I rub my forehead and lift my hair away from the back of my neck. I have committed many sins in my life, and Anatomy and Physiology serves as my punishment. I make flashcards, copy diagrams, look up pronunciation, weep copious tears, and still can’t remember the blasted things. What’s wrong with the foot bone being connected to the heel bone? Everyone understands what I mean by that. But no, I have to learn the names of twenty-six bones in the foot. Maybe I should stay a CNA. The work isn’t glorious, but I don’t have to memorize words I’ll never use again.
My phone beeps at me. Working late. Be home in an hour. Social worker tomorrow. I gasp and punch the “talk” button.
“I can’t talk—“
“What do you mean, tomorrow?” Normally I wouldn’t bother Natalie at the office, but she can’t drop a bombshell without expecting a call. “Have you looked around the house lately?” In between my going to school full time and working part time, and with Natalie working overtime as always, chores have fallen below Natalie’s exacting standard. We haven’t sorted mail for weeks, there’s an enormous pile of clutter in the baby’s room, and my books and papers spread out everywhere. I told Natalie she couldn’t expect me to perform well in school and keep a neat home, and my string of early As convinced her.
“Mackenzie said she’ll come by around four. I have to finish reports tonight before I leave, and if I go in early tomorrow I should be able to leave by three. This is why you’re supposed to keep on top of things, Kat!”
“You’re not the one going to school!” I grab a pile of envelopes and shove them into the silverware drawer. A trail of credit card offers lie on the floor. “How’m I supposed to keep up with my classes and get ready for clinicals and work enough shifts—“
“There’s no reason for you to be working in the first place!” Natalie sighs before I can erupt with the usual rebuttal. “I’m sorry. I just don’t see why you insist on working when you don’t have to.”
“You’re already putting in insane hours to save for the Ivy League college education you think the baby must have.” I toss a sheaf of mail into the garbage and pray it doesn’t contain anything important. Another stack I hide inside the microwave. “What should I wear?” Another more important question hits me. “I’ve got a test tomorrow! What if I don’t get home in time?”
Natalie calms me down before returning to work. “Don’t kill yourself trying to do everything. Finish your studying now, and when I get home we’ll get the house ready together. I’ll help you pick out your clothes.”
She will not choose my clothes as if I am a child! Before I can tell her, she says she has to work and hangs up. I glance at my watch. If I hurry, I can de-clutter the living room and maybe run the vacuum cleaner. I don’t know if we’ll have time to dust, but the social worker can deny the adoption based on the home study alone. What if she thinks a dirty house is a bad environment for a baby? Panicked, I put the plug into the kitchen sink and turn on the hot water full force. I squirt some dish soap and bleach to get the sink clean.
While the water runs, I dig in the back closet to find rubber gloves. I sneeze at the dust, and our dustpan falls onto my head. So much for Natalie’s system of hooks for each cleaning item. I grab the squirt bottle and a cleaning cloth to dust the mop, broom, and bottles of cleaner before hanging them from their labeled hooks. Underneath the pile lies an assortment of hardware supplies and extra dry goods. We don’t go through flour, sugar, and oatmeal as quickly now that I’m too busy to cook much. What if the social worker looks at our closet and realizes Natalie and I are slobs who don’t cook? Will she fail my home study if she knows I eat instant or takeout food more days than not?
I’m being irrational, but I take out every item and set it on the floor. This time I climb onto the step stool and dust the inside walls of the closet. Maybe I’ll get some leftover paint from the baby’s room and spruce up our closet.
Thump! A winter boot tumbles onto the ground. Its partner follows soon after, knocking dust all over the bottom shelf. Natalie and I keep promising each other to find real storage for off-season clothes instead of shoving them anywhere, but we never have time. Since two boots have fallen down anyway, I take all of the contents down. I find a small picnic cooler, a large picnic cooler, extra paper towels, lighter fluid, mismatched gloves, scarves, a handful of receipts, and multicolored tissue paper.
