The party room at the Monroeville Build-A-Bear is also the storage room. Piles of empty animal skins sit in bins against one wall, separated by species. Phoebe shows the birthday contest winners their contents: the unfilled teddies, the languid rabbits with long ears, dissected frogs, wan pastel unicorns with flaccid horns, uninhabited carcasses of owls. There are flat pigs. The last bin overflows with blood-colored raptors.
These are the rules, Phoebe says, adjusting her nametag, though all the children know who Phoebe is. First, we sing and have our cake. Then we do a little clean-up. Then you build your bears! The children nod. Okay.
Pick one for yourself, Phoebe says, though they know this already, too.
Not for someone else, Phoebe says. Only for you.
Corporate admits that this is not a company-wide policy; the Monroeville store has gone a little off-piste. Teenage Phoebe, still a child herself, is their best employee. If parents complain about the one-Monroeville-birthday-party-bear-per-child-per-life policy, customer service connects them to the Rochester store. They are unable to confirm whether the bears are magic.
The children have heard all of this. They know the rumors. They want to believe. But also: they cannot be real! Many are experiencing a delirious, full-bodied ambivalence for the first time in their lives. A girl in yellow overalls sucks on a knuckle.
This is what they know: you cannot buy your way here. A trip to the party room is billed as a kind of local scholarship, reminiscent of the old BookIt program at Pizza Hut before Pizza Hut went out. The winners are ‘children of merit and unusual potential’ with birthdays this month. Every weekend, five are chosen.
The children, nauseated with anticipation, eat their cake. They mosy around the party room, lifting the lifeless creatures. They wait for it to happen, whatever it is. But it is not like Harry Potter. There are no sparks, no fireworks. The animals do not choose the children. The party room is a storage space with overhead lighting and a few mylar balloons. If you have worked retail, you know this place. It’s filled with regular children, the kind who delight in cake and attention, who quietly feel they deserve these things anyway, and not just on their birthdays.
Isn’t that one of the great delights of childhood—that unshakeable sense of importance? That one is the substrate through which all things, living and nonliving, are connected? None of us realize it’s over until it’s over. When was the last time you fell asleep in the backseat of a car while someone drove you home and delivered you to bed, gently removing each of your shoes?
So, Phoebe insists there is no magic. She chooses her winners randomly. Which child contains the most unusual potential? Who knows. So much can happen to them. So much is coming. And Phoebe herself is only seventeen, finishing her junior year at the local high school. She works part-time at this mall. She plays clarinet. If a girl like her had been seventeen in Monroeville for the last four hundred years or would be for four hundred years more, no one would notice. And no one has.
Do you know that science experiment where you hook up a potato to power an LED alarm clock? Any potato can do it. One at a time, each birthday child hands Phoebe the animal that most closely represents their secret birthday wish, though Phoebe hasn’t instructed them to do so and none can articulate how or why they know this. She doesn’t tell them if they’ve chosen right. There is no right choice. It’s whatever they want. Of course this is a story about wishes. What else are birthday parties for? Why do we spend so little time contemplating the sweet brutality of our short lives? Why do we punish ourselves for wanting more?
Whatever they wish, Phoebe nods. She stuffs the chosen animal with cotton batting, whispers the wish into a felt heart, tosses it in and sews up the seam with fingers as smooth as spring butter. And though they do not know it, because who would ever think to mention it, every child who takes their birthday Build-A-Bear out of the witch’s ancient arms and into their own feels the same jolt. For one second, they are the current and the air that surrounds it. They are the light and the circuit, completed. The liquid and the medium and the dream.