Judith Tarr, Harry Turtledove

Household Gods


Nicole Gunther-Perrin rolled over to turn off the alarm clock and found herself nose to nose with two Roman gods. She nodded a familiar good-morning to Liber and his consort Libera, whose votive plaque had stood on the nightstand since her honeymoon in Vienna. Maybe they nodded back. Maybe she was still half asleep.

As she dragged herself up to wake the children and get them ready for daycare, her mouth twisted. Liber and Libera were still with her. Frank Perrin, however…

“Bastard, “ she said. Liber and Libera didn’t look surprised. They’d heard it every morning since her ex- husband took half the assets, left the kids, and headed off for bluer horizons. She doubted he thought about her except when the child support came due (and not often enough then), or when she called him with a problem. She couldn’t help thinking of him a dozen times a day — and every time she looked at Justin. Her son — their son, if you wanted to get technical — looked just like him. Same rough dark hair, down to the uncombable cowlick; same dark eyes you could drown in; same shy little smile that made you feel you’d coaxed it out of hiding.

Justin smiled it as she gently shook him awake. “Mommy!” he said. He was only two and a half. He hadn’t learned to wound her yet.

“Come on, Tiger,” she said in her best rise-and-shine, mommy-in-the-morning voice. “We’ve got another day ahead of us.” She reached inside his Pull-Ups. “You’re dry! What a good boy! Go on and go potty while I get your sister up.”

He climbed onto the rail and jumped out of bed. He landed with a splat, of course, but it didn’t hurt him. It made him laugh. He toddled off sturdily toward the bathroom. Watching him go, Nicole shook her head. Kimberley never jumped out of bed. Testosterone poisoning, Nicole thought, and almost smiled.

Kimberley not only didn’t jump out of bed, she didn’t want to get out of bed at all. She clutched her stuffed bobcat and refused to open her eyes. She was like that about every other morning; given her druthers, she would have slept till noon. She didn’t have her druthers, not on a Tuesday. “You’ve got to get up, sweetie,” Nicole said with determined patience.

Eyes still resolutely closed, Kimberley shook her head. Her light brown hair, almost the same color as Nicole’s, streamed over her face like seaweed.

Nicole wheeled out the heavy guns: “Your brother is already up. You’re a big four-year-old. You can do what he does, can’t you?” If she’d used such shameless tactics in court, counsel for the other side would have screamed his head off, and the judge would have sustained him.

But she wasn’t in court, and there was no law that said she had to be completely fair with a small and relentlessly sleepy child. She did what she had to do, and did it with a minimum of remorse.

It worked. Kimberley opened her eyes. They were hazel, halfway between Frank’s brown and Nicole’s green. Still clutching her beloved Scratchy, Kimberley headed for the bathroom. Nicole nodded to herself and sighed. Her daughter wasn’t likely to say anything much for the next little while, but once she got moving, she moved pretty well.

Nicole got moving, too, toward the kitchen. Her brain was running ahead of her, kicked up into full daytime gear. She’d get the kids’ breakfasts ready, get dressed herself while they ate, listen to the news on the radio while she was doing that so she could find out what traffic was like (traffic in Indianapolis had not prepared her for L.A., not even slightly), and then…

And then, for the first time that day, her plans started to unravel. Normally silent Kimberley let out a shrill screech: “Ewwww!” Then came the inevitable, “Mommmmy!” Ritual satisfied, Kimberley deigned to explain what was actually wrong: “Justin tinkled all over the bathroom floor and I stepped in it. Eww! Eww! Eww!” More ewws might have followed that last one, but, if so, only dogs could hear them.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Nicole burst out; and under her breath, succinctly and satisfyingly if not precisely accurately, “Shit.”

The bathroom was in the usual morning shambles, with additions. She tried to stay calm. “Justin,” she said in the tone of perfect reason recommended by all the best child psychologists and riot-control experts, “if you go potty the way big boys do, you have to remember to stand on the stepstool so the tinkle goes in the potty like it’s supposed to.”

Children raised in psychologists’ laboratories, or rioting mobs, might have stopped to listen. Her own offspring were oblivious. “Mommy!” Kimberley kept screaming. “Wash my feet!” Justin was laughing so hard he looked ready to fall down, though not, she noticed, into the puddle that had sent Kimberley into such hysterics. He thought his big sister in conniptions was the funniest thing in the world — which meant he’d probably pee all over the floor again sometime soon, to make Kimberley pitch another fit.

Nicole gave up on psychology and settled for basic hygiene. She coaxed the still shrieking Kimberley over to the tub and got her feet washed, three times, with soap. Then, with Kimberley hopping on one foot and screeching, “Another time, Mommy! I’m still dirty! I smell bad! Mommy, do it again!”

Nicole got the wriggling, giggling Justin out of his wet pajama bottoms and the pulled-down Pull-Ups he was still wearing at half mast. She washed his feet, too, on general principles, and his legs. He’d stopped giggling and started chanting: “Tinkle-Kim! Tinkle-Kim!” — which would have set Kimberley off again if she’d ever stopped.

Nicole’s head was ringing. She would be calm, she told herself. She must be calm. A good mother never lost her cool. A good mother never raised her voice. A good mother -

She had to raise her voice. She wouldn’t be heard otherwise. “Go out in the hall, both of you!” she bellowed into sudden, unexpected silence, as Kimberley finally stopped for breath. She added, just too late: “Step around the puddle!”

Something in her face must have got through Justin’s high glee. He was very, very quiet as she washed his feet again, his big brown eyes fixed on her face. From invisible foot-washer to Mommy Monster in five not-so-easy seconds. She took advantage of it to send him out to the kitchen. Unfair advantage. Bad parenting. Blissful, peaceful quiet.

“Guilty as charged, Your Honor,” she said.

While she was cleaning up the mess, she got piss on one knee of her thirty-five-dollar, lace-trimmed, rose- printed sweats — Victoria’s Secret called them “thermal pyjamas,” which must have been a step up the sexiness scale from sweats, but sweats they were, and sweats Nicole called them.

She emerged somewhat less than triumphant and wrapped in the ratty old bathrobe that hung on the back of the door, to find Kimberley, who still hadn’t had a chance to go to the bathroom, hopping up and down in the hallway. At least she was quiet, though she dashed past Nicole with a theatrical sigh of relief.

Ten minutes wasted, ten minutes Nicole didn’t have. She popped waffles in the toaster, stood tapping her foot till they were done, poured syrup over them, poured milk (Justin’s in a Tommee Tippee cup, so he’d have a harder time spilling that on the floor), and settled the kids down — she hoped — for breakfast. Justin was still bare-ass. He laughed at the way his bottom felt on the smooth vinyl of the high chair.

As she turned on Sesame Street, Nicole muttered what was half a prayer: “Five minutes’ peace.” She hurried back past the study into her own bedroom to dress. About halfway into her pantyhose (control tops, because at thirty-four she was getting a little round in the middle and she didn’t have time to exercise — she didn’t have time for anything), Kimberley’s voice rose once again to a banshee shriek. “Mom-meeeee! Justin’s got syrup in his hair!”

Nicole felt her nail poke into the stockings as she yanked them all the way up. She looked down. Sure as hell, a run, a killer run, a ladder from ankle to thigh. She threw the robe back around herself, ran out to the kitchen, surveyed the damage — repaired it at top speed, with a glance at the green unblinking eye of the microwave-oven clock. Five more minutes she didn’t have.

Once back in the dubious sanctuary of her bedroom, she took another ten seconds of overdraft to stop,

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