Jesse scraped the last desk around in a pivot and adjusted its chair behind it. He backed up a step with a smile and crossed his arms. Martin set the American flag stand in the opposite corner of the room it started out in that morning. He ran a hand over his dark hair and looked to Ferdinand, who made sure the teacher seat was positioned right behind her desk.
The classroom door creaked open. Ferdinand rushed to stand beside his companions across the room. In came a blonde woman in her thirties. She stopped short and scanned the classroom. When her eyes discovered the boys, she scowled.
"I assume you are responsible for switching everything around in here?"
Jesse darted his eyes around in search of someone else to blame. He released a nervous chuckle. "Would you believe me if I said we showed up here and saw it just like this?"
Mrs. Lizzie Reed shook her head. "Maybe, if this wasn't the first time all year you showed up early."
Jesse dropped his eyes to his shoes.
"I will tell you what," she continued. "If you get everything straightened out before class, you will not get detention. But I will be sending you home with a warning, which I need your parents to sign so you can bring it back at the next class."
The boys stared at her.
"Well," she pointed to the desks and chairs, "set to work!"
The three boys scrambled to reverse their classroom once more. They completed this not a moment too soon, because the moment they dropped into the seats, the door opened again and their classmates streamed in.
The ride home was silent. Ferdinand stared straight ahead without mentioning the incident to his mother. Leah spent the entire time chattering about the spring tea event that was to be celebrated with her class. As the van rumbled to a stop partly up the dirt and gravel path, Jesse thanked Mrs. Amy Zabala and threw himself out the door to run to the tiny house with his sister behind him.
No mariachi music resounded out of the house this time. He thundered up the wooden porch and reached to twist the knob as silently as he could and creaked the door open. He could see Andrew seated in a chair with a cup of cherry juice in the main area, Bailey stretched across the couch with a book, and Megan scraping the last of a can of cat food into the cat dish.
"What are you doing?" Leah whispered over his shoulder. As an answer, he opened the door and continued into the house. With a cry of surprise, his shoe caught something and he crashed down to the wood floors.
"Watch where you're going!" Andrew leapt up.
"What is this?" Jesse sat up. Surrounding him was an elaborate roller coaster made of Lego's that started behind the door an extended across to the kitchen area. Andrew stepped over one of the loops and dropped to his knees beside him to repair the damage.
"What is going on?" Steven asked as he climbed down the ladder that reached the loft. He reached the floor, turned around, caught his shoe on the roller coaster, and dropped onto his knees.
"Great!" Andrew threw up his hands. "I might as well redo this."
"What is all this doing in the house?" Steve demanded as he peered around.
"My assignment in my engineering class was to make a functioning scaled model of a roller coaster! We are going to put a camera in the seat and judge the best one by how fun it looks as well as how well it works. What are you doing up there, anyway?"
"I had a headache and I wanted to be away from everyone!"
"Daddy?" Leah pranced over the roller coaster and perched on her toes ahead of him with clasped hands. "My home economics class is hosting a mother-daughter spring tea party. Will you come?"
Steve pushed himself back onto his feet. "Honey, I'm not sure I would be the best person to ask. What about Bailey?" he turned and looked at his reading daughter.
"What day is it?" she called.
"April twenty-second at seven," Leah answered.
"No good. That is my ladies Bible study potluck."
"Megan?" Steve asked.
She leaned against the orange countertop. "Susan's birthday sleepover is that day."
Steve released a sigh. He peered down at Andrew as he crawled around to repair his roller coaster. The boy met his eyes and snorted.
"You think you're the bad person to ask?"
"All right, fine," Steven looked at Leah and shrugged. "Maybe ask Amy?"
His daughter brightened. "Yeah! That's a great idea!"
She threw open the door and ran down the porch steps without another word. Steven breathed a sigh of relief and meandered to the kitchen area.
"I am going to eat some celery with peanut butter and yogurt. Who wants some?"
