a regular ghost,” he said as he held Ondrea’s gaze. She was trembling. She didn’t like ghost stories. “Few people live in the kingdom now,” he continued. “Those who do have bad dreams, and anyone who travels through it at night will, in the morning, find all their prized possessions…” he paused for dramatic effect, and then made a gesture with his arms as he shouted, “GONE.”
Ondrea screamed at the sudden volume of his tone, and Morgan, not ready for Ondrea to be startled, screamed as well. Chris, Jamie, and I laughed along with him, and as he stood up to leave, he remembered two years ago at Jamie’s party, when everyone had screamed and run away when he finished a story.
I must have looked sad as he left the room, because Jamie patted me on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, this party is way better than my seventh birthday party. Miles told better stories this time.”
“Yeah, and there was ice cream cake!” Morgan added.
We all lay down in our sleeping bags and looked at the ceiling. I was almost asleep when Chris said, “My aunt says that if you concentrate really hard you can send a dream to someone, just like in that story.”
“You don’t have to cast a spell?” Ondrea asked.
Chris shook her head. “I don’t think so, but my aunt was talking about good dreams. I wonder if you could send a nightmare just by thinking about it hard enough.”
I heard Jamie laugh. “Claire could send her sister a dream where she has a horrible birthday party,” she said.
“Like, she could be waiting to open presents and find out there aren’t any,” Morgan suggested.
“Or have her name spelled wrong on her cake,” Chris said.
“Or she could pee in her sleeping bag,” I added.
“You guys!” Ondrea objected, propping herself up on her elbow. “What if some of that stuff happens? We’d all feel really bad.”
“Yeah,” said Jamie, “but it’s making us feel better now.”
I closed my eyes and wondered if it was possible to send my sister a nightmare. I didn’t want anything bad to actually happen to her, I just wanted her to dream about it. Jamie was right, it did make me feel better, so I thought about what kind of dreams would scare my sister the most until I fell asleep.
Jamie’s mom dropped me off the next morning on the way to drop off Ondrea and Chris, and I waved at my friends as they drove away. My dad was coming back up the driveway after getting the mail, so he asked me if I had a nice time. I nodded, grinning.
“We didn’t have such a great time here,” he admitted. “Sofie didn’t make it to the bathroom quick enough this morning, so she’s really upset and embarrassed. Be nice to her today, okay?”
I glanced at him to see if he was joking or if he had somehow found out about what my friends and I had been talking about the night before. “Okay,” I managed to say as we walked inside.
A couple of Sofie’s friends were still around, playing in the living room while my mom was busy cleaning the kitchen. As I walked in and sat down at the party-hat-strewn counter, she put a still-warm waffle in front of me. “We saved one for you,” she explained, and moved the syrup closer so I could reach it.
“Thanks,” I said. “Was it a fun party?”
My mother made a noise that told me that she hadn’t had any fun. “How was Jamie’s?”
“Fun,” I said. “Her brother brought an ice cream cake home from work, so we pretended it was my birthday and everybody sang while I blew out a candle.”
“That’s good,” she said, putting dishes in the dishwasher. “Sofie’s friends were all expecting an ice cream cake, but the place where we ordered her cake got it wrong, so everyone was disappointed.”
“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else I could say. “I… didn’t know you had ordered an ice cream cake.”
“We didn’t want you to feel bad for missing out,” she told me, then sighed. “I’m glad you had a good time.”
I was saved from having to reply by someone arriving to pick up the last few of my little sister’s guests. It also gave me time to think about the night before, and how I’d fallen asleep wishing and hoping that my sister would have a bad dream about her birthday party.
Chris said that you could send good dreams, but what if when you wished for bad dreams, they really came true? I looked around, hoping to see the remnants of wrapping paper from any presents my sister’s friends had brought. I didn’t see any, but wondered if that was just because the evidence had already been cleaned up, and not because my sister’s birthday party had really been terrible.
When the door had closed on the last guests and my mom had gone down into the basement to do laundry, my sister came slowly downstairs, rubbing her eyes.
She sat down next to me at the counter.
“Want a waffle?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Did you have fun at your party?” I asked.
She shrugged one shoulder. “Did you have fun at Jamie’s?” she asked.
I nodded. “It was fun.” We sat in silence for a moment. I couldn’t help thinking that her party was a disaster because I had wished that it would be. There had to be some way of making up for it. “I heard Mom inviting Mandy to skating next month so you don’t have to feel left out just being by yourself with a whole bunch of my friends there.”
Sofie looked surprised. “I didn’t know that,” she said. She propped her chin up with one hand and picked at the end of the elastic on a broken party hat. “I don’t even like Mandy.”
“Maybe Mom will let you invite somebody else,” I said, “or a couple of other people. I think we can have up to thirty, and I didn’t invite that many people.”
“Really?!” Sofie cried, looking happy for the first time. “Thank you, Claire! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I was still eating, so she hugged my arm, then spun herself around on her stool.
“Did you guys sleep on the living room floor?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yeah! It was fun, but I didn’t sleep very well. Did you sleep on the floor?”
“In the den,” I answered. “Why didn’t you sleep well? Did you... have a nightmare?”
“No,” she replied, “I just couldn’t get comfortable. I slept a lot better after… after breakfast when I took a nap in my bed. I dreamed!”
I swallowed a big piece of waffle without chewing. It hurt. “What did you dream about?” I asked.
She tilted her head like she was trying to remember something. “I think… you were there,” she said slowly. “Yeah, you were. You were a princess and I was a pirate, and we were playing in our tree castle!”
I looked down at my empty plate. That actually sounded pretty fun. “Wanna go play now?” I asked, putting my silverware down.
My sister smiled. “Okay!”
I was glad that my sister hadn’t had a nightmare because of me, and glad that I could still make her smile when she’d had a less than wonderful night. And even though I hadn’t gotten exactly what I wanted, we still had a tree house, one that Sofie and I could share. I had been so focused on how I was being left out that I hadn’t thought about how the tree house I’d planned to put in the top of the tree would have made playing princesses and pirates with my sister impossible.
“After a while we can switch, and you can be the princess and I’ll be the pirate,” I said, “how about that?”
Sofie grabbed my hand and grinned at me. “Claire, you’re the best sister ever.”