Stacking the Odds

by Charlie Kirby

Boredom is never good. Not for adults and certainly not for children. Even though the experts would argue that children don't get bored, Inessa Solo would disagree with them. Of course, being only two and half, they wouldn't listen even if they could understand her fractured English.

Inessa looked at her blocks, usually a source of great pleasure. She liked the way they looked when she stacked them, the noise they made when they tumbled down. She liked the way they smelled and even the way they tasted, although she'd been careful not to leave tooth marks in them the way Peter had. He'd had his taken away and Inessa was not ready to give her blocks up.

She carefully stacked one on top of the other. She understood the shapes on the sides of them meant something to her older brother and sister. To her they were still shapes. Grampy would sit and trace her finger along the indentations and say things like "A is for Apple" but to Inessa's way of thinking, that shape looked no more like an apple than she did. Grampy was just silly sometimes.

She got about six blocks up and they suddenly collapsed, despite her care. Inessa sighed as the blocks clattered to the wood floor. Usually that would make her squeal with delight, but not today. Instead, she picked up a chunk of hard blue Play Doh in one hand and a piece of red in the other and sighed again. What was missing?

She got up to her feet and wandered from the living room, up the stairs and into the room she shared with her sisters, Irina and Genève. No one was there, so she turned and headed instead for the boys room, looking for her twin.

Peter was on his bed watching two goldfish swim back and forth in their tank. He was sucking his thumb and rubbing his ear. Inessa knew he didn't feel well. Peter glanced over at her as she climbed up on the bed and cuddled up to him. He offered his thumb to her. She sucked it for a moment, but that got old fast. She pulled it out of her mouth and began to stroke his head.

"No betta?" she asked, softly.

He shook his head slowly and returned his thumb to his mouth. When it became obvious that Peter was not going to add anything to the conversation or even offer to help her figure out what was wrong, she left him in search of her older siblings.

She went backwards down the stairs, one at a time, and toddled into the living room. Chewy was barking and jumping around as Alex tried to clip on his leash.

"Chewy, stay still. Stupid dog."

"No stupid," Inessa protested, hugging the dog's neck. "Happy!" The beagle wiggled and licked her face, making her giggle uncontrollably as they toppled over backwards.

"Get out of the way, Nessa, you're too small to help." Somehow Alex got the leash hooked. "C'mon, Chewy, let's go for a walk." The little beagle took off at a dead run for the door, half dragging Alex off his feet. "Chewy, heel!"

She watched them go and sighed again. Ginny was in her swing, bouncing up and down. She squealed when she saw Inessa and reached out for her, fingers clenching and unclenching.

"Hi, Ginny!" She gave the swing a push and Ginny laughed. She pushed it harder and again the baby laughed. Inessa pulled the swing back as far as she could, but before she could let it go, it was grabbed and Inessa jumped.

Her mother looked at her, shaking her head. "Let's not be the first family with a baby launched into space, shall we? She's too small to play with you, Inessa. You have to play carefully." She gave the swing a gentle push and Ginny began to bounce up and down again.

"Mama, play?" Inessa followed her mother into the kitchen where Irina was carefully opening a can of dog food. Inessa envied Irina, for she was such a big girl. "Me help, Reenie?"

"Sure, Nessa, here." Irina held a bowl out to her. "Hold this while I put Chewy's food in it." Proudly she grabbed onto the yellow plastic bowl and held it as still as her arms permitted. "Now go put it down on Chewy's mat and bring me his water bowl."

She didn't mean to spill the water, the bowl just wouldn't behave and a trail of water followed her to the counter where Irina stood.

"Inessa!" Irina scolded her, little fists on her hips. "Look at the mess!" Inessa looked up at her with tears in her eyes, her bottom lip trembling at the reprimand as her sister snatched the near empty bowl from her.

"Irina, be nice, she tried the best she could," Mama said. "Her motor skills aren't as refined as yours."

"Where Gamma? Lary?"

"Great Grandma and Larysa went home, Nessa, back to Russia." Irina filled the bowl with water and carefully carried it across the floor, spilling only a little. She set it down and then went to fetch a dish towel to wipe up the mess. "Tsk, babies can be such bothers."

"Poppy too?" Inessa watched her for a moment, as if afraid to put the question to anyone in particular.

"You miss Poppy, don't you?" Mama picked her up and cuddled her. "He had to go back to work, Inessa. He's all better now." She kissed Inessa's cheek. "I miss him too, sweetheart."

"Why did he have to go back to work, Mommy?" Irina asked, carrying the towel to the sink. "I thought he liked it here with us."

"He did, sweetie, but he needs to be with people his own age too."

"Oh, like a play date for grownups."

Mama laughed and nodded. "I've not heard UNCLE called a play date before, but yes, in essence. Daddy, Grampy, Poppy, and Genève will be home soon."

