“. . . Happy Birthday dear Ken, Happy Birthday to you.”
As the slightly discordant chorus trailed away Ken blew out the candles, while Jinpei’s “Hip-hip . . .”s were answered by the customary “Hooray!”s. Jun handed Ken the knife, suggesting he should cut a slice for everyone.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I followed the recipe exactly. No experimentation or substitutions.”
“And I was there to superv . . . uh, help!” Jinpei added, ducking a swat from his sister.
“It looks awesome, Jun,” Ryu chimed in, setting out plates for the slices of cake. “The decorating must have taken hours. The plane is the spitting image of Ken’s Cessna.”
Once everyone had their piece of cake set before them there was a collective hesitation. Jun watched Ken with an expression of anxious expectation mixed with hopefulness. Ken took a small, tentative taste, quickly followed by a large forkful of the light, fluffy chocolate sponge cake with vanilla frosting.
“This is really good!” he managed to exclaim between mouthfuls.
“You like it?” Jun beamed.
“It’s great. Thanks, Jun.”
The others were all tucking in to their own slices of the tasty dessert and nodding their agreement.
“Good, because it’s my gift to you – the cake and dinner and all the decorations, this whole party.”
“I love it. All of it. Thank you.” Ken flashed her one of those smiles that made her heart soar and her cheeks flush.
“Hey,” Jinpei piped up, “speaking of presents . . .” He handed Ken a blue and red envelope, grinning from ear to ear.
“I got you something too,” Ryu said before Ken could open Jinpei’s gift. “It was really too big to bring here, or to wrap.” Ryu looked sheepish, twisting his fingers together. “I fixed up your old tool chest at the airfield.”
While Ken’s tools were always immaculate, his old tool chest had seen better days. The cupboard door had been hanging askew from one bent hinge. Ryu had also fixed the wonky shelves, two drawers that had been constantly falling off their sliders and a third that had been completely stuck shut. The whole thing had been re-aligned, repaired, cleaned, oiled and repainted.
“Thanks, Ryu. I can’t wait to see it all fixed up.” Ken gave him a well received, hearty pat on the shoulder before turning to Joe. “So that’s why you had me come out to the track today.”
Joe met Ken’s half-hearted ‘you lied to me’ look with a sly grin.
“I needed someone on stopwatch duty.”
“And the rest! Tyre changes, refuelling, new spark plugs!”
“I had to keep you busy.” Joe chuckled. “Couldn’t have you hanging around the airfield while Ryu was there, or coming in here while Jun was getting all this ready. And you already know what I got you.”
“Yeah, thanks Joe. First issue arrived the other day.”
Joe and Ken had a sort of permanent birthday gift arrangement. Joe paid for Ken’s annual subscription to Aviator Magazine and Ken did the same for Joe’s Motorsport Magazine. They had each missed a few issues here and there over the years when money was tight, but neither would complain.
“Open mine, Ken,” Jinpei said, bringing the focus back to the coloured envelope in Ken’s hand.
“Okay, okay,” Ken answered with a laugh. He slid his finger under the edge of the seal to open the envelope, and pulled out a scratch lotto card.
“I tried to think ‘What does Ken need more than anything?’, and I figured – money!” Jinpei’s eyes were wide and bright as he hopped from foot to foot. “And this could win you like, fifty thousand dollars!”
“Thanks, Jinpei.” Ken tried to put the lotto card down on the counter, but paused when Jinpei protested.
“You have to scratch it now! I need to see if you’ve won. Imagine what you could do with all that money.”
For a moment Ken allowed himself to be swept away in the pleasure of spending imaginary winnings. He could finally fix up the shack and the outbuildings at the airfield. Dr Nambu, through some financial deal with the ISO, made sure the airstrip itself was safely functional at all times, but some of the hangars and sheds needed a lot of work. Maybe he’d even be able to get decent heating in the shack, and a larger generator, and properly fix the roof instead of patching the leaks all the time . . .
Jun slid a coin from the till across the counter for him to use to scratch the panels on the card. The others watched as Ken prepared to scrape the coloured surface layer off the backing.
“Wait!” Ryu exclaimed, “You have to play the game. You don’t scratch everything, just the bits at the top. Then you match those symbols up with the ones down here and scratch those to find out if you win.”
Studying the card for a moment Ken could see that the game on the card was some form of Bingo. He followed Ryu’s directions and scratched off various panels and matched them with squares in the Bingo grids. As he matched and scratched the last few panels he found his pulse beginning to race. It was looking like he had a chance of winning some kind of prize. The very last panel he revealed gave him a completed strip of Bingo symbols next to a prize amount indicating he’d just won $4000. He stood staring in disbelieving silence for a moment.
“We won!” Jinpei’s excitement was beyond containment as he hopped and skipped around the Snack J.
“Hold on there, Squirt,” Joe said, placing a hand on Jinpei’s bouncing shoulder. “What do you mean ‘we’?”
“Yeah, slow down Buckaroo,” Ryu added with a chuckle as Jinpei finally began to slow to a nervous shuffle, “just who do you think has won the prize?”
“Well, obviously, Ken has to share the prize with me, since I bought him the ticket.”
“Who bought it?” Joe gave a half-hearted glare and Jinpei finally stood still.
“Okay, well Joe had to buy it because I’m not 18 yet, but it was my idea and it was bought with my money.”
“Really?” It was Jun’s turn to give a quizzical expression as she came around the counter to join the boys. “I’d argue that since you had to get an advance on your allowance from me in order to afford it, and you still haven’t paid me back, it was technically my money.”
“Aw, Sis, I can pay you back out of my share of the prize . . .”
“Nice try, but why wouldn’t I go straight to the source?”
“Especially since Ken should be using the prize money to pay off his Snack J tab.” As Ryu spoke everyone began to turn back towards Ken at the counter.
“Yeah, Ken . . .” When Jun turned to face Ken she found nothing but a coin on the counter and an empty space where Ken had been. “Ken?!” she called towards the rapidly closing glass door.
Jinpei and Jun raced out of the Snack J after Ken. Ryu chuckled to himself and followed. Joe sat at the counter to finish his drink.
“The White Shadow has slipped out unseen,” he thought to himself with a sly smile.