"Yes, please," Bailey sat up and accompanied him at the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, Jesse had been typing away at the computer. He pressed a key and the printer came to life. He chewed his lip as he glanced up at his dad preparing an afternoon snack. When the printer spat a sheet of paper out, he snatched it out and pulled the admonition from his teacher out from between the couch cushions, where he stashed it when no one was looking.
With another glance at his father, he smoothed out the admonition and positioned the new sheet of paper over it. He rose and tiptoed to the bar that separated the kitchen area from the living area and hoisted himself into one of the swiveling chairs. He smoothed the papers again on the bar and waited until his dad and sister sat beside him.
"Dad," he said, "I need you to sign this permission slip for a field trip on Monday. We are going to the train museum above town. Could you sign right here real quick?"
He spun the papers closer to his dad and presented a pen. Steve skimmed the explanation of the trip until he came to the line where he needed to sign at the bottom. Jesse swallowed uneasily and stared at the seam between the false permission slip on top and the admonishment slip.
"Sounds like fun," Steven said absently as he signed the bottom with a flourish.
"Sure will be," Jesse snatched the papers away as soon as he was done. "Thanks!"
He leapt down from the chair and rushed to add the papers to his Iron Man backpack. The screen creaked open and slammed behind Leah as she rushed into the house and stopped short ahead of the roller coaster, breathless and smiling.
"She said yes!" she cheered with both fists in the air. "Amy can come with me to tea!"
"Good!" Steven swiveled around in his chair.
"And Jesse, she wanted to ask if you got in trouble for your prank this morning, or if you could come to the birthday party they're having for Dale?"
Steven sent his son a glare. "That is to be determined."
In the end, Jesse was punished by being grounded for two weeks, excluding the birthday party for Dale's sake. He was also sentenced to cleaning up the school grounds after school for those two weeks. Andrew was given a high grade on his roller coaster, and Leah could not stop chattering about the tea party and what dress she might wear.
"I'm not sure it's pink enough," she examined herself ahead of a mall mirror one afternoon. Steven sat on a bench meant for trying on shoes with his head tipped back against a shelf.
"It is so pink that cotton candy would be jealous," he disagreed.
Leah crossed her arms and hummed. The electric pink and cream striped taffeta dress came down to her knees. It was tied around the back with a dark pink bow.
"Let me see what else I can find," she disappeared amongst the clothes racks. Steven groaned and tapped his head against the shelf repeatedly.
Soon, she darted back into the dressing room with an armload of dresses. She reemerged first in a dark pink dress with puffed sleeves.
"You look like a wad of bubble gum," Steven said. She disappeared back into the dressing room. When she came back out, she wore a raspberry dress with layers upon layers of ruffles.
"I think it's too dark," she said.
"I think you look like a girly feather duster."
She pouted and disappeared back into the dressing room. She came back out with a magenta satin dress with straps.
"Looks expensive," Steven said.
Leah rolled her eyes and ducked into the dressing room. When she strode out again, she was dressed in a cream dress with a carnation diamond pattern and a sweetheart neckline. There was a pink satin ribbon around her waist that tied in the back as a bow.
"That looks nice," Steven nodded his approval.
"Yeah," she answered thoughtfully, "but I need more pink. Maybe in the shoe section."
She darted between the shoe shelves. Steven started tapping his head against the shelf again, and continued to do so until she returned with pink faux heels that matched the bow around her waist.
"What about these?" she asked. "On sale for $25."
"Good," Steven leapt up. Truth be told, they could have been $50 and he would have gotten them just to be able to leave the store.
"Yay," she clapped her hands with a bright grin. "Time to go look at jewelry!"
She skipped out of the shoe and dress section. Steven dropped his head in dismay and meandered after her.
After another hour of modeling and indecision, Lean picked out a pink rose barrette for her hair and a pink rose necklace on a slender gold chain. She splurged the remainder of her allowance on a rosy perfume, since Steven said he would not pay for another accessory.
