Bethany House Publishers
A subtle change in air pressure was my only warning. One millisecond later, a foot flew out of the darkness toward my head. I backflipped out of range and reached for my sword. The honed blade flickered in the starlight. Determination raced through me as air rushed into my lungs. My family had guarded the imperial treasure for generations. I wouldn't allow this attacker to get past me to the palace.
A new shadow moved toward my left and coalesced into another lithe warrior emerging from the bamboo forest. More silent figures melted into the courtyard. Four men advanced now, barely visible under a cloud-shrouded moon. If they were surprised to see a woman standing guard, they hid it well. Their eyes drilled into me from their half-masked faces. Each ninja brandished a sword.
My heart pounded. Stay focused. Breathe deep. I had trained for this moment all my life. No need to let them see the fear coursing through my veins.
One of the warriors lunged for me.
I parried and struck hard, forcing him back. All my focus zeroed onto him. A prickle on the back of my neck warned me to duck.
A razor-sharp metal star spun past me, grazing my hair.
Panic added speed to my moves, but it wasn't enough. There were too many of them. How could anyone fight in so many directions at once? My strict training had failed me. Terror raced up from my toes.
I was going to lose. The treasure would be lost forever. I would break the line of heritage. The faithful guardians of the treasure ...
"Mommy! Cookies now." I snapped out of my daydream. Three-year-old Kelsey grabbed my sweater and hung on. All my
clothes tended to list to the right these days, having been tugged relentlessly by my preschooler.
"No, sweetie. It's suppertime." I turned to stir the ramen noodles.
Dylan sailed past on his skateboard. "What's for supper?" The last words faded as he disappeared into the living room.
"Noodle soup. And no skateboards in the house!" My scolding wasn't as stern as it should have been. At age seven, Dylan exuded bliss in everything he did. He injected a dose of joy into my unremarkable life, and I hesitated to squelch his exuberance.
"Need cookies." Kelsey tugged harder.
"No snacks before supper." I angled my body to get between her and the cookie jar. She was a rapid climber, and it took martial arts alertness to fend her off.
"Pleeeeeze." Her wail rose in volume. In predictable harmony, the higher-pitched screech of baby Micah joined in from the boys' room.
Great. I had hoped he'd nap until Kevin got home from work.
A hiss from the stove interrupted the chorus.
I lurched forward to turn down the heat under the kettle. Too late. Water boiled over in a mass of starchy bubbles. Somehow my cheery blue-and-white kitchen had turned into a punishing purgatory. Our modest rambler felt smaller every day as the kids grew larger.
I stretched one leg back to block Kelsey's ongoing attempts to grab some Oreos.
Another plaintive squeal sounded from the baby.
Micah's wails grew more insistent with hiccupping gasps between them. He'd been fussy all day, and it sounded like his nap hadn't helped. His passionate distress had to be dealt with fast.
A Good Mother meets all her children's needs.
I was generally a positive person, but lately my goal to be a Wonderful Wife and Marvelous Mom had me frayed around the edges. I loved everyone under this roof with a passion and wanted to create a warm, nurturing world for them, but my self-esteem was chipped away a little more each day when I couldn't live up to my ideals.
"Come on, Kelsey. Let's check on Micah." I swooped her up and raced into the hall. My foot landed on something that moved.
We sailed several feet along the hall, my shriek adding a descant theme over Kelsey's whine and Micah's wail, before my legs scissored into splits a gymnast would envy. The skateboard shot out from under me and continued cheerfully down the hall while I fell backward, Kelsey still in my arms.
I hit the wood floor with a thud as Kelsey's elbow impaled me. My lungs struggled to find air while gray glitter edged my vision.
"Wow, Mom! That was cool." Dylan's brown eyes stared down at me from under his Beatle-length bangs.
I tried to lift Kelsey off my ribs. "Take your sister."
He probably couldn't hear my gasped request over Micah's screams, but he seemed to get the idea and pulled Kelsey up.
She whimpered and a few tears spurted from her hazel eyes. "Hurt my ankle," she said, pointing to her elbow. We hadn't quite mastered all the body parts yet.
"Don't cry." Dylan led his sister back toward the kitchen. I had only a moment to thank God for my helpful firstborn before he continued. "Come on, I'll get you a cookie."
I struggled up to one elbow. Every bone in my thirty-year-old body ached.
Micah screamed again. A loud thud told me he was rocking his crib. He'd learned how to pull himself up on the crib rail and heft his stubby weight back and forth, producing hearty thumps against his wall.
Thump, thump. Wail.
"Cookies! More cookies!" Kelsey's gleeful yell from the kitchen carried over pounding protests from the nursery.
