Evelyn's new push-up bra did not fit well under her Bully. She loosened each of the four Velcro straps (Easy-On, Easy-Off! Best in the Biz!) by a half-inch to allow for her newly ample bosom. Since Aidan's birth six years ago, having nursed within two weeks of the recommended 12-month minimum, her breasts, once small but perky, two lovely, ripe oranges, had not grown smaller so much as they had surrendered to gravity.
A vest with a built-in push-up bra, she thought. Evelyn was a freelance content creator and lead marketing specialist. Ideas, and the power to make other people believe in them, were her forte. Her business card showed a stick figure with a sun for a head being followed by seven sheep.
"Cornies!" Aidan squealed, taking off like a shot down the cereal aisle.
"No sweetheart," Evelyn said, scanning instead for the sugar-free Hereos. "Those have GMOs, honey. Remember Mommy told you about those?"
"Look Mommy," Aidan replied, "John Empire." He spoke with a combination of reverence and thinly-veiled glee, as if he would either wet his pants or start praying at any moment. Evelyn followed his pointed finger to the yellow cardboard box on the top shelf. He stood on his tippy-toes, his little arms not able to extend fully due to the catch of his own Bully beneath his armpits. Evelyn took note. He was growing like a weed and would need a new vest soon. She took a quick, deep breath in and out. She was spending money on Aidan's vests hand over foot. While some of her friends settled for used Bullies, Evelyn refused. It was nothing but the best for her little boy.
Before she could stop him, Aidan slid his little fingers under the box, knocking it onto the floor of aisle seven.
"I said no, Aidan."
"Please?" he asked in his best, sweetest, baby voice, turning to her and placing his hands in a prayer at his heart.
"Pick that up," Evelyn said, as she glanced down at the latest version of Cornies, emblazoned with a full-sized picture of John Empire—dressed in a tuxedo and a top of the line Bully with his AK-47 held in both hands—a Cheshire-cat grin on his face.
"He hit two-hundred and thirteen targets last month in Savannah, though, Mommy." Aidan put his hand on his hip with one hand and shook his pointer finger at her with another. "Two. Hundred. And. Thirteen," he enunciated. "I'm going to be like John Empire when I grow up Mommy and I need to eat his cereal. I'm going to be rich and buy you a butler."
"Oh really?" she asked, stifling a smile. It was important not to send children mixed messages about knocking over cereal boxes and ignoring their mother's directions, after all.
"Robby says that the ARA pays one thousand dollars per target now so that means he got two-hundred and thirteen thousand dollars, Mommy. I could buy you two butlers for that."
"Who told you those numbers?" she asked.
"I did it myself. Two hundred and thirteen times one thousand."
"That's very good, sweetheart," she said, saying a silent prayer of thanks that the school she and Peter had chosen for Aidan was giving him the academic skills he needed. She'd forsaken an elite private school for their local public because the security was much better, but she was constantly second-guessing her choice. Knowing the right thing to do for one's child was an impossible task, she thought, just impossible. Evelyn didn't want to even think about explaining to Aidan that the glamourous life of this Cornies champion wasn't all that it seemed. She could only imagine what someone like John Empire paid to his agent, let alone the cost of weapons, ammo, the custom Bully . . .his profits were likely very small after his expenses were paid out, but a man like that, she doubted he was in this line of work for mere profit.
"Please Mommy?" Aidan made one last-ditch offensive, his big, brown eyes looking up at her from beneath his exceptionally long eyelashes. Women her age would kill for those lashes.
I have to remember this conversation so I can post it later on Tracker, she thought. It was just too cute. But Evelyn knew she had to hold the line.
"I said no and I asked you to pick those up," she said, practicing the combination of calm assertiveness that she'd read about in one of her mindful parenting books.
Aidan stomped, stuck out his bottom lip, but relented.
See, she thought, these are the moments that matter. Evelyn had seen too many parents surrender to their children in confrontations like these, only to regret it later when their children decided that they ruled the roost. Not on her watch. She had a job to do. She was his mother.
Evelyn pushed the cart forward with one hand and rubbed the back of Aidan's bulletproof vest with the other, wondering if he could feel the sensation of her touch through the Bully.
Evelyn pushed the cart forward with one hand and rubbed the back of Aidan's bulletproof vest with the other, wondering if he could feel the sensation of her touch through the Bully.
"But you can have your favorite ice cream," she whispered in his ear. As she leaned down her rifle slid forward, coming into her line of sight. The sight of it never failed to reassure Evelyn that all was well, and as some poet had once said, all manner of things would be well.
Evelyn felt her heart skip a beat at the sound of the garage door. Peter was home. Her friend Kelly said that the garage door test was the way to know if one's marriage was still intact. If you cringed at the sound of it, divorce loomed.
