Just Desserts

Elmeara sat up as a scratching noise reached her ears. What could that be? She leaned forward and peered through the taffy curtains. Two hunched forms lurked near the porch. 

Rotten little vandals are ruining my beautiful sweet home! Her blood pressure peaked, and a swift rush of inspiration ran through her. Sadly, the feeling quickly drained away. The ax was dull, in the basement, and her knees weren’t what they used to be. Oh, to be young!

She heard them again, the uninvited shin kickers. From the sounds of it, they might be pulling the gutters off. 

Blast it all! The holy terrors would damage all her hard work if she didn’t stop them. With a thud, she dropped her carving knife and whetstone, slipped through the back door and around to the front yard. There they were – a boy and a girl, sitting on the stoop, gnawing like a pair of demented beavers. 

The boy squatted in baggy, low-riding pants as black as his Metallica T-shirt and greasy hair. She wasn’t sure what was more revolting, his underwear leering at her from his droopy drawers or his arms and clothes glistening with chocolate stains. He was positively drooling on himself. 

Elmeara rolled her eyes. Bah! No surprise, teenage boys do that naturally

The girl was marginally better, dressed in short shorts and a mid-riff baring shirt. Then she spied the Christmas tree collection bits and bobs that flashed and glittered from the girl’s navel, ears, eyebrows, and lips. 

Egads! The King of the trailer park must be missing a princess! A steady clicking noise came from the girl as she licked the candy cane downspouts. 

Newt eyeballs! This one had a tongue piercing. She was going to take forever to prepare.

They looked up at her, eye’s widening. No doubt they are more embarrassed at being caught than ashamed of the damage they’re causing. But, as her mum used to say, “When life hands you a stray chicken, get out the gravy.” 

So, with as much saccharine as she could muster, she asked, “What are you doing to my house?” As if they don’t know, but I might let them explain themselves. No need to appear too vindictive, yet.

“I’m hungry,” the girl whined. The slack-eyed boy stared while chewing with an open mouth. More chocolate dripped off his chin.

Elmeara shivered. Disgusting! “Why didn’t you just ring the bell,” she said, pointing toward the door, but blanched at the hole in her door frame. The teenage termites apparently ate that too. 

She struggled to keep her voice controlled. “Ahem, well, if you had bothered to ask, I would have given you something.” Seriously, you little pests! It takes real skill and time to bake a gingerbread two-by-four.

“We’re sorry,” they chimed, giving her puppy dog eyes. Nice try, you little manipulators, but I have jars of those in my basement.

She resisted a grimace. Phooey, they are baiting me. Still, I need to take the high road. “What are two beautiful, scrumptious children doing alone in the forest? Did you get lost?”

The girl answered with a flip of her long blond hair. “Like, our stepmother totally frizzed out when I asked for a ride to the mall. She told us to WALK! I couldn’t believe it. It’s like forever a mile away. So I said, like, you gots a minivan, sista, so why don’t you just take me there already! But the hag went all Tom Cruise and pushed me out the door.”

Ah yes, the old tired and overused “mean step-mom” routine. Elmeara shook her head. Some animals eat their young or should at least consider it. She studied the boy, and he stared back with one eye, the other hidden behind a clump of long hair. “Have you been victimized for the same reason?”

“Huh,” he said, dullness disappearing from his eyes. “Sort of – the step-witch pulled the plug on my X-box, and right in the middle of a wicked round of Grand Theft Auto, I’d just iced a cop and … “

“Poor thing,” Elmeara interjected. That unfortunate stepmother ought to be given a medal or at least a shovel and a shaded backyard.

“Well, my sweet things, why don’t you come in and make yourself comfortable.”

The boy perked up. “You got wifi?”

“No.”

He stared sullenly at the ground as another bit of railing dribbled down his chin.

“Oh no,” the girl whined, looking at the strange rectangular device in her hand. “I’ve got no bars.”

