It didn't take as long to fall asleep as I'd thought, but when I was starting to slip onto the bridge between slumber and waking up, I dreamed that I was buried alive. When I cared enough to open my eyes, I saw a solemn little face staring down at me.
" I couldn't breathe well with Lee sitting on my chest like that, but it was technically our first time meeting
ever, so I wasn't sure how to get him off me.
He couldn't have weighed that much, but he was sitting right on my chest. After a few more seconds of staring at me, he broke out into a completely unexpected smile, showing off uncommonly sharp canines. I smiled back automatically, then patted the tiny expanse of bed beside me.
Thankfully, he took the hint and crawled off of my chest. The rush of air availability made me dizzy, in spite of my supine position. A skinny little arm draped over my torso, but Lee didn't squeeze like Faron had. He didn't say anything either, but I didn't expect him tonot that I'd anticipated his wake-up call either. I glanced at the digital clock on my nightstand, then leaned back over to return Lee's half-hug. It wasn't that much earlier than I usually woke up, even if I had gone to bed later than was wise.
I sighed, glad that I had access to enough air to do that. Lee had buried his face in my side, but I couldn't tell if he had gone back to sleep or not. It was the weirdest feeling ever, to have a kid hanging onto me as if I were a life raft or a parent. Maybe there was more similarity between the two than I'd ever recognized.
My door was shut, which made me chuckle to myself and decide that Lee was the polite one. He was definitely the quiet one, and they were both terminally cute. Family trait, I knew. I smoothed his hair down, over and over, just thinking.
Before I'd finally managed to get my dad to go to bed last night, we'd talked for a long time. The lightest subject had been my ankle, which just goes to show how heavy the entire conversation was. At least I'd talking him out of making me see a doctor in the morning. I hated doctors.
As soon as that was out of the way, he'd told me that the twins wouldn't be going to school until after the winter break was over. In all the excitement and mind-killing waiting, I'd forgotten it was even coming up. Although it did explain why Alice had wanted to go out on Wednesday, the last day before break started. She probably had plans after that.
Or she hoped to. I knew that kind of thinking. Best to find out if you really like someone first. It was what I'd come to classify as a pre-premi date. There were less expectations, and it made everyone involved more relaxed.
I grinned at the ceiling, still absentmindedly smoothing Lee's hair, occasionally twirling bits of it with my index finger. Not only did I have a date with the most interesting girl I'd ever met, but I was getting early vacation. Which in this case meant a longer vacation. Dad had woken me up sometime long before Lee, and told me that he'd called the school and gotten me out of the last couple of days so I could stay with Lee and Faron. A completely in-my-favor trade.
A loud creak signaled a new visitor, I looked up and saw a little hand pushing the door open. All I could see was the hand and the arm attached to it. Faron was standing out of sight on purpose, taking his time about coming in. After some brief and extremely complicated acrobatics, I grabbed my second pillow off of the floor and used it to prop my head up. "Although I would prefer it if you knock from now on, since I can see you, you are welcome to come in."
Faron stuck his spiky-haired head in the doorway and grinned at me. I couldn't be sure from that distance, but I guessed that he had the same pointy-looking little teeth that Lee did. Another wave of gratitude for how lucky I was flooded my groggy nerve system. If they had decided not to like me
Let's just say that I remembered being six. Biting anyone that I didn't like had not been a moral issue that could be precluded by long discussions.
That didn't appear to be a problem here, so I didn't jinx everything by worrying about it. Faron jumped onto my bed and took over the last remaining six inches on my other side. "You're skinnier than Mom."
I wasn't sure how I should respond, so I just let my mouth run itself. Usually that was a bad idea, but there was no way I could be rude about moms, even when I was being careless. "It's due to things like wind shear and me being younger.
And I don't care for cake."
"That's you kidding, right? Only I can't tell by myself yet because I don't know you very well." Faron lifted Lee's arm and started playing with his fingers, making me tense every time he bent them back even a tiny bit.
Not any closer to understanding how talking to these kids was going to work, I swallowed my anxiety and nodded. "That's right. Come on, we should probably put Lee back in bed, and you can help me make breakfast."
"He's not asleep."