She laid these all out on every spare space in the girls' bunkroom until the day of the tea party. She danced around the entire tiny house as she got ready for school that morning, singing –
"Today is the tea party! I get to go to tea in a pretty dress and shoes and jewelry and perfume!"
She crowded herself into the view of the bathroom mirror beside Bailey and Andrew, brushing her teeth as she continued her song.
"Move over!" Bailey bumped her back over.
When the children were all ready for school, they ran outside and leapt into the tangerine VW bus covered with bumper stickers of the American flag, Yoda, the Constitution, a Hawaiian flower, a cross, a horse, and a western style one that says "gun control means using both hands."
Seven hours later, the bus returned with the five kids. The first to throw the door open was Leah. She raced to the house to dress, despite getting ready much earlier than she would need to.
Another hour later, Bailey slammed her palm against the bathroom door. "Are you almost ready? I have to pee!"
Bailey leapt back when Leah threw open the door and emerged with her hands on her hips. She was in her dress and shoes with her golden curls pulled back at the sides and fastened with the rose barrette. The rose necklace sparkled and she came with the scent of roses and vanilla.
"Ta-da!" she threw up her hands with a grin. Even her curls shimmered with glitter.
"Beautiful," Bailey reached an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "But I have to pee."
She disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door. Their brothers and sister applauded when Leah strode into the living area and threw up her hands again.
"You look pretty," Andrew gave her shoulders a squeeze as well and kissed her temple.
"Thank you," she smiled.
"Are you all ready?" Steven asked as he swallowed a sip of coffee at the bar.
"Yup," she nodded fervently and climbed up to the bar across him. "It still doesn't start for an hour, so I will be leaving in about thirty minutes or so."
The phone rang. Steven answered. "Hello?"
There was the sound of a woman's voice on the other end. Bailey appeared and sat beside their dad.
"Sure. Here she is," he passed the phone to Leah.
"Hello?" Leah pressed the phone against her ear.
"Hi, sweetheart," Amy Zabala said in a rush. "Kylie is throwing up like crazy and she insists I come with her to the emergency room. I am so sorry, honey. I will be leaving here in just a few minutes."
"Oh. Okay. Do you need anything?"
"No, we should be all right. You are a sweetheart to think of asking. I have to go now."
"Thank you. Love you."
"Love you, too, Leah."
Leah hung up the phone and set it down on the bar. A moment later, she dissolved into sobs. Steven leaned back, startled with wide eyes. Bailey leapt down from her seat and came around the bar to embrace her sister.
"Honey, what happened?"
She sputtered an answer between sobs.
"What?" Bailey asked. Leah gathered her breath to try again.
"Amy can't come anymore. Kylie has been throwing up and is going to the hospital."
She put her arms around her sister and cried into her shoulder. Steve looked between them and his two sons and Megan watching the girls with surprised eyes. He spun his chair aside and leapt down to rush to the bathroom.
"Where are you going?" Bailey called.
"To get ready to go!"
Leah raised her eyes with a sniffle. "What?"
But Steve was already out of the area. He was in the bathroom, searching all the cubby squares for a decent enough shirt to attend a tea party. There were red Hawaiian shirts, orange Hawaiian shirts, yellow Hawaiian shirts, multi-colored Hawaiian shirts, and a black Hawaiian shirt with ivory blooms. He pulled this out and rummaged his stack of jeans for the one black pair he had.
When he dressed, he stared into the mirror and ran his hands through his hair. He reached toward the hairspray Leah must have just used and sprayed it around his head while he smoothed his hair back.
Dang it. That spray contained glitter.
He attempted to smooth the glitter out of his hair to no avail. But he still seemed too casual. He darted back to the storage of clothes and rummaged around for the couple neckties he wore years ago, when he was new to the workforce.
One, two, three, four, five shelves. At the bottom of the fifth shelf was a pair of ties. One was red and the other white. He grabbed the second one and secured it hastily around his neck. As for shoes, he had a couple options: flip-flops, work boots, or black sneakers.
The sneakers would have to work.