"I know, at five, when the big hand is up straight and the little hand points to the refrigerator. That's when we have dinner too."

"Very good, Irina. Do you want to help me get dinner ready?"

"Me too?" Inessa asked, but Irina shook her head. "You're too small, Nessa, go play..."

"Now, Irina..."

"But, Mommy, you said just us girls. You and me..."

Inessa thought about protesting, but the truth be told, she really didn't want to help. She wandered away while Mama and Reenie talked and returned to her blocks. She sat down and began to stack them again, but without any enthusiasm.

The front door opened and suddenly Chewy was all over her. She laughed and kissed him, but the lure of food was too strong for the puppy and he was off to the kitchen, leaving her alone. Alex walked in and looked around.

"Nessa, have you see my railroad tracks?"

She didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about. She had her blocks, some bits of Play Doh that Peter hadn't eaten and some other things... long skinny things. She'd been balancing them on various towers.

"There they are!" Alex picked up her long skinny things. "These are railroad tracks, Inessa. My train runs on them." He showed them to her. "They help me with math too."

"And how is that, my little man?"

Both children turned as Daddy squatted and held open his arms. Inessa got to her feet and ran to him, squealing as he stood and tossed her into the air. Then he held her upside down and blew a raspberry on her bare tummy.

"Is there any tummy left for me?" Grampy was there and she was literally tossed over to him, to her great delight. Grampy's cheek was rough with whiskers and she petted it the way she would pet Chewy.

"So tell me about rail road tracks and math?" Daddy was talking to Alex now.

"Grampy showed me..."

"He did?" Daddy sounded like he thought Alex was fibbing to him.

"Hey, I'm just not all good looks and charm, you know." Grampy set Inessa on her feet and ruffled Alex's hair.

"Grampy, the hair, mind the hair."

"Oh my God, he is a Solo," Grampy said as Inessa ran from the room out into the hallway. She saw someone moving and she hurried after him.

"Poppy!" she shouted as she ran into the kitchen. No Poppy, though Genève gave her a hug as she talked about silly things like patterns and sewing.

Inessa tugged her mother's shirt tail. "Poppy?"

"He had to work late, Inessa, he'll be home later." Mama was busy talking with Genève who held Baby Ginny.

Inessa sighed and went back to her blocks. She gathered them up into her pail and carried them up to her room. She crawled under the blanket that Irina had hung over two chairs. A palace, she'd called it, but Inessa preferred to think of it as a fortress. Inessa sat down and dumped the blocks out again. She picked up the chunk of blue Play Doh, hugged it, and sighed. Then, rubbing her ear, she stretched out and began to push the blocks into a line.

"A is for apple," she repeated, finding the block Grampy said was an apple. It looked and tasted just like all the other blocks to her. "B is for balloon." Something was making sense. She pushed her blocks around until she found a B... like block and blue... and bye, bye...


She opened her eyes and was confused. It was so dark... "Poppy?" she whimpered and held a hand to her ear. It really, really hurt. She began to cry softly.

"She's here!" Poppy shouted and she scrunched her eyes shut.

The corner of the blanket came up and he smiled in at her. "We've been looking for you everywhere, sweetheart. You had your mother worried."

She got to her hands and knees and crawled to him and up into his lap. He sort of toppled over and made a funny noise like he often did and shifted her around. She immediately rested her head against him.

"You're burning up," he murmured, pressing her head even closer. She could hear his heart and she calmed, even as the tears trickled down her cheeks. "Does your ear hurt?"

"Uh huh... like Petey's."

"Tell you what, let's get you into bed and I'll read you a story." Mama came into the room then and lifted her up into the air. Inessa didn't giggle this time, it just made her ear hurt more and she started to cry.

Mama talked to her while she got her jammies on and climbed into bed. Mama put some medicine in her ear that made it feel better, but the cotton made it feel funny.

Inessa lay there quietly, waiting for Mama to leave ,and then she climbed out of bed and went to the fortress. She retrieved her bit of blue Play Doh and her B block and went back to bed.

"Inessa, do you still want a story?"

She looked over at Poppy and nodded slowly, so her ear wouldn't hurt more. She liked Poppy's stories; they weren't silly or pretend. They were real. She knew Baba Yaga existed.

He settled on the bed beside her and put his glasses on. She liked his glasses and touched the black frames carefully. She thought for a minute and then said, "B."

"Bee? Do you see a bee?" Poppy looked around the room and then back at her.

"No, Poppy, B... black..." She held up her chunk of Play Doh. "Just like blue."

"That's very good, Inessa, you have just taken your first step into a bigger world. Everything in the world has a name and you just made the connection." He kissed her cheek. "Congratulations."

She didn't know what congratulations meant. All she knew is that she had her blocks, her Play Doh and her Poppy. For the first time today, she felt content... and she sighed.

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