Nothing but trouble
by Trina Allen
"Todd's pancake is bigger than mine. It's. Not. Fair." Josh whined, his small face puckered in anger.
Todd poked his tongue out at his younger brother.
Josh retaliated by shoving Todd, nearly knocking him off his chair.
"That is enough, Josh," I said, fighting the smile that threatened to erode the "Mom look" I had spent years perfecting. "I'll give you more eggs than Todd. Watch." I scooped a larger mound of scrambled eggs onto Josh's plate.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Josh stick his tongue out at Todd. I pretended not to notice.
Candice sat with her nose in a book, ignoring her brothers.
I spooned eggs onto my daughter's plate, feeling heat from the skillet waft upward and cover my face with a sheen of moisture. The room seemed to swim for a moment. The smell of cooked eggs had never made me woozy before. I am probably just tired, I thought, wiping perspiration from my forehead with a sleeve.
"I can drink this whole glass of juice faster than you."
"No way, look at me," Josh said, then suddenly fell out of his chair. He was sprawled on the floor, his plate overturned on the edge of the table and his pancake stuck to his head.
The chow, appropriately named Trouble, immediately licked syrup from Josh's hair, then wolfed the pancake down in one bite.
Red-faced, Josh said, "Mom, Trouble just ate my breakfast." Under his breath, he muttered, "I'll get you for this, Todd."
Candice merely turned a page, pushed her glasses up on her nose and said, "You look ridiculous. You should see yourself."
I couldn't help smiling. Josh did look ridiculous with Trouble running little excited circles around him, licking syrup of his head at each pass.
Todd, of course, sat eating his eggs as if he had nothing to do with Josh's mishap. Although I hadn't seen him do it, I would bet my life that Todd was responsible.
Making my face appropriately Mom-serious, I said, "I don't care who started it. Both of you will clean this mess up," emphasis on the both.
I sighed. The boys had wakened me early, arguing.
"You used it first yesterday."
"Too bad. I'm older, so I say who goes first."
"It's not fair," Josh's new favorite saying. "It is my turn at the computer."
"And I say that I use the computer first. I'm in the middle of a game."
Their voices had carried to our bedroom. Lying in the semi-darkness listening to Rich's even breathing, I felt annoyed that he hadn't volunteered to get up and handle it. Saturday was the only day I could sleep in.
Turning my back on the boys, I poured my second cup of strong coffee and went into the breakfast nook, hoping for some peace. Maybe a miracle would happen, and the boys would clean the mess in the kitchen without another catastrophe.
Although morning sun streamed though the window, a coleus's leaves curled toward the glass, grasping for more light. Peering out between the colorful leaves of a dieffenbachia, I watched a male cardinal land on the bird feeder outside the window. House finches immediately took flight, in a whir of red throats and brown wings. Giving homage to their crimson king, the finches began picking seeds from the other feeder.
The cardinal puffed his feathers and lifted his tail, as if to show his authority. Soon the blue jays would rule, but for now, the cardinal was still lord of his domain, his black mask prominent as he crunched seed. A nuthatch landed next to him and perched upside down, his blue-gray back turned skyward as he ate.
"Chirpity, chirpity, chirpity, chirp." Listening to the lone wren's cheerful solo, I realized it had been months since the morning chorus of finches, wrens, and song sparrows had wakened me before dawn. Although they still came to the bird feeder, the early morning chirps of cardinals and calls of the nuthatches had dwindled, signaling the end of summer.
I opened the back door, the dog nearly knocking me down in his rush to get out ahead of me. The chilly air, with its tang of goldenrod and autumn leaves, was startling after the warm hazy summer mornings of weeks past. A train whistle blew, loud and long, and then faded into the distance. Trouble scampered along the fence, his head in the air, howling in accompaniment with the whistle.
A squirrel ran down the old oak, its tail twitching. It scrambled across the yard carrying an acorn, and started to dig a hole. Trouble leaped toward it and the squirrel shuffled up a tree still carrying the acorn. The chow sat at the base of the tree, whining and staring up at the squirrel, tail wagging.
The door slammed. Todd shot out the door followed by Josh, whose hair was still sticky with syrup. I hoped they'd done a better job with the kitchen.
"Boys, go put your jackets on."
"Ah, Mom," they said in chorus.
I gave them a severe Mom-look.
"I'll beat you to the door," Josh said.
The door slammed, followed by exactly one minute of peace. I gazed at the empty shepherd's crook that had held the hummingbird feeders. The hummers had migrated to the Outer Banks or Mexico for the winter. Even the high-pitched notes of the male crickets had dwindled--the female has more important things to do than to make noise scraping her wings together.
The door slammed again and the boys clumped down the deck stairs behind Trouble.
"I get the area by the pine trees."
"Yes way, I built the fort there last time and I still have my pine cone ammunition."
"It is not fair. You always get your way."