Faron set Lee's arm carefully back on my stomach and patted his brother's wrist. "I told you, he's not sleeping. Lee's awake, he's just being very quiet." He whispered the last three words, still patting Lee's wrist. "Since the fat lady with a tie came and said about Mom, Lee's been very very very quiet."
"Oh." I swallowed a lump in my throat. "In that case, both of you can hang in here while I find my clothes
" Neither of them moved. "That means you have to let me up."
Then Lee started pretending to snore and it was too hard not to laugh. Both of them pinned my arms and snored in concert, it was like being sandwiched in between two dozing cartoon characters with something to prove.
Of course, I could have just let them lounge on my bed all day, but lounging wasn't something I was particularly good at. It was one of the many things that made me itch. "Don't you want breakfast, sleepyheads? I can
try to make waffles." There was a waffle iron in the pantry. I was pretty sure I knew how it worked. In a pinch, I could always call Mr. Bernoulli, he'd probably been the person who'd given us the waffle iron.
"That means you're gonna burn 'em. Mom always burned waffles." There was an odd tinny note of humor in Faron's voice that hinted at its falseness. I debated the wisdom of tickling to get them off, then decided against it. We weren't very well acquainted, so none of that yet.
"Have a little faith, I might not burn them
They may just come out a little too brown and crispy." I sighed, then had an unexpected flash of brilliance. "Please let me up?"
Aha, the magic word really did have some power. First Lee sat up and pressed his back against the wall, watching with a less solemn look than the one he'd woken me up with, and then Faron rolled gracelessly off the other side onto the floor. The bump scared my heart into my throat, but before I could work myself up over it, he was back on his feet and running around in circles with a pair of my boxers on his head.
"Umma umma hoppa wheeee! Underpants!"
Thank every celestial manifestation in history the garments in question were clean. For a minute I just sat on the bed and stared, while Lee laughed helplessly at his crazy brother. Finally I had to join him, especially as the song continued on for three more insane verses.
My clock beeped the hour, reminding me that I had to feed two small children, as well as myself. I reached out and grabbed Faron by the waist and pulled him off the ground. "Do you want waffles?"
"Yes! And so does Lee."
I chuckled and pulled the boxers off his head. "Okay. That means we all have to get dressed."
Faron leaned back and rested his head against my collarbone. It was the first time I'd had a kid in my lap since Christianna Bernoulli had been this agewow, two years agobut it didn't feel weird at all. Faron didn't seem to think it was weird either. "Pajamas is dressed."
"No. Pajamas are pajamas." My ankle was actually close to being pronounced healed, but in the meantime, I had to rewrap it and get resume the ice regimen. "Tell you what. If you two get dressedand that means shirts, pants, and socksthen I'll make you a special dessert." That was something I could actually do. Fruit and whipped cream weren't things anyone could accidentally burn, not even my dad.
At first it didn't look like it was going to work, but then Lee scrambled off the bed and made a beeline for the door. Half a second later, Faron ran after him, nearly tripping over my rucksack. My face and lungs went through thirteen different levels of distress, but he was fine. He even slammed the door behind him. Once I was alone in the room, I let my shoulders sag.
There was no telling how long or short a time I'd have to get dressed, so I grabbed things off of the floor and set a record. Even though I did put my shirt on backwards the first two times. Socks were a lot harder, but I finally found a pair hanging from a corner of my bottom bureau drawer.
I got my crutches and walked down the hall to the twins' room. They were being quiet, but I could hear them talking.
Faron was talking, at least. I propped myself up against the wall by the closed door and listened. I couldn't make out any words, but I was pretty certain that Faron was the only one speaking. I wondered if Lee had been much of a talker before his mom's accident, and felt a brand new wave of guilt for never pushing Dad to arrange a visit. I could have done it, Lucas was right, especially after last summer, and that had been a year and a half ago. I didn't even remember when the twins' birthday was.
After another second or two, I reached over and knocked on the door. "You guys ready yet?"
"Just a second," Faron shouted, much louder than he needed to. "My zipper's stuck. I can get it, though
I bit my lip, determined not to smile. It was going to be interesting, learning how to keep a straight face around them every time it was needed. "Do you want me to help?"
"No, I got it." Then he lowered his voice to a muffled whisper, no doubt intended for Lee's ears only. I just waited.
