The frame had come apart instantly upon impact with the floor. Glass was everywhere. Gerald fished a sheet of embossed paper out of the rubble. Not paper, he realized: vellum. This was the certificate of appreciation from the Grand Academy of Wizards. His mind flashed back to the opulent awards ceremony in the Great Hall of Wizardry, then back further to the tussle with Duke Rothrubien. Gerald shuddered a little to recall what a close thing it had been. First, there had been the Duke’s opening sneak attack, a bolt of lightning as Gerald sought him in an inky dark dungeon. Gerald had been young and fit back then – not the best magician, granted, but quick on his feet and brave to the point of idiocy. He’d dodged the first bolt and countered with a whirlwind that had upended the Duke’s collection of bizarre torture devices and revealed, in flashing lightning-light, the sneering visage Gerald had so come to loathe during his time at the Academy. Gerald had exposed himself, and he knew from experience what came next. The Duke had raised his staff and…
THWACK. Another small shoe hit Gerald square on the back of the head. “I don’t wanna go to school!” Abby wailed.
“Too bad,” Angie responded grimly. Gerald rapidly scooped up the broken glass and bustled the dustpan into the kitchen, catching a glimpse of the girls out of the corner of his eye. Abby was a foot above the surface of the mattress, clinging to the bedpost with her arms and legs like a cat trying to stay clear of a full bathtub. Her twin sister, Dana, had gone completely limp and was lying on the carpet. Angie was trying, without much success, to drag a shirt over her head.
God. He could have drawn out the thing with the Duke for a few more years instead of doing this. As soon as the thought occurred to him, Gerald stuffed it back down into the recesses of his mind. What was the Rothrubien death toll? Something like three or five thousand people per year for a total of twenty-five-ish years? Immense, anyway. The Duke hadn’t died a moment too soon. Plus, Gerald loved his family.
Angie stormed out of the bedroom, her previously fastidious clothing askew and wrinkled. “I’ve got to go to work,” she said. “Can you please, please deal with this? They can’t stay home for another day.”
“No,” Gerald agreed.
“They can’t stay home just because they throw a tantrum. Seriously, can you imagine the kind of trouble we’d be in if the school found out?” Angie fixed him with a glare. “Make them go to school today, Jerry. I mean it.”
Gerald sighed. “I’ll try. But you know, I have no experience with this. I went to boarding school.”
Why was he picking a fight? He could see Angie working up, only to calm herself with a strong effort at the last minute. “I’ve got to go,” she repeated. She kissed him hurriedly on the cheek and raced away. A minute later, Gerald heard the car purr to life outside and rumble into the distance. He grabbed the mostly-brown fried eggs and brought them into the girls’ room.
As soon as Angie had left, Abby and Dana had quieted. Now they sat side by side on the rumpled mattress amidst a sea of tangled bed sheets and clothing. Both were in their pajamas, though Dana wore one sock. Both looked expectant and a little satisfied.
He sighed. “OK, kids,” he began. “First, we’re going to eat our breakfast.”
“Yay, eggs!” Abby cheered.
“Yay, Dad!” Dana added. They both grinned, identical Cheshire smiles that said, more eloquently than a million tantrums, we know we’re not going to school today.
“Then,” Gerald continued, “you’re going to get dressed and go to school, or there will be trouble in this house.”
The first time Gerald had given this speech was last week, and the girls had been frantic. They’d bargained, pled, and thrown themselves on Gerald’s mercy, and in the end, their efforts had paid off. Now, they didn’t even bother. Abby yawned and lay back on the bed. “I think I’d like to hear a story today,” she said. “Let’s read Mr. Pony again.”
“I want to hear a magic story,” Dana chirped. She smiled winningly up at Gerald. “Tell us a magic story, Daddy!”
Gerald was again catapulted back in time, this time to his Academy graduation ceremony. Headmaster Portius Fitzstevens had shaken Gerald’s hand on the stage as hundreds of dignitaries and VIPs from all over the magical world watched, misty-eyed. “Well earned indeed,” the old sage had growled fervently as he handed over a rolled parchment tied with a crimson ribbon. “I know that we’ll see great things of you yet, Gerald Silver.”
Gerald’s smile had hurt his cheeks, but he had held it until he was off the stage. Then he held it until the ceremony was through, grinning like a lunatic as he sat squished between his two best friends, his best allies against the Duke. Then, as the exit processional played and the magical industries representatives prepared to chase him down with job offers, Gerald excused himself to go to the bathroom. He never came back.
Now, he looked at his two little girls and felt his resolve give way to resigned quasi-exhaustion. “How about Mr. Pony,” he said.