By the time he was dressed, he added a belt and the shoes to his attire. He brushed his teeth and spat repeatedly into the sink. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then darted back into the bathroom to wash the hand off.
"Ready, Leah?" he asked as he strode toward the door.
"Really?" she brightened.
"Yeah, really. Right now."
She leapt down from the chair and ran to the door. "See you all later!"
"Bye," called her siblings.
The evening seemed perfect for tea. The skies were clear, the air was warm but with a soft breeze, and the finches were calling to one another. Leah could not contain her excitement as she chattered the entire drive about the rules of etiquette and which tea she might try.
When they arrived in the room designated for the tea, a sense of panic rose in Steven. There were many round tables dressed with ivory cloths. Two candles were in the middle of each: one tall and the other shorter. Between each pair of candles was a vase of pink roses and white baby's breath.
"Here is our place," Leah announced with a smile. She sat at the setting with her place card and smiled at everyone around her. She waved to her friends and greeted her teacher as her father attempted to make himself comfortable across from her.
Steven looked around as well. The other girls were all seated across from their mothers. At least, if not their mothers, they were women. And they were women dressed with beautiful dresses and shining jewelry, with their hair styled and their nails manicured. He peered down at his own chipped nails and the smudges of blue paint that stained his fingers that morning.
"What kind of tea will you get?" Leah startled him out of his thoughts.
"Well," he skimmed down the cursive list, "I guess the fruit medley. What about you?"
"Rose-vanilla-chamomile, I'd say."
Their tea was soon poured. Leah accepted sugar in hers, and Steven requested milk. He stirred it in and put the spoon in his mouth. Leah cleared her throat. When he met her eyes, she picked up her cloth napkin and set it on her lap. She picked up her teacup, having laid the spoon aside on the saucer, and sipped. Steven watched her. He then set his napkin on his leg, set his spoon on the saucer, and put the cup against his lips. His sip came with a small slurp.
This could be a long, painful evening.
But Leah smiled. Then she giggled. He smiled back at her and managed to sip his tea more like a gentleman.
"So," he said, "you like all this… fanciness and harp music and stuff?"
She nodded earnestly. "I love it."
Each requested a small personal cake. Leah picked the yellow cake with buttercream icing and rose petals while Steven, albeit a bit lost, chose a white cake with white chocolate icing and a pansy. These turned out to be delicious, and between them and the taste of the tea, the evening turned out well.
Aside from struggling with manners.
"Excuse me, sir."
Steve raised his eyes to a woman in a satin dress with brown curls piled on her head and a shining white smile.
"My name is Molly Simpson. I wanted to tell you how precious it is to see you with your daughter."
"Thank you," he smiled and stuck out his hand. "Steve Meyer."
She shook it with a gentle grace. "I have never seen a dad at one of these teas. I really admire your going the extra mile for Leah here."
"Well, you know, God has a sense of humor," he gave a sheepish smile. "He gave me three of these sweet girls. So I'm gonna be stretching myself more than once, I'll bet."
He slurped his tea rather awkwardly.
"This is definitely a first for me."
She chuckled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Well, it certainly has been a pleasure seeing you."
When she returned to her table, Leah dissolved into giggles.
"I think she likes you!"
"Well, if she likes a guy showing up to a formal tea in sneakers and a Hawaiian shirt, she's hit the jackpot," Steve answered and swallowed the rest of his tea.
He survived the tea a total of two hours before it was time to leave. Each girl was given the vase of roses to bring home, and Leah snatched it happily from the table. She pranced around Steven with it in her arms as they came out into the night air, chattering about how a couple friends admired her dress and how she never expected roses in tea to taste so good and how she would put these roses on the bar if he allowed it, or else maybe somewhere on the counter, or perhaps even on the dresser, so her twin brother would not mess with it.
"Did you have fun, daddy?" she asked breathlessly at the end.
He smiled. "Yeah, actually, I did."
And good thing, too, with three daughters to raise on his own.