Fiction: Boy Trouble

Fiction: Boy Trouble

Two boys playing at the indoor amusement park

by Andrea Lani

This story begins with a Pop-Tart. No, not a Pop-Tart, but, as you explained to the teacher, the principal, the deputy sheriff, the sheriff, and two muzzle-faced State Troopers, an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. Definitely not a Pop-Tart. Perhaps the story does not begin there anyway. It could have started six years earlier, with a pair of Duplo-sized Lego blocks, on the day one square Duplo, attached to the bottom of one rectangular Duplo, was clasped in the dimpled hand of your sweet babe and pointed at you with an accompanying, “Blam-blam!”

And yet, the story may have begun two years before that, when one of several million of your husband’s sperm, having squirmed its way through the labyrinth of your fallopian tubes, united with your freshly released egg and conferred its genetic material, including that gun-toting Y chromosome, through the otherwise-impermeable shell. Then again, this story may go back tens of thousands of years, to your ancestors squatting around a campfire, discussing strategies for the following day’s woolly mammoth hunt, while little boys ran around the camp, picking up sticks and jabbing them at imaginary mastodons, in the guise of their friends and parents.

In any case, because you are the mother of four boys under the age of eight, you had quit worrying about imaginary weapons some time after that first shocking, heartbreaking incident in which your child turned to you from the Lego table where he stood, looking like the Christ child in a Renaissance painting, with his golden curls and round cheeks, and mowed you down with two pieces of primary-colored plastic. By the time your fourth male child was born, you had resigned yourself to the fact that boys turning any remotely L-shaped object into a firearm was as inevitable as their making fart sounds with any remotely concave part of their bodies–armpit, inside of the elbow, back of the knee, ear, neck, palm of the hand, bottom of the foot. One time, they performed the “William Tell Overture” with body farts. Even the baby got into the act, blowing big, wet, noisy bubbles with his pursed lips.

But let us get back to that toaster pastry and the Tuesday morning on which you oh-so-blindly placed it into your oldest son’s PVC-free insulated lunch bag. Tuesday, riding on the frantic heels of Monday, finds you both less organized and less well-rested than the previous day. You had closed your eyes after your husband left for work, intending to doze for five more minutes when, half an hour later, you leapt from the bed, wide awake and aware that it was nearly seven o’clock. When you rushed into the boys’ room to wake up the two oldest, you saw your three-year-old squatting in the corner, his face red and scrunched in concentration. Forgetting your initial mission, you scooped him up and dashed into the bathroom. As you yanked down his training pants and set him on the toilet, two warm, moist turds rolled out and landed on the bath mat. The day rolled downhill from there.

By the time you hustled the oldest two out of bed and into semi-clean clothes and had fed them a breakfast of bread heels with jam, you had no time to make their lunches, and, since you had made every excuse you could think of–the baby was teething, the floor needed mopping, you had to catch up on laundry–to avoid grocery shopping on Monday, your kitchen was woefully devoid of anything with which to make said lunches. So you resigned yourself to letting the boys eat the school-cooked lunch of shepherd’s pie–pink slime and all–rationalizing that they would take one look at the oily glop and subsist off of a carton of milk and a spoonful of fruit cocktail, thus negating concerns over mad cow disease and e-coli. To make up for your maternal negligence, and because you were also out of fresh fruit for snack-time, you rummaged in the back of the pantry until you found the box of organic toaster pastries with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling, which you had stashed there for such an emergency, and stuffed one foil-wrapped package into each boy’s backpack as you kissed them on their way out the door and onto the waiting school bus.

Two hours later, you had cleaned the shit off the bathroom floor, bathed your three-year-old, changed and fed the baby, tidied the kitchen, straightened the living room, and written a comprehensive grocery list. You were feeling like a model of domestic efficiency and ready to brave the grocery store with your two youngest children in tow when the phone rang. It was the school secretary. Your oldest child had threatened another pupil with a weapon and you needed to come to the school immediately.

What kind of weapon could your seven-year-old possibly have gotten ahold of, you wondered? You pulled open the utensil drawer. The sharp knives appeared to be accounted for. In the boys’ room, you tiptoed over Legos and Beyblade parts and turned a slow circle in the middle of the room, trying to see if anything was out of place, wondering how you would know if anything was out of place. Your eyes lit on three wooden swords, tucked hilt-up in the dress-up bin. They were not the culprits.

Your three-year-old had been following you around this whole time, saying, “What are you doing, Mommy? When are we going to the store? Why are you in my room?” The baby, riding on your hip, was starting to fuss. He whapped his fist on your chest and whimpered. You sat down to nurse him and sent the three-year-old to sit on the potty, then you loaded them both in your mini-van (the one you could no longer avoid succumbing to once the fourth baby was on his way), and drove to the school.

The town where you live is not so much a town as a scattering of houses–modulars, capes, trailers, old farmhouses–tossed like a handful of dice along directionless roads. Your children’s school squats in a clearing along one of these roads eight miles from your home. An exhausted slab of yellow brick, it had exceeded its expiration date twenty years before your children were born, but considering your fellow townspeople’s allergy to tax increases, it will no doubt continue to draw students into its weary hallways long after your grandchildren have mastered their ABCs.

The school secretary directed you to sit on one of the chairs lined up along the dingy white-painted cinder block wall outside of the principal’s office, chairs designed to accommodate children the size of your weapon-wielding son. You nestled your right butt-cheek into the cradling embrace of the molded plastic, letting the left one hover in the air, propped the baby on your hip, and tried to encourage your three-year-old to take a seat on one of the other chairs. But he was too busy jumping up to try and reach the banner hanging across the hallway, displaying the school’s motto: “Aim High.” This was another mystery you had discovered about boys: their insatiable urge to make contact with objects much higher than themselves. You had never understood this behavior, when the boys in your high school jumped in the halls, scraping their fingertips against the acoustical tiles, and now you have a houseful of males climbing on the back of the couch, trying to transfer their grubby fingerprints onto your white ceiling. For now, they are too short to reach it.

