It was Ben’s idea, of course.
Kate didn’t ask for his help. She may have mentioned vaguely that she was trying to think of something special to do for Maddie’s birthday, but it was such an aside that it didn’t occur to her he would take it and run with it. Yes, it should have. But it didn’t.
A few days after that miniscule mention—still a month before the big day—Ben pulled Kate aside.
“Listen, Kate, I just want to let you know that I’ve got Maddie’s birthday covered.”
“What—you—“ Kate shook her head. “That really isn’t necessary, Ben, I can take care of it.”
He bounced up on his toes and said, “I know you can, but I have such a terrific idea, it’ll be perfect, just wait.”
“Really, Ben, you know I love you... but I’m just not sure this is such a great idea.”
“Oh.” He sniffed and pressed his lips together and nodded. “Right. Of course. You wouldn’t want me to plan your daughter’s special day. ‘Cause I’d just screw it up, right? That’s me, Ben-who-screws-things-up… or whatever. I’ll just… go back to the garage…” and he turned slowly, his shoulders falling forward. He took one slow step and then lifted his other foot, but let it hover in the air without landing.
Turning her head, Kate scratched the back of her neck and sighed. “Wait… Ben.”
His head whipped around and then he smoothed the expectation from his face. “Yes, Kate?”
Blowing a hard breath up through her bangs, Kate said, “Nobody gets hurt, okay? Promise me.”
Ben’s eyes widened in innocence as he began to back away, his hands palm-out in front of him. “You can trust me, Kate! Planning stuff is totally my forté.”
“Yeah, tell that to the parent-child dance,” Kate mumbled.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, Ben,” she said on another long sigh, and went to find Maddie and remind herself that Ben probably wouldn’t get anyone killed.
For the next month Kate wheedled at Ben, trying to get any details out of him. He swore he would only talk to Tommy about it, so she batted her eyelashes—but not in a manipulative way. Just, you know, like, you’re my only hope, Tommy, please! Okay, maybe it was a little manipulative.
All her efforts were for naught, but Maddie could not have been more excited. The fact that it was all a big secret meant, to her, that it was absolutely positively going to be extra super duper special. Kate wanted to lower her expectations, but she couldn’t bear to squash the sparkle in Maddie’s eyes as they waited for the day of all days.
A day that started like any other: Kate waking Maddie up with a tickle to her ribs and a kiss on her nose. As soon as the sleepy fog cleared, Maddie was beaming, so excited for the day ahead. Kate couldn’t help smiling back, but she felt like she had to say something.
“Remember, Monkey, your birthday is a day to spend with people you love, just like Christmas. The presents and parties aren’t as important, right?”
Despite the grin that wouldn’t leave her face, Maddie looked at her mother matter-of-factly. “I know, Mom. But Uncle Ben planned this all for me! And everyone I love is going to be there!”
Kate took a deep breath, keeping a smile on her face. “Right. Exactly. Better get dressed!”
She left Maddie to pick out her outfit and came back with her hands behind her back. Maddie was wearing a stripey pink dress and stripey teal leggings (going through a stripey phase) and Kate surprised her with a sparkly and bobbly Birthday Girl! headband. Beaming even brighter, Maddie allowed Kate to brush her hair and position the headband. Kneeling behind Maddie at the mirror, Kate wrapped her arms around Maddie’s waist and gave her a big squeeze.
“Happy birthday, baby girl.”
When they made it out to the car, Ben was standing by the driver’s side door with his hands behind his back and a chauffeur’s cap on his head. He grinned and brought his hands around in front. Each hand held a sleep mask dangling by its elastic cord.
Stopping in her tracks, Kate stared at Ben, then bent over at the waist to peer into the car. Tommy was in the front seat, watching them happily, and waved when Kate met his eyes. BJ was on the far side of the backseat, already wearing a sleep mask.
“Ben, is this really necessary?”
“Blindfolds on!” he replied.
Kate looked down at Maddie. “Monkey?”
“Come on, Mom!” She bounced on the balls of her feet. “It’s a secret surprise adventure!”
Ben held up the first “blindfold” and winked at Kate. Dragging her feet, she stood before him and, cringing slightly, allowed him to affix the blindfold. He guided her into the car and she clambered awkwardly over Maddie’s child’s seat, her hand landing on BJ’s thigh (“All right, Kate”) before she could maneuver herself into the centre seat and attach her seatbelt.
A moment later, she felt Ben placing Maddie into her seat and doing up the belt. Once he shut the door, Kate felt blindly to ensure Maddie was safely strapped in. Thus assured, she sat back in her seat and leaned her head against the rest. As the car shifted from side to side with Ben climbing in, Kate reached one hand to Maddie and the other to BJ, clasping their hands in hers.
“Still excited, Monkey?” Kate said, pitching her voice high and perky.
“Heck yeah she is!” Ben replied on Maddie’s behalf. “Now, no messing with those blindfolds. I’ll be watching.”
“And as will I,” Tommy added seriously, “since I don’t have to drive or anything. I’ve got your back, Ben.”
“I know you do, Tommy.”
There was the sound of hands slapping and miscellaneous grunting, causing Kate to say frantically, “Are you driving?!”
“Relax, Kate. The car isn’t even running.”
She blew out another breath and flopped back against the seat, and BJ patted her hand. “Come on, Kate. Don’t tell me you’ve never been blindfolded in the back of a car before.”
