Sami speared the three angelic smiles beneath three sets of innocent eyes with her best Mom Look.
“I mean it, you three,” she hissed, “behave or I’ll…” She searched her mind for a proper punishment.
“You’ll beat us?” Ben asked. His eyes widened a split second too late for it to be genuine.
“Don’t tempt me,” Sami muttered, reaching for the door handle.
“Torture, Mommy? Will you torture us?” Penny pulled at her purse to get Sami’s attention as she turned the knob in her hand. The strap dug into Sami’s shoulder and sent a twinge of pain into her neck. She let the door close again and reached up to rub the muscles, wishing massages hadn’t disappeared from her life along with manicures, a three bedroom house, reliable childcare, and her husband.
“I’m not going to torture you.” Sami closed her eyes and counted to four. She’d given up on having a chance to make it to ten sometime between the births of Penny and Archie. Sami opened her eyes. Archie.
Her hand slipped from the door knob as she spun around. Eyes flying over the quiet parking lot, she spied a splash of bright blue cotton pants disappearing under a rosemary bush. “Stay here,” she called over her shoulder as she ran across the pavement. She reached out a hand and snagged the elastic band of Archie’s cotton pants. “Not so fast, mister.”
She brushed the dead leaves from the white blonde hair flopping over a face that was twisting into what she knew would be a tantrum. “No.” She kept her voice firm and picked him up, hefting his squirming body onto her hip. She adjusted him as he started to slip. “I’m serious Archibald Taylor Daily. Now is not the time for a fit.” Her tone of voice actually worked. She didn’t question the happy miracle as she crossed the parking lot.
She walked toward the door where her oldest two children waited with varying degrees of patience. Penny scuffed her sneakers against the brick wall of the building while Ben, “Ben!” Sami’s voice pitched to the cross between a squeak and a shout that made her sound like her own mother. “Put,” she consciously lowered her voice, “the lizard down.”
“He shouldn’t be here, Mom.” Sami ignored the twinge she felt every time he called her that. At nearly nine, he was, he’d told her, too old to call her mommy like a baby. “It’s too cold. Lizards like the heat.”
“Just put him down,” she said, letting Archie slide down her body to the ground, but keeping a firm grip on his chubby hand.
“He’ll die!” Penny said, crocodile tears welling up in her eyes.
“He’s not going to die,” Sami answered with what she hoped was not the last scrap of patience she had left. It was nearly four and she’d been up since before dawn trying to write her term paper before rushing the kids to school and daycare and herself to class. All she wanted to do was go home, put her feet up on the footstool she pretended was a coffee table, and pour a glass of wine all the way to the top. Instead, she had another seven hours of work in front of her before she could fall into bed and sleep. Thank God tomorrow was Saturday and it was going to be kid free.
Guilt burned and she shifted her face into a smile to hide the traitorous thought from the three children waiting for her verdict. She loved her children, with all her heart, but she was tired. So very tired.
“Ben,” she said, digging deep for calm, “the lizard wouldn’t be here if it was dangerous. Maybe he’s just heading home and took a shortcut through the parking lot.”
Ben gave her a look he’d perfected the year before. It was a look that calmly reminded her he wasn’t an idiot and he wasn’t a baby. Sami sighed and checked her wristwatch. It was old-fashioned in an age when cellphones were an extension of a person’s hand, but she liked the cool weight of the silver watch and the way it did nothing more than tell time.
She was ten minutes late.
“Lizard. Down. Now.” Ben dropped it as if it had suddenly caught fire. All three of her children knew what it meant when she stopped speaking in complete sentences. The reptile scurried away as if aware of how close it had come to being stuffed into a jar. Hitching her purse higher on her shoulder and narrowing her eyes on her progeny, Sami opened the back door to Buchons’.
The kitchen was nearly empty, most of the staff already in the dining room enjoying the family meal. Sami stored her purse in the cubby near the door and led the way to the swinging door separating the kitchen from the front of the house, noting the lingering smell of cumin and chilies. She smiled. Carlos had made pozole.
She’d worked at the restaurant for eighteen months, finding the waitressing job shortly after The Announcement. Two years ago, she’d never thought she’d be waiting tables to put herself through grad school. Of course, two years ago, she had been a PTA mom who lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with a slightly better than typical tract home, busy planning a clever family holiday photo.
She grinned at the man setting plates of sliced avocado and radishes on the center of a table crowded with her co-workers. “Hey Carlos. Sorry I’m late.” The buzz of conversation barely registered a lull as approached the table.
Carlos spied the blonde trio trailing her like ducks and raised a brow. “It’s family meal,” he said. “You’re right on time. You guys hungry?”
“Carlos!” In seconds, her children swarmed over their friend, their words tumbling over each other. Sami tuned out as the conversations turned to lizards and started to fill bowls with the fragrant soup.
“I made tortillas.” Jessa handed her a plate piled high.
“Thanks,” Sami said with a smile for her friend. Jessa rubbed her shoulder and sat down, not asking the question she could read on the rest of the staff’s faces. Again?
“Okay, guys. You’re going to love this,” Carlos lifted Penny up and over the chair, seating her in front of a bowl of pozole and plate of tortillas. “Don’t make that face, Centava. You always love my cooking.” Sami waited for her finicky eater to protest, relaxing when Penny picked up her spoon and started eating.
“He could die,” Ben told Carlos as he sat down next to his sister. He was obviously still thinking about the lizard as he absently shoved food in his mouth regaling Taylor – a new busboy – with tales of reptilian woe.
Sami tied a large cloth napkin around Archie’s neck and handed him a tortilla. Franklin hated it when the kids weren’t clean when he picked them up. Carlos leaned past her to drop an ice cube from a spoon into Archie’s soup. Sami smiled her thanks and settled into her own dinner, listening to the gossip and news with one eye watching the parking spaces out the front windows.
“He’s starting to make this a habit, isn’t he?” Carlos said, passing her the relish tray.
Sami scooped vegetables on top her bowl of soup and shrugged. “He’s been busy.” She pretended not to see the frown on his face.
“Busy or busy?” Jessa said from across the table. Sami narrowed her eyes and tilted her head in her kids’ direction. They might not look like they were paying attention, but she’d learned the hard way that little ears were connected to big mouths.
Jessa shrugged and shook her head in apology, blonde ringlets dancing around a face that had grown a bit thinner over the last few months. Sami made a mental note to pin the woman down for a girls’ night in sooner rather than later. Her brain reminded her that a girls’ night in wouldn’t likely happen until the term was over.
“You look tired.”
Sami turned her attention to Carlos. “Thanks,” she said wryly. “You know how to make a gal feel good.”
Carlos rolled his eyes. “You know I think you’re most beautiful woman in the world. Not even blind man could resist you.”
Sami laughed at his teasing, letting the warmth of flattery be balanced by her comfort in his friendship. Carlos jerked back and ducked his head. Sami pretended not to see eyes that were suddenly too serious by far. Carlos was a dear friend, a younger brother. Every now and then, though, she felt something decidedly unsisterly towards him.
“Do you want more, Archie?”
“No,” he shook his head. “Daddy’s here.”
All laughter left Sami as she followed Archie’s pointed finger. Franklin was unfolding his long body from the sports car he’d purchased shortly after The Announcement. Leave it to Franklin to drive with the top down in December.
Conversation around the table got louder as if all of her friends and co-workers had suddenly found something utterly fascinating to talk about. Sami knew why a moment later when another figure rose from the passenger side of the car. She felt her breaths go shallow.
She pasted a smile on her face and stood. “Your dad’s here, kids. Time to go.”