A squat woman in a corduroy jumper, your son’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greene, shuffled down the hall. She looked as weather-worn as the old school building. Budget cuts had resulted in a reduction in teachers and a consolidation of classes. Mrs. Greene now had to contend with twenty-four second- and third-graders, most of whom appeared to suffer from some form of attention-deficit disorder. You had been into your son’s classroom once, thinking it would be fun, or at least virtuous of you, to read to the students on a Friday afternoon. The experience had been like being rubbed with meat juice and placed in a room full of Jack Russell terriers on meth. Ever since, you had found excuses for not going into the classroom whenever the teacher called. The baby would have a mouth like a shark if he actually grew a tooth for every time you told Mrs. Greene he had been teething.

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said, addressing you by your husband’s name, which you did not adopt on principle, believing at the time that by retaining your own last name, you would retain your own identity. She opened the door to the office and said, “We can wait in here.” As you hoisted yourself and the baby out of the tiny chair and herded your three-year-old in behind her, she added, “Mr. Peacock will be with us shortly.”

You cannot hear the teacher’s and principal’s names together without thinking of the board game “Clue.” Normally, you busy your mind pegging other teachers as Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard, but on that day, your brain leapt straight to lead pipes, revolvers, and candlesticks, and you wondered out loud what sort of weapon your child had wielded that day. You refrained from asking if he had been in the ballroom or billiard room.

“You sent your son a Pop-Tart for snack today,” Mrs. Greene said

“An organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust,” you corrected her. Had he gotten high off of the all-natural, real-fruit sugars in the filling and gone berserk, rolling his poster of the water cycle, which the two of you had painstakingly put together late last Thursday night, into a club and beaten other children with it?

Mrs. Greene pursed her lips and blew air out her nose. “You are aware of our school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons?” she asked. You nodded your head, although you were not aware of this policy. However, at the beginning of the year, you had signed a form confirming that you had read the school handbook, and telling the truth now would prove that you had lied then, and somehow it seemed worse to have lied on paper, with your signature, than with a slight incline of your neck.

At that moment Mr. Peacock walked in, greeted you by your husband’s name, and waved both you and Mrs. Greene into a pair of straight-backed wooden chairs which were at least sized for someone who had lost all of their milk teeth. He looked even wearier than Mrs. Greene. If your sons’ reports of their classmates’ behavior were any measure, this was likely the third or fourth disciplinary conference Mr. Peacock had held already that morning.

“I’m sure Mrs. Greene has informed you of this very grave situation,” he said.

“Not really,” you replied.

“The Pop-Tart,” he began, and you corrected him, wondering if your son had slipped a razor blade into his organic toaster pastry when you weren’t looking, or had perhaps molded the foil wrapper into a shiv and started a prison riot in Room Seventeen.

“We take violence,” Mr. Peacock said, pausing to extract your three-year-old from the Zen fountain sitting on a table beside his desk, and handing your dripping-wet child to you, “and threats of violence, very seriously.”

You merely nodded your head, because who wouldn’t agree with that, and, with one arm around your baby, who was growing fussy, and the other around your three-year-old, who was squirming to get at the lamp cord plugged into the wall near your chair, you could scarcely think, let alone form sentences. Also, you wanted Mr. Peacock to get to the point and tell you what horrible deed your son had committed, so that you could go home and find him a psychotherapist.

“Today at snack time,” Mr. Peacock intoned, “your son bit his Pop-Tart–“

“Organic toaster past–” you began, but he held up his hand and cut you off.

“Bit his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pointed it at a fellow classmate,” he finished.

You waited for the rest, but Mr. Peacock folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair, lips pursed with finality.

“And?” you asked. When did the shiv come in?

“Zero Tolerance, Mrs. Sheffield,” he said.

You shifted the three-year-old so that you could clamp him with your knees and propped the baby up on your shoulder, patting his back to try and quiet him.

“I’m sorry,” you said. “These kids are making so much noise. I missed the part about the weapon?”

“Perhaps this would refresh your memory,” Mrs. Greene said, holding a copy of the school handbook open in front of you.

“Section 7.6.9. Weapons Policy,” the page read. “Any student who brings a Gun onto School Property will be immediately Expelled and the matter will be Handed over to Law Enforcement Authorities.” The writer’s enthusiasm for capital letters continued down a full page that dealt with knives of varying size and function, blunt instruments, brass knuckles, and even shurikens, nun-chucks, and various other Ninja weaponry.

“But,” you said, not entirely sure you grasped the situation. “It wasn’t a gun. It was an organic toaster pastry.”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said. “If you look at the definition of ‘Gun’ in Section, you will see that it includes ‘simulations.'”

You smiled, thinking that perhaps they were playing a joke on you, or maybe you had stumbled into a bad reality TV show. You looked around for hidden cameras. But when your eyes settled Mr. Peacock’s face, your smile dissolved.

“But what could he possibly do to hurt someone with a toaster pastry?” you asked. “Rot their teeth? Give them diabetes?”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mr. Peacock said, “this is not a laughing matter. We take these situations very seriously, especially after the tragedy in Connecticut.”

“But,” you said, your brain aching with the effort of following his logic, “that was a deranged man with high-capacity assault rifles, not a child with a snack of dubious nutritional value.”

“That is really not the point, Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Green said. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. If we make an exception for a Pop-Tart gun, what next? Water pistols? Cap guns? Air rifles? Bazookas?”

“We are going to have to suspend your son from school until we decide how to handle this matter,” Mr. Peacock added.

“What do you mean, ‘handle this matter’?” you asked.

“Expulsion is not off the table,” Mr. Peacock responded.

“Expulsion?” you repeated. “Are you kidding me?”

“We have an obligation,” Mr. Peacock replied. “Under the Federal Gun Free Schools Act, to protect students in this building from others who pose a threat to the overall safe learning environment. My hands are tied, Mrs. Sheffield.”

By now the baby was whimpering and clawing at the front of your blouse, and your three-year-old had squirmed so that he was dangling upside down, his pants pulled halfway down from the effort of trying to escape the vise-grip of your knees, exposing his Jake 7 underwear, and you just wanted to get the hell out of this office.