His footsteps pounded up the basement stairs before he leaned in for a kiss on her cheek. She set down the junk mail she'd been flipping through and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I missed you," she said. He patted her behind.
"Hey Champ!" he yelled toward Aidan, who was sitting on the couch playing educational games on his tablet.
"Hi," Aidan said, not interested in being distracted from his distraction.
Peter rolled up the sleeves of his crisp, white Oxford shirt—what Evelyn called his monkey suit—and with four quick swishes released the Velcro straps on his Bully, sliding it over his head before hanging it on the hook beside Evelyn's where they kept them, always at the ready, next to the front door.
"How was your day?" he asked.
"Good, you?" Peter worked as a vice president at a regional bank. It was a good job for him, not at the top where the buck stopped, but close enough. He was a kind man, an easy-going guy at heart. He wasn't made for the top.
"Same old," he said.
"Did you see what I posted on Tracker about what Aidan said in the store?" she asked, grinning.
"I did. I was peeking while I sat in traffic."
Evelyn shook her head. "That's so bad! I told you no more phone while you're driving."
"But I wasn't driving," he said, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. "I was technically parked."
"No Cornies for you today, huh buddy?" Peter yelled toward Aidan.
Evelyn's head snapped toward her husband. "What the he . . . heck?"
"What?" Peter asked, his hands coming in front of him, palms facing out.
"Why would you ask him that?" she seethe-whispered, seeing Aidan look up out of the corner of her eyes. She really hoped he hadn't been paying attention to his father.
Peter shrugged his shoulders. "Just making conversation, dear," he said, heading down the hall to change out of his work clothes.
On one hand, Evelyn was annoyed that Peter was walking away from her. On the other hand, if Peter stopped in his tracks every time he did something that annoyed her, he wouldn't get very far. She rolled her eyes to satisfy herself and yelled out to no one in particular, "I'm getting on the treadmill!"
Peter wandered out of the hallway in a t-shirt and jeans. "Sounds good, babe. I'll hold down the fort up here."
"I need to loosen up my back or something. I'm starting to second guess the AK."
"No . . ." Peter said dramatically.
"I know," she said, shaking her head. "But the cross-body strap . . . I feel like my hips are getting uneven."
Peter placed his hands on Evelyn's hips and leaned in closer. "That was the gun I met you in, babe. At the bar that night . . ."
"Everything changes. Maybe it's time for a pistol, something I can carry in a shoulder holster."
"I think you'll be shifting your pain to your upper back."
"Maybe," she said, stepping away from him and pulling open the basement door. "I guess the long-term solution is more strength-training? But who has time?"
"Not me, babe. But we all do our best, don't we?"
"I like to think so," Evelyn said, walking down the stairs.
She turned the treadmill speed to 3.0 and then with each passing fifteen second increment, raised the speed one notch until she reached her goal of 4.0. Evelyn was methodical in her daily walks, having thoroughly researched the most effective walking speed for weight loss that didn't sacrifice joint health and stability. She'd read that people in their thirties were the most likely to develop exercise injuries because their bodies were feeling the effects of aging but they still saw themselves as young.
Evelyn had no interest in being trapped in one of those horrid boots that her friend Maggie had to wear after she tore her Achilles' heel while chasing after her kid while wearing flip flops. It just went to show that those small, daily choices in life could make or break you. No doubt that Maggie's true injury had been developing for years during her obsession with 5k runs, a habit she'd started after her difficult divorce. What was that old saying? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! she thought, proud of herself for remembering. Her memory had suffered after her pregnancy and the sleepless nights that followed it. Another reason she was so religious about her daily walks. Exercise improved cognition, she'd read.
Evelyn's arms began to move briskly back and forth at her sides as she reached her full speed. Her gaze was forward, staring at the concrete wall of the basement. Evelyn didn't like watching her tablet or listening to music when she walked. This was her thinking time. As the endorphins flowed into her bloodstream, she was able to gain a clarity that evaded her during the rest of the day.
She took a minute to intentionally monitor her breathing, in and out through her nose, and to feel the beat of her heart quicken. She noticed her stride and the fall of her feet, careful not to over pronate. She relaxed her shoulders down her back and engaged her core, gently activating the space below her belly button. Exercising with poor form was counterproductive, Evelyn knew, and why waste time on a bad investment?
Her ritual continued as she switched her attention to her emotional self. She scanned her feelings to see if there was anything bothering her, anything that she might be able to better process now, when her thinking was most clear.
The invitation, she thought. The invitation is a loose thread. She tugged on it, and the situation appeared in front of her.
Inhale slowly. Exhale fully. She didn't want to get a cramp.
She'd received a text the night before from the mother of one of Aidan's school friends.
"Matthew would love to have Aidan over for a playdate," it read. "Are you free this weekend?"