Then the doorknob turned and Lee stepped out into the hallway. He smiled shyly at me, then closed the door softly behind him. He'd combed his hair, and his clothes were neat and unwrinkled. There was a duck on his shirt. I repressed a dopey grin and bent into as close an approximation of a crouch as I could without putting any weight on my bad foot. "Faron's a pretty independent kind of guy, isn't he?"
Lee nodded, still smiling. Then he pointed to his own chest and shook his head.
"You're not independent?"
Shake of the head.
I drew him away from the door and sat on the floor with both legs stretched out, then patted the carpet next to me. "It's okay. You're still a kid." He sat next to me and put his hands in his lap, avoiding my eyes. "You don't have to be independent until you're... even older than me."
He looked up at me, question-filled blue eyes digging in.
It was unnerving, but I didn't look away. "We're your family. That means you get to depend on us fifty million ways and more." A lump formed in my throat as I said it, and he caught that change in my voice. The curiosity in his eyes was replaced with sadness, but I only saw it for a second before he was hugging me, clinging as if it would hurt to let go.
My breathing got jagged, but this was among the worst possible moments to get emotional. It was the moment that I was supposed to deliver big brother words of wisdom, but I didn't have any. Not even canned ones. It didn't feel right to shut up either, but it was my only viable option. Lee seemed to be just fine with my silence, but I was sure I was letting him down.
The clicking of the doorknob's mechanisms shocked both of us into jumping to our feet, with vastly dissimilar results. Mine included barely getting to my crutches and nearly pitching myself headfirst into the wall. Lee reached out to help balance me while Faron stared at us both, looking like he was trying to solve a long math equation.
Finally he just laughed and started bounding down the stairs. "You're really weird, Dschimi!"
Truer words had never been spoken. The kid really had my number
Something cold touched my wrist, and I realized that Lee was holding onto it. No, not holding on, just resting his hand on it, and looking at me with another deep expression. This one wasn't sad so much as it was searching. Either he found what he was looking for or he didn't, but he did it quickly. A few seconds later, he bounded down the stairs after Faron.
I would have liked nothing more than to bound third in line, but that just wouldn't end well. Therefore, I settled for sliding down the stairs luge-style, dragging the crutches behind me. I couldn't wait for the day I got to throw them away.
Luckily for me and the mop, the boys were both staying away from anything that could cause a mess. They were getting into everything else. That would probably bother me sometime later, but for now, I could understand the compunction. There were jars and cupboards they'd never seen before just begging to be opened and explored.
My inner estimation of Lee went up by about a billion light years when I saw that every time Faron wandered too close to anything potentially dangerous, Lee yanked him back out of the way. It even appeared to be a conditioned reflex. One that I was going to have to learn
For the record, I didn't burn the waffles. They actually turned out pretty good, even though I was absolutely sure that I'd left out something that was supposed to be in the batter. Neither of the boys complained, so I chalked it up as a win for all three of us.
One of the reasons that I'd suggested dessert was because I had no idea what to do with the kids after they'd finished eating. Washing up, maybe. Faron had whipped cream all around his mouth and his fingers were covered in it. The mounting guilt receded just a bit when I saw that Lee was just as sticky. I wasn't sure why that was comforting, although it had to have a lot to do with how much he was laughing. It was the first sound I'd heard him make, and I couldn't think of one I would have rather heard.
I was too nervous to eat much, but we had strawberries. Nobody could turn down strawberries, not even someone with a stomach flu. I stabbed a few slices with my fork, grinning covertly at the boys.
They were done eating, mostly, but they'd moved on to eating the whipped cream that had been hanging out on their hands. "You guys are gonna need baths after this
Lee nodded emphatically, although he still didn't say anything. For his part, Faron was industriously sucking on his fingers. Making them get dressed had been a poor move. I made a note of it for future reference, then gathered up the dishes. Usually when I was at home, I'd do the dishes right after eating, but washing the kids was something of a priority.
"Come on, you two
Faron made a break for it, but he slipped in his socks and landed on his rear almost as soon as he started running. I was sure he'd get upset, but he just sat there, cracking up as if it was the funniest thing that had ever happened. It was almost impossible to help him up with the crutches in my way, but Lee lent us a hand. They must have been used to getting covered in food, because although they didn't hesitate to wipe their hands on their shirts and pants, they kept clear of the stair railing and the walls. I wondered how hard their mom had had to work to teach them that habit.