“Please, can I see my son?” you asked. You would take your kindergartener home, too, and homeschool your children. Perhaps un-school them. Show up these brainless bureaucrats by raising four independent-thinking human beings who didn’t need a handbook to tell them what’s right.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mrs. Sheffield,” said Mr. Peacock. “He’s been taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning.”

Your head felt like an animal was trying to claw its way out through your skull as you sputtered out a “What?” hoping you had heard incorrectly.

Mrs. Greene tapped the handbook.

“Law Enforcement,” she said. “That’s the policy.”


After buckling the now-wailing baby and your still-damp three-year-old into the van, you punched the address for sheriff’s office into the GPS device your husband had given you for your anniversary. As you pulled out of the school parking lot, the supercilious British woman inside instructing you to “turn right,” you dialed your husband’s work number. When his voice mail picked up, you left him a terse but pointed message that you needed him. Now.

Inside the sheriff’s office, a woman with a thick, dark braid and a shiny “Deputy” badge on her brown uniform led you into a small, cluttered room. The prisoner sat on a swivel chair, using his legs to push against the desk and spin the chair around. He stopped when he saw you on his next pass.

“Hi, Mom,” he yelled. “Check it out!” He raised his left arm as high as the handcuffs that shackled him to the chair’s arm allowed.

“Oh my God,” you shrieked and ran to him. With the baby in one arm and your three-year-old grasped by the wrist with your other hand, you managed to half-hug your firstborn child with your elbows, then turned to deputy.

“Why is my child in handcuffs?” you demanded.

“After the incident with the Pop-Tart gun, we needed to hold him while the sheriff completes the charges and a judge sets bail,” she said.

Your three-year-old climbed into the chair with his brother and wriggled his wrist into the loop of handcuff fastened to the chair’s arm. “Now we’re both in jail,” your oldest son yelled and he spun the chair, kicking the backs of your knees with each revolution.

“It was not a Pop-Tart,” you clarified. “It was an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. And since when was there a law against biting food into a gun-like shape? I believe you are violating my son’s First Amendment rights, as well as his Second, Fifth, and Thirteenth.”

“Want Pop-Tart,” your three-year-old hollered from the spinning chair. When you left the house that morning, you had given him a toaster pastry as well, hoping it would tide him over through the school visit, but it was now past lunchtime, and you sensed the first tremors of a low-blood-sugar-induced meltdown.

A man who looked like a Doberman Pinscher in a uniform walked in the door, his eyes on a piece of paper in his hands.

“Okay,” he said. “Charges are obstructing education.”

“Excuse me,” you said. “Why are you charging a seven-year-old?”

“Pointed a Pop-Tart gun in class,” he said, holding up three fingers and ticking off his list. “Threatened violence. Obstructed education.”

“It was not a–” you began. “Never mind. But, seriously, what kind of violence can a seven-year-old commit with a bit of crust and jam? And the incident, if you can even call it that, happened during snack-time. There was no education taking place at the time.”

“Tell it to the judge,” he said, as if he stayed up late watching reruns of old cops shows.

“Please, release my son.” You pointed to the boys spinning and laughing like stoned college kids. “Can’t you see how distressed he is?”

“Sorry, lady. Gotta wait for the Staties,” he said. “School violence situation we always bring in the State Police. Should be here any minute.”

“My son is not violent,” you said, as your three-year-old shrieked for his brother to stop the chair. When the chair didn’t stop, he wiggled his wrist out of the handcuff and punched his brother. Your oldest son punched back with his un-cuffed hand, and your three-year-old cried so hard he threw up what was left of his toaster pastry in a stream of purple foam down the front of his brother’s shirt. Your oldest son screamed and kicked his brother, whom you scooped up the under the armpits with your free arm. The baby, who had been resting his head against your shoulder, half-asleep, became agitated with this disturbance and started to cry.

“Sorry, lady,” the sheriff said. “Gonna have to ask you to leave.”

Realizing that crying, vomiting children may constitute the world’s best agent of civil disobedience, you planted yourself with two of your three howling offspring onto the only other chair in the room.

“I’m not going anywhere without my child,” you said. “And we need food and water. And I need to make a phone call. We’re allowed one phone call, right?”

The sheriff twitched his head toward the door and deputy exited as you pried your phone out of your pocket and tried calling your husband again. You held the phone with your shoulder, bouncing the baby with one arm and patting your three-year-old on the back with the other as you left yet another message, pausing to make sure the recording picked up their wails.

When the deputy returned, she tossed three dusty bottles of Poland Spring water and several packets of oyster crackers onto the table, and drew the sheriff aside. The boys tore into the packets and even the baby quieted down when you gave him a cracker to gum. But you knew you had only gained a temporary armistice. Your children had eaten nothing but toaster pastries since breakfast, you had eaten nothing at all, and you were all in desperate need of protein-based nourishment.

You chugged from one of the bottles, putting thoughts of corporate takeover of public water supplies out of your mind, and tried to overhear the deputy and sheriff’s hushed conversation. You only caught words like: “DA,” “election,” “land mine,” and “ten-foot pole.”

After a few minutes, the sheriff walked over, unlocked your son’s handcuffs and said, “All right, we’re going to drop the charges. This time. But I’m going to have to warn you about the use of weaponry on school grounds…”

As he spoke, you gathered up water bottles and half-eaten packages of crackers. You stuffed them in the diaper bag, lifted the baby to your shoulder, and turned to gather your other two children as two burly men in blue uniforms and black hats walked in. If the sheriff was a Doberman, the state troopers were Rottweilers.

The sheriff squared his shoulders and said, “We were just wrapping up here.”

One of the troopers gave him a curt nod, then looked down at your oldest son, “Heard there was an incident with a Pop-Tart at school today,” he said.

“Actually,” you began, “it was an organic toaster past–” you trailed off at the look he shot you.

