I like being Stella’s dad. I don’t get to be him that much. I’m early, so I spray the inside of my car with Febreeze so she won’t smell the cigarette smoke. Sitting outside Janice’s house, passing wipes over the dash that leave faint traces of white foam behind over the crimson upholstery. White foam evaporating. My happiness lies in the simple fact that I can pick Stella up here at Janice’s new house and not at some rest-rest stop on 95. This is the trade-off.
This is progress.
Tossing the crumbs from the cupholders out the window I let the Dentyne burn my mouth. With the new record on low on the radio I practice my patterns for the double bass and hi-hat to the recording for the next tour. I lean back on the wall of the inflated tunnel.
There’s a flash of teeth as she runs towards me across the green lawn, through the dead leaves. I push open the back door.
“Did you get the Shopkin?”
I hold up the pale pink bag from the passenger seat.
“Did you get the right one?”
“Take a look.”
I hand her the bag and standing outside the car she peers into the opening, as if the correct one would be the ticket for her to bail.
“Yep. Sara is going to be so excited,” she smiles and climbs in quickly closing the door and fastening her seat belt. “Was it hard to find?”
“Nope,” I wave at Janice, who stands protective in the doorway. She waves back reluctantly.
“It wasn’t hard to find.”
“No,” she sounds disappointed as she fastens her seatbelt. I wish I had a more elaborate story.
“Well I am glad you found it, I know that Sara doesn’t have this one.”
I smile, pull away from the curb, and watch Janice lock up her house.
“What are we listening to dad?”
I turn down the blazing death metal.
“The next band I have to tour with,” she gets quiet again and looks out the window in sadness.
“What are they called?”
“Chamber of Dis,” I say.
“That’s a dumb name,” she says.
“Do you want me to turn it up?” She shakes her head.
Rows and rows of nondescript warehouses loom around us.
“Daddy, are we lost?” Stella asks breaking the quiet as I search for the number on the pink invitation.
“Nope, I just think the GPS is having a hard-time finding the bounce place.”
“Well Siri better find it quick, we can’t be late.”
In my rearview she peers anxiously out the window at the gray industrial park.
“I see a balloon.”
Sure enough a flock of multi-colored balloons floats moored to a stave. I turn right and pull into the full parking lot.
“It’s busy,” she says excited.
Weaving between the tightly packed cars around meandering parents with kids in tow I realize there are no spaces. It’s a busy party day.
“Yep, it sure is busy,” I say pulling alongside a Volkswagon outside the white lines and turn off the car. She unsnaps her seatbelt and opens the door.
In the chill of the afternoon air I spit the Dentyne out onto the pavement as I round the car towards her.
“Are you excited?”
“Yes,” She says offering me her hand. I grab it. I clutch it. I hold it tight in my own.
“Do you think you’ll come back home?”
We cross the street to the ramp up towards the door.
“After the tour?” I ask her.
“No, like ever,” she says.
“I’d like to but I don’t think so.”
“Why?” Her face is wide, pale and unblemished.
“Sweetie it doesn’t work that way.”
“Is it because Gary is there?” She asks me referring to Janice’s new boyfriend.
“Gary? Yeah. And it’s your new house.”
I pull open the glass door letting the heavy bass of Taylor Swift escape to the outside world.
“Daddy, do you miss our old house?”
“Me too. How long will you be gone?”
“A month,” and she is silent.
The bounce place is well lit and filled edge to edge with large imposing inflated structures. They seem to push against the corrugated metal walls.
“Daddy, do you like Gary?”
“He seems nice,” I say and she is quiet. “Hey?”
“What?” her eyes catch a group of kids running shoeless and wild.
“The real question is, do you like Gary?” Our eyes meet.
“He’s ok,” She dumps the gift bag into the cart for gifts and tosses her light up shoes into a white cubby with the motion and assurance of a kid who has done this before. Icy synth stabs cross the air over the whir of air compressors, and then bounce off the metal walls.