While I filled the tub, Faron regaled us with a redux of what I was thinking of calling "The Underpants Song" as he and Lee untangled themselves from their sticky clothes. He was actually getting pretty inventive with the words before I got them both into the tub.
"How did you get whipped cream behind your ear?" I knelt on the floor and started kneading shampoo into Faron's hair. "It seems to me that can only happen on purpose."
"Maybe Lee did it."
Lee just whistled innocently while washing his own hair. I wasn't sure, but I hoped that the fact that his brother had asked to have his hair washed made Lee feel more grown up and independent. That seemed to matter to him, which worried me. Wasn't six the age when you wanted to be a kid forever?
Another thing I would have to talk to Dad about after their bedtime. The list had started two minutes after they'd come in the door, and it was getting longer than I would have expected. "Hey, Faron
Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"No. Don't get shampoo in my eyes, because that hurts a lot."
"I'm doing my best. Tip your head back." After he'd done so, I used a plastic cup to pour water on his hair. Out of respect for his very reasonable request, I held my hand against his forehead. It had been a guess, but it workedno shampoo on his face at all. "Where did you get those scars?"
He kept his eyes squeezed tight while I poured another cupful of water on his hair. "A big dog. She jumped on me, but Mom hit her with a stick and got her off before she could hurt me too much."
I cringed, tipping his head back up to its proper angle. "That must have been scary
"Yeah, but I only cried a little." He wiped his face with the back of his hand, then reached for the bar of soap. "There was lots and lots of blood. Lee thought I was gonna die, but I was brave."
I looked at Lee, who just nodded grimly. I couldn't think of anything to say either, so I just sat on the floor and waited for them to finish washing up. The day was only half over and they'd already given me too much to think about. Dog attacks? How had Aunt Michelle managed to take care of these guys on her own?
and how were Dad and I going to pick up where she'd left off?
My vest pocket started tickling me, but I repressed the urge to jump. Cell phone vibrating functions had a ways to go before they were anything like what I wanted them to be. "I'll get you guys some clothes from your room, okay?"
The boys just nodded and went back to splashing each other, so I exited the bathroom and limped down the hall, cell phone in hand. "Hello?"
"How goes early parenthood?"
"Hardy har. Better watch it, Mr. Romantic Gestures, you may be next in a much more direct and personal way." I opened the door to the twins' room.
Lucas must have been in a good mood, because he laughed. "Doubt it. I have good news, though."
"Yeah?" They hadn't unpacked yet, not all the way. The secondhand bureau that had come with the bunk bed was completely empty, and there were suitcases open next to it. The room was close to being a mess, but it was fairly easy to tell which articles of clothing belonged to who. Only Faron could have a thing for green I Love Egg overalls. I made sure to include those in the bundle I was bringing them. "How good and of what type?"
"I'll tell you and you can decide. Last night when I was walking home, I swung by the florist's and got a bunch of random flowers."
It was quite possible that Lucas was the only person in the free world who could shrug over the phone. "Just random enough. Anyway, I took them to that one lot we used to hang out in, and I planted them all over it."
I took a neatly folded black Aerosmith t-shirt from a suitcase. "And maniac gardening is supposed to help you get Karen back
"Her essay! It was supposed to be about improving the face of the community."
That sounded like a pretty shallow topic for a paper to me, but I'd once written a mock thesis on the effect of derogatory t-shirt slogans on enemy morale in a military setting. That kind of kept me from ever obtaining the right to criticize anyone else's essay topics. "So you're giving her material for her essay?"
"That's the general idea
How stupid is it, on a scale of one to ten?"
I paused to reposition the phone and stop it from slipping, which was getting irritating. "Actually, it's an eight on the good idea scale."
"Really?" Lucas sounded so relieved that I was waiting for a sigh. It didn't come, thankfully.
"Yup." Okay, this was just cool, I hadn't known they made jeans this small. I stared at them for a while, taking in the miniature
ness of them. Then, my collection of kiddy clothes complete, I hobbled back towards the bathroom. "Have you told her yet?"
"I'm gonna head over to her house right after school. I figured that an in-person apology to go with it would be nice."
