The wakeup came earlier than usual. Maddy’s eyes flew open at the sound of her baby crying. A glance at Howie showed him unaware, sound asleep. She took just a moment to watch him, making sure he was breathing. Sometimes Howie slept like a chainsaw, sometimes like a mouse.
Maddy groaned, then dragged herself out of bed and padded down the hallway to Emily’s room to change her, soothe her, and try to nurse her back to sleep. It didn’t work. Emily was ready for a new day.
“Okay, okay,” muttered Maddy. “C’mon then.” She opened Emily’s top dresser drawer and pulled out a hand-me-down onesie undershirt. The small baby dresser was recycled also, from Emily’s older brother, Ethan. The pink outfit sporting a giraffe down the side wasn’t second hand, though. The staff at the bookstore where she worked part-time had given her a shower before Emily was born, after they’d found out the baby would be a girl. Maddy still put in two days a week at the store, but this wasn’t one of them.
The baby fed, dressed, and ready for the day, Maddy hoisted her onto her hip, then tiptoed past Ethan’s room. The three-year-old didn’t need to get up for another thirty minutes. None of them did, but Emily babbled on, blissfully unaware of the clock.
Maddy Streete was tired. It went with the territory—toddler territory. Too little sleep, too much lifting, too much running around on overdrive, with precious little time for herself beyond the few hours she worked. Her children were a delight, but she sometimes wondered what had possessed her and Howie to have two kids in three years.
The original thought was to get the diaper, spitting-up, falling-down, croup years out of the way so she and Howie could relax and enjoy their children. Neither of them had foreseen how hard the job would be.
A foreign thought flitted by—she wished she’d never had them. Maddy cringed. Was she a horrible mother? She was able to squelch the thought right after her cringe. But she couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept for eight hours straight. Or even six.
The morning wore on. Howie dashed through the kitchen and out through the garage on his way to work, cutting it close, as usual. Ethan awoke in a foul mood, soaked. He’d wet the bed again. While he stood in the tub, screaming, Maddy bent over and gave him a quick wash-off, then dressed him, stripped his bed, and put some cereal in front of him, keeping her eye on the clock.
Just have to stay awake long enough to pick up Sadie and Ryan, drop Ethan and Sadie off at three-year-old nursery school, and make it home with Emily and Ryan.
It was her turn to drive the three-year-olds and keep the little ones. It had been a stroke of luck to find another couple who had children almost the same age as hers and Howie’s. And another mother with a part-time job to share driving and sitting chores. It had been a chance encounter in the grocery store. Helene Archer had been squatting beside her cart, re-shelving the cereal Sadie hadn’t been able to resist. Maddy had knelt down to help her, having cleaned up the same sort of mess when Ethan played with the pasta boxes two aisles over just last week.
“You can’t really blame them, can you?” asked Helene. “Temptation is hard to resist when you’re only three.”
“My Ethan is three, too. And yes, he’s the terror of any store with low shelves.”
The two mothers watched Ethan and Sadie circle each other with wariness, but intense curiosity, and gradually approach each other. “Hi,” Ethan said, and an instant friendship was born. Helene’s family had moved to Minnetonka recently and was looking for a nursery school for Sadie. When Maddy suggested the one she used, and when Helene visited and liked it, their alliance was formed. Helene soon found a job in the elementary school office, two days a week, staggered to fit Maddy’s schedule. The two families now got together often for barbecue or just movies at each other’s houses.
And today was Helene’s day to work. Before Maddy finished putting Emily’s snowsuit on, Ethan snatched up the remote and turned on the television. It was still on the weather channel she and Howie had checked last night before turning in. Maddy caught only a glimpse of the radar map. Rain. Lots of rain. Probably for the whole day.
Great. I’ll have Emily and Ryan indoors all day. No walks to break the time up. When’s it going to snow so they can play outside?
Once again the thought flitted through her mind—what if she and Howie had never had children? What exactly would she be doing this morning? Having breakfast with a client? She’d wanted to go into real estate. She would probably be selling houses by now and making more money than she and Howie could spend. She’d be dressed up, her hair done, her nails manicured.
Emily cooed and gave Maddy an enormous smile, reached for her face and stroked her mother’s cheek. Maddy tucked her bottom lip between her teeth to keep tears from springing. She returned Emily’s smile and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. Then turned to the bustle of getting out the door on time.
Ethan, who had quieted down for his breakfast of exactly three small pieces of cereal and a big glass of milk, started screaming again when she took the remote away and shoved his arm into his coat.
“Oh, Ethan, honey.” Her weary voice sounded testy, even to her. “Please put your coat on. Don’t you want to go to school?”
“No!” He stomped his foot and gave her the Defiant Look.
Wrong question. Dumb question for a three-year-old who hadn’t quite come out of the Terrible Twos yet.
“All right. I’ll give you a choice. Would you rather go to the circus or school?” That was mean, but she knew it would work.
“School! School! Not the circus!” The clowns had terrified him when she and Howie took the kids last summer, thinking it would be a treat for Ethan. His reaction had lessened now, however, and his expression was more annoyed than scared.
Maddy, when she wasn’t so tired, knew better than to pose an open yes-or-no question to a toddler. The wise parent gave the child two choices, and manipulated the choices so the toddler would choose the right one. She dreaded the day Ethan would get wise to her ploy, but for now it still worked.
It only took five minutes to get to the Archer’s house. When the children were a few years older they would be able to walk to each other’s houses for play dates in good weather. Minnesota did get good weather, despite the feeling most natives got in mid-winter. The feeling that winter would never end, spring would never come.
Maddy idled the car in the driveway for a few moments, but the children didn’t come out. She wouldn’t be able to go into the Archer’s house without taking Ethan. He knew where he was and loved Sadie’s house. To her relief, Helene poked her head out the door and gave the two-minute signal. Soon she rushed out the door with her two in tow.