As I carry the receipts to the garbage can, I step in a puddle. That’s odd, I think. I go back to the closet to retrieve loose papers and a tell-tale Oreo package. This time, I step in the puddle and look around. The sink overflows with bubbles, and water streams onto the counter before cascading onto our tiled floor. I stand paralyzed for a moment before rushing to turn off the faucet. I spin in a circle, my socks growing more and more waterlogged with each step. Natalie’s fussy about her bath towels, but our tissue-sized microfiber dusting cloths won’t take care of this water. Nor will the paper towels, not even the entire roll. Just the same, I take the paper towel roll off its holder and tear off sheets to scatter onto Lake Kat. The sheets fall like snowflakes and sag into floppy white globs as soon as they touch the floor.
I wade out of the kitchen and into the hallway toward our linen closet. Natalie will kill me for getting our towels dirty, but how else can I clean up? What if the water gets into the basement? I yelp and grab our entire stack of fluffy white towels. They won’t be white once I’m finished.
Running back into the kitchen, I throw the stack of towels onto the floor. The water engulfs the snowy piles without abating. I pull out the stove and gasp at the dirt underneath. There’s the cooling rack I lost a year ago, too. I take a step back, wishing I could put down my head and cry. I’ve ruined everything!
Before I can get in more than one good sniff, the garage door rumbles open and closed.
“Kat, what on earth?” Natalie jumps back and unzips her knee-length leather boots, then takes off her navy trouser socks. Rolling her pants halfway up to her knees, she slogs through the water to set her briefcase and travel mug onto the counter. She stares at me with an expression halfway between fury and exhaustion.
“I couldn’t help it!” If I remembered she would come home by now, I might have packed a suitcase and run for the hills.
“I told you to wait to clean up!” She takes off her suit jacket and hangs it on the knob of the closet door. She removes the sink plug, dumps the sodden towels into stainless steel basin, and takes out the mop and bucket. “Why can’t you listen for once? As if I needed to deal with this on top of everything else today.”
Stunned, I back away. “I’m sorry,” I say. I can’t stop the tears this time. “I’ll call Mackenzie and tell her we’re not ready for the home study. I just wanted things perfect when she came.”
Natalie jabs the mop into the corner before answering. I can almost see her counting to ten before she lets out a sigh. “Just rinse out the towels and throw them into the washer to soak with some bleach and wash water, okay? Maybe they won’t stain.”
I jump to obey, and as I walk past her with my sopping armload she smacks the seat of my pants. Not hard, but enough to make me blush.
“Help me clean up, and after that we’ll have a little discussion, Kat.”
Oh, no! Is it too late to run for the hills? By the time I’ve started the wash cycle and poured in a capful of bleach, I reluctantly decide that I can’t run away without Natalie noticing. She’s in front of the kitchen exit, and the front door is too close to the kitchen. At least the laundry room doesn’t show signs of water dripping.
When I return to the kitchen, Natalie has finished mopping the floor and the room sparkles with lemon-scented shine. She’s already put the stove back and propped the mop up to air dry.
“Guess the floor needed mopping anyway?” My attempt at humor falls flat, and Natalie crooks her finger toward me. She’s picked up a rubber spatula, a brand new one she wouldn’t let me use for cooking. I should have known, but foolishly I thought she was saving it for a special occasion. “Natty, please. We don’t have time for this.”
“No,” she answers grimly. “We don’t. Hands on the counter and bend over before I decide to use your paddle instead.”
“Natty!” I put my hands on my tingling bottom and back away. She’s never used the spatula on me before, but with that look in her eye she will make anything hurt. “You can’t do this. I said I was sorry, so leave me alone.”
“And I said to wait until I got home. Now come.” She grabs the belt loop on the waistband of my jeans and tugs me in front of the dishwasher. I whine as she loosens the denim and pushes my panties to my knees. Sometimes I can get away with teasing or pleading, but not today. “You’ve just added a dose with your paddle after I finish, Kat. Do you want one before bed, too?”
I clamp my mouth shut and shake my head. I squeeze my eyes shut and howl as the awful spatula makes me dance with agony. “That’s enough.”
“That’s my decision!” Natalie lays the spatula into my bottom with such fervor I can’t respond. I’m too busy wishing for an early death. “We didn’t have enough time to get ready as it was. Why can’t you do as you’re told for once?”
“Okay!” I shout as soon as I can catch my breath. Natalie stops, and I jump up and down “Ow!” I never dreamed something so small and soft could cause such agony. Sure, the wooden spoon stings like the devil, but it can feel good after a while. I should give Natalie a real apology, but I’m too upset. I wish she would let me retreat into privacy, but she’s not finished.
