The Birthday Present
It began as a typical day.
Which is to say, it began horribly. It looked horrible, it smelled horrible, and it felt horrible.
Penelope Pennywise had been sitting at her desk at Public Amenity Number Nine since 12:00 noon. It was now 3:00. Just seven hours until she could go home.
Today was her birthday. Not that she acknowledged it.
Not since the Stink Years had Ms. Pennywise celebrated anything, especially something as trivial as her own birthday. What was the point? She wasn't exactly popular with her friends since taking her job with the UGC, and Jo Strong had practically forgotten she existed since the baby came. Who wanted to eat birthday cake alone? She didn't even like cake. And it wasn't like the amenity patrons had anything to celebrate. Especially not another year with America's Least Favorite Coin Collector.
So why bother?
"Alright, form a line," Pennywise called gruffly. Her slight Irish accent might have been elegant once, but now it had a rough, gravely quality that made her sound more like a chain smoker than a member of the UGC. Spending hours a day hollering at people to have exact change will do that. The patrons all scrambled into a line, repeatedly checking their pockets as if it would make quarters magically appear in their hands.
"Have yer money ready!" she ordered, glaring at Joe Strong, who had stepped out of line to pick a penny off the stone path. He winked at her and she rolled her eyes. "Do I even need to say it, Strong?"
Joe leaned across Penny's desk, and she noted that his salt-and-pepper hair was almost attractive. Almost. "Nope, Penny, I hears ya loud and clear. 'Course, I'd hear ya better if ya leaned in a little…"
"Enough!" she yelled. "Stop flirting and get in line!"
She would never know why Joe continued to flirt with her; everyone knew he was happily married to Josephine. Even had a little boy together. Must be about seven by now.
The first young man in line slapped a handful of change on her desk. "Here," Harry growled. "Are you happy with yourself, woman?"
"As long as I ain't in Urinetown, Hot Blades, I'm perfectly happy. Now stop holdin' up the line." Penny jerked her hand at the decaying wooden door.
Harry grumbled his way into the amenity, swiping her clipboard off her desk as he did so.
Yup. This was the life.
The petite woman bent down, hearing her back crack painfully. Christ, when did she get so old?
Kneeling on the gravel, she found herself eye-to-eye with a smiling little girl in a pristine polka-dot dress, a small baby doll at her feet.
"'Scuse me," the girl said, rocking back and forth on her heels, dirtying her new white shoes. She was cute, with shoulder-length waves of strawberry blonde hair, adorned with a pink flower hairpin. She stared at Ms. Pennywise with large, blue-gray eyes, seemingly unfazed by the woman's gritty appearance. Actually, the girl resembled Pennywise from her younger days, before the drought. They had the same hair color and face shape, though the girl's eyes were something else altogether. Sort of…familiar…
"'Scuse me," the girl asked again, when Ms. Pennywise said nothing. "Is this yours?" She held out the clipboard with two tiny hands.
Penny, still on her knees, grabbed it, carefully eying the girl. "Thanks."
"Is this place Am-en-ty Number...Nine?" she guessed, pointing brightly at the dingy sign over the door.
"Yes." Penny had to smile. Man, this girl was cute. A nice change around here, she thought, glancing at the line of dirty poor folk counting their change. But where had she seen this kid before?
"Yessss!" the girl celebrated, jumping up and down gleefully. "I'm learning to read! Daddy sends me to the Most Ex-pen-sive Kindergarten in the World," she recited, as if it was a rehearsed speech. "He says he owns all the amenties here. He's so good."
Most Expensive Kindergarten in the World. Her father owns all the amenities here.
Penny couldn't breathe. This girl looked so much like her. And those eyes. Could it be…?
"What's yer name, sweetie?"
Oh. Dear. God.
Hope cocked her head to one side, playing with a plastic pearl bracelet. "Why are you sad?" she asked, and her voice was soft and concerned.
Pennywise straightened, ashamed to nearly cry in front of her…daughter. "Nothing, sweetheart. I'm happy. Very, very happy." She picked up the girl, who didn't protest in the least, and sat her on top of the desk with her doll. "Now, why don't you tell me why a pretty girl like you is here instead of at home with her Daddy?"
"One of Daddy's workers picked me up today, and he was walking me home, but I ran away. I don't like The McQueen."
"The McQueen?" Just the thought of having Hope around that creep was enough to make Penny's skin crawl. "Is this McQueen a Mr. or a Mrs.?"
Hope thought for a moment, brow furrowed in concentration. "I don't know," she concluded. "No one will tell me." She leaned in and whispered in her mother's ear. "I don't think anyone knows!"
They both laughed, and several patrons turned to look at the pair.
"Hey, look at the Dragon Lady! She's laughin'!" said a teenager, Soupy Sue.
"Didn't know she could laugh," said another.
Pennywise ignored them. "Well, you just wait here with me until he finds you, okay, Hope, dear?"
"Okay!" Hope swung her feet off the side of the desk as a girl named Rebecca signed her name and paid. Suddenly, she had a thought. "Play house with me!" she announced.
