A normal day always involved the careful selection of an outfit, but today wasn't just any day. Today was the day of her tea party with her good friend Fran. A week ago, she'd asked her mama about the party and had been delighted at her mother's quick response. Since then, she and Fran had conspired daily on the exact course of action for this afternoon's party.
Irina pushed one dress after another aside, this one was too fussy and the lace itched her neck. Her church dress wouldn't work; that was reserved for Sunday only. One was too plain, another, the wrong color. Finally she had it down to two.
Irina gathered them carefully up and carried them to the closed door. She sighed; her grandfathers were keeping that door shut more and more these days. Irina used to love to crawl in bed with Poppy, snuggle up to him and listen to the stories he would tell her of growing up in Russia, even though the thought of Baba Yaga still scared her a little. She loved burrowing beneath the blankets to find Grampy warm and familiar, his whiskers tickling her cheek as she woke him with her best Prince Charming kiss.
Now, she was a young lady of six. None of her friends crawled in with their grampies. Most of them didn't even crawl into bed with their parents any more, except for thunder storms. Those didn't count. Still, this morning, she would have liked her Grampy's opinion of the two dresses. He really did have excellent taste in clothes, something that her daddy said she inherited from him. She didn't exactly know what inherited meant, but it sounded wonderful and exotic.
Instead she carried the dresses to Alex's room. He was sitting at his desk, carefully working on some project. He and Poppy always seemed to be building something these days, when Alex wasn't busy flirting with his teachers. Irina just didn't understand what power the brown-eyed, blond had over them, but if anyone was going to be allowed to clap erasers or help take down the flag, it was Alex.
"Alex, which dress should I wear?"
For his part, Alex had heard her coming and had carefully set aside his tweezers in preparation for her question. He'd come to expect interruptions from her. He pushed away from the table and studied the dresses in question.
"They're both the same."
"No, this one has daisies on it and the other one has sunflowers."
"Aren't they the same?"
"No, they are completely different." She happened to look at his desktop. "What are you making?"
"Poppy called it a proto-type."
"Huh, looks like a train to me."
"It is a train, stupid."
"I'm not stupid, Stupid!" she snapped at him. "I'm better at everything than you are."
"So what's forty five and sixty three?"
"I meant what do they add up to?"
"Another number." She'd just about had her fill of men for the day. She shook her head, pitying the sex, and walked quickly out of the room. Irina was far too busy to engage in silly guessing games with her stupid brother.
She dressed carefully, even choosing her underwear with exacting consideration. Then she turned her attention to that of her best doll, Abigail. It had been hard to decide who to take to the tea party. They had agreed only one guest and she'd been torn for days as to which grandfather to invite. Grampy was always the perfect tea party guest, always letting her have the last cookie and treating her with great respect. However, she missed Poppy; he seemed to be somewhere else these days, even when he was home. He was paying more attention to Grampy, the babies, even Alex's stupid prototypes than to her dolls and party dresses. The thought that maybe he didn't love her anymore made her heart ache. She was no longer welcomed in his bed, he didn't have time to tell her stories anymore, and it had been ages since he'd let her do his hair. Her fingers ached to comb and braid it, especially now that it was even longer.
She shook her dark curls, refusing to be sad. Not today of all days. She was going to be happy; she took one last long look in the mirror, gathered up Abigail and headed downstairs.
It wasn't a surprise that Peter was already at the table, his sticky fingers alternating between his plate and his mouth.
"Peter," she scolded, gently, but firmly. "If you expect to be invited to a tea party, you have to use your fork." Her baby brother stared at her, a line of drool dribbling down his chin. She offered him his spoon, which he took firmly in one hand and began to shove a bit of waffle into his mouth with the other. "Oh, Peter, you really are a trial."
"Plode." Inessa was busy reorganizing the food on her plate, mashing it into one innocuous puddle.
Irina was proud of that word, puddle. She knew lots of words like that, but no one seemed to notice or care. They were all too busy. Irina sighed. It was obvious that she was destined to be the only normal one in this family.
"Good morning, Nessa."
"Pow, Reenie, bang!"
"Mommy, why does Inessa talk like that? It doesn't seem very lady like to me."
Lisle smiled at her daughter, already so old before her time. "I think it might have been because she was conceived during a war movie."
"Mommy, you shouldn't use words like that around the babies." Irina kissed her sister's head gently. "They're innocent, they're delicate."
