Max chewed. He did that a lot lately, because his mouth ached, and it felt good to chew. The tribble in his hand didn’t agree; it squeaked pitifully with each jaw chomp, and saliva dripped off its blue fur.
Finally, Max let go of the tribble, who dropped to the blanket and shook itself, rolling to dry off as other tribbles backed away from it, murmuring little chirps of sympathy.
Teething time was rough in the playpen, and they all knew any one of them could be next.
Max looked around. Anyone looking at him would see a lean eleven-month old in a striped onesie and denim overalls, his fine baby hair dark and curly. He concentrated, looking for Mama, his gaze sweeping through the walls until he spotted her far off in the kitchen, warming up some macaroni and cheese.
This was good. Max loved macaroni and cheese. It tasted good and it squished good and he could eat some and throw some at the same time. He liked the way it smelled, too; all orange. Max crawled over to the side of the playpen and worked his fingers into the netting, pulling himself up so he could stand.
Standing was fun. He liked that. He was good at standing now, and walking. Running was harder, but he liked that best of all, especially when Dada chased him. That would make him giggle and when he got caught and Dada kissed him with his scratchy beard, Max would kick and giggle lots.
He tugged at the netting, feeling hungry. Maybe Mama would have a carrot for him to chew on, too. Max whimpered a little, and the tribbles clustered around his bare feet, cooing. He smiled for a moment, and then gripped the netting again.
It dissolved and Max tumbled onto the thick carpet, rolling a little as he landed. Behind him, the netting reappeared, and the tribbles all clustered anxiously, trying to squeeze through the small openings and failing.
Max looked at them and burbled, waving, then began to crawl towards the door. He made it part of the way, and then looked down.
There was Floof, and with a squeal, Max pounced on him, making happy sounds.
Floof squeaked. He had a squeaker inside and Max knew if he squeezed Floof or sat on him or hit him in the right place, the squeaky would sing out and make him laugh.
Floof, Floof, Floof. Uncle Jim had given him the fuzzy stuffed airplane a long time ago, and Max liked how soft it was. He took Floof in one hand and tried to crawl with him. It was hard, but Max kept going to the door.
“Max?” Mama opened the door and found him. Max smiled up at her, because she smelled like macaroni and cheese. “How did you get out of your playpen, sweetheart?”
He dropped Floof and held out his arms, knowing Mama would pick him up. She was smart and knew lots of what he wanted. She knew when he wanted Up, and Down, and More, and Not Now, and Change and Cuddle. Mama made almost everything into a game, and Max knew it was nearly Lunch Man time, so he burbled and tried to eat a handful of Mama’s hair as she carried him to the kitchen.
“Okay, today on Lunch Man, we have macaroni and cheese, along with a sippy cup and a big, fat carrot!” Mama announced. Max kicked and smacked his hands on the tray of his high chair, delighted. He watched as she pulled a chair up to sit next to him and stir the macaroni.
“And here comes Lunch Man, flying woooooooooo----!” Mama announced, making the spoon dip and soar. Max laughed and opened his mouth. “Right into the secret base, yum, yummy!”
Max chewed, glad to see that Mama has happy too. Lunch Man flew again and again, and each time Max chewed up each mouthful.
When Dada fed him, he called it Maxaroni, and he didn’t play Lunch Man. Instead, he pretended HE was going to eat it, and Max would have to yell to get Dada to move the spoon the right way. It took a lot of yelling, but it was fun, and sometimes Dada did eat some of it.
He was feeling full, so Max grabbed the spoon and smeared some of the mac and cheese on the tray. Mama zoomed in with a wet washcloth, and Max squirmed, trying to back away from it. Washcloth meant lunch was over, and THAT meant story time and nap.
Story time was good, but Max didn’t like nap very much. He took the carrot with him as Mama carried them both to the living room. Dummy had brought out the playpen and Max watched him roll around to the back of the sofa. Max knew that Dummy liked story time too, even if Mama and Dada didn’t know it.
Dummy liked lots of things that Max liked.
“Okay, today, Max sweetheart, we have But Not the Hippopotamus. Is that good?” Mama asked him while changing his diaper. Max crowed a little, dropping the carrot.
Dummy picked it up. Max sat on Mama’s lap and helped her read by smacking the pages.
Max knew that helped because Mama always laughed.
