Don burst in through the door. The living room was already full of kids. He scowled at them, dropped his backpack and his soaked hat in the corner and headed upstairs. He was the only kid allowed upstairs, since he was family. The others were all day kids. After school care. But it wasn’t his house, either. His aunt Sheila and his great-aunt Rachel lived here. The two of them, in this house, together, with seven extra kids every afternoon. And himself. Ten people in this house all afternoon made him want to scream, and he was sure the house wanted to yell and pop its seams, too. Especially on days like today, rainy and too cold to be outside. He went upstairs to the bathroom, washed up, and went into the third bedroom. He picked up the book he was reading and flopped onto the bed.
From downstairs, he could hear the bustle and chaos. His aunt had caught his eye, nodding and smiling at him as he headed up the stairs. She was putting a bandaid on Jimmy’s knee. That kid could go through a box of band-aids in a week, it seemed. He was always banging or bumping into something. Or, falling. Don wondered what he could have done to himself inside the house. Usually, he was outside, jumping around or stumbling on his own feet.
Jewel was playing the piano. He could tell it was her because of her soft voice singing along. She always sang when she played, even if there weren’t words. She would make something up, or just hum the melody. She did have a pretty voice. His aunt taught all of them piano, the notes and stuff, on Thursdays. The other days they were supposed to practice if they didn’t have a piano at home. Jewel had a piano at home, but she still played here. Every day. Like she actually enjoyed it. Music wasn’t his thing. He didn’t mind listening to music on the radio, but making it himself seemed unnecessary. Why bother when there were already so many musicians who could play better than him anyway? For him, the lessons were a pain and he practiced as little as possible.
Someone was banging pans in the kitchen. He could hear the sink water running. Laughter, giggling. Probably from Maria. She was a quiet girl, except when she got to giggling, and the weirdest things would make her giggle. Crazy. He heard his aunt talking, sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. Maybe they were baking something. On most of the afternoons, his aunt cooked something yummy for all the kids, and usually, she had some of them helping her. That was part of her services offered as after-school care: teach the kids cooking, music (piano), and help them with their homework. She taught them other stuff, too, she played games with them, and they worked in the garden when it was nice outside. Not like today. His aunt was probably having Maria bake something. Maria seemed to actually enjoy working in the kitchen.
Don’s unread book sat on his chest while he listened to the sounds below. A Lego bucket dumped. Tyler and Pat would be the ones shuffling around the colorful plastic pieces. They didn’t have Legos at their house. Their parents were into thoughtful games, like Chess. Not noisy, messy games. Don figured his two aunts were probably the only single aunts in town that had three giant buckets of Legos. His aunts both loved to wander around thrift stores and they would pick up any odd assortment of Legos they found. He liked to play with them, too, but not when all the kids were there. Too crowded, too noisy for him. He played with the Legos on Saturday, when he was there by himself, when his dad had to work and his mom wanted the house to herself to clean and whatever she did by herself. When all the kids were here, he preferred the quiet bedroom. It was almost like his own room. No one else ever stayed there.
The smell of chocolate chip cookies drifted up the stairs. Tempting. He was a little bit hungry. Maybe he should go downstairs and see what was going on. He went and sat on the top step, watching the room below. Jimmy and Jennifer were working on a puzzle. Tyler and Pat were building some weird Lego monstrosity that held a resemblance to an aircraft carrier. Jewel was still humming, playing the piano. David and Maria must be the ones in the kitchen with his aunt. He wondered where Aunt Rachel was. He hadn’t seen her yet.
The hand that ruffled his hair surprised him, but he knew at once it was her. She must have been in her bedroom and slipped up behind. She sat down on the step beside him. He smiled at her, she grinned back at him. She understood him, his distance from the crowded houseful. It always amazed him when he thought about her age. Eighty-eight. He had seen much younger gals who looked much older than she did. Perhaps it was her tanned face, her easy movements, her eager smile. She didn’t seem old at all, at least not like you’d expect at her age.
She said, quietly, almost a whisper, “I think I smell something cooking. Shall we brave the crowd and go check it out?”
