Mudpies and Models

A competition between two parents gets out of hand, but the results aren't what either of them expected.

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1. Mudpies and Models

"Yay!" Izzy cheers. "Daddy's the best!"

The four-year-old runs off with the cookie Ben just gave her, the tail of her dragon costume dragging behind her.

"Hear that?" Ben asks, smug. "I'm the best."

"That's because you gave her sweets before dinner," I reply, exasperated. "Didn't I tell you not to do that a few weeks ago?"

"Did you?" he asks, cocking his head to the side. "I don't remember that."

"It was while you were watching the soccer game," I answer, sighing. "Obviously you didn't hear me. You never do when you're into a game, I should know that by now."

"I'm sorry," he says, looking guilty. "I'll remember in the future?"

I sigh again, carrying the laundry to the bedroom. Ben follows me like a lonely puppy.

"Don't be upset," he pleads, latching onto my waist while I start to fold.

"I'm sorry, did you say something? I was too involved in this laundry."

I'm not actually mad at him, but gentle teasing is always fair game when it comes to each other's flaws. He does it to me too.

"You're just jealous because Izzy likes me better," he retorts, letting go of me. "That's what this is really about."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me," he replies, smirking.

I take his shirt from the basket and throw it at his face.

"She does not like you better.”

"She just said I'm the best."

"Again, the cookies," I growl. "But if we're doing this, yesterday she said she loves me more than candy."

"A week ago she said I was her favorite play mate," he counters.

He doesn't shy away from my sharp gaze.

"Yeah, well her first word was mommy, not daddy."

He gasps, then glares at me.

"You promised you wouldn't bring that up again!" he exclaims. "You know that's a sensitive subject for me!"

When I bask in the momentary glow of victory, Ben grows agitated.

"If you're willing to go there," he starts, "then I'm going to bring up the time she was sick and only wanted me to take care of her."

I can feel the blood rush up to my face. He looks apologetic at my reaction. He knows that made me cry.

"I'm sorry-" he begins.

"Fine," I interrupt, seething. "Let's settle this once and for all."

He follows me as I speed through the living room, finding Izzy in front of the TV. She's mimicking the dragon cartoon that's playing, stomping around and breathing out fake streams of fire.

"Izzy, sweetheart," I coo, getting her attention.

"What, mommy?" she asks.

She's clutching the small stuffed octopus known as Octie to her chest, as she always is. He's her favorite.

"You love mommy and daddy very much, right?"

"Uh huh!" she chirps, looking at both of us.

"And you know how you love Octie just a little bit more than you love the other stuffed animals?"

"Yeah," she replies, puzzled as to what's going on.

"Then let's play a game. Why don't you and Octie give a hug to the person in this room that you love in the same way."

I step back, a few feet away from Ben. He shoots me a glare, not liking that I made up the rules of the game without asking him.

Izzy stands in the same spot, indecision and confusion on her face.

"It's okay, honey," I say, smiling. "You know mommy will always love you no matter what."

"Cheater," Ben mutters under his breath, then speaks up. "Hey, baby girl. Remember we made mud pies? That was fun, huh?"

She turns towards him, a smile lighting up her face.

"But afterwards it got all sticky and gross, remember?" I call. "Then I helped you clean up and we played dress up. Remember how we were models, and took pictures?"

"Don't you love when I ride around with you on my shoulders?" Ben asks, but he's looking at me.

"Isn't it the best when I brush your hair for you so you can relax?" I shoot back, returning the stare.

When I turn to Izzy she's still rooted in her spot, biting her lip. She seems so unsure of what to do, and I suddenly feel guilty. When I peer back at Ben, his expression matches mine. We glance at each other, deciding that we need to end this before Izzy starts to cry. We shouldn't have let this get so far.

"Nevermind, we’re just-“

I'm interrupted by a knock on the door, and my mother comes through it after a moment.

"I'm here!" she announces. "And I have an adorable gift for an equally adorable girl."

"Grandma!" Izzy chimes, all inner turmoil forgotten.

She rushes forward and clings onto my mom. When she's picked up, she even takes the small octopus' arms and puts them around my mom's neck in a hug. Did she just . . . ?

"I can't believe it," Ben murmurs, turning away. "All those hours of playing, and tucking her in . . . How could this happen?"

"I don't know," I say, joining him. "I bathe her, and feed her, and give her lots of hugs. Ben . . ."

He wraps his arms around me, burying his face in my hair.

"She doesn't love either of us the most," he groans, tightening his hold. "I feel like such a failure."

"Me too," I agree, hiding in his sweater. "Me too."

"What's wrong with you two?" my mom asks in between Izzy's squeals of delight at her present.

We ignore her, intent on delivering reassurance to each other.

"I think you're the best dad I know," I tell Ben, my hand on his cheek. "Those mud pies were perfectly sculpted."

"And I think you're the greatest mom I've ever met," he responds, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. "You guys looked beautiful in all those model pictures."

"You asked her to pick her favorite and lost, didn't you?" my mom asks, snickering as we sulk. "Don't you know that grandparents always win?"

As she leaves to help Izzy open the new toy she just got, I hear her scoff.

"Amateurs."

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