Ben bit into the cold pizza and used his free hand to help Benjie drag the coffee table to the center of the room. “Why not leave it where it is?”
“It’s too close to the couch.” The boy adjusted the position of the table.
“It’s supposed to be close to the couch.” Ben’s regarded his son with suspicion. “So you can sit on the couch and set cups and things on the coffee table. What are you doing with it?”
“We’re playing that TV show game we saw last night.”
“American Warrior?” They had been enthralled by the show, commenting on the contestants and challenges through the handfuls of popcorn they shoved into their mouths. It wasn’t something they usually watched, but traumatized by the afternoon’s events, Ben had turned it on and collapsed on the couch. He hadn’t felt up to parenting.
“Yeah. American Warrior. Do we have any rope?”
“I don’t think so. What do you need rope for?”
“We can hang it over the light and swing from the coffee table to the couch.” Benjie eyed the distance between the two pieces of furniture.
Ben looked up at the ceiling. “No, you can not hang from the chandeliers. Mrs. Cooper would kill me.”
“I’ve got pillows.” Jack called from the top of the stairs.
“Throw ’em down and I’ll catch them!” Benjie clambered over the table and reached the staircase in time to be hit with a flying pillow. “Ooph. Get as many as you can find.”
Jack threw the other pillow at his brother and turned back toward the bedrooms. “Dad’s got three of them on his bed.”
“Woah! Why do you need all those down here?” Ben picked up the second pillow and handed it to his son.
Benjie dropped it on the floor and gestured toward the opposite wall. “We’re gonna line up all the kitchen chairs and low crawl underneath them, then jump on top of them and run back across as fast as we can and jump into a big pile of pillows. Maybe if there’s no rope we can find a board and make a bridge between the couch and the coffee table and use the pillows underneath in case we fall off.” He twisted up his mouth, considering his options.
“It’s really close to the ground. We don’t need pillows for that.” Jack pitched two more pillows down the stairs as he spoke. “I think we should make something to jump from one to another – like stacks of books or boxes – in a row from the coffee table to the couch.”
“That sounds dangerous, guys, and I don’t think Mrs. Cooper would like it if you trash the house.”
“Will you help us make a climbing wall?”
Something youthful flickered in Ben, but he shook his head. “We can’t nail stuff into the walls.”
“Dad!” Jack stretched the name to two whiney syllables. He descended the stairs in a series of hops, his blond hair bouncing with each step.
“And we need a box way up high, like on top of the refrigerator, and that’s the last thing you have to do – shoot the basketball into the box. Once you do that, we stop the clock.” Benjie pantomimed slamming down on a buzzer.
“We need a tunnel, too,” said Jack, “and some old tires to run through.”
“I don’t have any tires. Isn’t the kitchen chair thing like a tunnel?”
“Yeah, but it would be more fun to have a real tunnel. Hey! We could do it outside, and then we could just dig a tunnel.”
Benjie ran to the window. “If we did it outside, we could have more things. We could do a lot with the swing set.”
“You’ll have to settle for chairs.” Ben held up a hand for silence. “I think Annie’s awake.”
Good? Taken aback by their unprecedented enthusiasm, Ben followed the boys as they charged up the stairs. Annie stood in her crib, blue eyes wide, apparently as confused by her brothers’ attention as Ben was.
“Good morning, Annie Banannie!”
She cooed at him and patted his cheek. “Eat.”
“Good idea.” He turned to the boys. “Aren’t you guys hungry?”
“We want to use Annie’s mattress.” Benjie stepped up onto the siderail and rolled himself into the crib. Apparently realizing that he couldn’t lift it out while standing on it, he rolled out again. “How do you lower the side?”
“You’re not taking her mattress downstairs!”
Mrs. Cooper had mentioned Jack’s whining to him. He was supposed to stand firm. “No. You’ll have to come up with something else.”
“We could use our mattresses,” said Benjie, “and Mark’s, if he ever gets up.”
Ben stood back, letting the boys exit the nursery. “No mattresses downstairs. It’s time for breakfast.”