I used to believe we were burnin’ on the edge of somethin’ beautiful…
The voice echoes as I walk to an overstuffed fake leather couch and watch Stella hug a friend in one of the many bounce houses. They hold hands and make a big jump, rebounding and floating for a second in the air like their youth and happiness defied gravity.
“Mind if I sit here?” I look up and see another parent, phone in hand.
“No not a problem—”
“Cool, cool,” He flops down and turns his gray Orioles hat backwards then begins playing on his phone.
“You ever been here before?” he asks not looking at me.
“No,” I say as two kids bound across an inflated plane clotheslining each other and flailing on the ground.
“It’s a good spot. When I got the kids on my day off I come here and just let them rage. I can play Pokemon all afternoon.”
“Good to know.”
He doesn’t look at me, his eyes are transfixed by the glow of the screen where some animated figures move around. I don’t know the game.
“You can buy a pass and come every day you got ‘em.”
“I just have the one,” I confess.
“Yeah bro, same deal.” He doesn’t look at me. A smaller kid speeds past us and dives into the netting of an opening for a Frozen themed bounce house.
“Well thanks for the info.”
“Sure thing,” He holds up a fist and I bump mine on it.
“Who’s you’re kid?”
“Stella.” He looks at me. Doesn’t ask me my name.
“Ah, ok, my kid is Brandi.”
Sounds familiar, vaguely. When parents introduce themselves it isn’t by their own names but by the names of their children. Our identities are secondary.
“They’re in the same class.”
“Cool.” He looks up at me, rubs his scruffy goatee and eyeballs me.
“You only have her on the weekends eh?”
“When I’m in town,” I nod.
“Don’t worry man, it gets better – or well not better, but you make it normal. You should get a pass here.”
“To this place?”
I see Stella careen off of an inflated wall and fall to the bouncy floor.
“Being here is points man.”
“Yeah, like my other kid, Devon, she’s older, but like the best thing is like I just have to be at shit. That’s it. It’s easy. Just be there. Don’t forget, they remember everything—”
“Tell me about it.”
“You feel me,” he says and I lay my head back. “It’s points man, experience points. Battle points.”
He clicks on his phone some more and continues.
“Hit points. Man, just be there.”
“Ok. I’m gonna’ check on Stella—”
“It’s all good.”
I stand up, walk away and meander through the hulking colorful masses of inflatable forms; Bright green dragons with inflated slides, pale yellow mazes with hidden compartments, a zip line across a lavender expanse where I see Stella laughing as she flies backwards.
“Oh hey—” A woman approaches me.
“Sara’s mom,” she taps her fingers to her chest wrapped in a dress that snugly hides her Spanx. I know I’ve met her before but I don’t know her.
“Ah the birthday girl,” I say recalling the invitation.
“Yes. You doing ok?”
“Yeah just checking out the place.”
“It’s ok. It doesn’t look like much but the kids have a blast,” she says toeing a weight tethered to the concrete floor.
“There’s some drinks in the party room in a bit,” She touches my shoulder. Her nails are manicured, bright and shiny periwinkle blue. “Sara loves it here.”
With her black shoe she toes the duct tape on the inflatable and seems embarrassed to reveal the shoddy state of the party place.
“Stella’s having a ton of fun.” Her hand is still on my shoulder.
“Let me tell you, it doesn’t take much. I know you’re gone sometimes.”
A child upside down and backwards flings himself across the zip line.
“Yeah. I am on tour a bit.”
“Right,” I say praying she doesn’t ask me about what kind of music. Dreading having to explain heavy metal to her.
“How’s Janice?” Her face means no malice, but it seems mean.
“Good. Glad you could make it. It’s good for you and good for Stella.”
A warehouse is a blank space, nothing, a tabula rasa. And here upon this foundation that once held storage, or a small engine mechanic, or hosted punk shows, some entrepreneurs filled the corrugated siding with themed inflatable architecture. Architecture inside of architecture.
Outside, back exit, I stand and stare into the dense woods behind the bounce house. I pull a drag from the American Spirit and ash into the grass. The ember gets snuffed out with a hiss.
