Jenna lowered her grocery bags to the kitchen counter and closed her eyes. As she counted to ten mentally, she gritted her teeth and watched her five year-old son toss a candy wrapper in the direction of the trashcan.
She forced her mouth into a smile. “Hey, Sport, how about you and me take the dogs for a walk?”
“Well, only for a minute. I’ll get these groceries put away and then we’ll go out.”
Reaching into a bag for the milk, Jenna sighed. She knew Justin would make a fuss if he didn’t get to watch his show, just as he had done at the grocery store over the candy bar. Every time she denied him anything, he fought harder. He would hate her if they continued to butt heads like this, and more than anything she feared losing his love.
While she moved around the kitchen putting things away, she pondered the three weeks since Justin had been out of kindergarten. She had known, of course, about his teachers’ problems with him. At home, however, Justin had seemed agreeable enough. Having him at home with her all day for the summer showed her a different side of him. Justin was pleasant enough when he got his way, but defiant when he didn’t. She and Steve, her husband had talked, begged, lectured, and offered rewards for better behavior. They had tried it all.
Only last weekend, Justin crossed his arms over his chest and stated he did not want the ham sandwich his grandmother made for him. While her sister’s kids munched happily, Jenna heated a can of ravioli for her son, hoping to avoid a scene. When he wouldn’t eat that either, she caught the raised eyebrows of her sister and the answering shake of her mother’s head. Meanwhile, Justin rolled his eyes at her, reached for the rejected sandwich, and took a bite. Maybe she just wasn’t cut out to be a mother.
As she sat back in her chair, Jenna watched Maggie lick Hamlet’s ears and settle down beside him. The puppy pulled himself over a few inches, pawed through the long fur, and nestled on Maggie’s tail for a nap. Maggie turned to sniff him and looked up expectantly.
“You’re a good mother, Maggie girl,” Jenna said. “Not every dog would put up with him the way you do.”
Crrack! came a loud popping noise. Jenna bolted down the hall to the family room where the television blared.
She rushed into the room. “Justin? Are you okay?”
Justin sat in the floor holding a toy screwdriver, fascinated, watching a DVD Tray slide with in and out over and over, something inside scraping with each ejection. She pressed the power button, but the machine continued to spit the DVD halfway out then pull it back it. Jenna hurried to the far wall and pulled the plug from the electrical outlet, halting the barrage.
“Justin, what were you doing?”
His brows lowered and lips shoved out. “Just playing! Put it back on.”
“Give me the screwdriver.” Jenna extended her hand.
“Justin. I’m going to count to ten. One, two, three…”
Instead of handing her the toy, he reached over to DVD player and jammed it into the slot, peering up at his mother with narrowed eyes and a smug smile.
She felt her mouth drop open and tried to think what to do next. After a moment, Jenna knelt on the carpet and reached around to unhook the wires that connected it to the television. Standing, she lifted the DVD player above Justin’s head, forcing him to let go of his toy. He screamed and pounded his other fist on the door of the entertainment center.
“Give that to me!” He swung his arms above his head, trying to catch a cord dangling over her arm.
“Stop it, Justin.” Jenna recognized the same whine in her voice she heard in his. “You’ve already torn it up.”
“Then it don’t matter, does it?”
“Yes, it matters. What did you think you were doing anyway?”
“I wanted to see what was in there.”
“Yeah, what makes it so special anyway? You and Daddy make such a big deal about touching it.”
She stared at him. “Oh, Justin, which one is it? Not our wedding tape!” she said.
“Yeah, that one. Give me it.” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“No. Now turn off that television and go to your room. I’ll come get you when I’m ready to take Maggie out.” She padded from the room. Behind her she heard a loud thud and knew that her son had thrown something at the door. She wondered if it was aimed at her.
Back in the kitchen, Jenna cried silently and ran her thumb over the deep scratches on the disk. She could get another copy, but she couldn’t get another little boy. She wanted him to be happy, but it seemed like the only thing he liked was aggravating her and his father. The proof lay in her hands.
She glanced up as Maggie skulked, heads down, toward the door with Hamlet behind her. Any kind of conflict upset Maggie and she, no doubt, thought she was in trouble. Jenna spoke quietly to let her know things were calm. “It’s okay, darling. You’re a good girl. Nobody’s mad at you.” She gave her a pat on the head, looking into soft brown eyes. Maggie nuzzled her hand and the gentleness of her touch felt like sympathy, which caused another tear to slide down her face. “Oh, Maggie, what am I doing wrong? Taking care of Justin is my main job and I’m so bad at it.”
Frustrated with the lack of attention, Hamlet pushed between them and jumped on Maggie’s face, biting her on the ear. His mother’s reaction was immediate. She shook him off, her face twisted into a snarl, and nipped at his rump as he tucked his tail and ran. And then it was over. Maggie turned a placid face to Jenna, barely glancing at Hamlet when he crept around the other side and leaned into her.
Jenna blinked. Then, she stroked Maggie, gave Hamlet at tickle, and stood. “Thank you, Maggie. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some snapping of my own to do.”