I freeze time. The frothing soap suds in the sink become glaciers. Dust motes hang in the air like stars. And I move.
I catch Sadie’s plate of mac n’ cheese before it splatters to the floor. While I’m there, I wipe down the table, fix Sadie’s pigtails, then — what the heck — I run downstairs and start a load of laundry.
Then I’m at the kitchen sink, water streaming, motes spinning, and Sadie’s three-year-old voice bubbling merrily on. “— I so happy to go to my Nana’s house!”
“Me too, sweet pea.”
She tells me about her grand plans for the day, including raiding the freezer for cookies. In the middle of it, a wild gesture knocks her juice cup. I freeze time and catch that, too, before any damage is done.
A warm thrill spreads over me as I finish the dishes. Tiny catastrophes make other parents late, but not me. We’ll arrive on time and spotless.
At least in my own home, I can control all the variables.
Eli comes home late. I can stop time, but I can’t stop his limp. My throat tightens, just hearing the uneven thud-thump of his real and his prosthetic foot. How can he be safe in the field now? He can still turn invisible, but he’s not exactly stealthy anymore.
Eli doesn’t glare at me. He folds me against his chest and kisses my cheek. Like always. “Did Sadie have a good time at your mom’s?”
Eli glances around the house. My immaculate house. I alphabetized the spice rack today and organized the picture books by word count, starting with Moo, Baa, La La La! and ending with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.
But a frown creases Eli’s face. “I don’t think this is what the League had in mind when they gave you vacation time.”
“Mandatory leave time,” I correct, my breath twisting in my chest like an over-tightened screw. “Don’t lecture me again, Eli. I’m just…I’m just a little perfectionist. That’s all.”
Eli holds my gaze and speaks in his calm, rational voice — the one I’m used to hearing during mission planning meetings, not at home. “That isn’t all and it’s not a little. It’s not good for you or Sadie.”
Now he wants to bring our daughter into this? “Sadie’s safe. Of course that’s good for her.”
I slow time to watch his reaction: a tiny shift of his head, the tightening of the corners of his mouth. He disagrees, and he’s not ready to drop this yet. I wish he would. I let time flow.
“She’ll never learn to be careful or clean up after herself if you’re always making things perfect,” he says. “You can’t actually control everything.”
“I know.” But I can control my home. I have to be able to control something.
Eli lays a hand on my shoulder. “That card’s still on your nightstand, Allison.”
The card our League general gave me right before he kicked me out on mandatory leave. My throat constricts. “I don’t need it.”
“You ought to call,” Eli persists. “Go in.”
Eli should be the one having a hard time adjusting, not me. “You know,” I try to joke with him, “most people would be thrilled to have a spouse who never nags them to do the dishes. I can’t believe you’re complaining about a clean house.”
Eli doesn’t laugh. He holds me closer and strokes my hair.
I set down my water glass and get back to scrubbing the window track with a Q-tip. Soon, it will be as shiny as League Headquarters. No dead flies. No spots of grime.
“Thirsty,” Sadie declares, hopping down from the table and her crayons. Her feet patter across our spotless tile floor.
“Water, milk, or juice?” I ask, still bent over the window. It’s almost finished. Almost perfect.
The tinkle of broken glass and a sharp little “Ow!” cut through my ears and stab down at my heart.
Reflexively, I freeze time. I turn. My water glass is nothing but shards now between Sadie’s feet. A drop of scarlet blood wells up on her heel.
I am too late.
I freeze, too. My lungs refuse to work. Air becomes concrete in my lungs. My stomach tightens and tightens into a black hole. My tongue is a boulder, clogging my throat.
This isn’t a mission. There are no villains here. I should be able to control it.
But I can’t even hold onto time. It slips away. The glass skitters across the floor, Sadie turns her head, the motes spin.
But I am still frozen as panic crushes my throat.
Sadie turns her foot to look at the small gash. “Mommy!” she wails.
I can’t answer.
“Mommy!” she demands.
I couldn’t stop her from getting hurt.
Sadie plants two fists on her hips. “Mommy! You pick me up now!”
A thread of breath cracks through my throat, into my lungs. I can’t think straight, but I can obey her simple order. I pick up my child.
“To the sink!”
I step carefully around the glass.
“Wash it, Mommy.”
I set her on the counter and pull the first-aid kit down from the cupboard. Sadie holds still while I smooth the bandage over the tiny, angry wound.
“Kiss it better.”
I give her a tiny kiss. She smells like soap and cotton.
Sadie pats my cheek, smiling. “Mommy, you are silly. Nana knows how to do all that without being tolded.”
“Yup. And she has kitty band-aids.” Sadie glances at the floor. “Do you need help cleaning up your messes? Nana helps me.”
“You make messes at Nana’s?”
She giggles. “When you go on your last mission with Daddy, I open all the paints! I paint me, I paint the walls, I paint the carpet!”
My mother didn’t tell me that. Maybe she knew I had other things to worry about, after that mission.
I grab a broom. I sweep up the mess. I make cookies with Sadie and then build towers of blocks for her to crash. I ignore the window track. As soon as I get her nestled down for quiet time with a few books, I pick up the card on my nightstand.
Emily Perez, LPC. The League’s recommended counselor for traumatic stress. My throat squeezes tight, but I imagine Sadie’s voice giving me instructions.
Pick up your phone.
Dial the number.
© 2018 by M.K. Hutchins
Author’s Note: As a mom and as someone who daydreams about magic and super powers, this story came easily.
M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, Strange Horizons, IGMS, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.