CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-EIGHT
Monday morning — 7:02 a.m.
“I need the bathroom.” Noelle yelled and pounded on the bathroom door in her room.
“I’m using it!” Nash yelled from the bathroom.
“Why don’t you use mine?” Sandy asked from the doorway to Noelle’s room.
“Because my stuff is in there!” Noelle said.
“What stuff?” Sandy asked.
“My makeup and stuff,” Noelle said. “I’m not a child anymore and. . .”
Noelle turned to face Sandy and growled.
“You can shower in our bathroom,” Sandy said soothingly. “I’ll help you with your hair.”
“And makeup,” Noelle said.
“Sure,” Sandy said.
Noelle stomped out of her room and started down the hallway. Sandy followed her close behind.
“Why is he like this?” Noelle asked.
“Who?” Sandy asked.
“Nash,” Noelle said. “It’s not like he has to care what he looks like. He’s a boy!”
Sandy smiled at Noelle’s back. Teddy had spent the last few months in Egypt with his family. While Noelle and Teddy had talked on the phone and Zoomed regularly, this would be the first day Noelle would see him since he’d left.
“Are you trying to look nice for someone in particular?” Sandy asked.
“Shut up!” Noelle said. “Just shut up!”
“Hey! You can’t. . .” Aden started.
Noelle slammed their bathroom door on them. Aden gave Sandy a curious look. Sandy shrugged.
“Teddy?” Aden mouthed.
“I guess so,” Sandy said with a shrug.
“What else could it be?” Aden whispered.
“Remember how anxious she used to get about going to school?” Sandy asked in a soft whisper. “She’s been home all this time. They’ve had a great time and learned a lot. She’s been completely accepted by everyone here. Now, she’s going back to school where she’ll have to deal with people who may not love her.”
“Huh,” Aden snorted.
“That’s what I think,” Sandy said.
“Did you tell her that all of the Fey kids are going to be there?” Aden asked.
“We’d decided that it would be a surprise, remember?” Sandy asked.
“Maybe you should tell her,” Aden said.
“You don’t think that it will put more pressure on her?” Sandy asked. “Girls this age — it’s all about competing with other girls for guys.”
“Gross,” Aden said.
“She has no idea how beautiful she is,” Charlie said, having joined the conversation without invitation.
Aden and Sandy squinted at him. Noelle had always been tall, with an athletic build, and more than a little gangly. Over the course of the last year, she’d worked out with the other teens. A little bit of physical exercise and she’d blossomed into a ravishing young woman. Her hair was now a deep auburn and, with Sandy’s help, not frizzy. Her eyes were clear blue-hazel. The only person who didn’t seem to know what she looked like was Noelle.
“She sees herself as she’s always been,” Sandy said.
“Whatever,” Charlie said with a shrug.
“The problem is that she’s so beautiful,” Sandy said. “The girls treat her like garbage. The boys pant over her. Teddy has been the love of her life as long as she’s known him. He’s been gone.”
“She’s got nothing to worry about,” Charlie said. “She’s too good for any of those losers.”
Sandy gave him a worried nod.
“I’m going to go in,” Sandy said.
“Good luck,” Aden said.
Sandy tapped on the door and called Noelle’s name.
“Can I come in?” Sandy asked.
Noelle said something that was garbled by the door. Sandy opened the door a crack.
“I wanted to check to see if you were okay,” Sandy said.
When Noelle didn’t say anything, Sandy moved the shower curtain a bit to see her. Noelle was sobbing under the stream from the shower.
“I. . .I. . .” Noelle wept.
Sandy reached under the water to stroke Noelle’s back.
“I can’t do it,” Noelle said. “I mean. . .”
“We weren’t going to tell you but the Fey kids are coming to school this term,” Sandy said.
“Oh,” Noelle said.
She stopped crying but looked even more worried.
“I thought you’d be excited to see your friends,” Sandy said. “You love Grace and Hope. The three of you were inseparable this summer.”
Noelle’s head turned to look at Sandy.
“Everything I have to wear is wrong!” Noelle said. “I have to hurry and pick something else. The girls always look great and. . .”
“Remember, this is a new school for them,” Sandy said.
“And you have to wear your uniform,” Sandy said.
“What do you mean?” Noelle whined. “Valerie picked out some great clothes for me. We went together. And we had them tailored and. . . I look really cute!”
Knowing Noelle, Sandy didn’t respond for a moment. She waited for reason to seep into the girl’s panicked brain.
