A Basic Foundation for Riley
It upset Riley, on levels a three-year-old didn’t have the vocabulary to express, that his parents wouldn’t let him own a Lego set until he turned four. “Imagine what would happen if you choked and died,” Dad said. “Your mom and I would be devastated, financially. We couldn’t even sue for funeral expenses — not successfully — because they print an age advisory right on the box. Is that what you want for your mom and me? To not only lose our son but also be deprived the satisfaction of an assured money judgement?”
Riley shook his head.
“Bide your time,” Dad said. “Your day will come so soon, you’ll look back and think, ‘I can’t believe I was impatient for something that turned out to be such a disappointment.’”
Mom suggested a distraction. “We’ll make a countdown calendar.” She helped Riley paste strips of construction paper into links on a rainbow chain. It snaked halfway around his bedroom. “Each morning, rip one off,” Mom said. “Once all the rings are gone, your birthday is here.”
Riley said, “If we tear them now, the wait is over today. I promise I’ll never put a Lego in my mouth.”
Mom closed her eyes and gave her boy a lingering hug. “Oh, honey, you can’t make that promise. Not with any weight; a child lacks the capacity to enter binding contracts. Your guardians have to make agreements on your behalf, meaning a verbal contract between you and me is, in effect, an agreement between me and myself. Does that sound like a fair deal, honey, for me to shoulder all the burdens of an agreement while you receive its benefits? Frankly, I’m offended you would ask.”
He said, “I’m sorry, Mommy.”
She said, “There, there. Bide your time until the rings are gone. Your day will come, and you’ll think, ‘These fruits that took so long to ripen were lemons all along.’”
Riley couldn’t sleep. When the alarm clock showed 12:00 a.m., he slipped out of bed to tear the last link from his chain. He spent the rest of his night admiring photos taped to his wall — a flock of Lego dragons clipped from Sunday newspaper ads. He knew better than to expect such an extravagant present, but even a modest set would thrill him. Say, a single Lego man riding a simple Lego drake. How he longed to fly that man around his room, subjecting him to countless, slow-motion crashes that culminated in the separation of his legs from his torso.
Aunt and Uncle arrived early for the party. “We were supposed to bring birthday cake,” they said. “Your gift is that we didn’t, sugar being poison.”
Mom said, “How thoughtful.”
Dad presented an ordinary mailing envelope. “My budget was fifty dollars. You’ll appreciate that I only spent ten cents on the wrapping.” Inside was a plastic prepaid card for the downtown law library Xerox machines, loaded with enough credit for four hundred and ninety-nine grayscale copies.
Riley said, “I can’t use this. You haven’t taught me to read yet.”
Dad said, “So sue me.”
Grandma gave Riley a glittering box topped with a bow. He flung open the lid, giddy until he looked inside. “It’s empty.”
Grandma said, “No, it’s filled with a valuable lesson: don’t judge things by their outsides.”
Finally, Mom handed Riley a yellow shopping bag from the Lego Store. He hugged her and thanked her and hugged her again. “Thank you, thank you.”
The bag contained a single plastic package, suspiciously thin. He tore it open to find a twenty-five centimeter Lego square, roughly the color and thickness of a saltine cracker. If he were able to read, he would have learned its name: Classic Sand Baseplate. It was a foundation upon which structures were meant to be erected; though, it came with no pieces to erect.
Riley melted into a blob of hysterics, red-faced, weeping.
“Hush, baby,” Grandma said. “With age, you will find that nearly everything built in your mind turns to rubble when exposed to reality.”
“It’s not what I wanted,” he said. “It’s only one piece.”
Aunt said, “Darling, seek peace within yourself.”
Riley’s sadness turned to a whimpering rage. He held his baseplate as if it were a boomerang. “I could throw this and chop all your heads off,” he said. “Then I’d get your money and buy all the Legos in the world.”
Mom shook her head. “Oh, Riley. The laws of intestate succession disallow you from inheriting the estates of individuals you murder.” She held her son’s hot face to her stomach. “You have so much to learn about the law.”
Riley took the baseplate to his bedroom. He folded his copy-machine card into a V and placed it on top — a tent for his Lego landscape. But with no men to sleep inside, it seemed pointless.
Suddenly, the tent became a scaly drake, stretching its white plastic wings. It flapped around the room until friction made it snap in half.
Riley set the broken creature on his baseplate, put the plate in his glittering nothing-box. Combined, the plate and box worked magic. The drake sprang back to life, took flight. Riley giggled with joy. He flew the toy around his room, putting it through countless, slow-motion crashes, culminating in the dismemberment of its wings.
When Mom and Dad saw the broken copy machine card, they gasped. “How could you?”
Riley said, “I like it better this way.”
“There’s no cash equity in how much you like a thing,” they said.
Riley pouted. “What if I like something, but you break it, so I sue?”
Mom and Dad thought for a moment. “That’s something to ponder.” Deeply satisfied, they took Riley’s hand. “The unrealized losses we’ve invested in you may turn into gains, after all.”
They stooped to give Riley a long embrace. He returned the gesture, but only with one arm. With the other, he secretly flew his drake in figure-eights behind their backs.
Ryan K. Jory lives with his husband in San Diego, California. His stories have recently appeared in Necessary Fiction, Hobart, and Corium Magazine.
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