(Loosely based on 'The Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe')
Five of Clare Snyder's six sons took off after the church service, running with lollipops in their mouths.
"No!" she yelled. "Someone will get hurt! Stop!"
The rest of the congregation turned and stared, not even offering to help when her children were in danger. The place was crowded, too, because of all the people visiting for the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
With her fingers still wrapped around her youngest son's hand, she dodged the rest of the people in the aisle. One of her quadruplets, Kirk, approached Pastor Frank Oldfield and a good-looking younger man who were shaking hands.
When the younger man held out his hand with a smile, Kirk pulled the lime lollipop out of his mouth and slapped it right onto the man's palm. "I have to give my offering." The child ran away with a laugh, horrifying Clare.
Pastor Frank laughed, but the younger man stared down at his hand, covered with a wet green gooey lollipop.
"Remember they're all lambs of God," Pastor Frank said loudly enough for everyone to hear. People laughed around them, but Clare was so embarrassed.
The younger man appeared to be stunned as Clare approached him, with her youngest son, Travis, still beside her. "I'm so sorry," she said. "Let me help you." She fished a tissue out of her purse, hoping it was clean. "My son…" Embarrassed, she bit her lips and dug the lollipop off the good-looking man's hand, the stickiness leaving a slimy green residue on his palm. "I'm just so sorry."
"Bye, Mom," Brent said from behind her. At almost six years old, he seemed too grown up for his own good.
"He's yours, too?" The young man pointed at Brent. "How many kids do you have? They all look just like you with your blonde hair and blue eyes. It's almost like they're mini-clones."
He was judging her and she didn't want to give him more of an opportunity. "I'm sorry Kirk gave you his lollipop. I'll have him come back and apologize. He knows better than that."
The man, with slightly curly dark brown hair and very blue eyes, clenched his jaw while his lips formed a thin angry line. "Where's his father? You'd think he'd tell him that's not right and round up your kids for you."
Clare didn't know what to say. "He's not here." She lowered her head. "I'm really sorry. We'll just go." Where would she go to church now? There weren't many churches in the small town of Oakville, Kansas and these kids needed direction in life.
"Stay here." The young man glanced toward Pastor Frank. "I'll be back."
Pastor Frank chuckled. "Wash your hand with soap."
"I will. Eventually." He walked off and Clare stood still, watching him leave.
"I'm so sorry," she said to Pastor Frank. He was balding, with gray hair, glasses, and brown eyes. "We won't be back to cause you any more embarrassment."
"Embarrassment?" He smiled and took her hand. "Don't you worry. Pastor Young will be fine. He needs to learn how to handle the entire flock, from the oldest to the youngest."
"Pastor?" She turned her head and looked for the man, but the crowd blocked her view as people caught up on gossip. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been able to talk to adults alone.
"Yes." Pastor Frank interrupted her thoughts. "We're thinking of hiring him as the new assistant pastor so I can retire."
Clare felt her eyebrows lift as she turned her attention toward him. "Retire?" It really was time to find a new church. Maybe she could travel the whole way to Topeka to church.
"Yes. It's time." He nodded toward the lobby. "He'd be a good one to teach your kids a few things."
He said it as if she wasn't doing her job already, making her bristle. She hated being judged.
Heavy anger welled in her chest, making her snort out her breath. "I can handle my children by myself, thank you." Clare stomped off toward the lobby. She rounded up child by child, and before long, she had five of the six kids standing against the wall. Only Kirk was missing.
Scanning the crowd, she finally saw Pastor Young giving Kirk a good talking to, wagging his finger in Kirk's face. The child looked terrified, and Clare could only imagine what was going through the young boy's head. No, they'd never come back here. She'd rather have church at home than deal with a mean preacher, since Pastor Frank was retiring.
"Stay here," she said to the five boys. "Mason, make sure." Mason was the oldest, at seven, then Brent, who was five. After that came the four-year-old quadruplets, Christopher, Kirk, Jacob, and finally Travis, who was deaf.
"Yeah, Mom," Mason said. "I'll sit on 'em." He turned to Travis and signed a few things to him, but Clare didn't have time to watch. She was on a mission.
She pushed up the sleeves on her old green dress and stomped toward the man talking to her son.
"Just remember, Kirk," the young man said. "God loves everyone and wants us to treat others how we want to be treated. You disrespect people when you do mean things to them. Maybe you should work for the church to pay off what you did to my hand."
"He's four!" Clare said, walking up to the man. "Four years old. He can't work for the church at four. He won't understand it."
The man spun toward her, his eyes narrowed and his jaw set. "Oh, yes he will." From his tone and his reddening cheeks, he was more than angry. "Maybe you and your absent husband aren't giving him the discipline he needs at home?"
Clare wasn't sure what to say, not sure if she was angry or just downright sad. Tears burned behind her eyelids, but she couldn't show this man she was weak. She wasn't about to tell him her husband was more absent than he'd guess, because he'd never understand how tough it was.