“Can we have waffles?”
In other words, Jack wanted a plate full of syrup and enough waffle to wipe it up with. Ben couldn’t blame him. “Sure. I saw two boxes in the freezer. Mrs. Cooper must have gone shopping.”
He set Annie on her feet. “Don’t move, Baby. You need some dry clothes.” He unzipped and peeled down the pink sleeper, helping her step out of it and keeping hold of one small arm so she didn’t escape before he could get her dressed again. “Mrs. Cooper says you get to wear big girl underwear during the daytime now. Look! This one has Dora the Explorer on it! No more diapers! You are such a big girl!” He taped up the soggy diaper and shot it into the wastebasket. “Score!” Annie doubled over with laughter and clapped. He blew a raspberry into her neck. Their silly weekend ritual was short, but it was important. Five minutes alone with his daughter. What would he do when she was potty-trained? He hoisted her to his shoulder and kicked aside the sleeper so he wouldn’t trip over it.
Mark was supposed to be potty trained, but Ben didn’t count on it. He slid Annie to the floor and shook the boy’s shoulder. His youngest son was wrapped up in a cocoon of blankets. He’d had an accident. Ben sighed and started the long process of getting Mark out of bed and dressed.
“Come on, buddy. It’s time to get up. Everyone’s hungry.” He took hold of the end of a blanket and pulled. Mark clutched it.
“Get up. It’s morning.”
Annie tried to climb onto the bed, and Ben barred her path with an outstretched leg. He didn’t want to have to change her clothes again already. As soon as the sleepy boy emerged from the nest of bedding, Ben tugged the fitted sheet off the mattress, rolled it all up together and tossed it into the corner of the room.
Annie laughed and clapped. “Score!”
“Yeah, Baby, Daddy scored. You sit over here and play with Mark’s blocks.”
Mark lunged toward his toybox. “She’ll break them!”
“She can’t break blocks, Mark.” Ben wrinkled his nose. “You need a bath. Put your pajamas in the hamper and I’ll start the water. Watch Annie.”
They were fighting when he returned thirty seconds later, and he scooped them up, one under each arm. “Which of you goes in the bath? Oh, yeah. The naked one.” He kicked the door shut so Annie wouldn’t run out and started washing Mark in the shallow water. “You’ve gotta stop wetting the bed, Buddy.
“I was asleep.”
“Did you go before you went to bed?” Ben knew he had. And he hadn’t had water after eight o’clock. Mrs. Cooper had reminded him.
Ben caught the movement in his peripheral vision just before Annie launched herself into the tub. He caught her before she hit the water. “Hey! You don’t need a bath!” But maybe she did. That diaper had been pretty wet. She’d already stripped off her clothes, so he let her play while he finished Mark. He draped a towel over the boy and gave him a gentle shove toward the door. “Go get some clothes on.”
He turned back and saw his daughter’s gleeful expression for one second before she dashed a cup of water at his face. He shook his head like a dog and made menacing sounds at her. She giggled and nearly fell as she scooped up more water.
“Oh, no you don’t.” He lifted her up and swaddled her in a towel, confining her arms at her sides. She kicked and squirmed. He blew a raspberry on her neck. “Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you want to eat? Waffles!”
He was acing the parenting thing today. Two clean kids with no yelling or crying from any of them. He spun her out of the towel and rubbed her head. “Where did you put… Oh. Okay, let’s get you some dry clothes.” No yelling. He grabbed the sodden bundle of clothing without releasing her and threw them into the empty tub. Another score. He’d have to remember to hang them up to dry later.
His saintly forbearance was wearing thin by the time he followed Mark down the stairs. Annie stretched upward, trying to touch the ceiling, confident in his grip on her ankles. He bounced a bit, to make it more fun for her.
They reached the bottom of the stairs before the shriek of the smoke detector filled the house. Ben lifted Annie from his shoulders and carried her, pulling Mark behind him, toward the kitchen. “Benjie! Where are you?” The back door slammed. “Benjie? Jack?” Annie clutched his neck and wailed into his ear. “Stop, Annie. I need to find your brothers.”