“Oh, thank God,” Noelle said. “Okay. I’m okay. Can you check my uniform? We got a new one because I’m taller, but. . .”
“I’ll go check,” Sandy said. “Just breathe, honey. Everyone’s pretty freaked out about going back to life now.”
“Did you get the matching masks?” Noelle asked.
“The school has masks for everyone,” Sandy said. “Valerie had them designed by one of her famous designers. You’ll see. They are pretty great.”
“Okay,” Noelle said. “GO!”
Chuckling to herself, Sandy left the bedroom to go check on Noelle’s uniform. When she got to the living room, she found Nash ironing Noelle’s shirt.
“I had to do mine,” Nash said with a shrug. “Why is she so freaked out?”
“I think everyone’s a little freaked out,” Sandy said, repeating herself. “You’re not?”
“Not really,” Nash said. “It’s just school. The more I go the faster I’m done and on to having a real life.”
“Global pandemic? Ironing? That seems pretty real life to me,” Sandy said. “But I know what you mean.”
Nash nodded and continued ironing Noelle’s white shirt. This year, they wore white button down shirts and, either, blue pants or a blue skirt. The girls could wear the skirt as long or short as they wanted. Noelle preferred hers right around her knees.
“I need to. . .” Sandy gestured back toward their bedroom.
When Sandy arrived, Noelle was standing in the middle of Sandy and Aden’s bedroom, wrapped in a towel.
“Where were you?” Noelle screamed, hysteria near.
“You asked me to check on your uniform,” Sandy said, mildly.
“And?” Noelle asked.
“Nash is ironing your shirt,” Sandy said. “It’s ready and waiting for you.”
Noelle scowled. The girl was so much taller than Sandy now that Sandy led Noelle to the bed. Sandy took off the towel around Noelle’s head and made quick work of drying and curling Noelle’s head.
Midway through, Rachel came into sit with Noelle. Rachel always seemed to know when Noelle needed comforting. Rachel put her head on Noelle’s lap, and Noelle stroked the child’s hair. By the time Sandy had applied some mascara and discrete lip color, Noelle was calmer and ready to start her day.
“Breakfast,” Aden said from the living room. “Go!”
Charlie and Nash left the apartment. Noelle looked at herself in the mirror. Nodding to herself, she held out a hand for Rachel.
“Thanks Mom,” Noelle said.
Noelle kissed Sandy’s cheek.
“I’ll see you down there,” Sandy said.
Noelle nodded. Sandy went into the bathroom. She sped through her morning routine. She grabbed her coat and purse and started down the stairs. Aden met her at the top of the stairs. He started down the stairs with her holding onto his shoulder for balance. When they reached the bottom, he kissed her and they moved toward the dining room.
“No one’s here yet!” Nash said, chewing on a muffin.
“More food for you,” Sandy said with a grin.
Nash grinned and went into the dining room. Sandy stuck her head into the dining room. Seeing that Jill wasn’t there, she went to see if she could help. Taking the loft steps one at a time, Sandy was breathing hard by the time she reached the top.
She knocked and stuck her head in.
“Can I help?” Sandy asked between gasps of breath.
“Ohmygod!” Jill screamed from somewhere in the loft. “Sandy?”
Sandy scooted across the loft until she found Jill sitting in Katy’s room. Katy’s long hair was a poof of knots and tangles. Jill shot Sandy a fierce look.
“She did her own hair,” Jill said.
“I can do my own hair!” Katy said. “I’m not a stupid baby!”
“This is not doing your hair!” Jill said with a growl.
Katy started talking in fast, nearly unintelligible words. Grinning, Sandy waved her hand for Jill to move away. Jill got up and stormed out of the room.
“What did you do?” Sandy asked as she picked through the mess.
Katy started crying and babbling. Sandy couldn’t tell what Katy had done to her hair.
“Come on, Katy-baby,” Sandy said, leaning forward to kiss Katy’s cheek. “It would be faster to start over.”
“But I don’ wanna!” Katy screamed.
Sandy gave the child a long look.
“You can’t make me,” Katy said.
“Well, in fact, I can,” Sandy said. “I’m immune to your magic or whatever it is because Auntie Heather made me immune to all magic.”
Katy squinted her eyes at Sandy, and Sandy shrugged.
“I don’t know what you just did but I’m guessing it wasn’t very nice,” Sandy said.
