Aaron hung up the phone and just stared at it for a moment. “Shit,” he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. There was never a good time to be called in for a last minute shift but 6 am on the morning of his daughters’ first day of grade one had to be a record for worst timing ever. He crawled out of bed and knocked on his brother’s door.
“Why?” Andrew croaked.
Aaron took that as his invitation to open the door and walk in. Andrew was tangled up in his blankets, extra pillow in his arms. He glared at Aaron but without heat. Aaron snorted because his brother looked like a grumpy kitten in the morning.
“I got called in to work,” Aaron said, flipping the light on. “You’re on twin duty this morning. Their lunches are already packed but you need to get them up and dressed and to the school by 8:30.”
“Ugh,” Andrew groaned. “Can’t I just keep them at home another year? We used to start school at a decent hour.” He shut his eyes tight and snuggled back into his pillow.
Aaron sighed. “We talked about this. The twins need more structure and I am worried they won’t be able to make friends if we keep homeschooling them.”
“They have each other,” Andrew said stubbornly.
And of course, that was like a dagger to Aaron’s heart. “They do,” he said. “But it’s okay for them to have more.”
There was a moment of silence from the bed. “You’d better get going, you’ll be late for work,” Andrew finally said. Aaron knew that was all he was going to get from his brother.
Aaron parked outside the school. He was exhausted but he had managed to get away a little early so at least he could be on pickup duty. He steeled himself against the anxiety he felt and marched into the stool.
The moment he walked into the first grade classroom, his two girls were swarming his knees and he felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth for the first time since he had been woken by his ringtone.
“Oh, Mr Minyard, I’m glad I could catch you this time. I’m Miss Friesen, Mandy and Rebecca’s teacher,” the teacher interrupted their reunion. “I had a couple of papers for you to sign this morning but you left so quickly.”
Aaron nodded and followed her over to the desk. “Gather your stuff,” he said over his shoulder as he scrawled his signature where she indicated.
“Do we hafta go?” Mandy whined.
“We do,” Aaron said simply. “But you did something new today so you know what that means.”
“Special mac ‘n cheese!” The two girls shouted. Aaron barely managed to cover the smirk at Miss Friesen’s wince.
“And if we hurry home, you get to pick the special ingredients,” Aaron reminded them.
The girls cheered and raced for their backpacks and Aaron followed to make sure they didn’t forget anything crucial.
“So, how was it?” he asked as soon as he had them buckled into their booster seats.
“So great, Daddy,” Mandy started in. “Miss Freezy said we were real smart, that we had good reading and that we musta had a good teacher.”
“It’s Miss Friesen,” Rebecca interrupted primly. “You’re saying it wrong.”
“I wanna call her Miss Freezy. She was wearing that bright blue skirt and my favourite freezy is blue raspberry and Uncle Andy said I can remember people’s names the way I want to,” Mandy stuck out her tongue at her sister.
“Daddy,” Rebecca began in her “reasonable” voice, the one so much like Katelyn’s that it squeezed his heart in a vise.
“Mandy,” Aaron cut both of them off, “you can call her Miss Freezy for now but if she tells you to stop, you should stop.”
Mandy rolled her eyes at him in the rearview mirror. “But Uncle Andy said teachers shouldn’t be a barrier to my education and calling teachers by their real name is a barrier.”
“I’m fairly certain that is not what he meant,” Aaron rolled his eyes right back.
“Uncle Andy meant that it’s important to learn things well even if the teacher sucks, that we should ask other smart people questions or read books for ourselves. A teacher wanting to be called by her real name does not mean she sucks,” Rebecca explained.
“Well, I’m gonna ask Uncle Andy when we get home,” Mandy glared at her sister.
Aaron shook his head and sighed as he heard nothing but silence from the back seat for the rest of the car ride.
Rebecca made a beeline into the house screeching for her uncle but Mandy dawdled a little, carefully and precisely repacking her backpack before getting out of the car.
“Hey, sweetheart, did you have enough quiet time just now or do you need some corner time before you join your sister and uncle?” Aaron asked as he took her hand to walk her into the house.
Mandy’s brow furrowed as she thought about his question. “Can you set my clock for five minutes?” she asked. “I think that’s enough.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s okay if you need more. Today was a big day.”
“It was a good day, Daddy,” Mandy grinned up at him. “I think I like school.”
Aaron heaved a sigh of relief. He knew first hand what it was like to be different in school. Kids could be cruel; teachers didn’t always understand. He reminded himself for the hundred thousandth time that Mandy had a refuge to come home to and a lot of people that would protect her and stand up for her. She would never come home to a cold house, a drunk mother, a beating, or a brush off.
“You’re squeezing my hand super tight,” Mandy said.
