“Philip! Like this! You take the paper--”
Philip’s sharp voice interrupted Cece’s. “No!”
“Dad!” Cece called. “Philip’s doing it wrong!”
Jim spun away from the kitchen counter, gripping a roll of paper towels, and spied Philip waddling, penguin-like, across the long strip of paper that spanned the length of the floor. Jim grinned at Philip’s blue footprints. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked Cece, setting the paper towels on the table.
Cece, who sat on her folded legs, rolled her eyes. “You’re supposed to use your fingers. It’s fingerpaint!”
“Well, sweetie, it’s not about what it’s called,” Jim said, peering down at the purple handprints spaced neatly across Cece’s paper. “That’s not the point of art. Art lets you explore and be creative. That’s what your brother’s doing.”
As if on cue, Philip bent down and, with a pudgy finger, drew squiggles through his footprints.
“See?” Jim said, nodding his head toward Philip.
With her painted hands suspended above a fresh piece of paper, Cece silently watched Philip for a moment before suddenly smearing her face with her hands and plastering it with paper.
“Oh! Cece, I didn’t mean--”
The paper crinkled as Cece pressed it against her face. When she whipped it away and placed it on the table, Jim could see the marks made by her cheeks and forehead, the curly lines made by her hair. He grinned, shaking his head. “Okay. Well. That’s pretty creative.”
“Daddy, Philip’s being creative, too!”
Jim’s eyes widened as he tracked Philip’s creativity across the room. Blue footprints led to blue-spotted cabinets, a blue-smudged oven door, blue handprints across the refrigerator. And a blue boy, happily sweeping a blue arch across the wall with his hand.
“Oh, my god. Philip!” He crossed the kitchen in a few strides and gently eased Philip away from the wall. “Hey. Hey, buddy,” he said softly, wiping paint from Philip’s hands with a paper towel. “Let’s stick to the paper, okay? How about we join your sister at the table and--”
“Daddy! Look! I made the door pretty!”
Jim found Cece bouncing like a hyperactive grasshopper near the back door, which bore a broad swath of purple-orange streaks. Cece beamed.
“Very pretty, but no more, okay?” Jim said, his voice stern as he wrangled Philip toward the table. “Let’s paint on the paper.”
Cece walked her hands down the wall and onto the floor. “But I’m exploring!”
“Okay,” Jim muttered, wrapping an arm around Philip and making a mental note to leave the art lessons to Pam. “You know what, Cece? We’re all going to explore in the bathroom and get cleaned up before mommy gets home. Come on.”
She shunned his outstretched hand and climbed onto her chair, leaving color everywhere she touched. The chair. The table. Herself. Like a criminal with a messy calling card.
“Cece, come on.”
“But I’m not done.” She planted her hand on the nearest piece of paper.
Philip started to squirm. Jim hoisted him up and secured a better grip, releasing a blustery sigh as Philip’s blue hand slid across his neck and latched onto his collar. “Cece. We’re going to the--”
“I’m not done!”
Her last word pierced Jim’s eardrums, and he slowly inhaled, catching the scent of Philip’s hair. After a long, steady exhale, he spoke with his deadliest dad-voice. “ Cece. Bathroom. Now.”
But as Jim reached for Cece’s purple hand, the back door swung open, and Pam stopped on the threshold, her mouth falling open as her eyes scanned the kitchen.
“Pam,” Jim said, frantic to explain. “Everything was under control until--”
Cece launched herself at Pam, her fists carelessly gripping the edges of her artwork. Philip wriggled in Jim’s arms, pushing off Jim’s cheek with one blue hand before reaching toward his mother.
“Happy Valentine’s Day!” Cece sing-songed, thrusting her finger-painted hearts and handprints into Pam’s sightline.
“Oh, Cece,” Pam said, crouching down to hug Cece. “These are beautiful!”
One corner of Jim’s mouth twitched with a half-smile, and he set Philip on the floor, watching him scramble to join their hug. He shook his head in wonder at Pam’s ability to praise their art and, less than five minutes later, convince them that “all great artists clean up after themselves” as she ushered them to the bathroom.
Jim assumed clean-up duty in the kitchen while Pam washed the kids and tucked them in for a nap. He was wiping down the cabinets with a color-stained sponge when he felt Pam’s fingers comb through his hair.
“Hey, Valentine,” she said. “You’ve got some paint in your hair.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not all,” he said, standing up, tilting his head to show off the splatters of color on his face and neck.
“Things got a little out of hand, huh?”
“It was like they could teleport. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to get everything cleaned up before you got home, but they were not--I was--” He tossed the sponge into the sink. “I was frazzled, Pam.”
