Tai dances to Ma’s old R&B CDs, his socks sliding on the kitchen floor, while Ratchet watches with her head on her old paws. Today’s Tai’s birthday and that means Gramma’s coming over. He bends and grabs Ratchet’s paws, but she don’t dance no more. She licks his face, but doesn’t try to get up. That’s okay, she’s a good girl, anyway.
Last year Gramma made him chocolate cake, and it was the best thing he ever had in his whole life. She gave him a piece with a candle, and she smiled with her big white teeth and sang happy birthday and gave him a present wrapped in a bow so nice that he didn’t want to open it. Then they went to the good park—Fernridge, not Keney—and he played in the pool and slid down the slides until the sun went down. It made him feel like he was the only person in the world.
If Gramma comes before Ma gets out of work, Tai might not have to leave. Ma works third shift, and when she comes home all she wants to do is sleep, and she says he’s too loud. He moves aside the kitchen curtain. At least it’s not raining today. He can go to Keney and play on the slides unless Cammie’s there. He dances through a few more songs before he hears Ma’s keys in the door, and his heart sinks a little. When she comes in she walks by without looking at him. He smiles at her and goes to turn the music off.
She glances his way as she crosses the kitchen, her lips cranked so low and sour that her face looks like a horse’s.
“How are ya?” he says. He’s been by himself with no one to talk to but Ratchet all day, so he’s lonely.
“Tired,” she says. “You leavin’?”
“Yeah,” he says, and then adds hopefully, “Unless I can stay.”
She shakes her head, pressing the back of her hand on her forehead and sighing. “Today’s not a good day, Tai.”
“Okay,” he says, and he puts his hand out for Ratchet. She sniffs the air, gets slowly up, and shobbles over to him. “You know today’s my birthday.”
“I know that,” she says. “You think your momma don’t know that?”
He looks at her from the corner of his eyes.
“Yes?” she says.
“Good,” she says. “Now go on. Momma has to sleep.”
“Can’t I stay?”
“It’s too nice to be inside. You need to go out and play.”
“What should I do?”
“You know to do. What does Mr. Amazing do?”
Mr. Amazing is a superhero that him and Ma made up a long time ago. They used to go on adventures together—she was his sidekick—but she hasn’t gone with him in a long time.
“Saves the world,” he says.
She nods wisely. “That’s right. You got to go save the world, Mr. Amazing.”
Ratchet rubs her head against Tai’s hip. She has to pee, probably.
“From what?” It was fun saving the world when he was five, but he’s seven now, and even though he’s been saving the world for a long time, it’s still the same as it’s always been.
“Don’t you give me no lip,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “You got to fight the evil… Splorgs. They aliens. Now go on, the world ain’t gonna save itself.” Without another word, she slogs to the kitchen, pours herself a glass of water, and takes it to her bedroom. She blows out a drag as she closes the door, and a puff of smoke rises behind her and vanishes when the door slams shut.
He watches the door for a little while before laying a hand on Ratchet’s head. “Come on, girl. Let’s go save the world again.”
He goes to the couch for the little pink blanket that kind of looks like a cape and ties it around his shoulders the way Gramma showed him. By the door is an old stick he found at Keney that Ma told him is a power scepter. It looks just like any old stick, but it’s the weapon that Mr. Amazing gets his strength from. He swings it around, hits the wall, and freezes, watching Ma’s door. When he doesn’t hear her get up, he creeps out of the house.
He gets out on Montville Street and cuts north to Tower Ave., past JMA. By the time he gets to the woods, he’s been recruited by top political people to fight an intergalactic war against the Splorgs, who want to eat everybody on earth, including their dogs. Only Mr. Amazing can save the world. He stops at a tree while Ratchet sniffs around for a place to pee. While she squats, he swordfights with the tree, whacking it good a few times, killing Splorgs with every blow.
Boy, the president says, it was a good thing we called you, Mr. Amazing.
“It was,” Tai says. “’Cuz nobody else in the whole universe could defeat the Splorgs but me.”