The older woman looked around. No policemen or executives in sight. What could it hurt? When would she get this chance again? "Of course, dear."
Sue nearly fainted.
"I'll be the baby, and you be my mommy!" Hope decided.
"Don't you want to play mommy to that pretty doll you have there?"
Hope looked down and twirled her hair. "I don't know how to be a mommy because I don't have one," she said.
"What do mommies do?" the girl continued.
Pennywise, knowing she would lose it if Hope cried, lifted her daughter's chin gently. "Well, if…if I was your mommy, I would take you to school, and cook you breakfast, and buy you pretty dresses, and brush your hair –"
"Wow! Mommies do all that?"
Penny sighed. "They should, Hope. They should."
Hope thought, rubbing her chin, and Penny proudly recognized this as a habit of her own. "I know!" the girl said. "Why don't I be Maggie's mommy and you be my mommy?"
The smile that crept up Ms. Pennywise's face was involuntary, but nonetheless heartwarming, prompting a few "aww's" from the crowd. "I can brush your hair," Penny warmly suggested, pulling a travel-sized brush from her bag.
Hope positioned herself on the desk and proceeded to dress and undress her doll.
Penelope Pennywise was many things, but patient was not one of them. So when Soupy Sue watched the grisly woman sit down and brush a little girl's hair, she had to stop and make sure she was seeing straight.
Penny glared at her. "Keep the line moving," she said calmly. "Leave the money on the table and move along."
This went on for a good ten minutes.
But all good things must end eventually.
"Hope Penelope Cladwell!" panted McQueen as he…she… ran up to Pennywise's desk. "Don't you dare run away from me again, you hear? Your Daddy gon' skin me alive!"
Pennywise limped up to McQueen, leveling …it… with a laser-strong glare. "McQueen! What do you mean by letting Caldwell's daughter run loose through the streets? She could have been robbed! She could have been hurt!"
"Sorry Ms. Pennywise," McQueen said in an exaggerated drawl. "It won't happen again."
"You better make sure it won't, McQueen, or I'll have Caldwell fire you so fast you won't even have time to clear your desk! Get me?"
"Y-yes, Ms. Pennywise. Come along, Hope."
Hope grudgingly jumped down from the desk and walked over to McQueen.
"Say goodbye to Ms. Pennywise."
"Goodbye, Ms. Pennywise!" Hope called, smiling brightly.
Penny smiled, holding back tears. "Goodbye, Hope."
She watched for a long time as the pair walked away. At least three patrons snuck past without paying, and she didn't even care. When she looked back at her records, she noticed that Hope had left her doll. "Maggie." Grabbing it, Pennywise ran, as best she could, after them. "Wait!" she called when she was within earshot of the pair. "Hope! Yer doll!"
The girl turned around, and Penny's heart flipped over. Hope ran back to her, little arms pumping hard, and hugged Penny around her leg. "Thank you!"
The woman knelt down to be eye-level with her daughter and handed her Maggie. "Now, Hope, before you go, I want you to do something. Put yer ear right here."
Hope leaned on Penny's chest, big eyes looking up at her.
"That's my heart," Penny said. "It says, 'I'll miss you very much.'" She placed Hope's hand over her own chest. "And that's your heart. If you ever get lost again, just follow it, and you'll end up right back with me. Got it?"
They hugged once more, and she was gone.
When Ms. Pennywise trudged back to the amenity, the crowd was in an uproar. Several patrons chided her for leaving, but nothing stung as much as watching Hope leave twice. She picked up her pencil and her clipboard. "Next?"
Josephine Strong was in line with her son, and she looked supportively at her old friend. "That was a very good thing you did."
Pennywise sighed. "Have yer change?" she asked, rather halfheartedly.
Mrs. Strong searched both pockets several times over before coming up with a third of what she needed. "I'm just a little tight since this one's eating me out of house and home," she teased, rubbing her son's hair. "We'll leave," she said. They started to go, and the boy was near tears.
"Wait." Penny took a huge bag of change from her purse and emptied it into the collection bowl, filling it to the brim. "Just go."
Josephine gaped at her. "But, Penny, are you sure?"
"Want me to change my mind?"
"No, ma'am. Go along, Bobby." But as she ushered her son into the amenity, she smiled.
Mr. Cladwell and the UGC would later explain Amenity Number Nine's patrons' mysterious good spirits (and full pocketbooks) as nothing more than a sign that the system was working correctly. But those who stood in line knew that it was simply because Penelope Pennywise got her wish to not be alone on her birthday.
I'm lucky enough to be in a summer production of Urinetown in New Jersey, and I love it. The show is amazing, and I'm the happiest girl ever to drive forever to get to the theater ;) Though, when the director suggested that we come up with backstories for the characters, I'm pretty sure he meant our own characters. I play Josephine Strong, but this story wouldn't get out of my head. I *hope* you enjoy it!
A few things: in our show, McQueen is an androgynous, flamboyant character that is never once identified as a man or a woman; and I based the family resemblance of Hope and Pennywise off the girls playing those parts in our show, who happen to be twins :) Hi to anyone in the cast who happens upon this!