For ten minutes, he lectured your son on firearm safety, bullying, and avoiding violence. Your son’s mouth gaped as he gazed at the huge men standing in front of him, their legs wide, hands on their hips. Meanwhile, you strategized the remainder of your day. You had never made it shopping, your refrigerator was still as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, and the last place in the world you wanted to take three fractious children was a grocery store. On the way to the sheriff’s office, you had passed a gas station with a sign out front advertising, “Best Pizza in Town.” It was undoubtedly true, considering it was probably the only pizza in town. You would stop there on the way home and pick up a pepperoni pizza, and whatever else the kids asked for–Doritos, root beer, real Pop-Tarts–nitrates, genetically modified organisms, and high fructose corn syrup be damned. Afterward, you would collect your kindergartener, who will be sitting in the principal’s office after school lets out. He will probably have wet himself and Mr. Peacock’s guest chair by the time you get there, because he refuses to use public bathrooms. You smiled at the thought.

“Any questions?” the trooper asked your oldest son after he wrapped up his speech.

“Yes,” your child replied. “Can I see your gun?”

Author’s Note: I feel a mounting sense of outrage every time I read a news story about a kid being suspended or expelled or arrested for a toy gun or a toast gun or a finger gun. This story arose from that rage and the absurdity of a society that criminalizes children’s make-believe but refuses to address real gun violence.

Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at

What Good Moms Do

What Good Moms Do

Decorating The Christmas Tree - Family Pose

By Marie Anderson

Griff and Gannon tiptoed to the sparkling Christmas tree in their dad’s family room. Behind the tree, early morning darkness pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The boys crouched in front of the tree. Ganny reached for the largest present. It was wrapped in a pattern of Santa heads. Across the heads, someone had printed in black ink: To Griffin and Gannon, Love from Dad, Francesca, and Baby Guinevere.

“You can’t open it yet,” Griff said. He shivered. The size and shape of the present reminded him of his sister’s coffin. She’d been born too early, on Christmas Day five years ago. Ganny, of course, wouldn’t remember. He’d only been two years old.

Ganny frowned. “One present for us? Where’s the stuff from Santa?”Griff shrugged. Ten years old, he knew Santa was fake. But Ganny was only seven. Their dad should’ve put Santa gifts under the tree. He wondered if their dad was even home. He’d left for work right after their mother had dropped them off early yesterday morning, and he’d still been gone when they went to bed last night.

Behind them, the floor creaked. Ganny froze. “Santa! Is it Santa? I can’t look!”

The boys turned around. But it wasn’t Santa who filled the doorway to the family room.

“You’re up early,” Francesca said.

Their stepmother shuffled into the room. Her green eyes bulged out at them over a cup the size of a softball. A big white bow, lumpy as cauliflower, sprouted from her dirt-black hair.

Griff hated cauliflower.

“Good morning,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Griffin.” Francesca looked at Ganny. “Merry Christmas, Gannon.”

“Back at ya,” Ganny said.

Griff bit his tongue – a trick his mother had taught him – so he wouldn’t laugh.

Francesca shook her head and sighed.

Griff watched her waddle to the rocking chair. She still looked fat, he thought, even though her baby had been born a long time ago, right after Halloween. He watched her sink heavily into the rocker and slurp from her cup.

Ganny laughed. “You got spit up all over your mouth!”

Griff bit his tongue again. The foam from her drink coated her fat lips, and it did look like spit up.

He let himself smile.

“Shush,” Francesca said as Ganny continued to laugh. “You’ll wake your sister. And your dad.” She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her robe and looked at the clock on the fireplace mantel.

“Thirty more minutes, and then it will be OK to wake Guinevere. Schedules are very important to babies. Not even Christmas should interfere. Your sister needs her sleep. Your dad, too.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, too quietly for Francesca to hear.

“Mmm,” Francesca said, rocking and sipping. This cappuccino is blissful, just blissful. You know, boys, it was my mommy who sent me the cappuccino machine for Christmas this year. She can’t wait to meet your baby sister.”

“You’re too old to say mommy,” Ganny said.

Francesca’s face turned red.

“Ganny!” Griff pinched his brother’s arm. They’d promised their mother that they’d be polite while they stayed at their dad’s. “She’s not too old at all!” Then, before he could stop himself, he blurted what he’d heard their mother say. “She’s closer in age to me than she is to Dad!”

The red on Francesca’s face spilled to her neck.

“Is your mommy coming today?” Griff asked. Asking questions, he knew, was a good way to distract grownups from getting mad.

“No! She’s not!” Francesca’s thick black eyebrows plunged practically to her nose. “And I said mommy because you boys are still at the mommy age. I was using a kid word because I’m talking to kids!”

She sipped her drink. Her face returned to its normal milky color. Goose bumps pricked Griff’s arms. He didn’t think she would yell again, but with grownups, it was hard to know. At least since his parents’ divorce, the yelling had mostly stopped.

And he didn’t really mind Francesca so much. He’d hated That Other One, the one his dad had almost married before Francesca. That One had been prettier than Francesca, but she’d almost killed Ganny. Ganny had been rushed to the hospital after eating the white powder he’d found in her purse.

“The little shit shouldn’t have been digging in my purse!” That One had yelled.

“You don’t bring your little shit into my house when my boys are here!” their dad had yelled back.

“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “volunteers with Global Samaritans, and she spends Christmas with poor families. She’s been so busy helping the poor families in Guatemala that she hasn’t had a chance to meet your sister yet.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, a little louder this time.

“Stop punching buttons, you idiot,” Griff whispered.

Francesca sighed. “However, when I was your age, boys, my mother always spent Christmas with me. Because that’s what good moms do.”

Griff had nothing to say to that. Even Ganny stayed silent. A few days ago, their parents had argued about their mom working again on Christmas. Griff had listened on the extension. It had something to do with Grace. His dad had said the f-word, and his mom had cried.

“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “helped me make most of those ornaments on the tree. When your sister’s older, I’ll teach her how to make ornaments like my mother taught me. And that window?” She pointed to a stained glass window over the couch. “My mother and I worked on that together when I was about your age, Griffin. We won first prize for it at our club’s art fair. Your dad had it installed last month. It’s what I wanted for Christmas, having it put up in our family room. I like looking at it when I rock your sister.”

“It’s very nice, Griff said, though he hadn’t noticed the stained glass window until now.

“Where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.