Ratchet cocks her head at him like she’s wonderin’ if he’s talkin’ to her or not. She ain’t much of a sidekick, but at least she never leaves him.
When she’s done going the bathroom they make their way past the baseball fields, keeping beside the fence so nobody notices them. Up ahead there’s a patch of trees he can hide behind so he can make sure Cammie ain’t there.
Creeping up to the trees, he imagines that he’s inside the Splorg mothership. Only the awesome Mr. Amazing could have flown an experimental stealth starship a hundred billion light years, right past the Splorg fleet, and pulled alongside the mothership without them even suspecting a thing. He docks the ship and gets out. This time he can’t just beat everyone up. A single Splorg mothership warrior can kill ten Mr. Amazings, so he has to use his smarts. He finds the ship’s map and sneaks into the vents, right by the guards. From here he can see the bridge.
The playground is new, with bright plastic slides that spiral out from a castle-like playscape. As new as it is, there’s already graffiti all over the seesaw and merry-go-round. A few kids around his age are playing on the slides, but they must go to Rawson or MLK because he doesn’t know them. He likes meeting new people, since he can pretend to be someone else. People seem to like him when he acts like other kids but not when he acts like himself. He wonders if that’s why his ma don’t like him, but he shakes his head. He’s got bigger things to worry about. Cammie’s not in the park, and that means he can play without being afraid. He comes out from behind the trees and goes to the playscape.
It looks like the Splorg leader has left the bridge unmanned. A fatal mistake that will cost them the war.
The other kids stop playing when they see him. One of them is a big bald kid with a scowl on his face. He looks like he’s going into fourth grade, at least.
“Who you?” he says.
The boy licks his lips like Tai’s seen adults do. “Why you wearing a pink blanket?”
The other kids watch him, waiting for an answer. Tai thinks of Kendrick, a boy from his grade who hangs out with him at recess sometimes. He’s one of the nicest kids in school. If the boy was asking Kendrick, he’d be honest and smile, so that’s what Tai does.
“It’s a cape.”
“Why you got a cape?”
“’Cuz I’m Mr. Amazing.”
“Who’s that?” one of the other boys says.
“The strongest hero in the world.” He shows them his stick. “And this is my scepter. It makes me super strong and fast.” He smiles like Kendrick would’ve, and he looks the big boy in the eyes even though he doesn’t like to. Kendrick’s always looking people right in the eyes.
“He ain’t the strongest hero in the world,” the big boy says, but he looks at the stick like he’s impressed. It’s a nice stick, solid and twisted a little at the bottom, like a wizard’s.
“Yeah he is,” Tai says. “And right now I’m using my scepter to fight the evil Splorgs. They’re aliens that want to eat everyone in the world, and their dogs.” He nods at Ratchet.
“That your dog?” the other boy says.
“Yeah, that’s Ratchet.”
They stand there for a while, considering Tai. He holds his breath.
A third boy steps forward and puts his hand out for Ratchet to sniff. He’s wearing a red shirt with a planet on it. “You know about any other heroes?”
“Yeah,” Tai says without missing a beat. “There’s Giant Monster, who has razor teeth and shoots lasers out of his eyes; and there’s Lightning, who can turn into lightning and is faster than anyone else in the world; and there’s Dark Ninja, who can block bullets with his sword.”
“Cool,” the boy in the red shirt says. “I wanna be Lightning.”
“I’m Dark Ninja,” another boy says.
The big boy scowls. “I’m Dark Ninja.”
The other boy steps back. “Fine. Giant Monster sounds cooler, anyway.”
The big boy stares at the other boy for another second before turning to Tai. “So what do we do?”
Tai can’t believe his ears. He’s never had this many people want to play with him before. Thinking of what Kendrick would do, he says, “We’re on the mothership, but we gotta be careful. The mothership Splorgs are stronger than us.”
From behind somebody shouts, “The what?”
Tai spins and his whole body goes cold when he sees Cammie and her group of friends coming. They circle the merry-go-round and stop in front of Tai.
Cammie has tight, mean braids that end in red beads. She’s wearing a short-sleeve shirt that shows the muscles in her arms.