I winced and eased myself back to a spread eagle flat on the floor, facing the ceiling. A few dead flies and a moth showed through the frosted white light fixture. How long since I'd cleaned it? When we bought the house years ago?
Maybe I'd stare at the ceiling until Kevin got home. Sometimes you had to concede defeat. How was I ever going to create the idyllic family life I had longed for as a child?
The phone rang from the kitchen as another crash from Micah's room propelled me to my feet and into the boys' room. One of these days he'd walk the crib straight through the wall. Dylan hadn't been thrilled when we set up the crib in his room. Sharing space with a brother might be fun one day. But a squalling, temperamental nine-month-old didn't make the best of roommates. Micah couldn't even throw a decent pitch yet, or play Nintendo.
When Micah saw me, he wriggled his padded bottom, and his cry stopped midshriek. I grabbed his sweaty body and let him wipe tears and mucus onto my shoulder as he nestled in to me. It was an old shirt anyway--like all my clothes. Why risk any quality fabric to constant spatters of spit up, leaky diapers, and mashed Cheerios?
From the answering machine, my perky voice piped an invitation to leave a message. A garbled sound carried from the kitchen, and I was tempted to step out into the hall to hear who was calling. What if Kevin was tied up in a meeting again? Or stuck in traffic? His commute wasn't usually too long from downtown, since we lived in one of the inner-ring suburbs of Minneapolis, named Richfield. A misnomer because few in our neighborhood were rich and there were no fields to be seen. Still, it was a neat, safe city with rows of small ramblers and well-kept lawns. I loved to walk to the nearby park with Micah in the stroller or watch the kids romp in the backyard.
A sour odor wafted up from Micah's sagging diaper and diverted me from heading toward the phone. Being a mother was all about triage. Three children often clamored at the same time. Various appliances screamed for my attention. I calmly and efficiently assessed the most severe trauma and tackled each crisis in order.
In my dreams.
In reality, I flailed around like my alter ego under attack by a host of speedy ninjas. My back against the wall, I lived in a state of near panic, wondering when I'd forget to duck ... when I'd be overrun.
On top of that, I wasn't sure what I was defending anymore. Or why my efforts felt so futile. The ninjas kept coming.
I mopped up Micah's bottom and slipped a clean diaper on with an economy of movement.
Micah's wide smile pinched deep dimples into his cheeks. "Ah-boo."
"Yes, it's suppertime. Did you have a nice nap?" I blew a raspberry against his fat tummy.
He chortled. "Boo. Ah-boo." Fat legs thumped against his changing table, and he twisted.
"Whoa. Hold on." I snapped his overalls closed as he tried to dive off the table and caught him with my free arm to ease him to the ground. The rapid ballet of the diaper change. Move too slowly and the cleanup became a battle of wills. This time I'd been quick enough, and I felt a wave of satisfaction.
Micah scooted out the door in a wiggly crawl. The marines could use a few good babies like him. I sprinted past him to get to the kitchen first. Dylan and Kelsey had disappeared, but a trail of Oreo crumbs led to the basement stairs. I hit Play on the answering machine and turned to salvage the soup. A few frozen vegetables tossed into the mix might mellow the taste of burnt noodles.
BEEP! "Hi, Becky. It's Doreen. Listen, I know I said I'd be there to set up for the fall bake sale, but Josh has chicken pox. Sorry. Hope you find someone else."
Tension throbbed in my temples. I couldn't find another helper by tomorrow. I'd have to leave at daybreak to set up the school fundraiser alone. I'd be gluing red maple leaves and orange-tinged oak leaves to the tablecloths for hours.
Micah pulled open the cupboard next to the stove and grabbed his favorite lids. The clash of metal drove shards of pain behind my eyes.
"Micah, stop that!" I snatched the kettles away from him as the front door squeaked open.
Kevin bounded in and dropped his briefcase. He sniffed the air. "Something's burning. Oh, and I heard you yelling from the front porch. Are you all right?"
I bit back a sarcastic reply. He wasn't trying to be critical. He simply observed and commented, the way he always did. I wondered how that played out at his job. "Mrs. Smith, I see this is your third traffic accident in two years. Your premiums will be going up." Then he'd add the sympathetic smile, and she'd forgive him for his bluntness and sign up for the deluxe insurance package. Kevin had that effect on people. Good thing he didn't realize how much charisma charged through him. His genial unawareness added to his charm.
Kevin's crisp shirt had surrendered to a few wrinkles after a long day. His hair was the rich, dark color of walnut fudge. His buzz cut provided a bristly-soft cap that I loved to rub. A dusting of stubble edged his jawline. Thick lashes framed dark caramel eyes--as inviting as his open arms.