Evelyn could feel her breath hitch at the thought of it. She had responded, "Let me check our crazy schedule! I'll let you know," and closed her text with a smiling emoji.
While she was thrilled that Aidan was making friends in kindergarten, there was a problem: Matthew's parents kept a gun-free home. Neither of them carried, and while Matthew wore a Bully to school (state law mandated that all children wear Bullies unless the parents had applied for a religious exemption), his parents, Bobby and Caroline, didn't. It was as if they were walking around with a sign on their backs screaming, "Shoot us!"
While she was thrilled that Aidan was making friends in kindergarten, there was a problem: Matthew's parents kept a gun-free home.
How? How could Evelyn send her baby, the person in the world who was most important to her, to a gun-free home? Several horrible scenarios flashed through her mind in an instant.
"I release fear. I choose love," Evelyn quickly repeated, three times, one of the affirmations she'd chosen with her therapist to help her deal with her anxiety. The images vanished but the problem remained.
"When you get stuck in a thought loop," she heard her therapist, Felicia, say in her mind, "get it out of your head. Ask for help. Tell someone." She watched the distance display on the treadmill rise as she repeated her affirmation. Peter, she thought. Peter is always the practical one. He will know what to do.
After Peter put Aidan to bed, his job since Evelyn covered morning duty, she heard him puttering around the house, pushing in chairs and spraying counters. Her husband was a clean freak, which her friends assured her was a good thing, but they didn't have to live with it.
"I've been worrying about something and I need your opinion," she said, pulling out a stool next to the kitchen counter and sitting down.
"What's up?" Peter asked, spraying, wiping, spraying, wiping.
"Can you sit down and listen for a minute?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, sneaking in one more quick spray of the stovetop before sitting across from her. "What's up?"
"It's this playdate. With Matthew." Evelyn had texted him a summary of the issue earlier in the day but they had yet to have a chance to talk about it without little ears listening in.
"Yes. I thought about that today at work," he said.
Evelyn looked him directly in his eye, not entirely sure that he had given it a second thought. Peter was an equal partner in almost all aspects of their marriage, but Evelyn would've been naïve to think that she didn't do the bulk of the emotional labor. She was also still harboring some resentment about the earlier Cornies remark that he'd made, she realized.
"And?" she asked.
"Well, let's problem solve, what are our options?" he asked.
"Lie. Tell them we have a family gathering to attend," Evelyn said, without hesitation. She believed that lying was a critical cornerstone of surviving modern life. Without lies, one of two things would happen. Either they would spend every waking moment at birthday and graduation parties or they would have no friends.
"What if you went along? That way there's an adult carrying and the boys still get a playdate," Peter offered.
"It's not just that they don't carry," Evelyn said, her face revealing her scorn, "They keep a gun-free home." She put gun-free in air quotes.
"Why did you put that in air quotes?" Peter asked, a grin on his face.
"This isn't funny."
"I just don't think that's the appropriate use of air quotes since they actually keep a gun-free home."
Evelyn sighed. The reason she had asked for Peter's help with this was to get a less-anxious perspective. There were trade-offs for that.
"Any other options?" she asked.
"We let him go?"
Evelyn bit her lip and shook her head, imagining her sweet boy asleep down the hall. She could not risk a hair on his head.
"Parenting is hard," she responded.
"If you could choose between dealing with this or poopy diapers, which would you choose?" Peter asked.
"Diapers. I swear on my life."
"No way. You wouldn't." Peter stood and turned on their coffee brewer, signaling that he was about to make his nightly cup of decaf and was done with their conversation.
"So what's our decision?" she asked, choosing her language carefully. She did not want to be solely responsible for any backlash.
"Unless Matthew's mom is willing to let you carry, I can't see sending him. Invite them over here?" Peter suggested.
"That's the thing though," she said, standing up and pushing in her chair. She boosted herself onto the kitchen counter instead. Sitting here made her feel like a teenager again, before she had to make these tough decisions. "Isn't it best to just nip this in the bud? If these boys become good friends . . ." She swung her legs gently, feeling her heels kick against the cabinet.
"Then there will be more invitations, birthday parties, sleepovers . . ." Peter finished her thought.
"Family engagement," Evelyn said, hopping down off the counter. "We have a family engagement that we can't miss."
"Sounds like a plan," Peter said.
She walked toward her cell phone that she kept in a bin labeled "Phones" in their entryway, part of her effort to keep her and Peter from endlessly staring at their screens. She sent the text, breathed a sigh of relief, and went to the bathroom to apply her favorite charcoal mask, feeling very much like she had earned ten minutes of self-care. After all, if she didn't take care of herself, Evelyn thought, who would?
Evelyn told Aidan about the playdate the next morning. Since Matthew had brought it up with him the day before at school, she had to get their story straight.
