These kids looked thirsty for attention, conversation, and exploration. A second language was the last thing they needed. I got up from the floor and headed to the kitchen with the twins and Joelle following me as though they were the guests.
“Maybe you can do all those things with them,” Joelle mused, quickly losing her reservations. It took her a full month to come to terms with the fact she needed my help. After all, I was her husband’s enemy’s wife. Now that she took the leap, she figured she’d squeeze the hell out of the arrangement.
“I can do three times a week. Do they go to school?” I asked.
“Yes, but only until noon. Andrew works nonstop, and I am on the panel of three different charities and on the county board of supervisors. Not to mention, Andrew just signed another book deal. There’ll be a grand tour…”
I eyed her in disbelief. She gave her hair a toss.
“Don’t look at me like that. Andrew wants to run for mayor.”
I didn’t see anything, other than how this couple had their priorities all wrong.
“What’s your rate, anyway?” she asked primly.
“Twenty-five per hour,” I answered. She tilted her head, taken aback.
“Really? So little?”
I smiled. “It’s not so little for me.”
Not that I did it for the money. In fact, I’d already decided I would donate every penny given to me by the Arrowsmiths. It felt morally wrong to spend Cillian’s enemy’s money.
“I take it you and your husband have separate accounts.”
Joelle scanned me in new eyes, her face lighting up.
It was technically true. Kill and I did have separate accounts. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have access to his money. Money I’d refused to spend. I still only used whatever I was paid every Friday by Little Genius, letting the astronomical amount of dollars Kill transferred pile up in my checking account, untouched.
“All right. Three times a week. Including full Saturdays. I have to catch up on admin work.” Joelle stretched her arm in my direction. I shook it.
“Half a Saturday. I visit my former grandmother-in-law on Saturdays.”
“Oh, that’s right.” She gave herself away. So she was the one who told Kill. “You got yourself a deal.”
Turning around to the twins, I exclaimed, “Guess what? We’re going to make letter-shaped cookies today! I brought all the ingredients. You ready?”
“Yes!” Tree pumped the air with his fist.
Tinder nodded, eyeing me shyly. He was obviously more reserved than his brother. I herded the boys to the bathroom to wash our hands, rubbing between their fingers as we made funny hygiene songs that included a lot of fart jokes. Meanwhile, Joelle set up her laptop in the kitchen so she could see us. I appreciated that, if nothing else, she was concerned enough to keep an eye on us.
I set bowls with flour and sugar on the kitchen counter and dragged two chairs for the boys to stand on. We cracked eggs, added oil and water, then battered, sang, and whistled as we worked.
Every now and again, I’d catch Joelle watching us with longing mixed with envy and fascination.
Andrew wasn’t at home. I had the feeling he rarely was, which made spying on him a little harder.
We poured the batter into letter-shaped cutters. While we waited for the oven to heat, I emptied a mixed bag of colorful sprinkles into a bowl and asked the boys to separate the colors. It was a great exercise in patience, self-soothing, and teamwork.
“Don’t forget to save me all the reds,” I sing-songed. “Red is my favorite color.”
The color of pomegranate.
“I love blue.” Tree exploded into giggles. “Like Sully from Monsters, Inc.”
“And I love pink,” Tinder said. “Like flamingos.”
“Pink is for girls.” Tree blew a raspberry. “Tinder likes Elsa, too.” The boy stubbed a pudgy finger at his brother’s chest, leaving a cloud of flour on his shirt.
“So do I.” I high-fived Tinder. “Isn’t she cool? She has awesome superpowers.”
“Catboy from PJ Masks is cooler,” Tree said defensively, pitching the idea to me. “He is as fast as lightning and can hear anything. Even ants!”
“B-But can he freeze someone?” Tinder grinned, gaining confidence with me by his side.
The differences between Tree and Tinder were staggering.
Tree was talkative, animated, and naturally curious. Tinder stuttered, and his left eye twitched frequently. His jerky movements and low-hanging head told me he was extremely insecure. He also chewed on the collar of his shirt until a pool of saliva formed around it.
“Moooooom.” Tree narrowed his eyes at his brother. “Tinder ruined his shirt.”
“Jesus Christ, Tin, again? You’re really something, aren’t you.” Joelle darted from the table, advancing toward us.
She grabbed Tinder by the shoulder. I put my hand on hers, stopping her.
“Please don’t,” I said. “It’s totally natural. I have a few kids in class who do it, too.”
“He goes through dozens of shirts a week!” she burst, her lower lip trembling.
“Let him,” I whispered under my breath. “If it’s his way of coping with stress, making a fuss would only escalate the issue.”
We held each other’s gazes for a second. Luckily, the oven dinged, signaling it had reached our desired temperature.
“Excuse me.” I grabbed the trays.
I sent the children to wash their hands again, asking them to sing the songs we’d made up together from the top of their lungs while I tidied up the kitchen. That gave Joelle and me a few minutes alone.
“Joelle,” I started cautiously. I didn’t know how much time I was going to have with this family, but I knew they needed me. “Tinder is—”
“I know,” she cut me off, fidgeting with her necklace. “His therapist said it is too early for an official diagnosis. We are monitoring him closely, but I feel completely in the dark as to what his condition entails.”
“Criticizing him won’t help.” I put my hand on her arm. “Every child is different in personality, progress, and needs. French is the very last thing these kids need. Tinder, especially, needs a lot of love, and affection, and attention. He needs to know you love him unconditionally. If you’re confused, think about what he is going through. He is starting to realize he is different.”