Don laughed. Sometimes the full house got to her, too. But it seemed a good way for Aunt Sheila to make enough money to cover their expenses, and it did seem to help keep both of them young. His Aunt Rachel sometimes said that children’s laughter was the best medicine she knew. They went downstairs.
Pat looked up at them, “Hey, look at our ship! It is going out to bomb the enemy fleet.”
Pat looked up at them, “Hey, look at our ship! It is going out to bomb the enemy fleet.”
“Yeah, once we build the enemy ships,” chimed in Tyler.
“You are standing in the ocean,” said Pat, with his active seven year old imagination.
“Oh, sorry,” said Aunt Rachel. “Don, watch out for sharks!” The boys laughed as Don and his aunt tiptoed through the piles of Legos.
In the kitchen, Maria stood at the sink, rinsing off the mixing bowl. David sat at the table, his math book open, his notebook and pencil next to it. A long, flattened brown grocery bag stretched down the middle of the table, filled with cooling chocolate chip cookies. Aunt Sheila was sliding more cookies off a tray, fresh out of the oven. She looked over David’s shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to write the number you are carrying up over the next number you multiply?”
“I just do it in my head.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You may be able to do it now, but when the math problems get bigger and harder, you’ll need to know how to write it down.” She turned as Don and Aunt Rachel came in. “Right, Don? Don’t you need to write it down with the math you do now?”
“I do, but I could never do it in my head like he does. Maybe he can think better if he does it that way.”
“Hmmm, maybe. Seems to me he should do it the right way.”
Aunt Rachel picked up a cookie from the table. “Just checking to see if these are edible.”
Maria turned from the sink. “I made the dough all by myself today, using the mixer and everything. Aunt Sheila just watched me. Are they good?”
“Mmmmm. I may need to try another one to be sure,” Aunt Rachel said. “Good day for baking. That rain has been going all day.”
“The kids got soaked walking half a block from the school. Good thing your bus drops you off so close, Don,” said Aunt Sheila.
Don shrugged and picked up two cookies. “I had a hat.”
“Maybe you could help David with his math. He is having trouble figuring out what to do.”
Don snorted. “Wish I could have math that was that easy. Mine now is half letters and fractions and weird hieroglyphics. Why can’t they make it easier to understand?”
Maria turned from the sink, her hands on her hips. “It isn’t really that hard, David. Let me show you.”
Under his breath, Don mumbled, “Miss Smarty.” Aunt Rachel scowled at him. Maria, one of the younger kids, always seemed to be ahead of the others in math. It came easy for her, which irritated Don. He didn’t like math, and didn’t understand anyone who did. How it could all make sense was beyond him. He took his cookies and turned to leave the room.
“Don,” said Aunt Sheila, “Please, tell the others to come and get some cookies.”
“I heard that!” said Pat, dropping the Legos and pushing past Don into the kitchen, Tyler close behind.
“Jewel, snack time,” Don told her.
“Aren’t you going to join us?” she asked, pausing in the middle of her song.
“Got mine.” He held up the half of cookie he had left. “Jimmy and Jennifer, you too,” he told them.
“Coming, this piece goes right here,” said Jennifer, putting in the last edge piece.
“Don, come back into the kitchen with us,” called Aunt Sheila. “I have an announcement.”
Don groaned. His aunt was great at coming up with things they could all do together. He didn’t want to do anything together with the other kids. He wanted to be by himself. Read his books. Why did some people always want to be organizing parties or projects or outings? Why didn’t they just leave people alone? His teacher at school was the same way. Let’s all do this, she would say, or let’s plan this together. Not me, he thought. But, he turned back, leaning on the door frame.
“We are adding another child tomorrow.” Don wasn’t the only one who groaned. Aunt Sheila laughed at them. “Don’t worry, I think you will all really enjoy this little person.” She paused, looking around the room at them. “Sandy is five months old. He lives across the street, and his mom is going back to work in the afternoons. She noticed we had a lot of kids here, and thought it would be good for Sandy to have so many kids to play with.”
Silence. Don looked around. His wasn’t the only horrified face.
“We won’t be able to dump the Legos on the floor. He’ll eat them all!” whined Pat.
“He’ll crash all our boats and cars and stuff,” said Tyler.