“It’s okay,” she said through a soft laugh, reaching for him.
“Yeah, but I imagined this great moment. You’d come home, and they’d be waiting with their art,” he said, frustration lacing his voice. “In a house that didn’t have paint”--he gestured to the wall, the oven, the door--“everywhere.”
Pam set her hands on his shoulders, sliding them up the back of his neck and into his hair. She massaged his head for a moment, fingertips defusing the tension above his ears. “I never told you about the time Cece and Philip went to see the Easter Bunny,” she said.
His eyebrows furrowed. “Yes, you did. They couldn’t see the Easter Bunny because he’d hopped away for the day.”
“Well, that’s”--she looked up at him, a sheepish blush on her cheeks--“not quite the story.”
“Not quite the story? You lied to me? About the Easter Bunny? Pam, that’s low.”
“Shut up and let me tell you the real story,” she said through a smile, checking the nearest chair for paint before she sat down. “So we’re in line, and Philip’s in the stroller, and Cece’s next to the stroller. Except I didn’t notice that she was picking up Easter candy that someone had just thrown on the floor--”
“What kind of monster would do that?” He leaned against the tabletop, his hands flat on the surface.
Jim mirrored her smile. “If you don’t want your kids to have it, just keep it for yourself.”
“Exactly! So anyway, I can only assume that Cece found some chocolate because when it’s our turn to meet the Easter Bunny, I look down and there’s chocolate all over their faces. All over them.”
Jim’s mouth dropped open, his smile widening.
“So I can’t find tissues or napkins in my bag, so I try to wipe Philip’s face with my sleeve, because, of course, Cece has already taken off for the Easter Bunny.”
“And the kid taking the photos keeps ma’am-ing me, so I put Philip on the Bunny’s knee. Cece’s on a chair next to the Bunny, and everything is fine until Philip takes one look at this Bunny and screams, which echoes so loudly you’d think you were in an airplane hangar. So I just tell the kid to take the damn picture, because the line was getting long, and these mothers were shooting me awful looks, and there was no chance I was going to save it, so--”
Pam leaned over, reached into her bag, and pulled a small photograph from its side pocket. She rose from her chair and, sidestepping the art that still covered the floor, joined Jim on the other side of the table.
“Oh…my god,” he said, instantly transfixed on the photo in her hand. Philip was clutching the Bunny’s arm, his wet, scrunched face as red as a strawberry. Cece, her mouth lined with chocolate, was climbing on the Bunny, whose fuzzy hand had ended up on the floor. She was reaching for Philip, trying to cover his mouth, but her arm couldn’t bridge the gap from one Bunny knee to the other.
“Wow, this is…” He paused, noticing new details--the panic in the Easter Bunny’s eyes, a candy wrapper sticking out of Cece’s pocket--and he laughed, shaking his head. “A disaster.”
“I remember wanting to get this great picture. Cece and Philip’s first visit to the Easter Bunny together. And, at first, I was so disappointed,” she said, tilting her head as she looked at the photo. “But I kind of love it now. And I wanted you to have it.”
“Well, I think this is the best Easter Bunny photo I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Although, how exactly did the hand come off?”
“Cece ripped it off. I suspect she wanted to use it to cover Philip’s face, but she never got that far.”
“Wow.” He leaned down and kissed her. “Thank you for this,” he said, waving the photo before slipping it into the back pocket of his jeans. He shared a closed-mouth grin with her, squeezing her fingers before turning toward the sink.
“Where are you going?” Pam asked, freezing him to a stop in the middle of the kitchen.
He turned, his eyebrows raised, and feebly pointed toward the counter. “I was hoping to get rid of all this, so the kids didn’t turn the kitchen into a slip ’n slide when they woke up.” Even as he formed the words, his mind flashed a different image: Pam pinned to the wall, his mouth slanted over hers, her skin stamped with color--a trail of where he’d touched her.
“I think you wore them out.” Pam smiled, recapturing his attention. She leaned back against the edge of the table. When she spoke again, her voice was softer, lower. “We should be safe for a while. Come here.”
When Jim reached her, she took his hand and led him to the shower. His heart beat hard as she pushed him under the water and rinsed the paint from his hair. She swept his hair away from his forehead, tilting his head back, and kissed his neck. Jim’s breath escaped him with an abrupt, short burst as her tongue grazed his skin, and he closed his eyes until she pulled away. When he opened his eyes, she had already lowered her head, and he watched as she chased a stream of water down his body with open-mouthed kisses. He braced himself against the wall, his voice drowned out by the drumming of the shower, as Pam’s hands splayed over his hips, her mouth as wet and hot as the water that ran over them, flowing blue and clear.