“Parents escape club, eh?”
I turn to a woman exiting the glass door, she walks towards me in the grass.
“Yeah kind of,” I say as she zips up the worn Ravens hoodie tight to her neck.
“What party you with?”
“Ah,” She pops a Marlboro in her mouth and lights it quickly, sucking in a symmetrical way. Closing her pale eye lids. “Same. My kid’s Cody.”
“Stella,” I point to myself as if it is my own name. I take another drag. She purses her thin lips and squints into the smoke.
“Yeah. Hey, you’re a musician right?”
“Yeah, I play drums.”
She doesn’t look at me, just turns her face out towards the woods.
“Cool,” she says. “What kind of music?”
“It’s heavy metal,” I confess.
“Do you happen to have anything on ya’?” She wastes no time. I shake my head. Her eyes are suspicious slits. “No herb man? Nothing?”
I feel when I look at her pale face I can see her thoughts through her skin. Like her motivations lay right on the surface. I snub out the cigarette, nod, pop an Altoid into my mouth, and open the door letting the Katy Perry fill my ears.
I find the party room, makeshift as it is, the gifts rest in their large bin. There’s a My Little Pony sheet cake, and a lot of sodas. I pour some Coke into a paper cup.
“Want something stronger?” Sara’s mom stands at the entrance to the larger bounce house indifferently flipping the rough her rose gold phone.
“No, I’m ok.”
“Suit yourself,” she says pouring something into her cup from a pink flask. I walk towards her. “We’re going to do gifts and a cake soon.”
“I’ll go get Stella,” I say. I feel dwarfed by the hulking inflatable mass of each themed house. Children fly through netted openings racing to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle themed house, or dive into an opening crafted like a mouth in bright red inflatable PVC fabric. Stopping to check each one I don’t see Stella.
“Ok! Party people, will Sara’s party come and get some pizza and cake!” The mechanical voice shouts over the music and send kids flying out of the My Little Pony bounce house. I still don’t see Stella. Brandi’s dad walks past me.
“Hey, did you see Stella?” I ask him as he pulls Brandi by her hand.
“Naw, but check in the last room bro,” He continues on as I down the Coke and toss the paper cup in the trash bin. Walking past the bounce houses to a part of the warehouse that feels somewhat closed, the lights half on and the music not as loud.
“Stella!” I shout walking through the generic sports inflatables and large inflated smiling giraffe bounce house. I hear her voice as if sobbing and look closer.
“Stella?” In the corner sits a nondescript inflated blue house, I look along the bulging sides and see a small dark tunnel. A boy about 10 in a Redskins’ jersey jumps alone as high as he can inside the netting.
“There you are,” I say and crouch down by the tunnel and see her back in the darkness her face veiled in shadow and some unmentionable sorrow that shakes with each jump of the Redskin’s fan.
“You ok?” I ask her. She shakes her head. “Can I join you?”
She nods and I climb in the dark tunnel. We sit and listen to the air pumps and the faint bass of another Justin Bieber song.
“It’s cake time.”
“I don’t want cake.”
“Sara’s going to open your present,” I lean back on the wall of the inflated tunnel.
She looks out to the warehouse and I think of the Shopkin in the bag that she was so excited to give to Sara.
“I wish we never left our house.”
“Me too,” I say. She looks at me surprised.
“I didn’t know that.”
“Then why don’t we live there anymore?” She asks.
“Your mom and I aren’t together anymore,” She looks away reminded. I can feel the waves of the boy bouncing inside shaking us to a rhythm.
“I know. But couldn’t we have stayed there?”
“Your mom met Gary.”
“Why can’t Gary live there?” She asks and I put my arm around her.
“You don’t know?” She asks me.
“Well, he probably doesn’t want to live in our house.”
“What’s wrong with our house?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“What if you don’t come back?”
“What if you don’t come back?”
“From tour?” I ask. She shakes her head. “I’ll always come back.”
“Why wouldn’t Gary want to live there?” I hold her.
