Juniper Haskin had one wish. She recited it each night upon spotting that first far-away star. Dandelions were blown with purpose and pennies saved for tossing into fountains. On her fifth birthday, she concentrated on the bright burning candles and filled her lungs to their fullest. With one puff-cheeked exhalation, she extinguished the flames. She wouldn’t share her wish.
Birthday wishes are the most sacred; the magic is strict and unforgiving.
Like all magic, wishes come with a cost. Juniper understood this when her mother, Ana, sat her down and explained that to attend Kindergarten in the fall, her shot record needed to be up to date.
“You said those shots were dangerous.”
“You’re older now. You have to get them for school.”
“The flu shot broke my arm.”
“Bruised. Get the shots without a fuss and I’ll buy you a treat.”
“I’ll do it,” Juniper answered, a thrill zinging her heart. “For a Happy Meal.”
Ana’s jaw tightened. “Sweetie, meat is murder.”
Juniper knew her mother was lying. She’d done it before claiming that kale chips were as good as potato chips. When Juniper snuck a handful of Lays at a neighborhood block party she knew she couldn’t trust her mother.
She’d seen cows, and they didn’t look anything like hamburgers. Besides, Happy Meals couldn’t come from sad animals. That didn’t make sense. Deep in her soul, Juniper knew that she was only a burger-and-fries combo away from true happiness.
“That’s the only thing I want.”
As they pulled out of the driveway, Juniper spotted Paxton Prewitt, the neighbor boy, wearing a wormy smile. He waved with maniacal glee. She waved back and his face hardened. He lifted his chin and cut his thumb across his throat. She sank down. She was supposed to ignore Paxton. He was nine and his mother had left him and his dad. Mr. Prewitt was mean to Paxton, so Paxton was mean to Juniper.
In the waiting room, Juniper flipped through a grown-up magazine as her mother talked on her cell. She couldn’t picture Ana without the phone in hand.
“Well, we put it off as long as we could. Who knows what’s in immunizations? The boy next door…”
Juniper stopped turning the pages when her eyes landed on a storybook drawing of two penguins drinking soda while riding on top of a polar bear. Share a Coke.
“Mommy, do the penguins at the zoo drink soda?”
“No. That’s poison.”
Juniper’s legs hung stiff over the edge of the exam table. She didn’t fidget. To move would allow her body to panic, to flee. Five shots. The flu shot had hurt bone deep. Worse still, was when she showed Paxton her Elsa band-aid and he punched her in the arm and called Elsa a frigid bitch.
“I’ll be back before the rush. That’s her second no-show this month.” Ana sighed. “Sorry, Marco. We’re still waiting for shots.” She hung up and frowned at the clock.
“Juni, we may not have time to stop at McDonald’s. How about I fix you a Soy Dream shake at the café instead?”
Juniper’s chin quaked but her eyes were steel. “You said –”
“I –” Ana’s phone chirped, and she began thumbing at the screen’s letters.
A soft knock sounded and a sweet face nurse called Fatima entered. “Hello. Sorry to keep you waiting.” She carried a plastic tray with five syringes and alcohol swabs.
Juniper shook. The needles, so long and sharp were to pierce her skin. The Happy Meal promise was fading fast. Fatima grinned, the slight gap between her two front teeth shining like a black hole. “Do you like princesses?”
“Which one is your favorite?” Fatima fanned the band-aids like playing cards. “I have Ariel, Jasmine, Elsa and –”
Arm throbbing with memory Juniper shrieked. “No! I don’t like princess band-aids!”
“But Elsa’s your favorite.”
Ana’s phone chirped again.
Still smiling, Fatima said, “I’ll get the whole box and let you pick. I’ll be right back.” The door clunked shut behind her.
“What’s wrong with princesses?”
“It’s just five little pricks.”
“I want my Happy Meal.”
“You have too! It’s my birthday wish.”
“Fine. We’ll do the drive thru.”
This time knocks came like bullets, quick and hard. A different nurse with thin lips and papery skin entered. She held only one syringe.
Ana’s phone rang. She didn’t look up. “I’m sorry, I have to take this.”
The new nurse held the girl’s gaze. “No crying.”
Juniper watched the needle. There should be five…but one would hurt less and then they’d go to McDonald’s. She nodded her agreement.
“Atta girl.” This nurse did not smile.
Ana murmured into the phone.
The nurse gripped Juniper’s arm. Her fingers were hot and her nails dug in as the needle plunged amber liquid into the soft flesh. Slow and steady. The nurse did not have a band-aid. After removing the needle she held her thumb against the blooming rosette of blood. Her mouth twisted upward as she pressed her blood-blessed thumb against a page in a pocket-sized notebook. “What was your name?”
“Juniper Haskin.” A burning surged through the girl’s veins.
“It’s nice to add a Juniper to my collection.” The nurse wrote the letters and tucked the notebook into her pocket. “Goodbye now.”
Barking orders on her cell, Ana stood and motioned for her daughter.
The spot on Juniper’s arm hurt worse than when Paxton punched it. The florescent lights overhead were blinding, turning the room a transparent white. Underneath her feet, the world swayed. Moving carefully, Juniper vowed not to say anything about how awful she felt until she’d eaten her Happy Meal.
The glowing golden arches reminded Juniper of shooting stars. Before she could utter a wish, the red of the roof flooded her vision and all went black.
L.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her daughter and a mysterious cat. When she’s not writing, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/ She tweets @LLMadridWriter