“We won’t be able to have anything small, anywhere. He’s just a baby,” said Jimmy.
“I can’t play the piano if he’s sleeping,” complained Jewel.
“I’m surprised at all of you,” said Aunt Rachel. “There is always room for one more person, and a baby especially, will be fun for all of you. Think about how much fun Sandy will have with you, and how much all of you can teach him.”
“Why do we have to teach him anything? We should be able to play and have fun in the afternoons.” Jimmy folded his arms across his chest and scowled.
Aunt Rachel stood back and watched them all. Her expression was hard to read. Don watched her. She spoke. “What if Aunt Sheila here, decided all of you were too noisy and too messy and ate too much and were too much trouble? What would that mean for each of you? We make adjustments for others. I rest earlier. I help Sheila get ready for all of you. Wouldn’t it be better for Sandy to be here, in a house, with all of you? Think how much you all could learn from him.”
“Like what?” grunted Tyler.
“Like patience and tolerance and compassion.”
“Those sound like old fashioned words,” said Jewel.
“Old fashioned, or just unusual? That is why they are important to learn.”
Aunt Sheila held up a hand. “Something I didn’t mention. His mom was willing to split the pay with those who will take care of him. I would be available to help, of course, but one, or several of you, if you want, would be his babysitters. Not me.”
The room was quiet, the kids thinking about it. Aunt Rachel looked at Don, nodding her head at him. He shook his. Nope, not him. Nobody said a word.
Aunt Sheila looked at him, too. “Don, I was thinking it would be good for you to do. He could take his nap up in the bedroom, and you could read there, with him. You stay later than some of the others, so you would be more available. I think it would be good for you to do, to earn some spending money, too.”
Everyone in the room was looking at him. He felt uncomfortable. Why were they expecting him to be excited about this? What a pain. “No way.” He walked out and went upstairs, to be by himself.
Aunt Rachel came into the room with him, and sat down next to him. He rolled on to his side, turning away from her. “Don.”
“You want to know when I had the most fun in my life?”
Don turned to look at her. It was not what he had expected her to say. “Okay.”
“During the war, I was working in an office, busy with newspaper reporters, military liaisons and publishers. We worked all hours of the day, anytime there was any sort of breaking news. Which was most of the time. One of the publishers lost his wife. Not a war casualty, some kind of illness. Don’t remember, now. He had a baby, and to keep up with the workload, he would bring the baby with him. His family was overseas or something, so they couldn’t help. I ended up taking care of that little boy. I thought it was ridiculous, me, a trained typist and stenographer. You know what, we had a blast. Sometimes I even took him home with me for overnight, if things at the office were really crazy. We went to the park, I took him shopping with me, we rode the bus around just for fun. He brought a sense of normal that I didn’t have then. We laughed. There wasn’t much too laugh about during the war, but we laughed together.”
Don sat up. “What was his name?”
“Samuel. Called him Sammy. You know what he liked best? Reading. He was only ten months old, but he would sit and sit while I read to him. We didn’t have any children’s books, but I would read the newspaper, or I’d write up some silly story and read it to him. I bought some little children’s books for him, and we read them hundreds, hundreds of times.”
“What happened to him?” asked Don.
“You know, I don’t even know. His father left, transferred to another office in another city, and they were gone. I felt like someone had died. I thought, if I ever had children, I wanted a boy like Sammy. But, I ended up never having children. Just him, for those six months, but what a time we had. He learned to walk, he started talking, he would eat anything I fixed for him. Those were good times. Good memories.”
“Aunt Rachel, if I took care of Sandy, would you help me? Maybe we could do it together? Would you like that?”
“Sure, I could use a little spending money,” she laughed. “Maybe I could buy some toys for him at the thrift store.”
“You have to be the only eighty something year old who would buy Legos and kid toys at the thrift store.”
“Why not? They say you have a second childhood when you get old.”
“I wouldn’t mind watching him if we could do it together. That would be fun. We could put a gate on the stairs, and keep him up here, just us three. Then he wouldn’t be messing up the other kid’s stuff all the time. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Aunt Rachel. “Shall we tell your Aunt Sheila, and see if there are any cookies left?”