It was a crisp Saturday, which meant that it was time for Dad to make his weekly rounds clearing leaves from elderly neighbors' yards. The plan was for me to be his helper, but that was the plan every week. Still, in the last week of October, the only "help" I was good for was to knock on the front door and check in with the people whose yards "we" tidied.
"Come over here, kiddo," my dad called from the edge of Mr. Kelly's yard. I ran toward him as fast as my little legs could go even though it made my cheeks prickle in the cold air.
He smiled at me when I got to him. "I think you're probably big enough to help with the leaves now, Mackie."
"Dad, I thought you said last week that I should still be in charge of checking in on the neighbors."
"I did," he said, mouth quirked up to one side, "but you've grown a lot in the last week. Here, take my rake and work on that little pile over there." Dad pointed at a small mound of leaves that looked suspiciously isolated. It was a tiny island of red and orange in a butter-yellow sea of October grass.
With a quizzical look I replied, "Okay, if you say so…" I took the rake from his hands. It was a solid foot taller than me but he smiled encouragingly when he could tell I was questioning the setup.
Like any eight-year-old, I found the prospect of a new responsibility like this equally exciting and sobering. I now had more control over the height of leaf piles I could jump into, but at the cost of doing something boring instead of chatting with the neighbors over cocoa like I'd gotten used to.
Ever the dramatic child, I dragged the rake behind me as I lumbered toward the leaves.
"Huuuuughya!" I grunted as I hoisted the rake up and over my head rather than simply sweeping it out in front of me.
"Hey, kiddo. Don't dink around–you'll hurt yourself."
"If I hurt myself it's because you made me rake leaves instead of drinking cocoa with Mr. and Mrs. Kelly!"
I got a few swipes in before I did finally look over my shoulder, yelling, "Hey, why is this pile all by itself anyway? Did you just rake everything around it but not right here?"
He didn't answer me except to nod his head in my direction. Come on, Mack. Hop to it.
With a hefty sigh I turned back to my task. Suddenly, the joy of autumn leaves dulled as I worked.
Then, a glint of gold sparkled from the ground. I could only see a sliver of it at first, so I dropped to my knees and pushed leaves aside with my hands. There, resting only on grass, was a heart-shaped locket.
I snatched it up, scrambled to my feet, and took off. "Dad! Look what I found!"
I thought I saw him looking disappointingly under-enthused. Didn't he know this was basically finding buried treasure? In retrospect, I know that his expression told of fond memories: his own, and many to be made in the not-so-distant future.
When I met him at the edge of the yard he was already holding his palm out for me to drop my find.
"This looks like an antique locket," he said. I rolled my eyes; who did he think I was, a seven-year-old?
"Yeah, that's what it is." I took the trinket back from him and rolled my frosty fingertips over the raised filigree. I began to press my thumbnail under the latch and started, "I wonder what's inside."
Dad's hands covered mine. "I think you should check with Mrs. Kelly first. That could be something special to her."
"Oh, I see," I said with a poorly-coordinated wink. "This is your way of letting me go get cocoa while still making me do work, isn't it?"
He shook his head and brought a hand to the bridge of his nose. "No, Mackie. I'm just telling you to check with people before you open something you found in their yard." He tried, but failed, to hide a smile. I wasn't sure what he was smiling about, truthfully.
I knocked on the Kellys' door again with the locket clasped in my hand. "Hello, it's me again. I found this in your yard."
Mrs. Kelly cocked her head and brought it closer to her face to examine it. "No," she began, "I don't believe I've seen this before. There's nobody in our family named Marie."
I took the trinket back and turned it over to see that the back of it did indeed have the name Marie engraved in beautiful script. "Oh, okay. Well, my dad told me to ask you about it. Hey, I think we're almost done with your yard–will the cocoa be ready soon?"
Mrs. Kelly's smile was warm and made me think of sugar cookies and fluffy knit scarves.
"Yes, dear. I'll have two mugs of hot deliciousness ready to go for you in just a moment." She turned toward her kitchen and I ran back to my dad.
"Mrs. Kelly said she's never seen it and that nobody in her family is named Marie. Did you see that the name Marie is on the back? Can I open it now?"
"Is your name Marie?" he responded, an eyebrow raised.
My hands dropped in front of me. "No…"
He put a hand on my shoulder and turned me back toward the Kellys' house. "I think, then, that you should save it until you meet someone named Marie. Perhaps you can give it to her."