“Sorry we’re late. It’s one of those mornings.” Helene said, her cheeks turning rosy in the crisp air. The rain hadn’t started yet. Maybe it’ll snow, after all, thought Maddy.
She buckled Ryan into the other car seat in the back and sat Sadie on the booster in the front seat. Helene and her husband had put her two even closer together. Ryan was two and Sadie three.
Helene went back inside to finish dressing and Maddy looked the children over with heavy eyes, admonished them not to unbuckle their seat belts, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
As soon as she began backing the car out of the driveway, the toddlers started up. Maddy tried to ignore them. She only lasted three blocks.
“What’s the problem, Ryan?” He wasn’t really crying, but fussing in earnest.
“Pig, pig!” he exclaimed. She glanced into the back seat.
“Ethan, give Ryan back his toy. It’s not yours.” Ryan must have complied because there were at least sixty seconds of silence. Then Ryan repeated his complaint, louder this time.
“Pig, pig, pig!”
“Hush, now. I have to concentrate on driving.” Maddy glanced back at Ethan, who had taken Ryan’s toy pig away again. “Do you want me to crash the car?”
Sadie, in the front seat today, looked up with a sparkle in her eyes. “Yay! Crash car! Crash car!” she piped.
“Mommy crash car,” Ethan agreed from the back.
Maddy groaned. “We’re not crashing the car. Forget about that.”
A month ago she had rolled into the car ahead of her. She had been trying to retrieve her bills out of her purse so she could throw them into the curbside mailbox on the way to nursery school. Maddy’s foot was on the brake, she thought her car was stopped, but, while she was fiddling with the envelopes in her lap, she felt her car nudge the one in front of her. She and the other driver hopped out and inspected their bumpers. There was no damage, and the car in the mailbox line behind Maddy started honking, so she and the other driver shook hands and both went on their way.
The children, however, had been thrilled. The jolt was far better than the tame carnival rides they were allowed on. Ever since that day, Ethan and Sadie would ask Maddy to crash the car again. Maddy wondered what Sadie had told her mother.
To her annoyance, a delivery truck dawdled ahead of her in the left lane. There would be a hill to climb past the next intersection so Maddy moved to the right lane so she could get around it. The red light at the crossing caught the truck in the left lane and Maddy beside it.
She looked at the back seat in her rear view mirror. Ryan threw his toy pig at Emily, who screeched. Ethan, perhaps defending his sister, whom he usually tried to torture, stuck his tongue out at Ryan. Ryan kicked at Ethan, who retaliated by whacking Ryan on the head with his mitten.
All three kids in the back seat were crying and Sadie decided to yell at them from the front seat. “Quit it!” Then she burst into tears. Maddy reached over to soothe Sadie when a louder scream came from the back seat.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Maddy yelled. “I’ve just about had it with all of you!” She spun around and glared at Ryan who had a handful of Ethan’s hair in his fist. Ethan’s eyes grew enormous at the unfamiliar harsh words, Ryan let go of Ethan’s hair, and Emily stopped in mid-scream. The two boys thrust out glistening lower lips and blinked back shiny tears.
Maddy’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, guys.” She tried to sound sane and reasonable. “But Ryan, you mustn’t pull Ethan’s hair. It hurts him. And Ethan, you mustn’t hit Ryan with your mitten. And Emily—”
The car behind them honked and Maddy glanced ahead to see a green light. Wonder how long ago it changed?
She turned forward and took the time to readjust her shoulder belt, determined not to rush off just to satisfy the rude honker behind her. Another blast from behind made both Emily and Sadie start crying again. Maddy felt her head swell, ready to explode.
The truck still loomed just to the left, obscuring Maddy’s view. She inched forward. The truck sat where it was, ignoring the green light. So why doesn’t the so-and-so get out of my way? She rolled down her window and motioned the driver to move. He ignored her from his high perch and kept looking to his left.
Just as she started across the boulevard, an eighteen-wheeler barreled past, running the red light and doing at least eighty miles an hour. Maddy stomped on the brakes. Missed the gigantic front tires by mere inches.
Sadie, her fists still balled into her crying eyes hadn’t seen what had just happened. Maddy glanced at the rearview mirror. Emily, in her backwards-facing seat, could only see upholstery. And Ethan, in between the two babies, had gotten his hands on Ryan’s prize toy pig again, had been busy taunting him with it, occupying both of them during their near disaster.
But they had felt the jolt. Sadie and Ryan squealed with delight.
“Mommy crash car!” Ryan chanted over and over.
Their diapers would be sopped if they knew how close to death we just came, Maddy thought. Thank you, Ryan, for pulling Ethan’s hair. You saved our lives.
She straightened her shoulders and took two deep breaths. The rude driver behind her no longer honked. She whispered a prayer of thanks for the young lives in the car with her. The vision of crumpled bodies amid shattered metal and splinters of sharp glass sent a shiver up her spine that had nothing to do with the sleet that was just starting to fall.
“I’ll tell you what,” Maddy chirped, driving slowly across the intersection after the delivery van moved and left her a clear view, “Let’s stop for ice cream. We can be late today.”
Her hands were shaking, but she thought she’d be able to manage an ice cream cone.
Kaye George, national-bestselling and multiple-award-winning author, writes several mystery series: Imogene Duckworthy, Cressa Carraway (Barking Rain Press), People of the Wind (Untreed Reads), and, as Janet Cantrell, the Fat Cat cozy mysteries. (Berkley Prime Crime). Her short stories appear in anthologies, magazines, and her own collection, A Patchwork of Stories. She lives in Knoxville, TN, where she also reviews for Suspense Magazine. http://kayegeorge.com/