“A moose and a goose together have juice . . .” Mama read, “But not the . . .”
“Paa!” Max yelled, knowing that was right. He felt sorry for the hippopotamus because juice was good.
“A bear and a hare have been to a fair,” Mama went on, “But not the . . .”
“Paa!” Max had this down, and hit the page, right on the balloons.
They went through the rest of the book, and Max looked at all the pictures, and chewed on his carrot. He hoped there would be another book, but when Mama put it away, he didn’t see any others.
Max huffed. He began to suck in air, working his way up to a good cry, because now it was naptime, and he hated naptime.
Naptime meant he had to stay in the playpen all by himself while Mama made the living room dark. He kicked in the air, and tried to make Sad face at Mama, but she just laughed and kissed him, blowing air on his neck.
That tickled, and Max couldn’t be sad, not while he was giggling.
Mama always smelled good, like Cuddle milk, all clean. Not like Dada, who was stinky sometimes, and smelled like the workshop.
Max liked the workshop, and hoped he could go with Dada down there after nap.
Workshop had noises and lights and sometimes, booms. Max wasn’t scared of booms, even when they smelled funny and Dummy had to spray white stuff on fires and Dada said they were NOT going to tell Mama about it.
“Nap time,” Mama said, like it was a good thing. Max knew better. He fussed when she took the carrot and gave him his Binky instead. When she put him in the playpen, he sucked hard on the Binky and kicked.
The tribbles came around him, and started to hum. Max blinked. He liked it when they hummed Spongebob and tried to tickle him. Mama kissed his head and went away with Dummy, turning out the lights.
Max whimpered. He blinked again, and lay down, just a little bit. He wasn’t going to sleep, though. Not him. Max kicked some more, but the tribbles knew how to stay out of the way of his feet. They crept closer to his shoulders, still humming softly. Max yawned widely around the Binky, and closed his eyes just for a little bit because he wasn’t going to take a nap.
Max looked around and yelled his happy yell. The little beach with sand and the tall bushes was all around him. Max loved this place, and he knew it was HIS. He grabbed some sand and threw it in the air. The grains turned into ladybugs and they flew away.
Max clapped and began to crawl. He found one of the tall bushes and pulled himself up, grinning because it was good to be up. The air smelled nice, and Max looked around to see who was there.
Floof was there. And Augie and Miss Clairol and their Pengraff babies. Max knew he couldn’t say ‘Augie’ yet, or ‘Miss Clairol’ but that didn’t matter. They came over to him and cuddled, and he laughed, patting them all over.
“Naptime, huh?”Augie said and beeped Max’s nose. “Gettin’ big, kiddo.”
Max agreed, and hugged Miss Clairol, who gave him warm fuzzies back with her long eyelashes.
They all played Digging a Hole for a long time, and Max liked finding treasure. There was a Blackberry like Mama’s, and a Car Keys, and an Arc like Dada’s and a See and Say. The babies kept running around the hole and falling in and climbing out. Max threw sand, and turned it to Mac and Cheese and the babies ate it all up.
“Max . . . Mad Max . . .”
Max woke up, smiling because Dada was bending over the playpen to pick him up and naptime was over.
Dada sniffed and made a funny face. “Thanks. Yeah, I appreciate the chance to work with fresh toxic waste, Maximum Trouble.”
Max spit out his Binky and reached for Dada, who picked him up and changed him. It was a stinky one, but Max didn’t care, because now Dada was handing the diaper to Dummy and they were going to go to the Workshop. They went down the stairs, Max on Dada’s shoulders.
“And here we are, Stark and Son, engineering team extraordinaire, ready to split atoms, smooth out the bugs with cold fusion and field-test any Fisher-Price products that happen to be lying around.”
Max liked being included, and laughed again. Dada called Butterfingers over and hung the jumpy swing from his long arm.
Jumpy swing was great. Max could jump very high, and get the giggles. Butterfingers could roll around and Max liked that too, because then he could watch and touch things and put them in his mouth.
Dada took some of them away, but there were other things that it was okay to touch and chew. Max especially liked the big rubber welding gloves which tasted nice and smoky.
“Okay, today, we upgrade relay circuits, Max. This is all really thrilling, so bear with me. Do we want music?” Dada asked him.