I thought that this was silly, and my face must have shown that. "Mackie," he said. "Just trust me."
Dad asked me to hold his coffee while he unlocked the door to the garage.
"No, you don't need it and you won't like it," he said suddenly. I don't know how he saw me trying to sneak a sip of his coffee; I was standing behind him as he laid the rake on its rack on the wall. I passed the cup back to him.
We got inside and there was a warm pie waiting on the table, which I thought was odd. Mom came around the corner wearing an apron that I realized looked like it fit her a little funny.
"Welcome home to my two favorite people," she said with a smile. I ran to hug her and her hands braced for impact, which she'd been doing a lot lately.
"Why is there a pie, Mom? What kind is it?" She ran her fingers through my hair with my arms still wrapped around her.
It took longer than I thought was necessary for her to answer. "Well, sweetie, we got some very good news a while back and we're finally ready to share it with you. Your dad and I thought we would celebrate with warm cherry pie! Now, how about you go get cleaned up and come back to the table." She squeezed my shoulders before nudging me away from her and down the hall. From the corner of my eye I saw my dad approach her. His smile was so big I thought it must have been hurting his face.
I tossed my hat, scarf, and coat in the general direction of my bed and shuffled out of my sneakers, heading to the bathroom. The warm water felt so good that when I was done washing my hands I rubbed some on my prickled pink cheeks.
Mom was already sitting down, and Dad had my chair pulled out from the table, ready for me. "Thank you," I said as he scooted me up to the table once I was seated.
Dad rounded the table to stand behind Mom's chair, then laid his hands gently on her shoulders.
"Mackie, baby," Dad started. I could tell he wanted to go on but the words got stuck, so Mom took over.
She reached around the pie to hold my hand. At this point I was getting scared. If it was good news, why would they be so nervous to tell me? I think she saw this in my eyes because she squeezed my fingers three times. I-Love-You.
Even though she was beaming, she still hesitated. Finally, she took a deep breath and just went for it.
"This pie is to celebrate your upcoming promotion, Mackie." Dad's face twisted, but only a little bit. It was the, 'Well, that was odd,' kind of face twist.
"What's a promotion?"
Mom's smile dropped slightly. "Okay, maybe that wasn't the most helpful way for me to say it. A promotion, Mackie, is when you are moved from one job to a newer, better one."
"Oh, like how I got promoted to actually raking leaves today? If that's what a promotion is I'm not sure I want another one."
Mom looked up and over her shoulder toward Dad. He was scratching the stubble on his chin, trying to hold in a chuckle.
"I hate to break it to ya, kid, but this promotion's coming whether you think you want it or not." He didn't say this in a threatening way but it still made me frown.
"Baby," Mom squeezed my fingers again. "What we're trying to say is–" a deep breath, a shared look, "--you're going to have a little sister by next school year!"
My eyebrows hit my hairline. "I… what?"
Panic crossed their faces. "Mackie, it's going to be a good thing, I promise. You're going to be a wonderful big sister," Mom said. Her words tumbled over each other like she didn't know which ones to put where in the sentence.
"I don't want a sister, though," I murmured.
There was a beat of silence before Dad cleared his throat. "Well, that's not… that's not really how this works, kiddo."
I could feel tears prick my eyes as I turned them down to the table. Mom's chair scooted out and she was there, bent over next to me, reaching for my hand again.
"Sweetie, 'big sister' is my third-favorite thing to be, only bested by being your dad's wife and your mom."
I scoffed. "I bet your patients would love to hear you say that."
"Mackie," Dad chided. There were a lot of words that didn't need to be said for me to get the message, simply from his firm tone around my name.
Nobody said anything for a long while. Mom even pulled her hand away from mine, looking down at the floor before standing to take the pie into the kitchen. I fought the tears, hard, but they still spilled over and wet the table.
I heard a sigh from my dad as he moved to sit next to me. "That was a very unkind and unreasonable thing to say to your mother, but you're not an unkind and unreasonable kid, Mackie, so I hope you'll be able to explain to us why you said that."
My cheeks heated and my voice sharpened: "I said it because–"
"After you've had a chance to think and chill out," he cut me off, hand open in front of him like a crosswalk sign. "And I hope that, when you can explain yourself, you'll hear us out, too."
After I heard him close the door to their bedroom, I got up from the table and headed to my own. I kicked my sneakers out of my way and flopped onto the bed. Dad wanted me to think about my feelings but I didn't even know what they were myself. I didn't think I felt excited, but I also didn't feel dread. Maybe I was angry, or maybe I wasn't. All I knew was that my parents didn't want it to be just the three of us anymore. I stared at my ceiling.