Once she grabbed Kirk's arm, she glared at the man in front of her, deciding anger was her best weapon. "We won't be back." Her voice was lowered and she couldn't wait to tell this guy off. "I thought the church would be supportive, but I see no one will help me. I'm on my own, even shunned by so-called Christians." She turned and walked away, the tears filling her eyes. "Come on boys," she said to her line of children along the wall. "Get your coats and we'll go home."
The boys ran to the coatroom then returned to the door. Clare didn't have a good coat for herself, but it didn't matter. She'd just run to the car, get inside, and crank up the heat, if the van heater worked.
They each held hands, with her standing in the center, because it was the only way she could take her crew to her car. They walked outside into the cold mid-November air to her rusted out dark green nine-seater van. After unlocking the doors, she helped each of the kids inside, buckling them into their seats. It was easier when they were babies, because she could put them all into one huge stroller. But now, they were growing up and she couldn't handle them by herself anymore.
Clare got into the car and backed out, starting the long drive home. The boys yelled at each other, hit arms, and kicked the backs of other seats. "Behave," she said, but knew her voice fell on deaf ears—especially for Travis who literally was deaf. They didn't listen. Pastor Young had that part right.
As she drove, she turned up the radio to the local Christian music station, hoping something would get through to her kids. If the church couldn't teach them God's word, maybe a singer or two could.
The snow started when she got to Shoo Lane, her street. They had no immediate neighbors, just too many children. She didn't know what to do with all those kids, a lot like the old woman in the nursery rhyme.
Her husband, Joel, had chosen to live out in the country, to let their kids be kids. The fixer-upper they bought was the only way they could afford a home big enough for their family, but it was a good twenty minutes outside of town. If it weren't for her mom babysitting when Clare went to work, Clare would never make it.
After parking in the driveway, she opened the car door, the blast of cold air making her hug her arms to her stomach as she stepped out. The boys unbuckled their seat belts and bounded out of the van, running in the falling snow with their tongues out to taste the snowflakes.
She glanced at the boys running in circles. "Come inside for lunch."
"We want to play in the snow," Kirk said. "It's the first good snow of the year which tastes the best."
She grabbed him by the arm. "You have work to do, buster. Get upstairs and clean your room."
"Christopher has to help. It's his room, too."
"Yes, it is." She turned toward the oldest quadruplet. "Get it done. I want that mess cleaned up before lunchtime."
Both boys marched inside while the other four played tag. Tired of yelling at them and cold from the weather, Clare trudged inside and to her room on the first floor to change clothes. After pulling on an old t-shirt and jeans, she headed back to the kitchen and started a pack of hot dogs in a pan of water on the stove. With all the bills to fix up the house, she couldn't afford much more. She opened two big cans of baked beans and poured them into a pan. After placing the pan on an empty burner, she turned it on and stirred the brown bean content.
"Mom!" one of the boys from upstairs yelled. "We have a pool up here in the hallway!"
A pool? Those weren't words she wanted to hear inside her house. Ever.
She took off running, heading up the stairs. As soon as she reached the top, she saw water all over the floor, seeping under the bathroom door and filling the cracks of the hardwood floor. She pulled her pant legs up past her ankles, the water entering her shoes.
"What happened?" she asked. "Kirk, did you do this?" She sloshed through the puddles to Kirk and Christopher's room, feeling the water hit her socks.
"No, Mom," Christopher said. "It was like this when we got here and I think it's getting worse." He nodded as if it was commonplace that they'd have a pool on the second floor hallway.
Clare went back into the hallway and opened the bathroom door, seeing a tub full of water, the faucet running at medium speed. This couldn't get any worse for her day.
She sloshed into the bathroom through about an inch or so of water and tried to turn off the faucet. But the knob broke in her hand and the water started going faster. She had to get rid of the water in the tub.
Just as she put down the knob and reached in to pull the tub plug, the scent of smoke hit her nose. She yanked out the plug and sloshed out of the room. While holding onto the loose and squeaky railing, she ran down the stairs the best she could. It wasn't easy, but she managed to head toward the smoky kitchen as her shoes squished around her wet socks.
"Mom's cooking again," Mason said. It sounded like he was talking to someone, which was all she needed to hear. Maybe it was her mother. No, she went to see Clare's perfect sister, an hour away. It must've been one of her other kids.
"It's burned," she heard a male voice say. It wasn't any of her sons, but a much older voice.
Uh-oh. She had no idea who it might be, but they'd probably judge her badly. As soon as she got to the bottom step, she ran toward the kitchen, her squishy shoes squeaking her arrival.
When she got to the doorway, she froze. There, standing at her stove, was none other than the man who had berated Kirk. Pastor Young. The last man on earth she wanted to judge her again. But this time, he'd taken a step off the church's snobby pedestal and had come to where she lived.
Life couldn't get any worse.