Max looked over at the Jarvis, waiting. The Jarvis was in different places in the house, but in the Workshop, the Jarvis was in the computer.
“Jarvis, what selections ala toddler do we have today?” Dada asked, sitting at the bench and pulling out tools.
Max hoped it would be Wheels on the Bus.
“Our musical choices today are Itsy Bitsy Spider, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and that world renowned classic, Farmer in the Dell, Sir.”
“Max?” Dada asked.
Max wiggled in his jumpy seat because if Wheels on the Bus wasn’t on, then Farmer in the Dell was good too.
“Farmer it is, Jarvis. Crank it.”
Max yelled and bounced in his jumper, thrilled. He sang, even though he knew he wasn’t very good, and Dada sang too, bending over something on the table.
It was noisy, just the way Max liked it, and he bounced around, waving his arms.The workshop was the best place at home, Max knew. He liked everything here except the Face, and Dada always kept it wide open so that Max didn’t cry.
The first time he saw the Face, Max cried and cried. Even when it opened up and he saw Dada inside, smiling at him and telling him it was okay, it wasn’t. The Face was scary, even if Dada was behind it, and Max didn’t like it one little bit. The Face made him want to go away, fast.
“The dog takes the cat, the dog takes the cat, Heigh Ho the dairy-o the dog takes the cat,” Dada sang. “I wonder where they go, or if it’s got some other meaning?”
“It’s ‘take’ as in ‘choose,’” Max heard Mama come in and kicked. Butterfingers rolled over, and Max made big jumps. “Hey there, Max!” Mama came over with a sippy cup.
Juice! Max’s favorite. He squealed and took it, plugging in because he didn’t even know he was thirsty, but he was.
“Ah. I thought it could be ‘take’ as in a very old, um, Anglo-Saxon biblical sort of reference, which would make some of the verses very non-suitable for the Stark scion here,” Dada said as Mama came over to hug him.
“You are disgusting,” Mama said, but Max knew she was laughing inside.
“I am not, I just have a very broad and inquiring mind,” Dada said. Max could tell he was happy too, because his glow was strong.
Max drank, and watched Mama, who was pushing hair out of Dada’s eyes. Mama liked neat hair. She brushed her hair every morning and brushed his too, but Dada had to brush his own.
“Are you sure about tonight?” Mama asked, “Because I can cancel.”
“Pepper, no. Max and I will be fine. You go and have a good time at Moth Mothers, and we won’t burn down the house or anything.”
Max yelled, to show he was good with it too, and Mama came over to pick him up. She had on the pretty necklace that looked like it tasted good, so Max tried to grab it and check.
“Okay then. You have my number, and you know he needs to go down by eight, and he likes his bath—”
“--Full of Hooters waitresses and singing monkeys, yeah, yeah,” Dada said, to make Mama laugh.
“What? Oh wait, those are my baths,” Dada came over to get Max, but Max still wanted the pretty necklace, and squirmed a little. “Come on, Maxinator, let’s tell mommy to hit the road already.”
Max was excited. He could wave bye-bye, and so he started to. Mama laughed, but Max knew she was a little scared inside.
He wasn’t scared. Dada was fun to stay with. He might even get ice cream and maybe they’d watch Robot Wars. Max LOVED Robot Wars was Dada. Even Uncle Jim watched that, and all of them could yell as much as they liked.
Max knew Dummy didn’t want to be a fighting robot, even though Dada kept saying he would make him one, someday. Dummy liked being in the house, and picking up things, and spraying.
Dummy really, really liked spraying.
“Okay then, but no crazy food, Tony. I mean that!” Mama said. “The last time, Max had Ding Dong crumbs all the way down to his belly button!”
Max frowned. He liked Ding Dongs. Dada would let him smear them on the table. In fact, Max wanted a Ding Dong right now, so he thought about it, hard.
“Fine, fine, we’ll stick with Gerber’s and Vienna sausages,” Dada said. “Fancy dining, toddler style.”
“See that you do,” Mama grumbled. Max looked up and smiled, while Mama and Dada stared at him.
He waved the Ding Dong in his hand at them.
Max wondered why they both looked at him so funny. Mama came over and took the Ding Dong. Max got huffy, but Mama kissed him and looked at Dada.
“I’ll just . . . put this back in the kitchen,” Mama said softly.
Max waved bye-bye again, to Mama and the Ding Dong.