"BOOM!" Inessa sprang up, nearly knocking Irina in the nose and Peter pounded on his tray and squealed.
"Yes, they are so, so delicate. Inessa, sit down and eat. And this is for you." Lisle set a plate in front of her. "You look very nice today."
"Thank you. Today is the tea party." She sat Abigail down beside the plate.
"No toys at the table please."
"Yeah, no toys at the table," Alex chimed setting his model down carefully to avoid the scattered cereal and puddles of syrup. When Peter was eating, it was every man for himself.
"No proto types either." Irina snapped.
"I have to show Poppy."
"But he's not here."
"Yes, he is." She turned at the voice, smiling happily.
"Good morning, Poppy." She waited for her kiss and hug. "You locked you door again," she whispered conspiratorially in his ear.
"I know," he whispered back. Then he turned to Alex. "You are doing a very good job with that, Alex."
"Thank you." Alex beamed, so happy that his grandfather didn't try to kiss him. It wasn't manly.
"Boom! Plode!" Inessa was bouncing up and down in her seat, clenching and unclenching chubby fingers at him.
"How's my girl?" He darted in for a kiss, deftly evading the sticky hands.
"Plode, Pop, plode!" Inessa squealed and Peter giggled.
"Isabu!" he shouted and his sister giggled wildly.
"One day, the two of you will learn English and the rest of us will get the joke too." Grampy had walked into the room. "Irina, you are beautiful, sweetheart."
"Thank you, kind sir." She bowed her head slightly, just like she'd seen that one red lady do.... She was Scarlet Something from the movie that made Daddy cry...
Grampy sat down, close to Poppy, who had put his glasses on and was studying Alex's stupid prototype. Poppy's hair fell into his eyes, but before she could react, Grampy brushed it back and Poppy smiled a sort of funny smile.
"You need a haircut, partner."
"I need to be twenty again." He set the prototype down and reached for some yucky adult cereal. Irina couldn't understand why anyone would want to eat cereal that didn't come with a prize. Grampy said it provided its own gift later, but she'd been through the box a dozen times and she couldn't find any prize in the box, even down at the very bottom. Grampy was silly sometimes.
"I have my tea party today," she said, but no one listened to her. Daddy was busy being silly with Mommy, the babies were busy making a mess of their breakfast, Grampy was reading the paper, not even the comics! Poppy and Alex were eating... Irina sighed. "Just for invited guests," she said softly, caressing Abigail's head, special, just like you and me.
"Who's picking up the kids tonight?" Grampy said, not closing his paper.
"I can have Phillips do it. The kids know him."
"Who?" Irina asked loudly.
"Mr. Alex, Stupid."
"Stop, Alex," Mommy said. "That's a hateful word and you are not to use it - ever. Do you understand?"
"Apologize to your sister."
"I'm sorry you're stupid." He stuck his tongue out.
"MOMMY!" Irina was incensed now. She was a lady, but that didn't mean she couldn't finish any fight her brother was dumb enough to start.
"Alexander Nicholas Solo!" When Mommy used all three names, that was bad. Irina smiled at her brother.
"I'm sorry, Irina."
"Now, leave the table." Mommy pointed to the kitchen door and Alex slid out of his chair, his glare promising pay back.
"I have my tea party tonight," Irina said again.
"We know, sweetheart." Daddy kissed her and tickled her. "Nothing top secret about that!"
The day went ever so slowly. At recess and during lunch, she and Fran finalized all the last minute details. They giggled and talked softly, making sure the plans were theirs alone.
"Irina, spell 'book.'"
"Why?" She was so bored with spelling. They never asked any good words.
"Because that's one of the words we're studying." Miss Stephanie sighed and glanced over at Miss Pam.
"What word would you like to spell, Irina?" Miss Pam asked.
"Something hard." Irina was interested now. No one had ever asked her what she wanted to spell.
Irina smiled. Now they were getting it. She thought for a moment. "B -u-r-e-u... no, a-u. it's French and it's a place where you put your panties and your socks... unless you're Grampy."
"Oh?" Miss Pam smiled. "What does your grandfather keep in his bureau?"
"Poppy. Or maybe it's his closet... I get them confused sometimes."
"I have so got to meet this family someday." Miss Pam was just shaking her head in that funny way she had when something confused her.