Trouble joined the argument, running back and forth and between my sons. Then, suddenly seeming to lose interest, he stuck his nose in the air, sniffed, sneezed and followed a scent in the grass.
"Shut up, cry baby."
"Mom!" Josh ran up the stairs toward me. I noticed a tear on his cheek.
"Boys, you need to work it out."
Trouble ran up the deck stairs and cocked his head at me. He probably thought I was scolding him.
"Who had the fort by the pines last time?"
"I did," Todd said, looking at the ground.
"Okay, so who do you think should have it this time?"
"Cry baby," Todd muttered.
Small stabs of pain fluttered in my chest. My heart beat faster. Something wet my hand. Looking down, I realized it was Trouble's tongue. As he nudged his nose in between my arm and my chest, a feeling of dread overcame me.
I set my coffee mug down hard, startling the male cardinal to flight. The bird chirped, answered by the female that I recognized as his mate. The pair landed on the fence near the feeder. The male lifted his crimson tail, spread his wings, and cheeped once more, seemingly aware of his elite status in his kingdom.
I glanced at the boys piling up sticks and pine cones in the woods beyond the yard, noticing that the trees were already shedding leaves and color. Only the pines and cedars still wore the green of summer. The maples flashed red, and rebellious yellow leaves still clung to the ash and poplar.
I tried in vain to catch my breath. I wiped sweaty palms on my robe. Beads of perspiration covered my brow. After several minutes the hot flash passed.
I got up and headed toward the woods across a blanket of fallen leaves. My bare feet soon became damp and chilled. The same rhythm that had caused the leaves to drop from the trees had halted the birds' song. Usually the shorter days and the cooler nights filled me with nostalgia. Not today.
The back door squeaked open, startling me. Rich walked down the deck stairs, gripping a cup of coffee with both hands. Steam covered his face in gauzy wisps as he sipped the coffee. I noticed gray had crept into his beard.
"Good morning," I said, letting sarcasm creep into my voice. I was still annoyed with him for sleeping in.
Rich walked down the stairs toward me as Josh fired off several pine cone missiles at his brother. Todd returned an avalanche of sticks and pine straw.
"Josh, don't ... throw ... so hard at your brother," I yelled, having trouble catching my breath. Then I staggered and fell on the blanket of dead leaves.
"Jennifer, what is it?" Rich said, running toward me.
"I don't know." My neck ached. I rolled my head in an effort to ease the pain, which traveled to my throat. As I gasped for breath, pain stabbed from my throat to my jaws. I couldn't talk. I looked at Rich. Seeing fear in his eyes, my heart pounded.
"Todd, Josh, bring me the phone. Now!" he yelled.
The boys must not have heard him because Rich ran into the house and back out, pushing buttons on the phone. "Send an ambulance. Hurry, my wife just collapsed."
I focused on the tiny lines around Rich's eyes while he gave the address to the 911 operator.
"Mom! Mom. What happened?"
I couldn't answer, could only stare as a wren landed on a branch of the old oak. It cocked its head several times until it was looking at me. Clear notes rose from its throat.
"Dad, what's wrong with Mom?"
"Is Mom going to be okay?" Tears stained Todd's cheeks, dirty from playing forts.
The wind picked up. A shower of leaves blew down from the tall trees in the backdrop of the morning sun--each leaf a colorful butterfly, fluttering in a small tornado of browns, yellows and reds.
A painful contraction gripped my heart, and the leaves faded to blackness.
"Todd's pancake is bigger than mine. It's. Not. Fair." Josh said, his face puckered in anger.
Todd poked his tongue out at his younger brother.
Josh shoved Todd, nearly knocking him off his chair.
I was holding a skillet of eggs. The overflowing spatula in my hand spilled eggs onto the floor. I quickly dished the remaining eggs onto three plates.
"I can drink this whole glass of juice faster than you."
"No way, look at me," Josh said, then suddenly fell out of his chair, his plate overturned on the edge of the table. His pancake stuck to his head like a hat.
Watching Trouble lick his face, and eat the pancake in one bite, a chilling sense of déjà vu froze my heart. I had gone back in time.
"I'll get you for this," Josh said, his small face red with anger.
I watched Candice turn a page in her book, push her glasses up on her nose, and for the second time today, say, "You look ridiculous. You should see yourself."
Trouble was running little excited circles around Josh, and again, licking him at each pass.
Once more, Todd sat innocently eating his eggs.
"Mom. Mom. Are you okay?" Candice asked.
I nodded, although I was seriously not okay.
Walking out of the kitchen, I went into the bathroom. Rummaging around in the medicine cabinet, I was relieved when I found the bottle I was looking for.
I took one aspirin. Then I went into the bedroom and woke Rich up. He would have to settle the squabbles this morning.
I picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.
"Nothing but trouble." Word Catalyst (December, 2008).