“Fetch your paddle,” she says, and my heart sinks.
“I’m too sore,” I plead. “I learned my lesson.” But I’m fibbing, and she knows it. I am sore, but the only lesson I’ve learned is to escape faster next time. I could have been halfway to the airport by the time she caught me. Maybe I could go to Jamaica, where I’d never have to shiver again.
“Do you want to push me right now, Kat?”
I shake my head and trudge to my bedroom to take out the ping pong paddle from the drawer in my nightstand. She follows me and sits on my bed. “C’mon, Kat,” she says, and I spread myself over her lap. She bends down to lift up my cheek and kiss me.
“I didn’t mean to forget the water,” I say, eyeing the paddle with apprehension. “I just forgot.”
“What made you forget?” she asks. She knows.
“I wanted to find rubber gloves, and when I got to the closet I started cleaning it.” Before she can answer, I blurt out my grievance. “Anyone could have forgotten. You’re not being fair.” Too late, I bite my tongue. Natalie hates that complaint more than any misbehavior. This time, however, she doesn’t get angry.
“You’re working yourself up into a meltdown, and I won’t have it.”
“But everything has to be perfect!”
Natalie rubs my back. “I said we’d do it together. Why didn’t you trust me?”
At that, I flop down with a gusty sigh. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I guess that’s why I get spanked and she does the spanking. “I do trust you, but I got…” I don’t want to finish my sentence, but she does it for me.
“Upset. And you were going to get yourself into such a fit you’d be sick by tomorrow. Let me do my job, for once. You’re trying to do three jobs, and it’s not working.”
“Okay,” I admit. I wish she’d get the paddling over with.
She places the paddle against my bare skin. If only I had the jeans and panties I kicked off in the kitchen. She runs her fingers through my hair. “I’m going to make these hurt, honey. Both because you need it and I’m tired of you acting as if you have to do everything on your own. When will you learn I’m not going anywhere?”
“I know!” My body tenses. She makes everything hurt as a rule, so she must be planning something awful if she’s giving me a warning. “You don’t have to…”
Whack! I cry out at the impact, and she continues. Slow and steady, talking over the noise as if she thinks I can listen.
“You are my Kat, and while I’m thoroughly annoyed at you for creating such an unnecessary mess, you’re going to stay my Kat. Let me take care of you. Either reduce your hours at work, or we’re going to have a ‘talk’ like this every night until you do.”
“Ow! I don’t want to!” Even to my own ears, my words sound petulant. “You’re not reducing your hours.” That sounds slightly better.
“Once you’re an RN, you can work twelve-hour shifts and I won’t say one word of complaint. But for now, there’s no reason to kill yourself selling clothes when you hate the job in the first place. Honestly! They offered you a lighter schedule, and you’re the one who said no.” Natalie puts the paddle down and strokes my tormented bottom. “I wish you’d quit your job. I make enough to keep both of us.”
I take the tissue she offers and wipe my eyes. “I can’t.” It’s an old argument, one that will never die.
Natalie straightens my shirt and pats my back, letting me cry. “I know. But I swear, if you don’t stop pulling stupid stunts I’m going to put my foot down. You either work reasonable hours, or you don’t work at all. And if you keep this up, you’ll be going to school part-time next semester.”
I gulp. Natalie’s been much gentler than usual lately, and she’s let things go she wouldn’t have before she started seeing Dr. Mitchell. Most of the time, I can divert her from punishments with the right words or a kiss. This time, though, she means business.
“What’s it going to be, Kat?” She gives my bottom a light swat, but it’s enough to re-awaken the sting to go along with the deep throbbing.
“Fine, we’ll do it your way. Like always.” She draws in a sharp breath, but I raise my head to grin at her. “But you’re still mean, and I’m glad I threw away your Oreos. You thought I wouldn’t find them behind the winter boots, didn’t you?”
She laughs, and she lifts me toward her for a hug. “I love you, Katya. And you are a brat.”
“I know,” I say, and I snuggle in her embrace. Maybe the social worker will decide tomorrow that I’m too crazy to raise a child, but at least I’ll still have Natalie.