Francesca stopped rocking. She cleared her throat. “You’re going to love what’s in that big present under the tree. It came all the way from Italy! I looked through a lot of catalogs and on-line sites before I found the perfect gift for you boys.”

“But where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.

Francesca looked at Griff. “Your dad said you boys knew.”

Griff bit his lip. He was in fourth grade. Of course, he knew.

“Knew what?” Ganny asked.

Francesca coughed. “Well.” She looked at Griff. Red splotched her cheeks like a rash.

“Santa’s bringing stuff to our real house,” Griff said. “Not here, because that wouldn’t be fair to kids who only have one house.”

“That’s right!” Francesca smiled at Griff.

He looked away without smiling back.

“I wanna’ go home now!” Ganny shouted.

Francesca flinched and shushed.

“Mom’s not even home, you idiot,” Griff said. “She’s working a double shift at the hospital, remember?”

“You’re the idiot!” Ganny yelled.

“Boys! Stop!” Francesca pressed her hands over her palpitating heart. “No name calling! Doesn’t your mother teach you better?”

She rubbed her left eye to calm the eyelid’s twitching. Off saving the world, their mother was, big shot emergency room doctor, too busy to take care of business in her own backyard. Foisting her kids on Francesca, a new mother with a borderline colicky baby. Lily had sent nothing when Guinevere was born, not even a card. Nothing to acknowledge that her sons now had a sister. Of course it was sad that Lily’s own daughter had been born too early. But really, Lily had pushed for a third child for the wrong reason: to try to heal an ailing marriage, is how Gary had once explained it to Francesca.

Francesca knew how dumb that was. Francesca hadn’t been enough to save her parents’ marriage. They’d divorced when she was two years old.

Francesca still had the note – in her jewelry box – that her mother had tucked into the gift she’d given Francesca for her 16th birthday: Pregnancy may land a man, but a child won’t keep him. The gift was a box of birth control pills.

It was a hard truth Francesca would impart to her own daughter when the time came. Good mothers told hard truths. And a good mother would have sent a gift for her sons’ new baby sister. Francesca’s mother had sent a $500 gift card from Nordstrom. It was in Francesca’s jewelry box. She and her mother would shop Nordstrom together for baby clothes. Her mother had promised a visit in spring.

Francesca felt tears prick her eyes. Spring was so far away. She felt a surge of sympathy for her stepsons. Of course they wanted their mom.

“I wanna go home now!” Ganny yelled. He scrambled behind the tree.

“Get him out from there!” Francesca cried. The sympathy she’d been feeling exploded into irritation. “He’ll tip the tree!”

Francesca gasped as Griff went after his brother. “Boys! Careful!”

Gary padded into the room, yawning and rubbing his bald head.

“Hey, what’s all this splendid commotion?” he asked, just as the tree began to shudder. He rushed to steady it, and the boys tumbled out.

“Merry Christmas, boys!” Gary shouted.

“Shush!” Griff and Francesca warned simultaneously.

“Yeah, shush up, Dad!” Ganny shrieked.

From upstairs, baby’s cries exploded.

“Oh!” Francesca shivered. Tears welled.

Gary patted her shoulder. “Aw, Kitten,” he said. “I’ll go do the diaper and bottle business. You just relax. Get yourself another coffee.”

Francesca looked at the clock on the mantel. “OK, but she’s not due for a bottle for another fifteen minutes. So could you just change her? And be sure to use the cloth diapers, OK?”

She looked at the boys. Gannon’s nose was dripping, and his eyes were wet.

“Wipe your nose, Gannon,” she said.

He ignored her, and looked at Gary. “Can I help you, Daddy?”

“No!” Francesca said. “Just stay put, boys.”

“Wipe your nose, sport,” Gary said. “Stay put, OK?”

“Please,” Francesca said to the boys. “Wait. Until. We’re. All. Ready.”

By the time everyone was ready, the tree, though still lit, no longer sparkled. Sunlight blazed through the windows behind the tree, spotlighting dust motes which swirled like nervous bugs in the beams of light. The tree no longer looked magical, Francesca thought. Just desperate, like an old woman wearing too much makeup. Like she found herself looking every time she glanced in a mirror.

She felt worn out. Old. She was old. A quarter of a century.

Something icy filled her throat. Guinevere’s little body, blessedly still for the moment, warmed her lap, but every other part of Francesca felt cold. She shivered. Was she getting sick?

“Smile, Kitten!” Gary was pointing the camera at her. She smiled.

Ganny pulled the big package from under the tree.

“It’s heavy!” he exclaimed.

Griff tried to lift it. It was heavy! Excitement tickled his stomach.

The boys tore off the ribbons and wrapping.

They stared at the present: a black suitcase on wheels.

“Wipe off those frowns, guys, and open it up,” Gary said. “I’m sure you’ll love whatever’s inside.”

They unzipped the case, flipped back the top. Inside were two rows of shiny balls, red ones and blue ones, each about the size of a baseball, and one smaller white ball. The letters GGG were painted on each colored ball. Their last name was painted on the white ball.

Ganny tried to lift the hard clear plastic which covered the balls, but thick staples held it fast. “What the heck?” he said. The boys looked at their dad, who was scratching his head.

“It’s a bocce ball set,” Francesca said. “The three Gs on the colored balls are for Griffin, Gannon, and Guinevere. The small white ball is called the pallino.”

“Thank you,” Griff said. “It’s very nice.” He thought of Grace, his real baby sister. Even though she was dead, he decided the third G would be for Grace.

“Dad, can you get the plastic off?” Ganny asked.

“Oh, Gary,” Francesca said. “I think we should leave that for when they get back to their own home. I’d hate for any of the balls to get misplaced here.”

“But we got nothing to play with now!” Ganny shrieked.

“Well,” Gary said. “Maybe we can—.”

“Boys,” Francesca interrupted. “This is an authentic set. Hand-polished in Italy. The balls are solid cherry, so they’re not to be left out when you’re not using them. You’ll have fun playing with it in your yard this summer. Gary, maybe you can suggest to Lily that she get a little bocce court put in for them.”

“I wanna’ play with it now!” Ganny whined.

Francesca shook her head. “It’s an outside game. And you don’t know the rules yet.”

