Something woke him from a fitful sleep with fevered dreams. Robby opened his eyes, covered a yawn with his hand, and glanced up. Three pairs of eyes glowered down at him.
"Leave me alone." He rolled away from his brother’s icy glares.
"Aw, he's sick, poor baby, " Caleb scoffed.
"Stop, Caleb," Robby snapped. His head ached, and he didn't have the energy to argue with them.
Jacob, who always had to have his say, smirked at his little brother. "Sick, my ass, you big faker."
"Don't let Mum hear you talkin' like that," Luke warned. "You'll be makin' a trip to the phonear."
"Phonear, schmeller," Jacob retorted. "I'm too old for that."
Jacob lowered his eyes and stared at the floor, leaving his mother's question unanswered. He didn't know she heard him and now he was probably in big trouble. Especially if she told dad.
"Busted," Caleb whispered in his ear. "Now you're in for it."
"Shut up," Jacob whispered back.
Robby ignored them. There was only one thing he cared about. "Is it ready yet?"
Her eyes turned to him. "Yes, but now you need to wait until your father gets home. You can eat some with your dinner. You've slept the entire day away."
"No buts. Your father will be home soon, and there will be no arguing at the supper table. You three." She flicked the dishtowel at his brothers. "Change your clothes and finish your chores. Your
homework can wait until after supper."
"Ah, Mum," they objected in unison.
"Now!" she said, and they scattered.
"Can I do anything for you?" Robby asked in a quiet voice.
"What do you think you can do for me?"
"I'd do anything for some bread."
"I see. Well, if you think you can be quiet."
She put a finger to her lips as she took the towel from the top of the loaves, cut an extra-large piece, smeared it with butter, and handed it to him.
Robby sniffed the melting butter and smacked his lips.
"Hurry up now," she whispered. "I don't want them begging for some."
"Thanks, Mum. I've been waiting all day for this."
She shook her head, took him by the shoulders, whirled him toward the living room, and smacked him lightly on the behind.
"Go on. I don't want you in the kitchen when your father gets home. Grab your pillow and go to your room."
Cramming the rest into his mouth, he went to the living room and grabbed his pillow from the couch. His brothers were making their way down the stairs, and Robby opened his mouth.
"Oh, God!" Caleb howled.
"Don't be taking the Lord's name in vain. I'll tell Mum."
"Go right ahead," Caleb said. "I'll tell Dad you were eating bread before supper."
The smile left Robby's face and he stepped aside to let them pass. They each, in turn, poked a finger into his chest.
"Friggin' sissy," Jacob murmured as he went by. "You always get what you want, don'tcha?"
"Come on, guys," Robby said. "I was just funnin' with ya."
They ignored him and disappeared down the stairs and out of sight.
Robby retreated to the bedroom he shared with Luke. Being the eldest, Caleb and Jacob shared a room. Robby didn't know what would happen if the new baby was a girl. They had no more bedrooms for a
girl. He supposed Luke would move into the big boys' room, and he would be stuck sharing a room with his sister.
He waited until the aroma of the roast floated up to him, along with the sounds of his mother setting the table before slowly descending the stairs, watching for his father. With any luck, his dad
would be in the front room, cozied up to the fireplace, a bottle of beer close at hand. He was always more tolerable with a beer and a musical instrument in his lap.
He discovered his dad, along with his three brothers, in the living room. Dad was playing the guitar, and Caleb was at the piano. The boys practiced their harmonies every night, and every time one
of them went off-key, Dad would give them a smack to the back of their heads.
Robby tiptoed to the kitchen.
His mother was pulling the roast from the oven. He quietly watched her.
Except for the protruding belly harboring his baby sister (or brother, Robby detested the thought of yet another brother), she was fragile and pale. She wore her brown hair pinned up on her head.
The loose strands she pushed out of her eyes with the back of a hand covered in white flour.
