The cloud of balloons thumped against each other as Becky trotted down the asphalt. The ribbons attached to the candy colored bubbles wounded around her hand, digging deep grooves. She ignored the lack of circulation in her fingers and steadied the sheet cake in her arms, silently willing the frosted edges not to slide against the plastic lid.
The animals within the cages she passed, glanced over at her, as if taking in their tiny frosted doppelgangers. The elephants gave a supportive trumpet as she wound the corner. Lions yawned as she hurried by like a fleeing gazelle. A giraffe craned his neck over the top of his enclosure, watching through drooping lashes as she rounded another bend in the maze of passageways slicing through the zoo.
Becky, panting over the cake, tried not to feel like a rat in search of hidden cheese.
She worried the cheese might be preferable.
She followed the jungle print arrows, scented like newly laid paint, down a last stretch of trail.
Laughter began trickling through the groans and calls of contained wildlife as the thatched hut came into view. The bungalow sat squarely in a clearing lined with ferns and tall palms. The tropical greens and browns created a muted backdrop for the scurrying children in brightly colored costumes. Little versions of those caged beasts dashed through the doorway and around the benches and displays. The battles would have made any right minded biologist wince.
Toucans chased leopards, beetles harassed monkeys, a hippo ran after a zebra who appeared to have acquired the hippo’s red sneaker.
Amongst the menagerie she caught sight of Dylan. He was pressing his face against an aquarium, the mane of his lion’s costume ringing his face. A few of his classmates were peering along with him, staring with pressed noses at the snake lounging in a mottled patch of sun.
Becky skirted around the games and absorbing creatures and plopped the cake down onto the streamer strewn table. She swung the bag of goodies from her shoulder and pulled out a box of washers. After a relieved breath she began working the strings from her hand.
“You made it.” Angela’s voice, husky thanks to the cigarette in her hand, slid through the childish cries.
Becky winced and pretended it was because of the slim paper cut one of the balloon’s more vicious lines had delivered.
“Of course,” she said, looking up and finding George’s newest girlfriend donned in cheetah print for the occasion. “I wouldn’t miss Dylan’s party.”
“You are so sweet.”
Becky shrugged. “I’m his aunt, I’m allowed to be.” Uncoiling the strands she began tying the ends around washers and dropping the weights to the ground. She kept her eyes carefully averted on her task.
“And you brought the cake…”
“Yeah. George called, said he had forgotten to pick it up or something.”
“Oh, that was my fault. Completely slipped my mind.”
Becky looked up into Angela’s mascara lined eyes. She could feel the heat in her gaze but didn’t try to hide it. “I know.” Her grin felt icy against her teeth.
Angela took another draw on her cigarette, her lips pursing as if she had just sucked on a lemon.
Becky went in search of candles.
Angela tapped her filter against bleached teeth. “You don’t like me do you?”
“I don’t think that really matters does it?”
“I think it does. George thinks a lot of you. Thinks a lot of your opinions.”
Becky sighed and popped open the box of trick candles. “Well, if he asks me for an opinion, I’ll give it to him.” She stabbed the cake with one of the candles and shot the same chilled smile across the table.
“Sis!” George boomed out of the bungalow. Becky felt her smile soften as his orangutan arms wrapped around her. She gave him a squeeze and then they turned back to the cake.
“Wow, that looks great.”
“You ordered it, silly.” Angela sauntered over and gave his shoulder a playful shove.
“Yeah, well it works a lot better here than at the store.” He slid his arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze to mitigate the jab.
Becky thrust the last half dozen candles into place and swallowed down a wave of nausea.
“I think that’s everything,” she said, standing back with her hands on her hips in order to inspect the decorated array.
“It’s fabulous.” Angela raked blood red nails through George’s curls. “How about we get things started?”
“Why not! Can you tell the kids inside to come on out? That ranger too, he deserves some cake for putting up with us.”
“Alright.” She dabbed out her cigarette under her stiletto before pecking him on the cheek. “Be right back.” Becky endured the other woman’s hard stare and smiled innocently until Angela headed towards the bungalow.
“So,” George said, watching Angela’s sway, “what do you think?”