"Oh, by the way honey, this weekend won't work for you to go to Matthew's house. We have something to do," she said. Then, quickly, she brought his attention forward. "But guess what, remember that Lego set you told me you want? Mommy ordered it for you and it's on its way!"
Aidan clapped his hands and danced in place. "When?" He stuck his tongue out like he was a dog and panted. Legos were his absolute favorite. Legos soothed all manner of ills.
"Saturday!" she gave him a pat on the head and a kiss on the cheek. "Nothing but the best for Mommy's little puppy."
She hadn't heard a peep on the playdate topic since. She'd picked him up from school and asked pointed questions about anything that fell into the categories of "Not Matthew. Not Playdate." He had finished his homework, a simple assignment to draw a picture of his family, and was watching a cartoon while eating organic cheese crackers as his reward. Evelyn reviewed the picture to see if her stick figure's hips looked unbalanced, trying to picture herself with a pistol instead of a rifle. Aidan had drawn the entire family with their Bullies. He'd also added a tree, the sun, and a full moon, each in their own Bullies as well. It was a very well-protected vision of the world.
Aidan had drawn the entire family with their Bullies. He'd also added a tree, the sun, and a full moon, each in their own Bullies as well. It was a very well-protected vision of the world.
At five-thirty p.m., Evelyn once again heard the garage door, and felt the reliable skipped beat of her heart. Rather than bounding up the stairs as he usually did, she heard softer footfalls. The door cracked open solely, just a few inches, as if Santa himself was trying to sneak into the house.
"Hey," Peter said to her with an unnerving smile. "Aidan!" he yelled. "Come here buddy!"
"What are you up to?" she asked.
"Aidan!" he yelled again, as their son came running, tablet in hand.
"Hi Daddy," he said.
Peter's head alone stuck through the door. It looked as if someone had blown his body off of him and missed the money shot.
"I heard you aren't going to be able to go on your playdate this weekend, so I wanted to get you a little something to take your mind off of it."
Evelyn stood behind Aidan, frantically widening her eyes at Peter. Seriously? She thought. Aidan had forgotten all about the playdate thanks to her carefully orchestrated parenting. She'd protected him from that sadness. Peter would never learn, she thought. Never. They would just keep having this same argument. She didn't even know why she bothered.
"I already told him that he's getting a Lego set this weekend, dear," Evelyn said, and if "dear" was a bullet, it would've torn her husband in half.
"Ta-da!" Peter yelled triumphantly, stepping fully through the door and pulling a box of Cornies out from behind his back.
"Peter!" Evelyn shouted.
"Cornies!" Aidan screamed.
"Cornies!" Peter yelled. "Let's get you a bowl, son of mine."
Aidan danced around the kitchen, shaking his bottom from side to side. "Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah."
Evelyn couldn't help but smile. They were both incorrigible, honestly. She hoped to God nothing ever happened to her because she couldn't imagine what these two would get into without her around.
"One bowl of Cornies for Prince Aidan," Peter said, pouring organic skim milk over the cereal. Evelyn could hear it crackle, probably the sound of the genetically modified organisms exploding, she thought.
"This is just a special treat," she emphasized. "Not a regular thing. Right, Daddy?"
"Right, Mommy," Peter said, kissing her on her temple and squeezing her waist. "We boys just need to have a little fun once in a while, don't we Aidan? You, me, and John Empire?"
"John Empire is the greatest of all time!" Aidan yelled.
"The Goat!" Peter yelled back.
The last four weddings that Evelyn had attended had been virtual. Hunters like Empire scoured the web and back channels for opportunities like this; it was their bread and butter, after all.
Evelyn stood beside the kitchen table and picked up the cereal box, turning it away from Empire's picture to the back, where it described his offensive. A wedding, two-hundred and one guests and twelve members of the service staff. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. People today. One of these off-book wedding places that probably told this crazy, anti-gun couple that they could recreate days of old. "A real wedding," they must've said, "with everyone you love under one roof." As if putting everyone you love in the same place, armed or not, could ever be worth the risk! The last four weddings that Evelyn had attended had been virtual. Hunters like Empire scoured the web and back channels for opportunities like this; it was their bread and butter, after all.
Really, when would people wake up? Evelyn wondered.
Peter wrapped her into a bear hug as Aidan slurped his milk. "It's just cereal, babe," he whispered into her ear. "It won't kill him."
"I know," she said, burying her face into her husband's neck. Maybe she did worry too much. Maybe she needed to let go of some of these little things.
"Repeat after me," Peter said. "It's just cereal."
"It's just cereal," she said, three times. Maybe, she thought, that can be one of my new affirmations.
Karen Costa is a writer, adjunct faculty, and yoga teacher living in Massachusetts.