A smile crept across Elmeara’s face. Heh, heh. I do – in my basement. The girl noticed her staring. Uh oh, better play along. “Little young to be hanging out in bars, aren’t you?”

With a shake of her head, the girl rolled her eyes, “No, duh! I’m talking cell signal.” She held out the box and waved it at her. 

Like that is going to help you, hehe. “Sorry, no signal here. I receive a letter every now and then, but no phone calls.”

“Wow, how prehistoric!” the girl said incredulously.

Prehistoric, eh? I’ll outlast you, dearie. “How quaint, my dear. I’ve got some tasty lemonade inside. We can talk more there.”

“Okay. Come on, Hans, we’re going to chill with granny in her crib.” With a bang, she threw open the front door with such force a couple hard candies popped out of the door frame.

“Mmmmmppfhh,” Hans drooled, dropping the masticated porch railing with a plop on the ground. 

Elmeara darted for the door. Phooey! Drooling Dudley beat me to it. She hesitated before grabbing the glistening doorknob.

Ack! It would have been cleaner if he had licked the thing. So she dug into her robes, searching. Let’s see: ice pick, scalpel, a bottle of ether, gauze, bone separator – nope, no salad tongs. Guess I’ll risk it. With a grimace, she grabbed the knob, rotated the candy-coated mess enough to swing the door open, and followed her meals on heels to the kitchen.

When she caught up with her dumplings, they were already poking around the kitchen. The boy stuck his head into the refrigerator. “Wow, you don’t eat much, do you?”

“Well, I haven’t had victims …  um … made a trip to the store in quite a while.”

The girl pawed at the giant meat cleaver on the butcher’s block. “I take it you’re not a vegan?”

Elmeara managed a weak grin. “No, not exactly.”

The girl scrunched her face up in disgust. “I could never eat meat; it is so disgusting.” 

How disappointing. Vegans are always bony and tasteless – I’ll save her for last. 

The boy gave her a smirk. “Not me. I love a good steak, but not too raw; it can’t be mooing.”

Elmeara gave him a congratulatory grin. “Me too,” she said, resisting the urge to pinch his arm. “Pink and juicy for me.”

“OMG!” the girl shrieked. Elmeara’s heart skipped a beat. With concern, she followed where the girl pointed at an oven in the corner. The youngster exclaimed, “That is huge! You could cook a horse in there.”

Not a horse, my little dumpling, believe me. They tend to run off before you can properly season them. “I like to cook large animals. They tend to last longer.”

“Bleh,” the girl said with an exaggerated expression.

“Before we do anything else, could I have your names?” Not that it mattered, but it sure made labeling leftovers easier.

“My name is Gretel, and this is my brother Hans. What’s your name?”

“Elmeara.”

“That’s odd. How about we call you Elly?”

How about I call you dinner? Stupid children. These two were definitely not grade-A material. Let’s see, are the bitter ones sweet or the sweet ones bitter? Oh well, it didn’t matter. That’s what condiments are for, so on to business.

“How about some lemonade, my sweeties?”

Hans perked up. “You got any Red Bull? I need to get jazzed.”

That’s all I need; my dinner full of caffeine. “No honey, but the lemonade is sweet. Will that do?”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, I suppose so.” 

She pushed a glass toward him. That should make him drowsy. I just need to deal with the broccoli eater now.

“What can I do for you, my dear?” 

Gretel stared at the floor, hair shrouding her face. Slowly she started swaying, her hands clenched and her arms flaying. 

Elmeara scratched her head. Is the girl having a seizure?

“YEAH! Put a ring on it, uh-huh, put a ring on it,” the girl shrieked to the floor. 

A ring? What is she talking about? Elmeara jumped back to avoid Gretel’s dry heave dance moves. Thin white cords trailed up the girl’s sides and into her ears. That, combined with the glazed expression, made her look like she’d been freshly lobotomized. 

Elmeara waved a hand in front of Gretel’s face and yelled, “DO YOU WANT SOMETHING TO EAT?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a seat,” she answered, sashaying on a stool next to the butcher’s block.