“The what?” she says again. “Did you say the Splorg? What kind of stupid thing is that?”
“It’s not stupid,” Tai says, turning to his new friends for support, but they’re looking away now.
“It’s stupid,” she says. “And you’re stupid, too.” She glares at the other boys. “What kind of stupid thing he got you doing?”
“Who you callin’ stupid?” the big boy says.
“You,” she says, stepping right up to the big boy’s chest and holding his gaze, “if you’re playing with Tai-Dye.”
The big boy looks away. “We ain’t playin’ with him.”
“We don’t even know this kid,” the boy in red says. “He over here talkin’ ’bout the Splorg or some shit.”
They all pause, thinking about the seriousness of the boy swearing.
It’s Cammie who breaks the silence. “What’s the Splorg?”
“Aliens or some dumb shit,” the big boy says.
Cammie grins at Tai. It’s the same grin that he thinks would be on the face of the Splorgs right before they eat you. “Guess I’m a Splorg,” she says, turning on Tai.
“Me, too,” Sandra says. Sandra’s Cammie’s best friend, but Tai doesn’t know why, since all Cammie does is tell her what to do.
“I’m the Splorg, too,” the big boy says. “I’m the leader.”
“The hell you is,” Cammie says without even looking away from Tai. “You got a problem with the Splorg, Tai-Dye? That mean you got a problem with me.” She pushes him hard and he almost falls.
Tai can’t speak. He looks around at other the kids, but they’re all watching with eyes like hungry cats.
“You got a problem with the Splorg?” she says again.
“Answer her,” the big boy says.
“Yeah,” Sandra says.
Ratchet whines but doesn’t move.
Cammie pushes Tai again, and this time he does fall, and he’s scared with all these people around, and he doesn’t understand why this is happening to him. He tears up.
“You crying?” Cammie says, standing over him. She cocks her arm back like she’s gonna hit him and he flinches.
“Punk,” she says. “Bitch.” She looks around at the other kids before turning back to Tai. “Get off my playground.”
Tai scrambles backwards on his butt.
“Get out of here!” Cammie says, and he twists himself up and walks away, only running when rocks start flying at him.
“You better not come back!” she yells. The last thing he hears as he runs away is all the kids howling with laughter.
He cuts across Waverly and Cleveland, into the Jewish cemetery, stopping only when he can’t see the park anymore. He sits next to a grave with one of those weird stars on it, and he points a shaking finger at Ratchet.
“You didn’t do anything. You just let them… what’s the point of having a dog that don’t protect you?”
He glares at her, but he can’t stay mad when she’s looking at him with her sad eyes like she understands what he’s feeling. She licks his finger and nuzzles closer. He puts an arm around her and sighs. She answers with a quiet whine before laying her head in his lap.
They wait in the cemetery until it’s late enough to go home. The sun’s pretty low and the sky’s a hazy orange that means it’ll be nice tomorrow. At least, that’s what sailors say.
When he gets home, he pauses at the door, unsure of what’s gonna be in there. He didn’t see Gramma’s car outside, but she could have parked in the lot next to the fish market if she wanted to surprise him. That’s what he’d do. He imagines the cake from last year. It feels so real that his mouth starts watering. Ratchet looks up at him, and he knows she’s wondering why he ain’t goin’ inside, but for some reason he can’t bring himself to just yet. Instead, he closes his eyes and thinks about the cake and the present with the bow, just for another minute, and he whispers a little prayer. Finally, he takes a deep breath and opens the door. But when he gets in, the apartment’s silent.
Tai feels so let down that he wants to cry. Ma must still be sleeping. Sometimes she sleeps all the way through to her next shift, getting up only to go to the bathroom, where she smokes her pipe and blows the smoke out the window. She thinks he don’t know, but he does.
It’s getting dark, so he goes to his room, turns on the light, and gets his toys out. He’s got a mismatched set of action figures: a muscle man so old he’s got bite marks from when Ratchet was a puppy, a smaller ninja with a plastic sword attached to his hand, a monster from Pokemon or something, and the Flash. He pretends they’re fighting the Splorgs for a while, but it feels too much like the battle’s already been lost, so he has them fight each other, flying all over his room, straight up to the ceiling and into space.
