The Head Start
She hears the younger one stirring on the monitor that she keeps by the bed, hears him grumble and whine, pound his feet against the wall behind his crib. She can tell the older one is already up, can hear him rummaging through the baskets of toys upstairs in the playroom. She opens her eyes and they feel dry and it hurts to blink. When she sits up she feels like she is still dreaming; her hands are blurry, and her mind feels fuzzy. When she goes upstairs, the older one is waiting for her. There is yarn strewn about the room, knotted together with hangers that he has pulled out of his closet. He smiles and gathers his blankets and his trucks and starts down the stairs while she gets the younger one out of his crib. He sits up when she opens the door and calls out for his brother. She gathers him up, along with his stuffed elephant that is missing one arm and the two books he insisted on sleeping with. When they get downstairs and she sets him down and he runs over to the couch where his brother is waiting, his toys spread across the cushions around him. The younger one brings her the remote and she turns on cartoons for them. They dance and wiggle as the theme song comes on, shouting the words into the air.
She hands each of them a cup of milk and a granola bar in a small, colorful bowl. The younger one stands right in front of the TV until the older one chastises him and grudgingly he takes a few steps back. She drops two frozen waffles in the toaster and makes a pot of coffee and closes her eyes. Her husband has been gone a week and she can feel the exhaustion in her bones, the hollow places underneath her eyes that look like bruises, swollen and mottled. Coffee helps, and she drinks it like water; she can smell it on her skin when she sweats like alcohol and a bad hangover. In the living room, the boys are throwing the couch cushions onto the floor and jumping across the couch springs, sending crumbs and broken bits of toys flying up like popcorn. Eventually, the younger one grabs one of the older one’s toys and the older one screams and bites the younger one’s hand. She sees this in slow motion. She sees the younger one’s eyes go wide and his mouth pop open before she hears him scream. She fights the urge to scream herself and runs over, taking the older one to timeout while she rocks the younger one against her chest. His face is red and there’s a white circle across the back of his hand with deep cutouts of teeth. The waffles pop up and he is distracted. She puts him in his high chair and covers his plate in syrup that he scoops up with his fingers. She calls to the older one and he pulls his chair next to the highchair and throws pieces of his own waffle behind his brother’s back, which makes him scream. She scoots them apart, and the younger one picks up his sticky plate and puts it on top of his head. They both start laughing and she can see the syrup dripping down the tip of his nose like a bead of sweat.
While she is cleaning up the dishes from breakfast the two of them run into the master bedroom and close the door. After a few minutes of silence, she follows them in and finds them running their sticky fingers across the hems of her shirts and dresses, leaving grease marks sticky from syrup. She herds them out and they hop on their scooters and race each other from one end of the house to the other, banging into doors and cupboards and one another’s legs. She can see the scuff marks on the walls where they push each other out of the way. She sends them outside and wipes the table, finding bits of old food stuck to the back of each chair, piles of jelly hidden under the placemats.
The older one runs inside with a cup that he fills up in the bathroom sink and she hears him pour it out into the hole they have dug at the corner of the patio. They are making mud, and she hears them throw clumps of it at the side of the house and each other. When she comes to the door the younger one’s face is unrecognizable, the corners of his mouth caked with mud. The older one asks for a hose bath and she turns on the water and lets them spray one another until they are both spluttering, and their t-shirts stick their skin. She strips them down and wraps them in towels and they run away screaming, leaving a trail of muddy footprints behind them. They pound up the stairs and she can hear them opening dresser drawers and she knows that they are throwing the clothes across the room. She hears them screaming and she pours another cup of coffee and sits down at the kitchen table with a handful of chocolate chips and a book.