Elmeara’s eyes widened. At this rate, I won’t be able to eat until after sundown, which always gives me indigestion. Plus, children seldom taste better the second time around.

She grabbed the girl by the shoulders and shoved her through the pantry door. “Search the top shelf. There should be a delicious can of peaches in there.” THUMP. The lock clicked into place.

Gretel’s voice drifted through the door. “Hey! There’s no light in here!”

“There’s a switch on the wall; keep looking for it.” Turning around, she found the boy, his head bopping and swaying, eyes glazed over. Ah, the lemonade was working. Now to the oven. She danced all around to him. “Come, my dear, you must be tired. Time for a nap.”

“Wwwwha ….” he stammered, spittle dripping on his shirt front. 

She grabbed his collar and pulled him toward the oven. With her other hand, she tugged open the heavy iron door.

“Uh oh,” he said.

Elmeara tensed. Had she made a mistake? Had the lemonade not taken effect?

“I’m gonna …”

Suddenly he bent double and sprayed the butcher’s block with predigested porch railing. Elmeara cringed. Blasted child! It took me weeks to clean from my last meal. His jerky movements threw her off balance, and she teetered too. His head thumped off the surface of the butcher’s block and recoiled toward her face.

Oh no! Too late. Stars filled her eyes as his knobby noggin dented her forehead. She rocketed backward as the world quickly faded to black. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the loud thump of the oven door slamming shut.

* * *

Hans woke up a few minutes later, only to find himself staring at the kitchen ceiling. As he sat up, pain pounded at his temples. “Oh man, I ain’t felt like this since … uh … last weekend.”

Thumps erupted from the pantry door. “Hey, let me out of here!”

He rolled his eyes and shambled to his feet. “Keep your panties on.”

Pulling the door open, Gretel glowered at him, a glowing iPhone in her hand. “Granny told me there was a light switch in here, but I couldn’t find it.”

“She probably forgot. You know how they always forget their teeth and pills.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

She attempted to brush past him. “Ewwww, you reek. What did you do?”

A quick sniff of his glass confirmed it. “I think granny gave me some loaded lemonade. You know how I can’t hold my Jack.”

“Why would she keep that in her fridge?”

“Maybe she’s a booze hag or uses it for arthritis. You know oldies can’t walk anywhere without screaming in pain.” His face lit up. “Oh man, I had a killer idea!”

“What?”

“You know how old people are always popping pain pills? I’ll bet she’s got some Vicodin or Percocet around here.”

“Sweet!” Gretel’s brow furrowed. “Wait, where is she? We don’t want her catching us.”

“Beats me. She probably fell asleep on the crapper.”

Gretel looked at the mess on the butcher’s block. “Then again, she probably went to find a mop, puke boy.”

So, they searched, but not finding Granny, they quickly crushed and huffed her prescription meds and emptied her liquor cabinet. 

* * *

Elmeara woke up in complete darkness. Where am I? Her fingertips brushed against cool metal with raised ridges. She tried to stand but bumped her head on the ceiling. Tracing the boundaries, she quickly tallied up the dimensions. If this is a closet, why isn’t there a door hand handle?

* * *

Hans sat on the kitchen counter. “We should head home before the step-witch sends the five-oh after us.”

“Oh, she wouldn’t do that.”

“Sure she would; she’d like nothing more than to put us in juvie.”

Gretel nodded. “Okay, let’s go. Strange we didn’t find granny.”

“Yeah,” Hans said, wiping pill dust off his upper lip. “I kinda feel bad about taking her stuff. Maybe we should do something nice for her.”

Gretel pointed at the butcher block. “How about cleaning up that mess you made?”

“Nah, too much work,” he said, yawning. His eyes drifted around the kitchen before settling on the oven. “I know what to do. Let’s go!”

With a shrug, Gretel whipped out her iPhone. “Hey, I got GPS,” she shouted, walking out the front door.

