Salt of the Earth
Melia adjusted Dora’s salt-suit, feeling as if it were futile because the two-year old would have the sweatband off her head the instant Melia’s back was turned. She caught her daughter’s hand reaching for the soft, green mesh. “No. You have to leave that on.”
Dora twisted away from Melia and pulled the sweatband off. “No.” She threw it on the ground and reached for the high thin turtleneck that caught the sweat from her face.
Melia’s ex-husband, Theo, leaned against the doorway, waiting to take the children to his house. “Just let her leave it off.”
“Daddy!” Dora toddled to her father with her arms raised.
Theo scooped Dora up, ignoring Nikolas, who seemed oblivious as he rocked in place, staring at a sunbeam on the wall.
Melia’s smile felt tight. “We don’t waste salt.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Melia watched Theo while she checked Nikolas’s saltsuit. Even though he was six, he sometimes took his cues from his little sister. His light mesh suit still covered him from chin to toe, ready to retain any salt if he sweated in the warm New Gaean sun.
Theo tickled Dora into a trill of laughter. “You’ve got enough salt to spare.”
Melia picked the sweatband off the floor. “Because we don’t waste it.” She settled the band on Dora’s head.
Theo bounced Dora on his hip. “You don’t want to wear that do you, A-Dora-ble?”
They had never agreed on disciplining the children. It was as if Theo took a perverse pleasure in watching Melia undo the damage he caused. Given a choice, she wouldn’t let him take either child, but it was his week for custody. “We reclaim our salt, just like everybody else on New Gaea.”
“But you’ve got plenty in the Salt Baron’s storehouse.”
Melia held her breath, biting down on the words she wanted to shout. Dad’s salt money had supported Theo for years. Her great-great grandfather’s luck in discovering a salt deposit on this sodium-poor planet had started her family’s fortune, but they retained that money because they weren’t wasteful. She let her breath out slowly. The only way to end an argument with Theo was to relent, to let him think he had won. “Please. It’s important to me.”
He smiled at her over Dora’s head. “I’ll remember that.”
Melia turned from his mocking face and knelt in front of Nikolas, inserting herself into her son’s line of sight. “Nikolas? It’s time to go with Daddy.” She looked for a sign of life behind her son’s eyes. “Nikolas?” The rocking slowed a little.
Theo said, “Just leave him. He won’t even notice when I’m gone.”
Melia bit the inside of her lip. Theo had never been able to deal with Nikolas’s autism. “If you want me to contact my attorney, I’ll be more than happy to make that a permanent arrangement.”
“I bet you’ll like that.” He shifted Dora to his other hip. “Just get him ready.”
It was probably just as well. She had spent most of the last year getting Nikolas adjusted to the new schedule; he knew that every seventh day he switched between his parents’ houses. Breaking the routine now would upset him. “Nikolas. It’s time to go.”
His eyes flicked to the clock and then back to the dustmotes in the sunbeam. He shook his head once, and then began rocking again.
Melia looked over her shoulder at the clock and sighed. They still had three minutes before the scheduled time.
“For Pete’s sake.” Theo strode over, still holding Dora. “Nick. Let’s go. Now.”
“Just give him a minute.”
“I don’t have time for this.”
Melia pressed her fingers between her eyebrows, as if that would stop her impending headache. “Please.”
“Then let’s go.” He reached down and took Nikolas’s hand.
Nikolas screamed as if the world were ending. He pulled away from Theo, leaning back with his whole body. Theo let go of his hand and Nikolas dropped to the floor, still screaming.