The child stared at Sandy for a long minute. Sandy got up and closed the door.
“What’s this about?” Sandy said. “I’ve known you since before you were born. This is so unlike you.”
Katy began to sob. She told Sandy something about how busy and worried Jill was and how she was trying to help and she thought that she could do it and she hated being a baby and. . . On and on the child went. As Katy talked, Sandy gently nudged her in the direction of her bathroom. Katy was weeping and talking when Sandy took off her uniform and panties.
Katy stopped talking when the water from the shower hit her face.
“It’s the fastest way,” Sandy said. “Plus, you won’t look like you’ve been crying.”
“Everything okay in there?” Jacob said as he stuck his head into the bathroom.
“We’re fine,” Sandy said. “Could you get Katy’s other uniform out? This one is a little rumpled.”
“Got it,” Jacob said, disappearing.
“You have to let me,” Sandy said.
Katy let Sandy wash her hair. Sandy put in some of the thick, fancy conditioner that she’d given Katy for monthly treatments. Of course, the bottle had never been used. Sandy slathered the conditioner on Katy’s hair and got the wide toothed comb out from the cabinet. While Katy sat on the edge of the tub, Sandy worked a comb through all of the knots. The conditioner combined with the heat and moisture from the shower and Sandy’s skill help to loosen up the mess.
“I’m going to rinse this out,” Sandy said. “You wash up. Give yourself a good scrub. I can tell you’ve been slacking over the time at home.”
Sandy put a washcloth in Katy’s hands. While Sandy rinsed out Katy’s hair, Katy soaped and scrubbed herself. After rinsing her off, Sandy pulled Katy out of the shower and started drying Katy’s hair.
Jacob came in with the clean and pressed uniform as well as some underwear.
“Get dressed while I dry your hair,” Sandy said.
Katy pulled on her underwear and Sandy worked to get the child’s hair dry.
“I’m going to put it up,” Sandy said. “It’s a little greasy.”
When Sandy finished Katy’s bun, they went out into the room so that Sandy could help Katy get dressed. Something bounced off the door to Katy’s room.
“What was that?” Sandy asked.
“The boys don’t want to go to school,” Katy said with a sigh. “That’s why I was trying to help.”
“You are a sweet girl,” Sandy said. “Let’s finish up here and go help with those crazy boys.”
Katy turned in place and hugged Sandy.
“I’m sorry,” Katy said.
“You should apologize to your mom,” Sandy said in a mild rebuke. “Not me.”
“I will,” Katy said. “I just. . . I really needed your help and you were here.”
“Always.” Sandy smiled and kissed Katy’s cheek.
“Thanks,” Katy said. “Are you really immune to magic?”
“Why?” Katy asked.
“Heather worried that, with all of these goddesses around, I would be vulnerable to them,” Sandy said. “I’m human so not that interesting. Your mom is a healer and is highly respected. Tanesha is the granddaughter of an archangel.”
“Kinda scary,” Katy said.
Something else pounded on the door.
“We’d better go help,” Sandy said.
“Don’t worry,” Katy winked at Sandy.
Katy hopped up off the bed and went out into the open space of the lobby.
“Enough!” Katy said.
The boys stopped in place. Everything the boys had put into the air hung there for a moment before quietly dropping to the floor.
Katy pointed to the twins.
“Go get dressed,” Katy said.
The boys went into their room. Jacob slipped into the room after the twins. Jill came over to Katy.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Katy said.
Tears welling in her eyes, Jill hugged her daughter and looked up to Sandy.
“Thank you,” Jill mouthed to Sandy.
Sandy nodded and pointed to the door.
“Why don’t we go to breakfast?” Jill asked. “Daddy can take the boys.”
“Okay, Mommy,” Katy said.
Katy held out her hand to Jill and another to Sandy. They went down the stairs, through the kitchen and toward the dining room. Tanesha and Jabari came in from across the street.
“Why don’t you go ahead?” Jill asked.
“Okay,” Katy said.
Katy hugged Tanesha.
“Good luck today,” Tanesha said.
“You, too,” Katy said.
Katy skipped into the dining room.
Tanesha hugged Sandy and then Jill.
“How are you?” Sandy asked Tanesha.
“Okay,” Tanesha said. “A little overwhelmed. You two look like you’ve been through the wars.”
Jacob came past with the twins. He nodded to the women and continued on.
“Katy did her own hair this morning,” Jill said, softly.