"What if she actually doesn't get over it?"
"Ellen, plenty of kids react that way, then end up adoring their little siblings once they arrive."
"What if Mackie is the one that doesn't?"
"Hon, we're going to talk to her about it again tonight. We'll have to keep talking to her about it from here on out, I think."
I heard Mom whimper, then the already muffled sound became quieter still as I heard my dad comforting her.
"It'll be okay, Ellen. I promise."
Well if I'd needed an example of what it feels like to be a pile of dog poo, there it was.
I had fallen asleep, and by the time I woke up I could smell butter and garlic heating up in a pan. All the energy that had come from my earlier anger had dissipated and at this point I just felt like emotional mud. I hurried into the kitchen, hoping that setting the table early would serve as an olive branch extended to my parents.
Mom didn't say anything and neither did I. Dad was the next room over, sorting and folding laundry, but I knew he was close enough to hear.
"I'm sorry I said those things earlier."
At first there was no response–not even a turn to look at me–and I worried that I hadn't spoken loud enough for Mom to hear me over the sizzling chicken on the stove.
"I heard you, Mackie. I accept your apology and forgive you, but I'm taking my time to think about what I say before I say them."
My eyes dropped. I knew that I should've done that earlier.
She balanced the spatula on the edge of the pan and turned to me, finally. "The bottom line is that this baby is coming. We're going to work through it together, as a family, and that includes working through your feelings about it." Dad joined us. He stood to our side, in the middle so that what previously looked like Mackie vs. Mom turned into a group huddle instead. "What are you really upset about, anyway?" She turned back to the chicken for just a moment, returning her focus to me as quickly as she could.
I took a slow breath. I tried to mimic her, taking a moment to think about exactly what I would say before I said it.
"I was angry and scared, I think. I don't know why a family of three isn't good enough anymore. I thought that I was… enough. Now I don't… I don't know…" I couldn't finish my sentence, because instead of words all that could come out of me were tears.
"Oh, honey, that's not it at all." Dad scooped me up faster than he had after any nightmare or scraped knee. "That's not at all why we chose to have another kid." He kissed my forehead and Mom joined the hug, chicken forgotten and probably burning. None of us cared, apparently.
"People have a lot of different reasons why they choose to have whatever number of kids they do, and in a lot of cases it's very difficult to explain." Mom ran her fingers through my hair as she continued, "For us, it's because of the joy we both felt as big siblings, and the joy we saw our parents have loving multiple kids. You know how close we are with your aunts and uncles."
Dad offered an idea: "Maybe we should tell you more about all the great times we had with them growing up. We could even have them give you advice on how to be a great older sibling. What do you think?"
This plan sounded good, and it also sounded like extra playtime with my cousins, so I nodded my head. Dad pressed another kiss to my forehead before setting me down, then they both turned to look at the burned chicken.
"Good thing chicken's pretty cheap right now. How about we order a pizza pie to go with our cherry pie tonight?" Mom's eyebrows furrowed conspiratorially as she grinned at me and grabbed the phone from the wall. I gave her a small smile, still recovering from my fit.
"Oh, Mack," Dad started, "Remember what I told you about that locket today? You should put it somewhere for safe keeping. I have a feeling you'll be ready for it in the summer." He winked at me, put an arm around Mom's shoulders, and watched me as his meaning clicked in my mind.
"So, Ella, that's the story of the day I found out your aunt Marie was coming. I was so nervous, practically shakin' in my boots," I finish, giving my baby girl a squeeze and a tickle.
She giggles and turns to snuggle into me on the couch. Her tiny knees bend gently to accommodate for my belly and she wipes the tears from her face before laying her hand against my belly.
After a minute, she asks, "When will our baby come, Mama?"
"We're expecting to meet your little brother or sister in April," I replied.
"Hey, my birthday is in April!" she shouted. I slowly close my eyes and shake my head, a gesture that an older child would understand to be bewilderment at the strangeness of toddlers' minds.
"No, Ella. You were born in September."
She giggles and flashes a gappy smile. "Oh, I thought it was April." She nuzzles back down against my chest and begins to trace lazy patterns on my belly with her finger. "Will I get to give our baby a special locket, too?"
"I don't know, sweetie," I respond with a coy smile. "Maybe we'll find something hidden in the leaves."