He goes to bed before his ma wakes up. She don’t usually say goodbye before she leaves, but sometimes she does, so he likes to stay up so he can kiss her goodnight. Tonight, though, he can’t bring himself to. Ratchet hops into bed with him, spins around a few times, and plops down by his feet.
“Night, Ratchet,” he says.
She pants at him, lays her head between her paws, and sighs.
In the middle of the night he wakes up and Ratchet’s not there, which is weird because she always stays with him till the morning. Moving around to get more comfortable, he pulls his blankets over his head and tries to fall back asleep, but without Ratchet’s weight by his legs it feels wrong. He kicks around a little, slips the cover off his face, and looks around. She’s not in the room, so he figures she went to get a drink or something. He tosses and turns, waiting for her, but when she doesn’t come back he swings the covers off and gets out of bed.
He doesn’t like getting out of bed at night because he’s home alone and anyone can be around. Sometimes he hears gunshots outside, or screaming, but he usually feels safe if he’s under the covers with Ratchet.
Ratchet ain’t in the living room, and she ain’t in the kitchen, neither. He pours himself a cup of water and stops in front of Ma’s room. Even though Ma’s not in there, there’s something forbidden and dark about the room that he doesn’t like. If Ratchet somehow got caught inside, it’s not like she could open the door and get out. The idea of her being trapped in there makes his mouth go dry. Holding his breath, he touches the knob with the back of his hand like he learned you’re supposed to when there’s a fire.
It’s not hot, which surprises him for some reason. Slowly, he gets his hand around the knob and turns it, expecting Ratchet to jump out and lick him, even though her jumping days have been over for a long time. When he opens the door, she ain’t there. Creeping inside, he checks under the bed, feeling like his ma will know that he came in here. She probably knows right now, and she’s gonna come home and punish him, but he goes to the closet, anyway. There ain’t nothing inside but clothes and the dirty glass pipe she told him never to touch.
He sneaks out of the room and stands near the door, thinking. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of places Ratchet can go. The only room left is the bathroom, but why would she go there? It ain’t like she can use the toilet.
“Ratchet?” he whispers, starting to think that maybe the Splorgs got her, until he gets to the bathroom and sees the door’s open.
When he goes inside, he sees her lying next to the tub.
“Ratchet,” he says. “Whatcha doing, girl?”
She blinks up at him, her face kind of sad, but she doesn’t make any noise. He leans over and puts a hand on her. Her tail wags a single time. Sliding his palm onto her stomach, he can feel her body’s warmth, but he can’t feel her breathing.
“Ratchet,” he says. “Get up, girl. Come on to bed.”
Ratchet ain’t gettin’ up, though. She ain’t ever gettin’ up again. He runs his hand down her back the way she likes. Sitting next to her, he rubs her belly and tells her it’s okay, hoping that she can hear him. He hopes she ain’t scared, and that she can feel him petting her.
“Good girl,” he says, wiping his nose. “You’re a good girl. I’m sorry I yelled at you today.” Settling his back against the wall, he pulls her over to him and puts her head on his lap, and they look into each other’s eyes, and for the first time in his life he feels like he knows somebody. It’s a comforting feeling, but it’s kind of sad, too. He reaches for a towel and puts it over her, and they sit with each other until he gets too tired to stay awake.
He wakes up to his ma standing over him with her hands on her hips.
“What you doing in the bathroom?” she says. “You been here all night?”
He blinks up at her, wondering for a second where he is, but then he remembers.
“Ratchet died,” he says, and he gets this feeling like his arms and legs are on fire. It travels to his stomach and then up to his face, where it wants to explode out of him, but his ma’s lookin’ at him with her hard face, so there’s nothing to do but swallow his feeling. It sits heavy and bitter in his stomach.
