“I’m going to catch a ghost,” Ranan said without looking up from her oatmeal. Kneeling on her chair, she leaned one elbow on the table and shoved her spoon down to the bottom of her bowl. Then she dragged it back out. Turning her spoon in front of her nose, she eyed the sticky cereal with more care than she gave her plan.
I had my hands in the dish water, soap suds clinging to my forearms while the steam stuck my shirt to my chest. The day’s bread was already in the oven. The breakfast pots were cold on the stove. Somewhere outside, a ghost had howled and, out of habit, I was scanning the window for it. It was always a strange, disjointed sort of sound. The ghosts only made noise when they were out of sight.
“Why?” I asked. She didn’t answer, so I turned to look at her, scrubbing dough and oil off the bottom of the mixing bowl. I raised my eyebrows innocently in question. “What are you going to do with it?”
She still didn’t look at me, just tilted her head against her shoulder while she pushed her oatmeal around. “Feed it,” she said. “And give it a bath. And hug it.”
I nodded, impressed for her. She still didn’t seem to care, but it was brightly ambitious.
“Are we going to sweep today?” she asked.
“Yes,” I told her. “And change the beds, and do the wash, and go see your Aunt Tema.”
“Why?” Ranan asked, a slighter echo of my voice.
“Because she’s a horrible sneeze monster right now, and she needs soup,” I said.
Ranan glared at me doubtfully, looking at me for the first time that morning. I grinned, daring her to play my game. She hesitated, knowing what I knew: that I didn’t lie to her.
“Can I name the dust bunnies?” she asked.
“We’re doing the sweeping on time this week,” I told her. “There won’t be dust bunnies.”
“Very small mice.”
She jammed her spoon into her oatmeal again. “You can name them.”
It was still a few minutes before Eadan clattered down the stairs. He shoved his arm through the sleeve of his jacket, jumped the last few steps, and spun around the banister to throw himself into the kitchen.
“You are late,” I told him, catching his eye and holding it.
He swallowed, pulled in a heavy breath, hair still wet from combing it down. His shirt was untied around his neck, and wrinkled from too many wearings. Clearly it was his favorite birthday gift. I’d seen him in it every day since.
“Food?” he asked.
I pointed to the stove top. Eadan ran the two steps it took to cross the room, and slid to a stop with his hip against the cupboard beside the hot oven. Quickly, he started scooping sausage and eggs into a waiting bowl.
“You’re supposed to be taking your job seriously,” I said. I was careful with my tone, watching the back of his head.
Eadan whipped around to look at me, surprised. He had a piece of sausage in his mouth and had to swallow before he answered me. “I love my job,” he said.
I gave him a sharper look, holding his eye. “You like it,” I corrected him. “Love requires respect.”
His eyebrows folded in confusion, and then he shook his head at me. “I was up late, because Momma was showing me some of her workbooks. She’ll understand.”
“Not if you don’t move,” I said.
He flashed me a smile, too quick to deliver the apology he meant it to. Then, hugging his bowl to his chest, he darted around the kitchen table. I dropped my hands back into the dishwater, skimming the inside of the mixing bowl while he hugged Ranan roughly from behind. It was an excuse to steal a bite of her sweet oatmeal and lean her into the table. We both ignored him with the smallest eye-rolls we could manage.
Then he whispered something in her ear.
Instantly, Ranan turned in her chair. I saw her make a fist and throw it against his face. I shouted, but it was a little too late. He must have seen it too, but he didn’t pull away. His bowl clattered onto the table. He fell onto the floor. Laughing.
“Hey!” I yelled. I dropped the mixing bowl back into the water, almost vaulting over the table to catch Ranan before she fell on top of him. Five years old, and she was already more solid than he was. He growing too fast, being a whip-cord of a boy, but she was a pretty little nugget of iron. He liked to see how far he could dance out of her range.
“Get out of here, Eadan!” I said. I jerked my head toward the door, holding my arm across Ranan’s chest.
He scrambled to grab his bowl, hand over his mouth, maybe because it was starting to bruise, and maybe just to hide his smile from me. Then he slipped out the door and let it clap shut behind him.
In the fresh quiet, I spun Ranan to face me, one hand on each shoulder. She twisted, just to see if she could push me away, but didn’t try hard.
“Don’t hit him,” I told her, each word stressed to be sure she felt the weight of them.
Her eyes were shiny. But she nodded.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He’s mean,” she said.
“Are you going to tell me what he said?” I asked.
Ranan twisted her shoulders again. Then she shook her head, fiercely.
I pointed toward the corner, to the chair faced against the wall. “Go and sit while I finish the dishes,” I said. “When I’m done, we’re going to practice your apology until it’s very, very good. Think about it hard.”
She wiped her nose with the back of her, waiting for me to let her go. Then she pushed her chair away from the table until it groaned against the floor and slid off. She walked straight to the corner, climbed up into the seat, and tucked her knees to her chest.
I paused before I turned back to the dishes, took a careful breath.
After a few minutes, Ranan twisted to look at me over her shoulder. Her eyes were a little wider than usual and she sucked on the tip of one finger the way she used to when she was tiny. “When I’m done being in trouble will you help me catch my ghost?” she asked.