He nearly ran over them in the kitchen doorway. They stood side-by-side, defensively, as if to block his path.
“Where’s the fire?” He knew he should be getting them all safely out of the house. His father had taught him that. Stop, drop, roll and get out of the house. But the boys didn’t look afraid – they looked apprehensive. They didn’t want him in the kitchen. He strode into the kitchen.
The noise intensified. There was no fire, but smoke hung in the air, wafting a burnt stench toward him. He reached up and yanked the cover off the smoke detector. The alarm stopped instantly with the removal of the battery. Annie did not. He pried her loose.
“Annie. Stop. Stop crying. It’s okay.” He tried to set her down, but she clung to him. “Stop, Annie.” He dragged the high chair to the living room and buckled her into it. She fought, arching her back and causing the chair to rock. “Stop that! Benjie, come here and hold the high chair.” The boy complied instantly – a sure sign of a guilty conscience – and Ben found the bag of candies Mrs. Cooper kept for potty training. He emptied it onto the tray, and Annie’s hysteria evaporated.
Silence. Ben scooped up some of the candy and set it on the coffee table. “Here, Mark, have some breakfast.” The boy dropped onto one of the pillows and and started sorting through the pieces.
The two older boys watched with open mouths until they realized their father was looking at them. He ushered them back into the kitchen. “What got burned?”
Ben looked at the counter where the toaster should have been. The butter dish was there, and a bottle of syrup, but the toaster was missing. “Where’s the toaster?”
“We threw it outside,” said Benjie. “But we were really careful. I used potholders and carried it by the cord.”
“By the cord.” Ben’s stomach hurt. It used to do that when he was a child and something scared him. “Did you burn the waffles?” It hadn’t smelled like burnt waffles. “Why did you throw the toaster outside?”
“It was on fire.” Jack didn’t look up.
“On fire! It was on fire and you carried it outside? By the cord?” He was going to be sick.
“I was really careful. The fire went out after I unplugged it, but the smoke detector went off.” Benjie’s blue eyes, so like his own, filled with tears.
There must have been an electrical short, or a defect in the toaster. Ben reached out and caught both boys in a hug. “Never do that again. If something catches on fire, you yell for me or Mrs. Cooper and then get out of the house. Don’t try to put out the fire yourself.” He closed his eyes and squeezed them tighter. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let you make the waffles by yourself while I was upstairs. I’m just glad you’re okay. We can buy a new toaster, but I can’t replace you guys.” Both boys were shaking, and Ben wanted to kick himself. The boys could have been seriously injured. He looked over at the electrical outlet. It didn’t appear to be scorched, so the problem was probably with the toaster and not the wiring, but maybe he should take the kids to his parents’ house until they had it checked out by an electrician.
After a minute, he released them and peered out the door. The toaster was burnt black, crackled and shiny. The pain in his stomach flared up again. He stepped outside and crouched down to touch it. It still stank, but the chilly morning air had cooled it. The remains of waffles filled all four slots. His negligence had nearly killed them, and they hadn’t even got their breakfast. Annie and Mark were eating candy. Major parenting fail.
He wiped his fingers on his jeans and picked up the toaster. It was sticky. Ben sniffed it. It wasn’t an electrical odor – at least, he didn’t think so. This wasn’t soot or a stain from heat. It was sticky, and the black stuff was something that had burned onto it. He stood up and turned to look back at the house. He saw a flash of color as his sons raced back inside.
“Benjie? Come out here.”
“Jack, Benjie, get out here now!” Anger crowded out his guilt and fear. He carried the toaster back into the house and set it on the kitchen table. The boys were nowhere in sight. Annie and Mark looked up quickly when he entered the living room, as if they were afraid he had changed his mind about the breakfast menu, and then went back to their candy.