He thought she was too old to be having babies. One time, she reminded Dad she was thirty-four. She must surely be knocking at death's door. He shuddered at the thought of a life without her.
"Something sure smells good."
"Are you sneaking up on me, Robert Starre?" She wiped her hands on a towel and walked over to him. With the palm of her hand, she brushed aside his bangs, bent, and pressed her lips to his
forehead. She told many of the ladies at the church you couldn't judge a fever by your hands since your hands were hot in the first place. "You're still hot. You need to stay in bed."
"But, Mum, the roast smelled so good it just about picked me up and carried me down the stairs. I gotta have some."
"A bowl of hot soup would go easier on your stomach."
"He'll eat what's on the table, Rachel." The voice boomed from the doorway. "Or he'll eat nothing at all."
She glanced up. "He's sick, Carl," she said.
"You heard me." His dad thrust a finger in her face. "I'll not be having these damn kids getting special treatment because they're sick. You work hard enough around here as it is. He'll eat what's
on the table and like it. Now, if it's ready, let's get to it."
His mother nudged him toward the table and turned back to the stove. She worked in silence and with the least amount of clatter as possible.
They waited for their mother to say the blessing before they dug in and did their best not to squirm while she prayed. Some nights the prayers got wordy, and their dad had to stop her with a harsh
word. Tonight, she kept it short and served the meal in silence.
The bread he ate earlier, and the meat and potatoes tonight sat heavily on his stomach. Keeping his eyes on his plate, he forced himself to take slow, steady bites. He knew what he would see if he
did--his dad bent forward, elbows on the table, a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. He would hold it right in front of his face. Every so often, he would tap his fingers against the cup, then
take a short sip. He would never set it down. Not until the cup was empty.
When his father finally set his cup down, Robby felt his stomach lurch, and the food rose in his throat. His hand flew up to cover his mouth, and he turned wide, frightened eyes toward his mother.
She caught the look and got up from the table, grasped him by the arm, and hauled him to his feet. They didn't quite reach the stairs when Robby vomited. He started to shake. Then he began to cry.
"Hush, now, baby," his mother cooed. She unbuttoned the vomit-drenched shirt and tossed on the mess on the floor. "Come on. We'll draw you a warm bath."
She led him by the hand up the stairs to the bathroom and flipped on the hot water in the claw foot bathtub. She let the water run over her hand, adjusted the temperature until it was right, and
plugged in the stopper. Robby shivered as he waited for his mother to fill the tub.
"Stay here, son," she said after helping him into the hot water. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going downstairs to clean up the floor."
"Please hurry, Mum. I still feel sick."
She stopped at the door and smiled. "I will."
Rachel made it to the bottom of the stairs, coming up short on the last step where her husband stood. She put a hand on her throat, and, watching him with a wary eye, waited in silence.
He stared at the puddle on the floor, one hand rubbing the whiskers on his chin. He shook his head and, turning, went into the living room.
She breathed a sigh of relief after he left. She was too tired to argue, and what was no point. The child was sick, and nothing was to be done about it. Still, the guilt tugged at her. She should
have never given him the bread. If only she had been allowed to make him some broth.
By the time Rachel cleaned up the floor, took the dirty rags to the laundry room, and went back upstairs, Robby had vomited again, this time in the bathwater.
"Oh, son," she said, one hand shoving the strands of hair from her forehead. Exhaustion made her back ache. She would give anything to be able to lie down, but she had to make sure Robby rinsed
off. The kitchen needed tending. The rags she left in a bucket still had to be rinsed out and added to a bucket of bleach.
Her pregnancy weighed her down and made her feet swell. Her house shoes no longer fit. She walked around the house barefoot, and the cold floor made her feet ache.
Rachel fought the tears back as she pulled the stopper from the tub. She made Robby stand while she rinsed the vomit from him before filling the tub again, then went to his room for clean pajamas.
Sometimes, Rachel just wanted to lay down and die.
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