Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

I bitched about Trey’s job sometimes, but I was lucky. When I was growing up, my mom worked full-time as a 911 operator plus waitressed on the weekends to make ends meet. I might not love Trey’s long hours, the travel, or the social obligations, but Trey’s career meant I got to watch Anna-Claire’s voice lessons and rehearsals, go to Peyton’s quiz-bowl and robotics meets, and still have time and money to support causes I loved.

I bent over the crib, and Robert kicked his chunky legs, happy to see me. He cooed as I lifted him, trusting that a fresh diaper and a warm bottle were next. I inhaled the crazy perfume of his head. Nothing on earth smelled as delicious as new baby, and this version was particular to him. Not just the scent of baby. This baby. My baby.

I took him to the changing table, and he gave me the goofy grin he’d invented just last week, toothless and so charming. He was easy. A good sleeper, a good eater. Anna-Claire had been trickier, lovely as long as everything went her way but instantly enraged by dirty diapers and late breakfasts. She was so mercurial and demanding that I’d planned a three-year gap before the next one, but she was barely Robert’s age when the stick turned blue. Peyton had been born anxious, and she never slept. Even when I was pregnant, my little insomniac kicked and spun inside me all night long.

“You are my sugar baby,” I told Robert, tucking his fat potato feet back into his pajamas and refastening the snaps. “You’re going to be a nightmare as a toddler to make up for it, aren’t you?”

I toted Robert down the hall to the kitchen to warm his bottle, then sat in the great room, holding him close while he pulled greedily at it. By the time he’d taken his five ounces, the sound of squabbling girls was drifting down the stairs. I kept an ear cocked as I marched Robert up and down, trying to thump a second burp out of him. He had one, I knew it, and he’d be colicky if I didn’t coax it out. I hoped the fussing upstairs would resolve on its own. Often it did. But late last year Peyton had gotten her period. She’d instantly synced up with Anna-Claire, and right now we were heading into danger week.

“Mo-om!” Peyton hollered in two aggrieved syllables. “She took my . . .” I missed the last word.

I toted Robert to the bottom of the stairs, jouncing and patting as I walked.

“Anna-Claire,” I called up.

She poked her face over the banister. She was sleep-rumpled, her masses of dark hair a tumbled mess, and still beautiful enough to take my breath away.

“You always take her side!”

She had a point. I did tend to take Peyton’s side. But life had taken Anna-Claire’s. She was built like me, tall and slim, and where I was pretty, she was gorgeous. She had my even features, but her true violet eyes tilted like kitten eyes, and her lips had a natural upturn, as if she were holding a delightful secret in her mouth, readying to speak or swallow it. She’d also come with a whopping scoop of Trey’s confidence and extroverted charm.

She’d never had an awkward phase, while Peyton was slap in the middle of hers. Right now puppy fat clung to her middle, and her skin had gone a little crazy. She was as cute as a button, with her dad’s round face and snub nose, but when she was next to her sister, people overlooked her.

Peyton joined her sister at the banister. “I haven’t even gotten to wear it yet!”

“Give it back,” I told Anna-Claire, mild but serious, still thumping at Robert.

“Fine. It’s in my middle drawer,” Anna-Claire told her sister, then gave me the eye roll she’d perfected in third grade. “It’s too big for me anyway.”

That was straight-up bitchy, but I let it slide with a warning look because Peyton was already off to go get the whatever-it-was. The fight had been derailed.

I felt a sense of relief that was larger than the moment warranted, as if I’d stepped in and diverted a tempest. I shook my head. It was that awful dream. It still felt like a portentous one. The witch’s gaze had been so avid. I felt more than I thought, Something bad is coming for us.

I shook the little voice warning of doom away. My mother owned it. The voice in her own head must be a stentor. My father by all reports had been a piece of work. I’d never met him, and I was grateful, considering. He was the reason she wouldn’t get on an elevator with any man. Not alone. She kept a loaded handgun in a safe by her bed and was always gifting me pepper sprays and safety whistles. I had never once wondered where Peyton came by her anxiety, but I didn’t live like that. I refused to see the world that way. And I wasn’t going to borrow trouble when I was facing a week of single-parenting two hormone-crazed middle-school girls and a baby.