“Benjie? Jack?” He started in the basement and worked his way upstairs. They were just making it worse. Hiding from him, disobeying him by not coming when he called, and setting the toaster on fire. Ben slapped his hand on the door frame. The day had started out so well, and they had ruined it. He opened and closed doors, calling their names. They wouldn’t do this if Mrs. Cooper was here. She would have had answers and apologies out of them already. But if Mrs. Cooper were here, they wouldn’t have been using the toaster without supervision.
A twitch of the skirt under Annie’s crib was followed by sounds of a skirmish. Muffled quarreling. The crib rattled and knocked against the wall, and then Jack came rolling out, obviously propelled by a solid shove from his brother. He came to a stop at his father’s feet, looked up and tried to scurry back under the crib.
Ben lifted the hem of the skirt. “Get out here.”
The boys emerged and scooted back against the crib, cowering as if he was in the habit of beating them twice a day. It annoyed him.
“Downstairs.” Annie must have run out of candy by now, and he was afraid to think of what Mark might be doing. At least Annie was confined to the high chair. He followed the boys downstairs. They continued their impersonation of death row inmates, and the injustice made him even madder. He’d hardly ever even spanked them. He didn’t raise his voice very much at all. He did fun things with them. He bought them treats. He was a pal to them. He didn’t deserve to be treated like a monster.
“Mark! What are you doing?” He rushed past the older boys to snatch Mark from the top shelf of the pantry.
“Annie wants more candy.” The guileless stare of the little boy didn’t fool Ben. He dropped Mark on the couch, twisted Annie’s high chair to face the television and flipped through channels until he found something animated. Hopefully, it was a kids’ show.
“Sit down. At the table.”
The boys complied, averting their gaze from the toaster. They looked at their hands, the floor, the walls… everything but their father and the toaster. Ben knocked on the toaster. “So what happened?”
“Look, guys, I want to know what happened. Just tell me the truth. Man up.” Ben grimaced. Man up. Benjie was seven, and Jack was only five and a half. If they were lying or not confessing, it was because they were afraid. He knew what it was like to be afraid. “I know the toaster didn’t just catch fire on its own. Did you put something other than waffles into it?”
Jack stole a look at his stubbornly silent brother and spoke up defiantly. “Benjie said it would work.”
“Said what would work?”
“You know how Grandma’s syrup is always warm?”
“Well, we wanted to have warm syrup, but the bottle didn’t fit in the microwave. So we took frozen waffles, put butter on them and then poured syrup over them and down into all of the holes. Then the waffles would cook and the syrup would get warm at the same time.” Judging by Jack’s triumphant tone, he still thought it was a brilliant idea.
Benjie blew out a long breath. “We weren’t adding anything different. It was just waffles and butter and syrup, but we put the other stuff on first.” He looked more dejected than guilty. “But then the toaster started on fire, so we don’t know if it worked or not.”
Ben blinked. They didn’t know if it worked. He spun the toaster and used a finger to pry out a bit of the waffle. “You can’t put butter or syrup in the toaster. You can’t put anything but bread or waffles in the toaster. Otherwise, it catches on fire. And next time, it might burn down the whole house.”
“It was just syrup and butter,” said Benjie.
“The butter and syrup caused the fire.” He was talking to a brick wall. And apparently they weren’t as afraid as he thought they were. “From now on, you don’t touch the toaster without an adult in the room. Or the stove. Or the microwave.”
“Dad” Jack’s whiney voice dispelled any vestige of sympathy in his father. “Not even for popcorn?”
“We didn’t mean to do it.”
Ben looked at the two of them. They were sitting up straight now, wearing innocent expressions that reminded him of someone else. Mark. Mark, lying about his selfless intent to get more candy for his sister. All three of them were manipulating him. Did he look so stupid?
“No. In fact, no popcorn at all. No TV for the rest of the weekend.” He tried to think of something more punitive. Banishment to their shared bedroom, with its boxes of toys and books, would be no hardship for them. They didn’t have any upcoming events he could cancel. The garage didn’t need to be cleaned. “And no videogames or computers.”