"Trust me, it's an experience." Miss Stephanie said. "I had her brother last year. According to him, his grandfathers and his father work for their uncle, talk to pens and make funny noises."
"Huh... the whole family then?"
Irina shrugged her shoulders and went back to studying the design on her dress. The bell rang and she straightened and glanced over at Fran.
"Party time!" Fran announced, reaching out for her hand, her smile making her freckles jump. Irina wished she had freckles. Mommy called her complexion, Irina loved that word, peaches and cream. How could someone have a face like a dessert, spelled with two 's'es, she just couldn't understand.
"Tea party time," Irina corrected and scooped up Abigail. They ran to the front door and Fran waved to her mommy... well, one of them. Fran had two mommies and no stinky brothers or noisy sisters. She was lucky!
"Hi, Mommy!" Fran ran into her Mommy's arms for a fast hug. "This is Irina."
"Hello, Irina, how are you?"
"I am quite well, thank you. How are you, ma'am?"
"Such nice manners!" She shook Irina's hand. "I'm quite well and I understand there's a tea party for this afternoon."
"Did you tell your Mommy you were going home with us for a tea party?"
"Yes, ma'am, she said a tea party was fine."
Fran's mommy held out her hand. "Then let's go before the tea gets cold."
They were having such fun. The tea was delightful, one of Fran's special blends, and the cookies were very yummy. They were coloring beautiful pictures of little ponies when Irina heard voices, loud angry voices, and she stopped coloring, setting the pink crayon aside. It almost sounded like Poppy yelling...
There was the sound of footsteps on the stairs and both little girls sat up as the door opened and Poppy ran in.
"Hi, Poppy! Did you come for our tea party? We have some cookies left."
He grabbed her and made a funny sound in her ear, like Peter did when he woke up from a nightmare, and he held her so tight she couldn't breathe. All the time he was saying something, using those weird words Mommy said was rushing. They didn't sound that fast to her though.
"What were you doing? Are you out of your mind?" Poppy was yelling in English now. "What possessed you to wander off like that, Irina? Answer me? " He shook her.
Poppy had never shouted at her like that and Irina felt her bottom lip quiver, then suddenly Grampy was there, leading Poppy away, talking to him in another funny language and Poppy was arguing in rushing. She didn't know what the words meant, but she instinctively knew they were about her. Tears cascaded down her cheeks now. Then she saw Daddy and ran to him, taking refuge in his arms.
He scooped her up and squeezed her almost as hard as Poppy had. "Princess, you had us so scared."
"Why is Poppy yelling at me?"
"He was really scared too. Why didn't you tell us you were going home with Fran?"
"I did. I told you pacifically this morning I had a tea party."
"Yes, I guess you did. We just didn't know what you meant. Why don't you say good bye to Fran and we'll all go home."
Irina sat on her bed, surrounded by her favorite stuffed toys and, of course, Abigail. The car ride home hadn't been much fun. Poppy and Grampy were still arguing with each other, the way Mommy and Daddy did sometimes and Irina buried herself in Daddy's coat to hide from their voices. They scared her and she was angry. She'd told everyone she had a tea party. It wasn't her fault they never listened to her.
The door to her bedroom opened and Poppy stood there. She frowned and turned her back to him. Stupid Poppy, it wasn't her fault he didn't love her anymore! Well, she didn't love him either, so there! A lone tear trickled down her cheek and she hugged Abigail close.
"Irina, may I come in?"
She pulled a fuzzy teddy bear, Mr. Fluffle, close, her favorite, not remembering how Poppy had won it for her two summers ago. She figured if she made herself very small, he'd go away.
But he didn't. After a moment, Irina felt the edge of her bed go down and knew he was sitting there, watching her.
"Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She had long brown hair and blue eyes."
In spite of her best efforts, Irina felt her curiosity pique as Poppy talked. After all, she had long brown hair and blue eyes too.
"And this little girl was very much loved by everyone around her, but she didn't know it. She thought that everyone had forgotten about her. This made the little girl very sad, but she was also very brave and wouldn't let on to anyone."
"Like me," she whispered. She hadn't meant to say anything, but it just crept out.
"She did her very best to do everything that everyone asked of her. She helped her mommy with her baby brother and sister, didn't annoy her older brother too much..."
"Alex is annoying." She hugged Mr. Fluffle closer.
