The jungle gym in the strip mall was transformed into a tea party café overnight. Mushroom foam and plastic lily pads were plucked from the mud-rubber ground, rolled over by periwinkle marble and re-planted with three-legged chairs, aquamarine gems in the backing. She suggests fairy lights and smoothie names to the manager, tastes rare cheesecake and chocolate mousse, licks the cream clean from the acetate ring. They do a soft opening with his daughter’s fifth birthday, sending invitations sealed with rainbow wax, cardstock recycled from a time when she still wrote love letters. Her handwriting is beautiful when she presses the gel pens hard.
The parents sign permission waivers and receipts with pens from their own purses, pass her unwrapped gifts, ask her if the nail salon next door is any good. She tells them her stepmother swears by it. The manager squeezes her shoulder, promises to be back before cake. He thinks she can handle this alone. She is proud of this.
The seven little girls are hungry and carsick from the carpool, three of them were laid in the trunk they tell her. They forget their aches momentarily when they see the dress-up closet, running their fingers on the cherrywood knobs, rose-gold birds and willow branches embedded on the mirrors. She lets them pull out the vanity, spill creams and serums across the floor, the air flush with primrose and neroli. She watches from behind the counter, reminds herself that distance is the fulcrum of love. They will come to her soon.
Her father’s secret ingredient for a rainy day was maple syrup sweetening a milkshake when he was home long enough to use the refrigerator. She empties a bag of frozen organic strawberries into the blender, punctures a carton of cream with her keys, and wraps her hands around the maple syrup’s neck. The children twirl around as they drink, condensation slipping down their palms onto shirts with tags still on, each one more than her week’s paycheck. She unlocks the drawers at the top of the dress-up closet, taking down gowns that could be mistaken for the real thing, clouds of chiffon and organza sleeves. Only two of the seven girls fight. Scissors cut paper, rock cleans soft hands again. Loser wears the polyester Mulan dress, the only one without a petticoat. She braids their hair, a four-stranded waterfall, securing it first with clear elastics, then with sparkling pins or soft ribbons, their choice. They ask who taught her? and she answers, my stepmama. It is easier to invent a stepmother than to remember an absent mother.
She zips the seven girls into their outfits, making sure the thermostat sends a warm breeze through the changing room. The strip mall will charge them more for this, but she doesn’t care, doesn’t want any of them catching a cold. She fetches scepters, capes, slippers, clip-on earrings, until she calls the girls not by their name tags, but only, yes princess. When they are hungry again, she passes silver spoons around, unfurls crown-printed napkins on their laps, heats up quiche and spaghetti bread bowls, cookie-cuts vegetables into a bouquet of flowers. She promises them cake if they each eat three carrots, two cauliflower florets, one stalk of celery.
When the birthday girl makes her wish, the parking lot has emptied. The parents must have found the wine cellar in the complex across the street, or fallen asleep after macaroni grill, toenails still drying in their foam separator. She is afraid of going to the bathroom, a ten-minute walk down several sticky-floored corridors to Applebee’s. There are seven of them, but the girls are still young, young enough to think magic should anything strange happen. She forgets store policy and lets them unwrap the gifts. They have moved on from words to thanking her with lip-glossed kisses.
Birthday girl chooses the last wrapped gift. The tissue paper opens, closes like wings. In their wake, there is a basket of apples. A new variety. She has seen neat pyramids of them at the grocery store, from the same company that engineered cotton candy grapes and cake-batter pumpkins. Skeins of lollipop red, gold flecks. The stem is ordinary, brown and shriveled. She is as excited as the girls to try them. The seven argue, holding the apples to the buttered light, before choosing the largest, most perfect orb for her. They let her go first, lips cracking as she lodges teeth into tart skin.
Star Su grew up in Ann Arbor and currently an undergraduate at Brown. Her fiction is in or forthcoming in Waxwing, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly. She reads for Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @stars_su.