“Sorry,” Aaron said, releasing her. She ran ahead of him to her special corner. Andrew had built a blanket fort for her in this corner a couple months ago when her acting out had started getting worse and it had really helped. It was small, barely enough room for her to curl up in a ball, and it had a big puffy pillow covering the floor and the fluffiest blanket Aaron had ever seen for her to wrap herself in and a little fox plushy Neil had given her for her sixth birthday that she liked to bury her face in.
“Just five minutes,” she reminded him.
Aaron picked up the Powerpuff Girls alarm clock from the floor and set it to go off in five minutes and, instead of joining Andrew and Rebecca in the kitchen, he sat on the floor outside the fort, enjoying the silence, waiting for his daughter.
The alarm clock startled him when it went off. Mandy crawled out right away and silenced it.
“Let’s go!” she hopped up and reached for his hand to help pull him to his feet. “Its mac ‘n cheese time!
Andrew and Rebecca were hard at work when they got to the kitchen. Andrew was stirring dry macaroni into the pot of boiling water on the stove and Rebecca was crumbling the candied bacon.
“No fair,” Mandy said, “you let her pick first?”
“I did not,” Andrew said. “I picked the candied bacon as my ingredient. You still each get one.”
“Cauliflower,” Aaron said promptly. Cries of disgust erupted all around him. “It’s fine. We’ll steam it and stick it in the blender so it mixes into the cheese sauce. If you disagree, I’m changing my pick to whole tomatoes from a can.”
Andrew was already turning to the fridge and pulling out the cauliflower. “Mandy?”
“I saved one bag of the ketchup chips Auntie Allison brought us from Canada. We can put it on top,” Mandy suggested.
Aaron heaved a little at the thought but knew he couldn’t say anything. It was against the rules of mac ‘n cheese.
“Ooh yes,” Rebecca said. “With parmesan and pepperjack melted on top of the chips?”
Andrew nodded and pulled the cheese out of the fridge, setting parmesan, pepperjack, cheddar, gruyere, and the grater in front of Rebecca. Aaron moved forward to help her with it while Mandy ran to her bedroom to grab the bag of chips.
Andrew handed Mandy the rolling pin and turned back to the pots on the stove. He melted butter in the empty saucepan, sprinkled in a heaping spoonful of flour, and whisked them together. Mandy enthusiastically crushed the bag of chips with a rolling pin until one end of the bag exploded and sent a dusting of red crumbs over the table and part of the floor. Andrew wordlessly handed her the broom and turned back to the pots. He gradually mixed a couple cups of milk into the butter and flour.
“The cheese is ready!” Rebecca announced. “Did you know some kids in the first grade can’t even read yet?”
“Oh?” Andrew asked.
“Not even the baby books,” Mandy agreed. “They just know their alphabet and some sight words. Can I put the cheese in?”
Andrew nodded. Aaron carried the plate of cheese over to the stove and Andrew picked her up so she could reach.
“The teacher read us Green Eggs and Ham. Have you ever tried them? Are they good?” Mandy asked as she grabbed handfuls of cheese and threw it into the thick bubbling sauce Andrew had made.
“Nope,” Andrew said. “But maybe next time we can add them to the mac ‘n cheese.”
“Ewwww,” the girls chorused together.
“We can’t add EGGS!” Mandy said.
“Ham might be okay though,” Rebecca said thoughtfully. “But not eggs. That would not work.”
“Sounds like a challenge to me,” Andrew said casually, stirring the last of the cheese into the sauce. “Okay, what do you think, bacon mixed in or on top with the chips?”
“Mixed in,” Mandy said. “We don’t want too much stuff on top.”
“Wait,” Aaron interrupted, “we haven’t added the cauliflower.”
All three of them rolled their eyes in sync.
“Rules are rules,” Aaron said firmly.
Andrew sighed but added the steamed cauliflower into the blender and pulsed it until it was a fine crumb and added it into the sauce.
From there, it was the work of moments to stir in the macaroni and the bacon, spread it in a pan, sprinkle the rest of the cheese and the ketchup chips on top and slide it into the oven.
And it’s actually pretty good. The ketchup chips wouldn’t be his first choice but they add a bit of nice texture and the flavours do work. He thinks back on some of the other concoctions they’ve made over the last year: “lucky charms, gummy worms, taco seasoning, and onions” or “crushed oreo cookies, green peppers, jalapenos, and a layer of toasted marshmallows on top” were standouts and really not in a good way.
“I think…”Aaron began after a few more bites. “I think we can add this one to the list.”
“Yes!” Mandy fist pumped.
Andrew shrugged and walked to the fridge and added their latest concoction to a list titled, “Mac ‘n Cheese We’re Allowed to Make Again,” right below “dill pickles, cream cheese, buffalo chicken strips, and cherry tomatoes.”
All in all, it was a much better first day than Aaron had been expecting.
