35 - Bedtime Stories

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Nat didn't know whether he had heard anything of their conversation, but Liam seemed to have picked up on the mood in the house either way. He was irritable and difficult to put to bed, fighting her at every move - not wanting to stop playing with his toys, not wanting to get in his pajamas, not wanting to brush his teeth. Each resistance wore at Nat's already-frayed nerves, and by the time he was finally dressed and ready, she could feel that familiar sting of frustrated tears returning. 

She refused to cry in front of a child -- because of a child -- but it was a tough struggle.

He had put his pajama shirt on backwards and the collar kept bothering him; he would tug at it, tight against his throat, growing increasingly irritable, shifting and squirming in his bed, unable to get comfortable. 

"Take your shirt off," Nat said, repeating herself, beginning to lose track now of how many times she had made this request. "It's on wrong."

He just glowered at her, sleepily, as if not comprehending her request.

An irritated noise rose in the back of her throat, and she moved to grab at the hem of his shirt, to pull it up over his head. He cringed away, and she stopped, drawing back. "I'm not going to hurt you," she snapped, but didn't come close again.

Why was he suddenly afraid of her? Had Kyle said something? Had someone done something? They'd had a good day, earlier, with the sandwiches. They'd been getting along fine. Was it just a vestige of the nightmares, or had he perhaps always feared her and she just had never noticed? Or was it just tonight, the shitty awkward energy that settled over the house like a curse, the whole family on edge? 

He removed his pajama shirt. He sat on the edge of his bed, pale and skinny in the semi-darkness, the top crumpled in his lap. He seemed to forget what he had been doing. 

Nat wanted to grab the shirt and pull it over his head, the right way, but resisted. Stayed rooted in place, mindful of the distance between them like two kids at a dance trying to stay on the good side of the chaperones. Leave room for Jesus. "Now stretch it out like this." She held up her hands in front of her, mimicking holding a shirt up. "And look for the tag."

He did so, mirroring her movements.

"Good. Now put it back on, with the tag in the back. It will fit better."

She knew he must know this. Surely he knew, by now, how to dress himself, how to orient his clothing correctly. He was just being sleepy and stubborn, and it rankled against her already abraded nerves. Still: he complied, without complaint, and crawled over toward the wall to climb down beneath the comforter.

"Can I have Cloudy?"

Cloudy was his stuffed animal, a white leopard with faded fur, its gray spots almost invisible in its dingy polyester pelt. Nat scanned the room for him, didn't see him. "Maybe he's at your dad's?" she suggested.

He shook his head, glaring. There was another fight coming on; she could feel that like an oncoming storm.

She tried, quickly, to head it off at the pass. "How about Mr. Whiskers?" she suggested, quickly, pulling a different stuffed animal down from where it sat atop his dresser. Mr. Whiskers was a stuffed sea lion who, at one time, had very long and impressive whiskers. Right now they were crooked and bent and missing, mostly from being chewed on by a sleepy, contemplative Liam. "He wants to keep you company tonight." She gave the seal lion a little wiggle, adjusting so his flipper would flap.

He regarded her with suspicion, but he did not argue. She took that as a victory.

"Do you want me to read you a story?"

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