“You know what the most annoying thing you do is?”
I admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for that question from Sprints.
“I mean, when you put it that way – no, not really,” I laughed. “But go ahead.”
She looked me straight in the eye, laid down her fork, and said, “You tell us you love us, like, all the time.”
It’s true, I admit it. I’m pretty relentless with the affection. But she’s my Sprints. The Artist Formerly Known as Little Fish. The one who, for a brief time, called me her Pirate before Pepper stuck. Both her and Whistler get lots of squishes and adoration, and they return it in kind. It’s a mutual admiration society, and I love it. “Being a dad looks good on you,” NJ said the other night, after we disentangled from a particularly glowing pile-on cuddle.
At that moment, with Sprints declaring the nature of my Most Annoying Thing I Do and her sister taking up the cause, NJ chewed her stuffed chicken with a bemused smile, waiting to see how it would play out.
“Yeah,” Whistler said. “And you’re always saying that thing, ‘Guess what?’ And then we say what. And then you say –”
“I love you,” I said.
“AUGH,” said the children.
“What if I said something different?” I said. “I could change what I say.”
“Yes, please,” Sprints said.
“Okay. Here we go. From now on, I’ll look at you and say, from the bottom of my heart – ” I paused, thinking, reading off an imaginary teleprompter “ – I’ll say, FLEENK-SHNERT.”
I said it loud. I said it in a high, nasal voice. I said it with all the seriousness of a soliloquy in a Shakespearean tragedy. And they laughed.
“No,” NJ said, smiling as she cleared the table. “Veto on fleenk-shnert.”
“It’s a great word!” I protested.
“Hard pass,” she said.
“Look how well it works. Hey, Whistler. Guess what.”
I looked her square in the eye. “Fleenk-shnert,” I said solemnly. She burst out laughing. I turned to her sister.
“Fleenk-shnert, kiddo,” I said. She snorted.
“Hey, mama,” I said.
“Nope,” NJ said, ever the straight man to my antics.
She threw her hands up. The girls giggled.
“This is bad,” Sprints said through her laughter. “Stop it.”
“Okay,” I said. So I did.
Later that evening, while NJ and I chuckled and groaned at an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Whistler toddled downstairs. She has a habit of doing that – turning off her lights, waiting five minutes, and then coming down to declare that falling asleep, much like scaling Everest, is a feat far beyond the limits of her tiny body. The pattern is always the same. She goes to NJ, cuddles until she’s asked to go back up to her room. Then she coos at the dog, running her fingers and face through his fur until she’s reminded of the first request. Then it’s my turn for a quick snuggle and kiss before she’s kicked out for good.
“Goodnight, kiddo,” I said. “Love you.”
She looked at me, eyes intent and serious, with a slow half-smile spreading over her face. “Fleenk-shnert, Pepper,” she said.