“Cool.” Hans stepped in front of the oven and searched the display. “Thanks, granny,” he said, punching the button marked “Auto-Clean.”

* * *

Light erupted from the walls, quickly turning from brown to red. As it increased, so did the heat. The realization came to Elmeara, like the sweat on her forehead. 

Oh, how I hate children!

Through the Door (part 2) — Consolidated version

[I’m not entirely happy with this attempt, but I didn’t want the effort to drag on. I may have waxed on a bit much to try and give the story some bones. I did try and use what the AI offered up. See what you think. Continuation from here. ]

Rhinna crossed her arms, and her eyes narrowed. “I see. And you came here to meet or follow him here?”

“I did not know he was here or if the man was really him. My husband disappeared months ago. I was cleaning out the attic when I found this book.” She held it up. “When I started reading from it, a door appeared, leading me here.”

The older woman cast a side-eyed look at the book. “Yes, the book. It leads to the Kingdom of Aldewater, but it is dangerous and not of this world. Many have vanished into its pages after reading its stories.”

“I am stuck here?”  Arianna asked, her eyes wide. “So, how do I get back?”

Rhinna hesitated before speaking. “I might know, but I want to know more about your husband.”

“Dathon is a historian who works for the local University. Very soft-spoken and a scholar. An expert on Celtic tales.”

“Did he ever mention the Aldewater tree?”

Arianne stared at the creek. The name sounded familiar. “I have heard of it before, but that’s all I remember. Is it important?”

“The very pages of that book you hold were fashioned from it.”

The young woman examined the book. “So that is how I was transported to this world. By the magic of the tree.”

“Yes, the tree is the source of all magic in this world, and Dathon will stop at nothing to steal its power.”

Arianna shook her head. “What do you mean?”

Rhinna washed the rest of the blood off her arms. “He and his followers came to our village and demanded we give them our Aldewater tree. When we didn’t, he killed everyone he could get his hands on and set the tree and village on fire.”

“That doesn’t sound like my husband at all.”

The older woman stood up and brushed her hands off the front of her dress. “If you don’t believe me, come see what he did.” She turned and started walking toward the trail.

 Arianna struggled to catch up. “It isn’t that I don’t believe you. I just don’t understand why he’d destroy the tree.”

“By destroying the tree, he releases the magic from it, which he captures in his cane.”

Arianna shook her head. She just wanted to return to her own world. “Will the book return me to my own world?”

Rhinna stopped in her tracks. “Go ahead and try.”

The young woman opened the book, but only blank pages greeted her. “I don’t understand. The book had writing in it when I opened it before.”

“That was before you came here. You will have to write in it to return to your own world; to do that, you’ll need Aldewater magic.”

She closed the book. “Which means I will have to get the magic from Dathon.”

“Or from another tree, there are few left in this world. There might be some residual magic left in our village’s tree.”

“Can you take me to your village then?”

Rhinna nodded and began walking along the trail again. For several minutes they wandered along the path. The sounds of nature and the smell of leaves soon dissipated, replaced by the acrid smell of burnt wood and another more odious smell, bitter and foul.

“What is that smell?” Arianna choked out, covering her nose.

The older woman stepped aside. “Death and destruction.”

In front of them lay the ruins of Elghast, little more than still smoking embers. Pools of blood lay in the streets, along with rendered cloth and discarded shoes. A few people walked about, forlorn looks on their faces, dirt, and blood streaked across their forms. Several looked in their direction and stopped in their tracks.

“Come this way,” Rhinna said. “The tree is over here.” She turned and moved along the main street into the village. Arianna followed closely. The few villagers nearby stood staring, their faces twisting slowly into sneers, faces reddening. A tall, broad-shouldered man stepped into their path.

“What is this? What is she doing here again?” he growled, pointing at Arianna.

Rhinna smacked his arm out of the way. “Magnus, this is not the same person.”

“She sure looks the same.” Magnus continued to stare with narrowed eyes. The other villagers surrounding them looked equally skeptical.