"See? And to think you actually came to me for advice. Maybe now it can go back to being the other way around
" I knocked on the bathroom door, then felt stupid when Faron shouted the predictable 'come in, it's open.' I balanced the bundle of clothes in one arm and held my phone with the other. "I gotta go, but call me later and tell me how it went." It'd be good to finally have this chaos resolved. Tense And Unhappy Lucas was not as fun as Goony About Girlfriend Lucas.
After he hung up, I dropped my phone back into my pocket and lumbered into the bathroom. The boys had already drained the tub and were standing on the bath mat, wrapped in identical blue towels. Dad must have gotten them at some point, I'd never given any thought to that sort of thing. It made me think of toothpaste and other dental productsmy eyes flitted to the sink. There were two kid-sized kid-themed toothbrushes in Power Ranger cups, sitting right next to my bland blue toothbrush and its brown cup.
I shook myself internally, then sat on the floor to wait for the twins to finish dressing themselves. To my irrepressible delight, I'd been right about the clothes. The Aerosmith shirt was Lee's, as were the mini jeans, and Faron was more than happy with his overalls and yellow and white striped shirt. I'd left out socks, since Faron's fall before had left an impression on me, but neither of them appeared to be aware of it.
"What do you want to do now?" I asked when we were all piling out into the hall. I often ran out of things to do by myself, it was a surefire bet that I had no credible idea what to do with two little kids.
Faron shrugged, and Lee looked bored. Despair crept into my head, but I ignored it as best I could. They were old enough to read, but I didn't think they'd find Gandhi or The Canterbury Tales compelling material. I also wasn't in a hurry to appoint myself their French teacher, although my first attempt had been promising.
I rested the crutches against the wall and walked gingerly to their room. "You have a lot of new games and things. Want to take a look?"
The looks on both of their faces told me that was on the 'boring' list. "Can we go outside?"
"Only if you get shoes and coats."
Another unwelcome thing to say, but they got over it quick and ran to get them. I told them I'd wait downstairs and went down to get my hoser jacket out of the closet. I had some nicer things hanging in there since I'd taken time to do some laundry, but it was kind of special now. It was also one of my warmest coats, and if looking out the window was a form of reliable weather prediction, then it was going to snow later today. That'd be fun, and more importantly, it would be fun that did not leave anyone's hair sticky. I was fairly sure to entirely certain that I'd gotten lucky getting them to take a bath, and my luck wouldn't hold out for a second time. Not in the same day, at least.
I put on two thick socks in place of one of my boots, then adjusted the height on my crutches, just for something to do. I was getting used to this pretty fast, but it still didn't feel as permanent as I knew it was. Everything that we were doing went right along with Lucas's weekend visit analogy. Waffles didn't happen every morning, and neither did midday baths.
The first sign that we were really a family, I decided, would be when we had beans on toast for breakfast. Not as normal and seemingly everyday as cold cereal, but definitely more boring.
Lee barreled down the stairs first, wearing, to my amazement, a Rocky Horror Picture Show hoodie. It fit him, too, which might have meant that he was its first owner. That was the kind of thing I could only hope to half-inherit, half-steal from my dad or Matteo. He stood practically at attention at the foot of the stairs, glancing back occasionally and giggling into his hand once or twice.
I raised an eyebrow, but I didn't waste my breath asking questions. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to know what he found so amusing
It wasn't long before we could hear Faron galumphing down the stairs, and he looked annoyed.
"You cheated." He pointed an accusing finger at Lee, then looked up at me, angry and expectant. "He's not supposed to cheat, Mom said."
At a loss, I tangled my fingers in my hair and tried to figure out what I was suddenly standing in. I had a feeling that I was never going to get away from the smashing wave of guilt every time either of them brought up their mom. "Well, she's right, cheating is
What did he cheat at?"
"He hid my shoes so he'd be first!"
The importance of that just about shot right over my heador rather, past my knees. I blinked and tried to find something to connect with. "That's okay"
"Nuh-uh! Make him sit in the timeout corner."
Other than the very simple and crucial detail that we didn't actually have a timeout corner, I was fairly sure that hiding shoes to win at a speed-dressing contest wasn't something that got one put in said timeout corner. I hid behind a weak, nervous smile and sat on the couch so I wouldn't be towering over Faron while I tried to reason with him. "How about
What if he apologizes?" I glanced at Lee to gauge his reaction. This was totally new ground for me.