“In our house? You have a lot of questions,” I say. She rests against me.
“I miss our old house,” she says with sadness.
The soft wall gives way like the house is suddenly deflating. I hold her tighter as the wall collapses and we tumble inside to a new room where we land on a flat white inflated bed.
The room is white and the walls bulge full of air. An inflated frame that says princess in pink pops off of the wall.
“It’s my old room,” She says flipping out of my arms and onto the inflated floor. Sure enough there is the window in sewn fabric but holding air, light comes through the fabric. There is the bookshelf full of inflated children’s books.
“It is,” I say as she jumps and hits the ceiling letting out a laugh.
“These are my old toys.”
I stand on the bed and press against the ceiling as she grabs an inflated doll off out of an air filled bin.
“They are,” I agree feeling disoriented. Everything comes back to me. I jump on the floor and bounce sending Stella bounding toward the window. I open the closed door feeling its bulging side and look into a bulbous hallway.
“Honey,” I call to her.
“Come here,” I grab her when she is by my side and leap onto the slide where our stairs once were and we zip down to the lower level. She laughs.
“Daddy it’s our house!”
From the floor the contorted living room is a perfect replica of our old home rendered as an inflatable. I laugh with her as she leaps up and bounces across the springy floor sending me over onto my side. I jump off the couch and slam into the inflated bookshelf sending soft rectangles of books around us, copies of white Salinger novels flee into the air.
“Watch this,” Stella takes a large jump through the living room and into the dining room landing on top of a bouncy table where she catches her balance. “It’s our house!”
I jump twice sending the walls in with each leap to land on the table next to her.
“Hold on, off the wall and into the kitchen.” In one jump I am off the table careening off of a wall and landing in the soft room. The inflated refrigerator leans in on my landing. I lay there laughing admiring the details, the brown fabric hewn into our cabinets. Stella lands on the counter.
“This is amazing!” She says and then stands up next to the gray sink her small hand holding the ceiling. I stand up and she jumps to me, I catch her and then lift her up and toss her across the bouncy floor. She giggles with delight as she lands by the back door.
“Catch me,” Stella shouts and in two more bounces I grab her.
“What’s in the cabinets?”
“I don’t know,” I pull a soft door open and peer inside where replicas of our dishes are smooshed together. Grabbing one I toss it back into the dining room. “Is it dinner time?”
“I think so. What’s for dinner?”
I open the bulging door of the fridge and pull out a soft chicken.
“Yay!” She grabs it from my hands and tosses it into the air it flops onto the counter and bounces off into the dining room.
“Broccoli,” I say and grab the inflated broccoli.
“Yuck,” She takes it from my hands and tosses it away and then hugs my legs.
“I don’t want to go,” she says and I hold her and we’re still for a brief moment in the inflated replica of our old house. In our embrace I can feel the residual bounces of the boy alone somewhere above us. I can feel the echoes of our own activity fade away.
“Me neither,” I say it, and I mean it.
I like being Stella’s dad. I don’t get to be him that much. Needless to say, we missed the cake, and the pizza, and the sodas, and we missed Sara opening the Shopkin. But we didn’t care.
Stella put her shoes back on by the cubbies, smiling the entire time. They had turned off the music and let some air compressors turn off, the deflated castles looked sad in the forlorn poses casting strange shadows.
“Did you guys have fun?” The woman at the counter inquires.
“It was the best party ever,” Stella shouts tying up her pink laces and I smile so much my face hurts. My cheeks actually ache.
“We had a great time,” I tell the lady.
I help Stella up and turn to the counter to ask,
“How much is the pass?”
Terence Hannum is a Baltimore, MD based artist, musician and writer. His novella Beneath the Remains was published by Anathemata Editions, his novella All Internal was published this year by Dynatox Ministries, and his novelette The Final Days will be published in 2019 by Unnerving. His short stories have appeared in Burrow Press, Terraform, Queen Mob's Tea House, Lamplight, Turn to Ash, SickLit and the SciPhi Journal.