Tanesha gave a rueful shake of her head.
“Noelle’s anxious about school,” Sandy said in the same soft voice.
“Crazy day,” Tanesha said. “Crazy day.”
Sandy and Jill nodded.
“Where’s Heather?” Jill asked.
“She’s in the dining room,” Tanesha said. “Keeping everything and everyone moving.”
“Are you ready for school?” Tanesha asked Jill.
Jill shook her head and then shrugged.
“You’ve got this,” Sandy said.
“I hope so,” Jill said. “We’re starting online. They want to move to in person, but not for now. So, we’ll see.”
“I’m not ready,” Honey said in a whine as she rolled toward them in her wheelchair.
Sandy, Jill, and Tanesha nodded.
“Are you online?” Jill asked.
“Well, at least we’ll be here,” Honey said.
Looking worried, Jill nodded. Tanesha put her arm around Sandy and Jill and they went into the dining room to join Heather in moving things along. For the briefest moment, when the kids were getting their backpacks, the women sat together in silence.
“Here we go,” Sandy said, pushing herself to standing.
She turned to look at Tanesha, Jill, and Honey.
“Good luck today,” Sandy said. “Heather and I are doing pick up. Do your school. Don’t worry about the kids.”
Heather got up and left the room with Sandy. Tanesha sighed. Standing, she looked at the ceiling.
“Fin,” Tanesha said.
Prince Finegal of Queen Fand’s realm, her grandfather, appeared out of nowhere.
“We need to get to school,” Tanesha said.
Fin gave her a nod and they left the room. Sandy sat with Jill while she slowly sipped her coffee.
“Come on,” Sandy said.
“I just. . .” Jill started.
“I know,” Sandy said. “It’s really hard. There are so many transitions right now. We start by getting the kids back to school.”
“But. . .” Jill said.
Sandy cut her off by shaking her head.
“They are safe,” Sandy said. “They wear their masks and are really good about it. They want to be in school.”
“I know,” Jill said with a sigh.
“School starts at 10?” Sandy asked.
“Come on,” Sandy said. “Why don’t we head to the salon? Trim that pandemic hair. Give you a shine boost.”
“I. . .” Jill said.
“You have time,” Sandy said. “Jake is taking the kids to school. You’ve had breakfast.”
“I have time,” Jill said as if to convince herself.
“You have time,” Sandy said.
Jill gave Sandy a long look before nodding. Grinning at Jill, Sandy grabbed her purse and jacket from where she’d left them. They drove to Sandy’s studio.
Sandy was cutting Jill’s hair when Jill remembered that she loved school.
Her kids loved school too.
She’d been so caught up in getting everything done and making sure no one got sick, that she had forgotten how much she loved her life.
“Do you ever think that maybe we have a, like, happiness limit?” Jill asked.
“What do you mean?” Sandy asked.
“I just realized that I’d fallen back into feel horrible,” Jill said. “You know, like I did forever when I was married to Trevor and everything. It wasn’t even hard and I didn’t even notice.”
Sandy squeezed Jill’s shoulder and went to get the highlight color.
“I think the stress of everything has frayed everyone,” Sandy said. “It’s a lot. It’s been a lot and now, instead of a vacation, we have to navigate getting the kids back in school, going back to school for you, and getting my small business up and running again. It’s. . .”
“A lot,” Jill said.
“So go easy on yourself,” Sandy said. “It’s okay to feel miserable when things are miserable. It’s not okay to get stuck there.”
Jill nodded. Sandy finished Jill’s highlights and disappeared. She returned with mugs of hot chocolate. Sandy sat in a chair near Jill while they drank their cocoa. By the time her mug was near empty, Jill was feeling a lot better.
“How are you able to handle all of this?” Jill asked.
“Well,” Sandy said with a shrug. “I nearly died a few months ago. I’ve had all these surgeries and been in and out of the hospital.”
“Awful,” Jill said.
“It’s changed my perspective,” Sandy said with a nod. “At least for now.”
Sandy got up to check Jill’s highlights.
“For now, I feel like this is life,” Sandy said. “Messy, ugly, full of drama and joy. I had so much pain. I had so much help and love and support. More than anything, I’m glad to be here in the mess of everything.”
“I’m glad you’re here, too,” Jill said, sniffing at her tears.
“We do not have time for that,” Sandy said with a smile. “Let’s get you washed up and out of here.”
Denver Cereal continues next week...
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