Aaron’s leg jittered as he sat by the teacher’s desk, waiting for the other children in her class to go home. Mandy and Rebecca were playing with the class iPads in the corner, headphones in and ignoring everything going on around them.
“It’s nothing to worry about, really,” Miss Friesen said, “I just want to talk about a few things. This won’t take long.”
Aaron nodded. “What is this about?”
“Well, first let me say that Rebecca is a dream to teach. She is quite clever and I know she is sometimes bored in class but she sits and does extra homework quite studiously and without complaint,” Miss Friesen said, but Aaron could tell her smile wasn’t quite real.
“And Mandy?” he asked.
“Also an excellent student. I’ve been very impressed with their progress, especially since they were schooled at home up until this point. But she can occasionally be disruptive in class. She hums while she’s working and doodles when she is supposed to be paying attention and sometimes when I’ve assigned silent homework time, she puts her headphones in and ignores me.”
“Is it affecting her work?” Aaron asked.
“Well, no...but it could…” Miss Friesen said.
“Then I don’t see why it is a problem. My daughter is obviously learning things in your class. Why should it matter if she does it differently than her classmates?” Aaron asked. “Are we done?”
“Well, no...I…” Miss Friesen continued, obviously flustered. “And then there is the matter of the lying.”
“Excuse me?” Aaron glared at her. “My daughter is not in the habit of lying.”
“It’s both of them. Now I know you lost your wife not that long ago so I think we can attribute some of it to issues with coping with grief,” Miss Friesen said.
Aaron felt a dull pain begin in the left side of his jaw and migrate up to his temple but he didn’t interrupt her.
“I think they are feeling the lack of a proper mother figure in their life so they’ve made up someone to fill that void, an Uncle Andy.”
“Uncle Andy,” Aaron repeated flatly.
“Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous but they’ve been telling their classmates some rather outlandish stories. This Uncle Andy tucks them into bed at night and takes them to the park and fixes their toys and clothes. He cooks them macaroni and cheese with ridiculous ingredients like chocolate bars and gummy candy. He also carries a lot of knives and his boyfriend is a professional Exy player. You see why I’m concerned? The lies just keep getting bigger,” Miss Friesen leaned a little closer, her hand on his arm. “If your girls need a more motherly influence, I’m happy to help out, cook a few healthy meals a week, take your girls for outings, things like that.”
Aaron raised his eyebrow. “What made you so sure that Uncle Andy wasn’t a real person?”
“Well, I was suspicious after hearing the stories but honestly, the girls were talking about Uncle Andy dropping them off for school and I clearly remembered seeing you walk them into the classroom,” Miss Friesen smiled.
“I see,” Aaron said, trying to figure out exactly what to say to this woman.
“Daddy?” Mandy tugged on his arm. “I’m ready for corner time.”
“I have to go,” Aaron said. “We’ll continue this conversation later.”
“You’re coming with me to pick up the twins tomorrow,” was all Aaron said to Andrew when he got home.
Aaron knew Andrew was confused as they walked into the school together but he followed him to the classroom anyway.
“Uncle Andy!” Mandy and Rebecca mobbed their uncle as soon as he walked through the door but Aaron was looking at Miss Friesen, whose face had abruptly gone about three shades paler.
“I don’t think I’ve formally introduced you to my identical twin brother, Andrew,” Aaron smirked. “He’s dating the lead striker of the New York Wildcats and has some incredibly strange ideas about what belongs in macaroni and cheese.”
“I’m so sorry,” Miss Friesen whispered. “I had no idea.”
“You’d better be sorry. My brother is the only reason I made it through this last year without Katelyn. He taught my girls all last year, making sure they wouldn’t be behind when they returned to school. He’s the one who figured out that Mandy was on the spectrum and who came up with all the little strategies she uses during the day to avoid melting down, including humming, doodling, and wearing headphones to manage her sensory input. He’s had their back since the moment they were born and he’s had mine even longer. Try to remember that the next time you decide you know anything about our family,” Aaron said, quietly enough not to attract any attention but firmly enough that she wouldn’t ignore him.
“Yes, of course. I look forward to having your girls in my class this year. You did a wonderful job teaching them Andy...I mean Andrew...sir,” Miss Friesen rambled. Aaron took pity on her and nodded his forgiveness before helping his girls pack up their things. Andrew stood there and stared her down until they were all ready to go.
They climbed into the car and Aaron looked apprehensively over at his brother, worried that Andrew would be angry but instead he was greeted with a sight he’s only seen a few times in his life, and usually only directed at his daughters. Andrew was smiling, not smirking, not just not glaring, but a full, soft, and genuine smile.
“Disgusting,” Andrew said. “Never say anything like that again." But Aaron watched his brother on the drive home and that smile took a very long time to fade.