Ignoring them, Rhinna continued to walk further into the village. She did, however, pull Arianna closer. Soon they arrived at the village square, in the middle of which stood the blackened remains of a large tree. Large branches hung shattered and broken off at the trunk, with several lying on the ground. Wilted yellow and orange leaves also lay on the soil, with some hanging forlornly off the branches. “Here is, or was our Aldewater tree.”

“It must have been magnificent,” Arianna said, drawing a breath. She stepped closer and laid a hand on the trunk.

“Yes,” Rhinna answered. “But now it is an empty hulk.”

A voice, weak and soft, drifted into Arianna’s mind. “I am dying.”

She yelped and pulled away from the tree. “The tree spoke to me. It said it is dying.”

Rhinna gasped while the other villagers moved closer.

Arianna looked up at the older woman. “What do I do?”

“Place your hand on the trunk, and tell us what it says.”

She did so. At first, nothing happened, but then a quiet voice echoed in her mind. “Stop him.” She relayed the message.

The villagers and Rhinna exchanged glances while Arianna waited for more messages. More whispers came across to her, but they were unintelligible. Soon even that drifted away. After several minutes of silence, she pulled her hands away.

“That was it.”

Rhinna wiped a tear away. “Then the tree is now gone.” Sniffles came from the villagers. She turned to the villagers. “We must go to Freehold and alert the king.” Turning to Arianna, she said, “You must come with us. It is no longer safe to stay in the village without the protection of the tree.”

“How are we supposed to stop Dathon?”

“I do not know, but staying here is no longer an option.” Rhinna paused before continuing. “If Dathon is your husband, perhaps you can convince him to stop what he is doing.”

“How do I find him?”

“We shall ask the King for help.”

“Will he do this?”

Rhinna glanced over her shoulder at the Aldewater tree. “We’d better hope so.”

[I’ll take on what the AI offers up in the next post. If you want to bypass that detour, you can skip to the next continuation of the story. ]

The Birthday

Eight-year-old Paul stared out the car window as the glowing lights of Joe’s Pizza flashed against the gloom of a cold December gray sky. He wiped the frost off the window and looked around the parking lot. “Where’s Dad?”

“Spending time with his girlfriend,” Mom groused, then shut off the 1972 Dodge Dart and pulled the door open. After a quick glance in the rearview mirror to check her thinning auburn hair and red lipstick, she said, “Let’s go.”

Swinging the heavy door open, Paul stepped out onto the gravel. It crunched merrily at his feet. Pulling his coat tighter to fend off the chill, he followed her to the big red doors at the entrance to the Pizza parlor.

Mom stood at the door but continued to glance around the lot. “He promised he wouldn’t be late,” she said, blowing on her hands. Her face looked tired, with dark circles under her eyes, but a small, wrapped birthday present was tucked under her arms.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be here,” Paul offered.

“Yeah, like he keeps all his promises,” Mom snapped back.

The last comment stung, but Paul struggled past it. “Let’s get a table.”

Mom nodded, then pushed open the door, and they stepped inside. The warm glow of the interior lighting invited him in, as did the smell of tomato sauce and fresh bread baking in the oven.

A waitress appeared, a teen girl with braces, grabbed a couple of menus, and hustled them toward a booth tucked away in a corner near large windows on two sides.

Mom scooted into the booth, but when Paul slid opposite her, she quickly waved him over to sit by her. The waitress pushed the menus in front of them.

“Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

Paul was still struggling to get his coat off, but before he had a chance to grab a menu, Mom snatched it away and pushed it back at the waitress.

“Two slices of cheese pizza and water to drink. Nothing else.”

A frown briefly sailed across the young woman’s face before she snapped up menus and left.

Paul had been so excited to finally have his favorite dish. He had waited all day, but his heart sank as he watched the waitress disappear. Not even for his birthday could he get what he wanted. “I was hoping we could get a whole pizza with extra pepperoni.”

“I’m not made of money,” she said, then glanced at her watch. “Where is he?”