I ran to hug him. A few seconds of stolen comfort. "I'm so glad you're home." Every day I prompted myself to let Kevin decompress after work. Every day I failed in my good intentions and gave in to the urge to talk to the first adult I'd seen in hours. "Micah's still fussy. It might be a new tooth. Doreen's son has chicken pox, and I'll have to get to school early to set up. And Dylan left his skateboard in the house and I fell, but I'm okay, and I'm sorry about the noodles, they got away from me, but supper is almost ready--could you call Dylan and Kelsey?"
Micah pulled three more pots out of the cupboard and put one on his head. Kevin laughed and scooped him up, taking time to play peek-a-boo a few times before removing the saucepan.
Affection rose inside me like the steam from the soup. Kevin's buoyancy made him an incredible dad.
He deposited Micah into the high chair. "Suppertime!" he bellowed in the general direction of the stairs.
I rolled my eyes. "I could have done that."
He grinned. "You told me to call them."
A stampede pounded up the stairs. "Daddy's home!" Our two oldest danced around Kevin, bestowing hugs, kisses, and tickles.
What was I? Strained spinach? I nurtured them all day, but the instant Kevin walked through the door, he became the hero. My thoughts softened as I watched them tussle. Why not? He was my hero, too.
Herding Dylan and Kelsey toward the kitchen table, Kevin grabbed the stack of mail off the corner desk. "Hey, did you see this one?"
"Hmm?" I rummaged in a drawer for a clean bib for Micah. "Never got a chance to sort the mail out, sorry."
"Here. Check it out." He tugged the bib from my hand and swapped it with a long blue envelope.
I squinted at the return address. Women of Vision. Navy script cut a diagonal across the bottom corner--The magazine for successful women of the Twin Cities. Probably just looking for subscriptions. I'd seen a few editions at Doreen's house. Glossy photos with improbable success stories. Inspirational features bookended by how-to columns. If I had the time to read their articles on how to save time, I wouldn't need them in the first place.
I tossed the envelope on the counter, hefted the kettle of soup onto a hot-pad on the table, and chased everyone to their chairs. Little heads bowed. Kelsey's blond curls almost touched her soup bowl. Dylan's eyes squeezed shut in earnest devotion under his dark mop of hair. Even Micah stopped pounding on his high chair tray. The sweet tableau made me smile. Kevin winked at me and led us in saying grace.
The frenzied attack of my day eased back. Family life wasn't so bad ... once reinforcements arrived. We all dug into the simple supper of scorched noodles, and I managed to sneak in a few spoonfuls between helping the kids and asking Kevin about his day. After a litany of "She's kicking my chair," "He took the last piece of bread," and "Oops, Micah spilled his juice again," the children relaxed into momentary contentment while Kevin got out the devotion book.
I passed sugar cookies around the table. We had decided to link spiritual enlightenment with dessert, in hopes of forging a Pavlovian connection for our children.
Kelsey beamed as she nibbled the blue-frosted cookie. She had helped me make them and applied food coloring with enthusiasm.
Dylan chewed, eyes fixed on Kevin with rapt attention.
Finally, one of our children was getting into the spirit of the "Little Journeys with Jesus" devotions. My husband threw himself into the roles of the master distributing talents, the whiny man who buried his single talent in the ground, and the diligent men who put their talents to good use. His animated voices made the kids giggle.
I squirmed. I should feel encouraged to invest my God-given resources. Instead, a blanket of condemnation smothered me. What were my talents? How did I invest them? I dreamed of caring for lepers like Mother Teresa or preaching to huge crowds like Billy Graham. Instead, I changed diapers, scrubbed sticky floors, and struggled to take an occasional night class to finish my teaching degree.
Scanning the faces around the table, I gave myself the traditional moms' pep talk. My children were my mission field. Raising them was a worthy calling. My efforts would make a difference, even if I couldn't see it yet.
Then why do I feel like I'm falling short?
Kevin finished the story. He noticed Dylan's concentration. "What do you think about that, big guy?"
I held my breath. Hope set my heart pounding under my stained T-shirt. My seven-year-old would share a gem of spiritual insight, and I would feel vindicated in my value as a parent.
Dylan leaned forward. "If I put food coloring in my eyes, would I cry blue?"
And there you had it. The extent of our spiritual influence. I sank lower in my chair. My life had become a theatre of the absurd. Non sequiturs. Random entrances and exits by the actors. Snappy dialogue with an esoteric meaning that escaped me.
One day the master would come and ask what I did with my meager talent. I didn't bury it. I waved it in a hundred directions like lightning-fast parries with a sword. Yet somehow none of the strokes seemed to land on my target. Or the target kept moving. And so far, the ninjas always got past and stole the treasure.