Kate didn’t bother to reply, closing her eyes behind the blindfold. “Can we just go, please?”
The car rumbled to life and Kate’s stomach tightened in a knot. As they eased out onto the road and the drive moved smoothly along, she forced herself to breathe evenly and put her faith in Ben. Piece of cake… on opposite day.
Tilting her head toward Maddie, Kate said, “Monkey?”
“Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“Okay. Speak up if you start to feel sick, okay?”
From her other side, Kate heard, “What about me,” and BJ drew the next word out long and with an American twang, “Mooom?”
Kate turned back and took her hand from where it rested in BJ’s, carefully lifting it up until she could rest it on BJ’s shoulder (with only the slightest boob graze). “How are you feeling, BJ?”
“I’m bored,” she whined.
“Well, take that up with Ben. This was not my idea.”
“Girls, girls,” Ben said, Dad voice in full force. “Stop bickering. It won’t make the drive go any faster.”
Kate stuck her tongue out at Ben (or in his general direction) and the car went quiet for a few beats. Then, tilting her head, Kate said, “Ben, are you driving in circles?”
“What? Of course not.”
“Uh-huh. It’s just that you’ve turned right about seventeen times.”
“Okay, it’s a complicated drive, all right?” he said defensively.
“So you’re lost?”
“No! I—we—“ He sighed loudly. “We’re here!”
Kate would have exchanged a bewildered look with someone but, you know, blindfolds, so she waited for the punchline. They pulled up somewhere and parked, and Ben asked Tommy to get BJ out of the car while he took care of Maddie. Kate waited in the centre seat until she was free to fumble her way out.
In the fresh air again, the blindfolds came off and the female trio blinked and squinted against the bright California sunshine. Maddie turned her face into Kate’s skirt, and eventually they were able to focus and look around them. It was a large parking lot, and the car was next to a pole holding high a sign painted with a platypus.
Two pairs of puzzled eyes turned toward Ben (while BJ dug a flask out of her purse and sniffed at the opening).
Proudly, Ben presented a pamphlet reading SEAWORLD, while Tommy provided jazz hands. Kate looked around herself again and muttered to Ben, “This place is like fifteen minutes from our house,” before turning to Maddie.
Maddie, staring at the dolphin grinning on the cover of the pamphlet with silent tears streaming down her face.
Maddie, her shoulders slumped and the look of a broken heart in her eyes.
Kate fell instantly to her knees, part of her registering Ben and Tommy beginning to panic noisily in the background but most of her zeroing in on her daughter. She pulled her in close and pressed Maddie’s teary face to her shoulder.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?”
In a voice barely audible but urgent, she said, “They’re mean to the dolphins here.”
Kate glanced up at Ben (handfuls of hair in his hands as he paced in front of them) and focused back on Maddie. “Who told you that? Did Uncle Ben let you on YouTube again?”
“No, it was a boy at school. He told me his mom let him watch a movie about it and they’re mean to the dolphins. He told the whole class that if we ever went inside we would be hurting the dolphins too. I can’t go in there Mommy I can’t I can’t,” and her breathing sped up as she began to choke on her sobs.
Breathing deep, Kate rubbed Maddie’s back and said, “Breathe slow, baby. We don’t have to go in. Just breathe slow.” Rocking slightly, Kate looked up again; Ben and Tommy had their heads together, talking fast and gesticulating wildly. BJ stood by in seeming apathy until, as if waking from a nap, she snapped alert and walked over to whack Ben on the arm. She muttered at him, completely out of hearing range, and then pointed firmly down at Maddie.
Kate could read his response on his lips: “BJ, you’re a lifesaver.”
The next minute, he crouched down next to mother-and-daughter, laying a gentle palm on Maddie’s back. She looked up, still tearful, her lower lip jutting out, and Ben said, “I’m sorry, Maddie. I made the wrong choice. But BJ had a great idea. You know how your mom always goes to that diner for her birthday?” Maddie wiped at her eyes and nodded. “How about we go there, and just this once,” he looked up to make eye contact with Kate and then back down at Maddie, “you can order anything you like. Does that sound good?”
Maddie nibbled on her lower lip and then nodded quickly. Kate squeezed her tighter and said, “It’s still your birthday, baby. Think we can trade some ice cream for a smile?” Her face lit right up, just like Kate knew it would, and she touched her forehead briefly to Maddie’s before standing up and spinning with Maddie in her arms. “Let’s go!”
“Let’s blow this popsicle stand,” Maddie said gravely. Before Kate could move an inch, Ben, Tommy, and even BJ approached from all sides to sandwich Maddie in the middle of a cozy group hug. A look of bliss took over as she turned her face to the sky, eyes closed, and Kate breathed a sigh of relief.
She could do it without backup; but she would never, ever want to.
(Later that evening, after Maddie is asleep in bed, Ben and Kate curl up on the couch with glasses of wine.
“So, you literally put us in blindfolds and drove in circles for half an hour just to get to SeaWorld?”
“It was a great idea, okay. I had plans. I had a contact. I had big plans.”
She leans her head back on his shoulder and thinks for a second. “Fortieth birthday?”
“Definitely fortieth birthday.”
Without looking, Kate puts her hand up in the air and he smacks it for a high five.
“Blindfolds or bust.”