The waitress reappeared with drinks.

Dad appeared behind her. “Hey, sport,” he said, flashing a quick smile. “Sorry, I’m late.” He ran a hand through his short military-grade hair to sweep the snowflakes out of it.

Paul’s heart soared. It had been almost two weeks since their last court-ordered custody visit. “Hey, Dad.” He turned to Mom. “See, I told you he’d be here.”

Mom pursed her lips. “Hello, Ray.”

Dad’s eyes flashed toward Mom, and he quickly dipped his chin. Wasting no time, he slid into a seat opposite them.

“So, what’s on the menu?”

“We already ordered,” Mom said.

“Oh, okay.”

The waitress walked up with two glasses of water and placed them in front of Paul and Mom. She turned to Ray. “Can I get you something?”

“Yes, I’ll have what they’re having,” Dad said, nodding toward them.

“Okay, a slice of cheese pizza and water coming up.”

“Sounds good.”

As soon as the waitress turned away, Dad continued. “So, how’s it feel to be seven?”

“He’s eight,” Mom interjected. Dad shot her an annoyed glance.

“Right, eight then,” he corrected.

“Great, I was hoping for pepperoni pizza, though.”

“Really, that’s my favorite too. We’ll change it once the waitress returns.”

“No,” Mom said firmly.

Dad looked at her. “Why not?”

“That’s a waste of money and food.”

“Not a problem, I’ll cover it.”

“No.”

Dad threw his hands up. “Okay, whatever you say. I didn’t come here for a fight. It’s just a few cents.”

“Speaking of which, you’re late with the alimony again.”

“Yeah, well, sales haven’t been all that great. I’ve been waiting until my commission came in. It did yesterday.”

“I fail to see where that is my problem.”

With narrowed eyes and pursed lips, he pulled out his checkbook and grabbed a pen from his pocket. He filled out the check in a few short scribbles, then tore it out and pushed it over. “There, are you happy?”

Mom pulled in the check and stared at it, her face freezing. “So, she’s on your checks now?”

“Yes, we have a joint checking account. So what?”

She waved the check. “How do I know this won’t bounce?”

“Ellen, really?” Dad said, his face tight. “Can we talk about this some other time?”

Mom tucked the check away into her purse.

The waitress walked up with the pizza slices and deposited one in front of each person. “Anything else I can get you?”

Paul waited for someone to say something. Like “hey, it’s my birthday” or “let’s have pepperoni pizza after all,” but instead, both Mom and Dad sat in stony silence and shook their heads no. So, he picked up the pizza slice and tried to take a bite.

“Are you forgetting something?” Mom asked.

Paul looked at Dad, who already had a mouthful. He flashed a confused look at Mom. Then understanding flashed across his mind. Grace. He put the food down and closed his eyes. “Thank you, Lord, for this food, amen.” When he opened his eyes, Mom gave him an approving nod. He quickly grabbed the pizza slice and started to devour it.

Mom, however, didn’t touch hers. “Since I have your attention, for once. We need to talk about this next weekend.”

Dad flashed her a curious look while sipping on his water. “What about it?”

“My parents are coming to visit. They’ll want to see Paul.”

“But this weekend is our visitation weekend.”

“You’ll have to push it off until the following week.”

“Seriously, Ellen, you know that it is Christmas weekend. We’re going to be at Mary’s place in Minnesota. They aren’t expecting us to bring a kid.”

“That’s not really my problem, is it?”

“No, I guess not, but you’re sure going to make it mine.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

Dad’s face turned a few shades of pink before he gripped his fists and took a deep breath. “Fine. You win.” He turned to Paul. “Happy birthday,” then reached into his pocket and retrieved a wrapped present.

Paul reached for it, but Mom pulled it away. “After we’re done here.”

Dad fixed her with a look. “Oh, I think we’re done.” He tousled Paul’s hair. “Merry Christmas, sport.” Then he stood up.

“What are you doing?” Mom asked, her voice edging up an octave.

