Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson



“I’m mostly ready.” She came all the way down to pet her brother’s head, peeping up at me. “Aw, you look sleepy. Want me to take Bumper so you can get a shower?”

“Robert,” I corrected, but I was smiling. Typical Anna-Claire. She’d torment her sister, push boundaries with me, then instaflip to thoughtful. Moments like these I knew she could grow into a lovely, kindhearted woman, as long as Trey and I kept the parenting tight. She was so beautiful that kids and adults alike catered to her in ways that weren’t good for her. It was hard to find the balance between pushing back on that while still being a hundred percent on her side. “You’re sweet, but I got it. Thank you.”

I kissed her and went to check Trey’s packing. He was so color-blind that left to himself he could end up looking like a Mardi Gras float. I narrowly averted a green/blue disaster, then got him out the door. The girls’ ride showed up soon after, and I fell into my day.

Just errands and emails, but I was operating on New Baby Time. Even the simplest things took four times longer than normal. The final bell was ringing as I pulled in to the parking lot by the new Performing Arts Center at St. Alban’s. Hordes of kids began streaming out of the buildings. I hurried as fast as I could while lugging Robert in his infant carrier, his diaper bag, and a reusable grocery bag full of snacks.

The PAC had a long, narrow greenroom between the chorus’s practice room and the orchestra’s, furnished in a hodgepodge of donated chairs and sofas. The whole back wall was windows, facing the parking lot. I saw Marshall already in there and broke into a trot. He was dressed for work in a blue suit that was older than Anna-Claire. I remembered Betsy buying it. It hung awkwardly on his long frame.

By the time I got inside, he’d already set up the table and was laying out fruit snacks and Capri Sun pouches for a steady stream of chattering kids.

“I’m here, sorry!” It came out chirpy and overbright.

“No problem.” He didn’t look up.

I set Robert’s carrier on a nearby sofa and started putting out milk boxes and Ziploc snack bags of baby carrots with hummus cups.

Marshall looked at my offering, his eyebrows lifting. “Does every bag have the exact same number of carrots?”

They did, actually. Ten. I felt a blush beginning, but I was saved from answering by Cara’s entrance. She looked so much like her mother that it hurt my heart every time.

“Hey, Sugar Peep,” Marshall said.

She shot him a mortified glare at the nickname and then said, “Hey, Auntie Bree,” overly loud and bright.

I said, “Break a leg today, kiddo,” and handed her a milk box.

She hurried out, and I gave Marshall a commiserating look. “Both my girls are in that same stage. Sweet to me at home, but in public I’m poison.”

He smiled, unworried. “I hear that in high school they stop pretending that they budded off of Rihanna and will admit to actually having parents.”

Just then Anna-Claire bounded through the door in full sunshine mode, her friend Greer in tow. She released Greer to hurl her arms around me. “Mom! Hummus! If you’d gotten pita chips, it would almost be a worthy snack!”

“Oh, yeah. I see how it is for you.” Marshall sounded good-humored, but not like Marshall. I couldn’t explain it, but I’d known him long enough to feel the difference.

Greer ignored the snacks. “Hi, Ms. Cabbat! Did you bring the baby?” As soon as she said it, she saw the car seat and dropped down to her knees in front of Robert. He was awake and beginning to make hungry noises. “Hi, Bumper! Oh, I love his feet! He’s so little. I can’t stand it!” She pinched his toes, distracting him, making him gurgle.

“We call him Robert,” I said.

“That’s right, Bumper, we call you Robert,” Anna-Claire said, grabbing snacks and then hauling Greer to her feet. They went galloping out in a swirl of plaid uniform skirts.

I turned back to Marshall to say something about adolescent mood swings, but what I saw over his shoulder froze my body, inside and out. It was a blotch of slow-moving darkness on the other side of the big wall of windows. It stopped my words, my very breath. It was her. The witch, from my dream. The one I’d seen peering in my window this morning. She was in the parking lot. Right beside my SUV.





2




She was not a witch, of course. Just a little old lady in a baggy black dress and cardigan. She lurched past my car, hurrying across the lot with a limping, pained gait. She did have a hat on, a dark knit cap that came to a sort of peak, but it was not tall or excessively pointy.