“Dad!” Ganny cried. “So what are we gonna’ do now?”

Gary shrugged. “It’s an outside game, sport.”

“And we gotta’ get ready for church anyway,” Griff said.

Francesca smiled at Griff. He looked away without smiling back.

After church, Francesca served dinner. Miraculously, Guinevere slept. The boys pushed their eggplant lasagna around on their plates and ignored the peas.

“I want tacos,” Ganny said.

Francesca frowned. “Well, in this house, we don’t eat anything with eyes.”

“Well, these peas look like your eyes.” Ganny shoved a spoonful into his mouth. “Gross!” He spat the peas back on his plate.

Griff felt his stomach twist. He watched Francesca’s hands clench into fists on either side of her plate. She looked at his dad.

“Gannon!” His dad shook his head. “That was rude, sport. Apologize to your stepmother.”

Griff could tell Ganny was biting his tongue. Please don’t stick it out, he thought.

“Sorry,” Ganny mumbled. He coughed. “Stepmother.”

Francesca’s mouth trembled.

Griff shoved a chunk of the eggplant lasagna into his mouth and forced himself to swallow it. “Tastes great!” he exclaimed.

Francesca’s wet eyes landed on him. A smile dented her face.

He looked down at his plate.

For a moment, no one spoke.

“I’ve got rounds to make pretty soon,” their dad said. “And the surgical res asked if I could cover for him because of some family emergency.”

Francesca sighed. “I should probably nap while Guinevere is down.” Again her wet green eyes landed on Griff.

“We can just watch TV ’til Mom comes to get us,” Griff said.

After their dad left for the hospital, Griff packed his and Ganny’s duffel bags and put them by the front door. Francesca wheeled the bocce set next to their bags.

“OK, guys. The TV is all yours. Just keep the door to the family room closed, so then the TV won’t wake your sister, but keep the sound low, OK?”

“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered.

Francesca handed a cell phone to Griff. Your dad asked your mom to call when she gets here. I don’t want her ringing the doorbell and waking me or your sister.”

“Half-sister,” Ganny said loudly, but Francesca had already left the room.

They watched a Sponge Bob cartoon for a while. They sat on the floor close to the TV. At home, they each had a bean bag chair for watching TV. Their dad had promised he’d have bean bag chairs for them here, too. But there were no bean bag chairs.

“I’m bored,” Ganny said. He went to the front door and wheeled the bocce set back into the family room. He took a fork from the dining room hutch and used it to pry off the staples, bending one of the prongs.

Griff slid the ruined fork under the couch.

For a while, they rolled the balls around the room.

“This is boring,” Ganny said.

They began pitching balls to each other.

A red ball slammed into photos on top of the piano. Wedding photos toppled into baby photos. A wild pitch just missed the TV screen.

Ganny raced to field a high pop up. He crashed into an end table. A lamp fell.

Griff zoomed for a line drive. He tripped over the rocking chair and fell into the tree. The tree shuddered and tipped. Ornaments fell. They propped the tree against the glass wall.

Griff jumped on the couch to catch a high fly ball just as the cell phone in his pocket rang. Distracted, he missed the ball. It slammed into the stained glass window over the couch. He heard a crack.

“Hi Mom,” Griff said into the phone. “We’re ready. We just have to pick up some stuff. We’ll be right out.”

The door to the family room banged open. Francesca’s eyes swept over the room. They froze on the stained glass window behind Griff’s head. “You cracked it?” Her voice shook.

Ganny ran and squeezed himself into the little space between the propped tree and the glass wall. Griff looked at the stained glass window. The crack was thin and curved like a spider’s leg. He jumped off the couch. “We’re sorry!” he said. “We’ll pick everything up.” His muscles tensed, waiting for Francesca to explode.

For a moment, all Griff could hear was his own breath and the clock ticking on the fireplace mantel.

Then, her mouth opened. But all that came out was a whisper. “My mom and I won first prize for that window.”

She hunched her shoulders and began lifting photos off the floor.

Ganny emerged from behind the tree. The brothers looked at each other. They began working in silence, righting the lamp, pillows, returning bocce balls to the case.

When Francesca tried to right the tree, the boys helped. The three of them managed to restore it back to its upright position.

Ganny stepped on an ornament on the floor, crunching it underfoot.

From Francesca came a soft sound, like a kitten’s mewl.

Outside a car horn blared.

“That’s Mom!” Griff exclaimed. “She’ll wake the baby!”

And sure enough, Guinevere began to shriek.

Francesca shuddered. She flung back her head, gripped her hair between both hands, and howled.

Griff stumbled back. Ganny covered his ears. “Stop stop stop!” he cried.

The baby’s shrieks burned through the room. Francesca screamed, “Shut up, Guinevere! Just! Shut! Up!”

She collapsed into the rocking chair. Tears spilled. “I can’t do this. I’m so tired. So cold.” She bowed her head and began to rock, violently, back and forth.

Guinevere continued to cry, piercing, shuddering sobs.

Griff whispered to Ganny and left the room, closing the door behind him.

The baby continued to cry. Francesca closed her eyes and covered her ears.

After a while, Francesca realized the baby’s cries were easing. Suddenly, as though someone had turned off a radio, the cries stopped.

Francesca opened her eyes. She watched Gannon. He was picking ornaments off the floor and putting them back on the tree. He wasn’t doing it right. He was adding too many ornaments to the same low branches.


He looked at the tree. “I didn’t mean those peas looked like your eyes. They just look like eyes is what I meant. Anyone’s eyes. Should I get you blanket?”


“Are you still cold? Should I get you a blanket?”

The door to the family room opened. Griff stood in the doorway. His mother, Lily, stood behind him. She was cradling Guinevere like a football in one arm, and propping a bottle in the baby’s mouth with her other hand. On Guinevere’s head was knitted pink hat Francesca didn’t recognize. Francesca had knitted most of Guinevere’s hats, sweaters and socks too.

“She’s beautiful,” Lily said. “And what a marvelous set of lungs!” She stepped into the room.

Francesca stared at the hat. Nothing went on her daughter that Francesca didn’t first wash.