He can taste it every time he breathes, and for a minute it’s too big for him to hold in, but then his ma says, “Well, get your hands off her. You don’t know what she got. Get on out of here and get a garbage bag.”
Ratchet shouldn’t go in a garbage bag like she’s trash. He feels such rage and injustice that he balls his hands into fists. “But Ma,” he says.
“Don’t you ‘but Ma’ me. Go on and get a garbage bag.”
Gramma comes in while he’s dragging Ratchet down to the dumpster. She’s got a bag slung over her shoulder, and a glass pan covered with foil in her hands.
“Look at you,” she says, smiling. “Seven years old and taking out the garbage.”
“It ain’t garbage,” he says, and it’s suddenly too much for him. Ratchet slips out of his hands and he rubs his eyes and tries to swallow his sadness, but he can’t.
“Aw, baby,” Gramma says, setting her things down. “What’s wrong, baby?” She enfolds him in her arms and he cries and tells her everything.
“Don’t make me throw her away, Gramma,” he pleads. “Please don’t make me put Ratchet in the garbage. She’s a good girl.”
“Baby,” Gramma says, looking at the bag and understanding. “You ain’t got to throw your dog away if you don’t want to.”
“What’s going on out there?” Ma says, coming out of her room. “Why you still got that thing in here? I thought I told you to take her out.”
“Cynthia, he ain’t throwin’ that dog in the dumpster.”
“What you want him to do with it? Keep it here?”
Gramma lets go of Tai, stands to her full height, and glares at Ma. She seems like she wants to say something—her jaw’s clenching and her eyes look wild—but all she does is put her hand out for Tai.
“Come on, baby,” she says, taking his hand. “We gonna take care of your dog the right way.”
Hours later they’re in Gramma’s car and Tai’s got Ratchet’s ashes in a little plastic bag on his lap. Gramma asks him what he wants to do with them. She says she’ll buy him a box and he can keep them in his room, if he wants, or he can spread them around somewhere pretty, but he doesn’t know what to do.
“It’s okay,” she says, laying a hand on his head. “You don’t got to decide right now.”
She takes him to Fernridge Park, where they sit at a picnic table. She uncovers the cake like she’s a fancy chef, and then she digs into her bag, gets out silverware, cuts him a fat slice, and plops it in front of him.
“Hold on,” she says, going back in the bag. She takes out a candle, lights it, and sings him happy birthday, but it don’t feel like it did last year. He wonders if getting older means feeling disappointed all the time.
He blows the candle out, sets it aside, and works some frosting off the top of the cake. Ratchet’s on the picnic table beside him. Gramma sits on his other side. She slices herself a piece of cake and they sit eating and watching the fountain in the middle of a little pond in front of them. She lays a hand on the back of his neck, and the sun peeks over the treetops, making the sky gleam in every color.
He feels so much love for her that he says, “You take her,” and he grabs the bag and holds it out to her.
She lays her fork down and touches her heart. “You sure about that?”
He nods. The last thing he wants is to take Ratchet home. What he really wants is to spread her ashes inside the feeling he’s got right now, but he knows he can’t do that. It’ll be just as nice for Ratchet to be with Gramma, where she can feel safe all the time.
Gramma kisses him on top of his head. “All right, then. Eat your cake.”
“Okay,” he says, leaning against her. He takes his time eating, though, thinking that maybe if he eats slow enough he’ll never have to go home.
Adam King has been anthologized in Best New Writing and the Crossed Genres yearly anthology, and he’s a winner of The Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose. Most recently he’s published with The Ampersand Review, The Blue Lake Review, and The Summerset Review. He holds an MFA in professional writing, an MA in education, and teaches high-school English.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Tai’s Chocolate Cake”
Adam King’s heart-wrenching story “Tai’s Chocolate Cake” takes the reader into the viewpoint of a seven-year-old boy. This is not an easy thing for an adult writer to pull off, even if you have a child that age, but Adam King has done it extremely well and in the process made us feel every moment of Tai’s existence. Although it’s not a story with a happy ending—and we don’t often publish such pieces—this one is so well written that we couldn’t pass it up.