Ignoring her question, Dad looked at Paul. “See you in two weeks.”

Paul’s head spun. What was happening? He looked at Mom, whose pale face now looked pink.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she said, wagging a finger at Dad.

But it was already too late. Dad turned on his heel and walked out of the Pizza parlor.

“Damn him. Move,” Mom swore while pushing Paul out of the booth. He stumbled out of the way while Mom raced out the door.

The waitress appeared. “Ready for the check?”

Paul shrugged, and the waitress huffed and walked away. He stared at the present, then at the pizza. Grabbing the slice, he bit off a hunk. Mom soon reappeared, her face more flushed and breathing heavily.

“I can’t believe he cut and ran.” She looked silently at the table before shaking her head. “No, I can believe it.” She then noticed Paul eating his pizza. “Put that down. We haven’t said grace yet.”

“Yes, we did,” Paul muttered, dropping the pizza back on his plate.

Mom slid back into her seat. “Come sit.”

Paul sat too, but opposite her. As he watched, her brow knitted. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sitting.”

“Don’t get smart with me,” she said. “Come over here.”

He got up and slid in next to her.

“That’s better. Now say grace.”

“We already did that.”

Her eyes narrowed but then softened. “Oh, yes, we did.” She pushed the pizza in front of him. “Well, then, eat up.”

He started taking a few more bites, but Mom only picked at hers. A few minutes went by silently.

“You might have to spend next weekend with the Wilsons.”

Paul stopped mid-chew. “Next weekend is Christmas.”

“I know,” Mom said with some hesitation in her voice. “But I have to go to Cleveland.”

“Why can’t I come too?”

Indecision danced across Mom’s features before her face settled. “No, you’ll have to stay with the Wilsons, our friends from Church.”

“Your friends, you mean,” Paul muttered under his breath. He put the pizza down and turned to her. “Why are you going out of town?”

“I have an appointment.”

“For what?”

“Just something I have to do, and Cleveland is the only place I can do it.”

“I won’t get in the way, I promise. I’ll be good for Grandma and Grandpa.”

Mom placed her hand on his face. “No, not this time, sorry.”

Paul slumped back in his seat. “So when will you be back?”

“Probably in about a week, I hope.”

He stared at his hands. She’d done this three or four times in the last couple of months, and she looked a little thinner and more tired each time she returned.

“Let’s open the presents, okay?” Mom pushed her present in front of him.

He grabbed it and pulled off the wrapper. A dark box with clear writing was underneath: ‘Modeling Clay, Gray.’ It was probably from Mom’s personal stash of professional artist supplies. “Thank you, Mom.”

“You can make anything you want with that.”

Even as he hefted the stick of clay in his hands, Paul’s eyes had already drifted to Dad’s present. “Can I open the other gift?”

“Sure.”

He pitched the clay aside and grabbed Dad’s gift. Stripping off the wrapper, he saw it was a Revell plastic airplane model, a WWII, US P40 fighter plane. The model was beautiful, particularly with the shark’s teeth decals. But…

“What’s the matter?”

Paul pushed it onto the table. “I bought this from Ray’s Hobby shop last month with my allowance.”

Mom nodded. “Well, you have some clay.”

True. But then nature called. “Can I use the bathroom?”

“Sure.”

Paul trotted off to the restroom. When he came out, Mom was standing there waiting for him. “Let’s go.”

He followed her out of the restaurant and climbed into the car. After a few tries, she started the vehicle, and they began to pull out of the parking lot. Paul looked around the car. “Where are the gifts?”

“In my purse.”

Paul looked inside but could only see the clay. “Where’s the airplane?”

“I left that behind.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“You said you already had it.”

“Yeah, but that just means I’ll have two. It was Dad’s gift. We have to go back.”

Mom gripped the steering wheel tighter, “Oh, stop being a baby about it. You’ve got some clay.”

Paul looked out the window at the snow-covered ground, but it was hard to see because of the tears in his eyes. Somehow being eight didn’t feel all that great after all.