“Griff told me they’d made a mess in here,” Lily said. “And cracked your beautiful window. I’ll get it fixed. Anyway, I thought the least I could do now was get Guinevere changed and fed for you. I found bottles in your fridge. I warmed one.”

“She wasn’t due for a bottle yet,” Francesca said. “I’m trying to keep her on a schedule.”

Lily nodded. She eased the bottle from Guinevere’s mouth and handed it to Griff.

“She drank it all!” Griff exclaimed.

Lily lifted Guinevere to her shoulder and patted her back. A loud burp from the baby made the boys laugh. Despite her anger, Francesca smiled. Then she frowned. “That hat? Where’d it come from?”

Lily stepped closer. “I didn’t know if it would fit. But it fits perfectly. I knitted it . . .a while ago.”

Francesca felt dizzy. Had Lily knit the hat for her own baby girl?  A sudden insight, sharp and painful, clicked inside her: Guinevere only existed because Grace did not.

“The hat, I’d thought I’d never finish it. There are heart shapes knit into the hat, and you had to follow the pattern perfectly to make the hearts. I kept making mistakes and had to start over.”

“In knitting, there’s no such thing as mistakes,” Francesca heard herself say. “That’s what my mother always said when I’d drop a stitch or purl when I should have knitted. A mistake, she’d say, is just the way a knitter personalizes her work.”

Lily nodded. “That’s a good philosophy. I wish I’d applied it to my own parenting when Griff was born. I was so by the book with him, I was driving myself crazy. Then when Ganny came along, I was too tired and overwhelmed to even remember schedules and rules.”

Francesca felt blood heat her face. What was Lily implying? That Francesca was too by the book?

“But,” Lily continued, “I’ve got a rule-follower and a rule-breaker. So maybe I reaped what I sowed.”

Francesca looked at the boys who were now sitting on the floor near the TV. The rule follower. The rule breaker. Which one would her daughter be? Which one was ultimately better to be? Which one would Grace have been?

Lily lowered her face to the baby nestled in her arms. She breathed deeply. “I’d forgotten how good a baby smells.”

Francesca stood. The rocker nudged her knees, pushing her a step toward Lily. Lily looked tired. Purple stained the pouches under her eyes. Her brown hair looked dusty. But Guinevere, nestled against Lily, was gloriously quiet, content.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Francesca heard herself ask Lily. “Maybe some cappuccino?”

While Lily rocked the baby, Francesca made cappuccino. She popped a big bowl of popcorn. She led the boys to the basement and let them bring up the two bean bag chairs Gary had bought without even asking her first.

The boys sat in the bean bag chairs and watched Nickelodeon, the sound low, the popcorn between them on the floor.

Francesca lay under a comforter on the couch. From half-opened eyes, she watched Lily rock Guinevere. She watched Lily’s fingers trace the heart shapes on Guinevere’s hat. The hat was adorable. Maybe she’d ask Lily for the pattern.

Francesca felt her stomach tighten. Was it Grace’s hat? Had Grace ever worn it? Oh! The three Gs on the bocce balls. What an idiot she was. An insensitive idiot. Well, she would tell the boys that the third G was for both their sisters.

She looked at the boys cradled in the bean bag chairs. The chairs clashed with the décor, but Francesca had to admit that with the boys sitting in them, the chairs somehow looked right.

Griff suddenly turned and looked at her. She smiled, and when, this time, shockingly, he actually smiled back, she felt something bright and fierce sweep through her, swift, soft bristles scrubbing her clean.

Was it gladness? Grace?

The evening pressed darker and darker against the windows behind the tree. The lights on the tree began to pop out. Brighter and brighter they glowed, so that, even after Francesca closed her eyes, she could feel their heat warming her skin.

Marie Anderson is a mother of three in La Grange, IL. During the school year, she helps supervise (and “entertain”) 500 grade school children during their lunch recess. She is the founder/facilitator of her local library’s writing group, now in its 7th robust year. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications.



Riding Away

Riding Away

Boys on Bike ARTBy Elrena Evans

Giddy with anticipation, I trade a wad of cash in exchange for two secondhand bikes and load them into the trunk of the minivan. The baby snoozes peacefully in his car seat while my almost-four-year-old daughter bounces in excitement, even though neither of the bikes are for her. She has multiple cast-off bikes to choose from this season, and her big sister, age ten, somehow still fits her bike from the year before. But the boys, aged six and eight, are simultaneously too big and too small for any of the extra bikes we have lying around, so the ones in the trunk are for them.

When I pick him up from kindergarten at noon, my six-year-old reacts predictably. “A new bike? For me?” He can barely contain his glee and the three-quarter mile trip home is endless. Once there he falls out of the car, grabs the bike, and hops on.

“This new bike doesn’t have training wheels,” I caution him, as he waves aside this minor concern.

“Hold my seat and launch me!” he yells, and I do, and he wobbles for a bit as he speeds down the sidewalk before crashing with a bang. “Ow ow ow!” he yells, hopping up and down, before throwing his leg over the bike again. “Launch me one more time!”

I launch and he falls, I launch and he falls, throughout the afternoon. By the time we pick up his older siblings from school, he has left bits of himself all over the sidewalk and is covered in Band-Aids, but he can ride his bike.

“Guess what!” I say to my eight-year-old as he climbs in the car. “I got you a new bike!”

“Does it have training wheels?” he responds instantly.

I look at him in the rear view mirror, tall for his age and gangly, all skinny legs and limbs and the mop of red hair he gets from me.

“No, it doesn’t, Honey,” I say gently. “You don’t need training wheels, remember? You learned to ride a bike last summer.”

“I want training wheels,” he says.

“Why don’t we try it first, and then we can talk about it?”

“I want training wheels,” he says.

I take a deep breath and focus on the road before me.

Back at home, I buckle the baby into the stroller as the girls hop on their bikes, my six-year-old already long gone down the sidewalk. My eight-year-old eyes the training wheels on his little sister’s bike and looks at me significantly.

“You don’t need training wheels,” I tell him.

“But I could fall,” he says. “I could get hurt.”

“You will fall,” I tell him. “It’s part of learning to ride a bike. And you will probably get hurt. But you won’t get hurt very bad.”