Both of them appeared to be thinking this over, but Lee must have had a surprise pinch of what my dad called 'attitude'. He used to call it 'sass', until I laughed at him for using such an old, ridiculous word. After a moment or two of consideration, Lee pointed his nose in the air and folded his arms over his chest. Not a posture commonly associated with apologies. Faron understood it about the same time I did and his scowl deepened.
"Say sorry! Dschimi told you to."
It had only been a suggestion! No one was supposed to take my suggestions seriously; at least half of the time I was just spitballing. That probably wasn't a thought prone to crossing the average six-year-old mind, though. Lee looked at Faron long enough to stick out his tongue, and then Faron jumped on him, tiny fists blurring.
"Hey!!!" I tried to pull them apart, but Faron wasn't really paying any attention to where he was swinging his arms. His elbow caught me in the mouth. All that time I'd spent teaching myself not to swear paid off right thenI cried out, but it was just a wordless shout.
Cursing might have made them stop fighting, though. Faron didn't notice that he'd hit me, or he didn't care, and Lee was giving as good as he got. Neither of them were biting the other, but I wouldn't put it past them just yet. Panic was streaking through my internal organs, and I couldn't think. While my brain was still flat-lining, I wrapped my arms around Faron's waist and pulled him off of Lee, holding on tight as I stretched to create some distance.
"Cut it out!"
"Didn't do anything worth hitting him for!" I sighed and let my head fall back on the floor with a thump. The right thing to do would be to tell them that there was never a good reason for hitting anyone, but I didn't believe that and I couldn't lie to them.
Faron strained against my hold on him, but I didn't loosen at all. Now practically on the other side of the room, Lee was sitting on the floor with his knees tucked under his chin, frowning for all he was worth. If anyone could pitch the silent equivalent of a long noisy fit in three seconds, he could, and was doing it.
It was disconcerting though, to have to hold back one piercingly vocal kid trying to kick me while his twin brother just fumed without making a peep. Then Faron stopped howling at me and slumped. "Let go."
"We'll discuss it." I felt my lip gingerly with my tongue, not exactly shocked to discover that I was bleeding. "Are you going to hit anyone else today?"
" His tone was much lower in volume, but no less petulant. Both of them were in such deep sulks that I doubted anyone would be able to tell either of them had a neck.
I forced myself not to touch my lip again. "Now you both have to apologize." Before Faron could insist on which of them would apologize first, I added, "In order of severity. Hitting is worse than cheating, so you have to say you're sorry first."
This must have contained at least a small amount of his kind of logic, because he cut off his own protest and tapped my arm very lightly. "You have to let go so I can stand up."
Hesitantly, I released my death-lock on his waist and watched him roll onto the floor and then gather himself to his feet. Lee looked down at his knees, still pouting miserably. My lip hurt, or I might have done the same.
Faron pulled his sleeves to straighten them out, then shuffled over to stand in front of Lee. For a moment, they were just quiet, but then Faron crouched to Lee's eye level and said, "I'm just sorry, okay?"
I propped myself up on my arms and waited for Lee to accept the apology. It wasn't eloquent or wordy, but simple and to the point had its own specific virtues. Lee looked from Faron to me and then back again, then hung his head. I thought he might have whispered something, but I didn't hear anything, and his hair was covering too much of his face to see if his mouth had moved.
I was still puzzling over it when Faron twisted around to look back at me. "Lee's sorry too. Can we go outside now? I wanna play in the snow."
There were no bruises, and no bite marks. That was good, but I couldn't help dwelling on the unfairness that I'd been the one to take significant damage. "Aren't you forgetting something?" He didn't need me to drop any hint more revealing than that, I was bleeding and probably openly moping over that fact. There was no need to be so condescending as to point at my lip or make a stupid face.
To my surprise and melty new pseudo big brother style of pride, Faron not only looked genuinely remorseful, but he came over to give me a hug. It didn't make my lip hurt any less, but I did learn that I rather liked getting hugs. It was a hard way to learn something like that, but it was definitely worth learning.
"Now can we go outside?"
Laughing stretched my lip and added a new level of ouch, but I did it anyway. "Tie your shoe and then you can run right out your choice of door."