Harry sat in a semi-circle with five other kids, waiting for John Barrett to hurry up and open his birthday presents. John, who Harry only ever hung out with whenever his real friends were grounded or out of town, stood beside Mrs. Barrett at the front of the living room, his face red, his shoulders slouching.
With an apron tied around her waist, Mrs. Barrett picked up a present that bitter experience told Harry was either clothing or something equally lame.
“This is from Katie C.,” Mrs. Barrett said.
Earlier that afternoon, Harry had been forced to endure an ice-breaking exercise during which he met Katie C., a six-year-old who, like the other four partygoers, wore a yellow What Would Jesus Do bracelet and attended the same tiny, super-Christian school as John. At twelve, Harry was at least two years older than the other children, and, by his estimation, exponentially cooler, mostly based on the fact he listened to gansta rap and had taken three sips of his dad’s Budweiser without getting drunk or throwing up.
“Open it!” Katie C. squealed, her mouth ringed with blue cake icing. The other kids chimed in, the oldest one, a heavyset boy named Ezekiel, making the most noise. Harry focused on the mantle where sat the only secular item in the room other than the furniture: an autographed photo of Mr. Barrett shaking hands with President Ronald Raegan.
“Open it,” Harry barked, feeling as if the walls were closing in on him.
“That’s the spirit,” Mrs. Barrett told Harry. “Go ahead, son. Everyone’s waiting.”
John tore open the wrapping paper. Inside the box was a Noah’s Ark-themed play set complete with building blocks and animals in pairs.
“How wonderful!” Mrs. Barrett said, and the children hooped and hollered some more.
John’s face turned an even deeper shade of red. After the noise died down, he thanked Katie C. and asked his mother if he could open Harry’s gift next.
“Only if it’s okay with your friend.”
Figuring he could leave a little early if he forked over his gift now, Harry was willing. So he reached into his wallet and rubbed the two bills inside between his thumb and forefinger. For a moment, he weighed the odds of getting caught if he gave John Barrett the five-dollar bill Harry had earned as allowance instead of the ten-dollar bill his mom had earmarked for the birthday boy. Even though Harry was in the slow kids’ math class at school, he understood that he could make a five-dollar profit on the transaction. But only if he could deliberately ignore the voice in his head.
“Happy birthday,” Harry said and held out the five-dollar bill, the other kids ohhhing and ahhhing as if they’d never seen legal tender. John’s eyes welled up with tears. In that moment Harry entertained the possibility that John had been secretly squirreling away cash in the hopes of escaping his family, and now the kid finally had the wherewithal to board an airplane to somewhere far, far away.
“Thank you,” John said. “Seriously.”
For the first time that day, Harry was glad he’d come to the party instead of staying home and re-reading his sister’s diary, or inventorying his baseball card collection, or watching Boyz N The Hood, a movie starring his favorite rapper named Ice Cube.
“You’re welcome,” Harry said, feeling good.
Until Mrs. Barrett held out her palm.
“Do I have to?” John asked.
She snapped her fingers, and John handed over the money. “Now say it,” she said.
“Please, mom, not now.”
“I need you to say it.”
“Say what?” Harry asked, confused as to why she’d taken the money. “What’s going on?”
Mrs. Barrett looked at Harry. “In this house we have rules, right, John?”
“What rules? What are you talking about? You can’t take his—”
“It’s okay.” John tugged on Harry’s arm.
Mrs. Barrett told John to say it, only this time her tone was stern bordering on menacing. John sighed and did as he was told. “‘Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.’”
“Amen,” said the children.
“May I be excused?” John asked, and before Mrs. Barrett could respond, John ran out of the room.
Harry, now angry and confused, asked what a tithe was, and Mrs. Barrett called on Katie C. to explain.
“A tithe,” the little girl said, “is when you give a tenth of your money to the church because it’s God’s money, not ours.”
“You’re a very good girl,” Mrs. Barrett said stroking Katie’s hair. “And you’re absolutely right.”
“No,” Harry said, “she’s not right. It’s John’s money. It belongs to him now, and you stole it.”
“Children,” Mrs. Barrett said as she looked at Harry, “go downstairs and play I Spy.”
After the children scampered off, Mrs. Barrett invited Harry outside for “a heart-to-heart.” But as they stood in the front yard, she didn’t say anything. She looked at the sinking autumn sun on the horizon while Harry shivered. Across the street, his own house seemed small and far away, and he longed for the safety and familiarity of his bedroom, with its bunk beds and sports posters, Nintendo cartridges and dirty clothes scattered about the carpet.
Unable to stand the silence any longer, Harry asked what she wanted to talk about.
“You’re disrespectful, Harry. And you embarrassed me in front of my son’s friends.”
“Embarrassed you how?”
But again, she fell silent. Plunging her hands into her apron, she gave Harry the same look that his own mother had given him earlier that day after he’d flatly refused to attend John Barrett’s lame-ass birthday party.
“Think about what you did, Harry,” she said and went back into the house.
Later that night, Harry did think about what he’d done. He’d think about it, off and on, for years and each time he did he felt something different.
Max Everhart is the author of five books, most recently All the Different Ways Love Can Feel, a story collection. His work has appeared (or will appear) in OC87 Recovery Diaries, Parent.com, juked, gravel, The Citron Review, Potomac Review, and many other places. He also writes a blog about being a stay-at-home dad at www.breakfastwithharry.wordpress.com.