With impeccable timing, my six-year-old comes careening into view and crashes, spectacularly, on the driveway in front of us. His knees are bright with blood and he calls out “Mom! The blood’s dripping all the way to the ground! I think I need a Band-Aid!” Then he surveys his legs, wipes away the dripping blood and smears his hands on the grass. “Never mind, I’m good,” he calls, as he takes off again on his bike.

“See?” my eight-year-old says.

“You won’t get hurt like that,” I say. “You won’t get hurt like your brother.”

“Why not?” he asks.

“Because you have a radically different personality,” I say, positioning the handlebars. “Hop on.”

“I want my scooter,” he says, and I relent. We parade to the end of the street and back, the kids and I, three of them speeding blurs on bikes while my son pushes his scooter, slowly, beside me and the baby in the stroller. I watch him methodically scootering beside me and I wonder if he will ever take off with his siblings, or if he is destined to spend the rest of life here beside me, tethered by his own anxiety.

This becomes our modus operandi over the next few days: three kids on bikes, one in a stroller, and one locked tightly in the grip of fear, fighting me every step of the way as I try to prise him out.

“Don’t let go of my seat!” he screams as I stand beside him on his bike. “Don’t let go!”

“Honey, I have to let go,” I tell him. “I can’t run as fast as you can ride, and besides—letting go is kind of the whole point.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says, dismounting.

I close my eyes and open them again. “I’m going to push you a little bit on this one,” I tell him. “Just like I did with swimming. Remember how scared you were to swim? And look how much you love it now.”

“But this is different,” he insists. “In a pool you can’t fall off and get hurt.”

In a pool you can drown, I think, but I know better than to say that. He is shifting rapidly from foot to foot, fidgeting with his hands, and looking like he’s about to puke.

“I just don’t want to take the risk,” he says, looking at the bike. His voice climbs an octave or two and starts to crack. “I just don’t want to take the risk!”

“Dysregulated,” the psychologists call it, a term I find particularly apt. It’s what happens when the fear is so overwhelming you lose the ability to regulate your own body. I see it in front of me and wonder if I’ve picked the wrong battle, if I’m fighting too hard, if I should just give up and let him spend the rest of his life on a scooter. But I have a hunch, and my hunch says that if we can get over this hurdle, what we will gain will far outweigh what it cost. It’s hard to play a hunch, though, when you’re betting the emotional stability of your son.

“Let’s just try it one more time,” I say the next day as I hold on to his bike. “Let’s go down to the cul-de-sac.”

“But I can’t start,” he says as we walk his bike. “I can’t stop. I can’t steer.”

“But you can ride,” I say. “You really can. All of those other things will come. I’ll start you, I’ll point you straight toward the grass, and you can fall off there where it’s nice and squishy. You’ll be okay. I promise.”

He positions himself at the edge of the cul-de-sac, where his three siblings are whizzing around on their bikes.

“Everybody get off the street!” he yells, his voice raising and cracking. “I don’t want to crash into you. Get off the street!” My throat catches as I watch his siblings immediately turn their bikes back to the sidewalk, making way for their brother. I hold on to his seat and he wants me to hold the handlebars. I hold the handlebars and he wants me to hold the seat. Finally, holding both, we run awkwardly toward the grass. He wobbles a few feet by himself before crashing, unhurt, on the accepting lawn.

“See? You did it, Buddy! You really did it!” I am hopping with excitement even though I know this isn’t the big a-ha moment, the moment he realizes he can ride a bike…it’s just the first hurdle in a series stretching farther than my eyes can see. But still: it’s one hurdle cleared. We celebrate.

Baby steps, bit by bit, day by day. Each day he can go a little farther, last a little longer before becoming “dysregulated.” We practice riding in the cul-de-sac, then switch to the scooter for our longer ride down the street. His siblings cheer him on. He suffers a few minor falls, but can be coaxed, eventually, back on the bike. I start to think we might make it, after all.

One day I’m inside nursing the baby when I see my six-year-old daredevil flying past the house on his bike, with another bike following in hot pursuit behind. It takes me a full minute—takes me until neither bike is still in sight—to realize the boy on the second bike was my son. And the realization makes me cry.

The next morning he is up and dressed and heading out the door a full forty-five minutes before we leave for school—”Going to ride my bike!” he calls back over his shoulder. That afternoon he takes the bike, not the scooter, on our trip to the end of our street.

“Boy, can you believe I used to ride a scooter instead of a bike?!” He catches up to his waiting siblings, incredulous. “A bike is so much better. Can we go on another street now?”

And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Here is where we realize, as my knuckles whiten around the stroller handle, that my son doesn’t arrive at his anxiety a priori, with no antecedent. Here is where we face the fact that he gets his anxiety from me. I can keep it in check, more or less—on my street, near my house—but out there? Those roads are busier. Those roads have more cars. Those roads have hills and gravely sections and construction and all sorts of danger. I have four kids on bikes and one in a stroller. I can’t protect them all, out there. Out there, they could be killed.

All the kids are clamoring to ride on. My son is looking at me expectantly. Letting go is kind of the whole point.

And we go. They are all so fast, so much faster than me with the baby in the stroller, and I am watching my eight-year-old take off on his bike, wobbling at first, and I am running so hard my heart feels like it will explode and I am praying, out loud, as my feet pound the pavement behind them, God please, please, please just don’t let him fall. Please just don’t let them get killed. Please just get us all back safely home.

And they are laughing, and I am running, and the baby is squealing with delight, and now I’m calling out to them “Slow down! Wait for me! Stop at the stop sign!” but they can’t hear me, and now I am laughing, too, because I can’t hold them back, because they are flying, I am flying, we are all flying, and we are free.

Author’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece, my four-year-old daughter (in personality, a match for my six-year-old son) took a bad fall on a street a mile from our house—a fall that left her with small scars she will most likely carry into adulthood. Watching her fall, unable to protect her, I realized I had Band-Aids of all sorts of shapes and sizes, fresh water, and ice in the basket of the stroller for just such an event. My eight-year-old had packed them for me, just in case.

Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.