"And tried to be very adult. So much so that the people around her often forgot that she was still just a little girl. They sometimes ignored her or didn't really listen to her. It wasn't that they didn't want to, they just got busy with adult things and forgot. Worst of all was a mean man who lived with the little girl. At first, he had all the time in the world for her and would play with her for hours, but then he too got busy, with his job, with other interests, until the little girl came to believe that he, too, no longer loved her."
Irina nodded solemnly, blinking back her tears, holding Mr. Fluffle even closer and rubbing his black nose against her cheek. That was how he said he loved her.
"One day, she was invited to a special tea party by a special friend and she was very excited. She told all of her family and friends, but..." Poppy voice hesitated for a moment and he cleared his throat. "But they were too busy to pay any attention to what she was saying to even ask a question about it. They just kept doing what they were doing. This made the little girl very sad."
"But she was brave." She was kneeling beside Poppy now, studying him. He looked so sad now.
"Yes, she was very brave and didn't let on. So, with her special friend, they planned the most wonderful tea party. When the day of the party came, she was very excited and dressed in her very best outfit, took her favorite doll, and went to the tea party. That night, when she wasn't where the adults thought she should be, they panicked. They were very scared because they didn't know where she was and they thought something bad might have happened to her. They searched and searched and they felt very bad because they hadn't listened to her. The mean man felt the worst because he was the one responsible for keeping her safe. Then someone remembered that she had talked about a tea party and then they found her safe and happy. Do you know what the mean man did?"
"He yelled at her. He yelled very loud. Do you know why?"
"Because he was mean?"
Irina shook her head. "No, why, Poppy?"
"Because he was the most scared out of all of them, because if anything had happened to her, he couldn't have... he would have never forgiven ... himself... for not listening..."
Irina was amazed to watch the tears trickle down Poppy's face and she smiled as she patted his hand comfortingly. "It's okay, Poppy, it's just a story." Suddenly he was holding her and crying, really crying and Irina felt a bit scared. Adults weren't supposed to cry - not like this.
"I'm so sorry, Irina. I love you so much," Poppy whispered in her ear.
"Silly Poppy," she scolded, playing with a bit of his hair. "I love you too... but not when you yell."
"Do you know why I yelled at you?"
"Because you were like the mean man? Because you were scared?"
"Yes, very scared, and I swear I will listen to you from now on, Irina." He cupped her face and kissed her. "I promise you that."
"Can we have Fran to a tea party?" She wiggled a little bit to get comfortable on his lap, content to just be there for the moment.
"We should ask your Mommy, but I think so."
"Can I do your hair?"
"All right." He was hugging and rocking her gently now.
"Can I sleep with you tonight?" He pulled away, frowning at her, and she sighed. "You can't blame a girl for asking... that's what Grampy always says."
"Remind me to have a long talk with your Grampy."
Irina held Fran's hand and they skipped happily ahead of their mommies. This time she was wearing her very best Sunday dress and her very shiny black shoes and even gloves with little pink roses at the wrists. Fran had a matching set and both of them felt very grown up. The corsages they wore were just icing on the cake. The tiny pink roses and baby's breath were so... intoxicating. She learned that new word from Daddy.
When the engraved invitation arrived, Irina had been over the moon. She hadn't even let Mommy read it to her. She had figured it out all by herself... well, with a little help from Grampy and even that stinky old Alex helped with a word or two.
She was going to a real tea party... a grown up tea party with cakes and cookies and jam and scones... she didn't exactly know what a scone was, but it sounded wonderful! When she found out that Fran had also received an invitation, she was even more excited. Then the gloves arrived and the flowers and then a limousine ... well, she'd never felt more grown up before.
"And you have no idea who is doing this?" One of Fran's mommies was asking her Mommy.
Mommy smiled that special smile she had, the one that made her look a little like Poppy. "I have a pretty good idea..." They walked into the tea room and were shown back to a private room.
Irina and Fran squealed at the sheer pinkness of the room. Certainly there were other colors, but mostly everything was pink. At the table sat Abigail and Mr. Fluffle, along with Fran's favorite doll and stuffed toy.
"It's so pink, Mommy!" Irina sighed happily, spinning.
Mommy smiled again and gave her a quick hug before looking back over at Fran's mommy. "Let's just say, it's a grandfather's right to spoil his granddaughter and leave it at that."