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Samantha Williams was a newly rehabilitated optimist. Since Tuesday's stomach sucking, she'd maintained her glass-half-full worldview.
Yet on days like today, she was reminded that half full was just as easily half empty. After all, Fridays should be spent joyfully anticipating the weekend with the kids. But when the kids' cat brought her a gifta field mouse sort of giftfirst thing in the morning, she should have guessed that the only thing she'd be anticipating was the day's end.
Still, she'd tried to continue her positive outlook. She'd firmly reminded herself that unlike other cats, Grunge never killed his presents. He only caught them and gave them. That was definitely a silver lining.
Also on the plus side, there was the fact that she'd chased Grunge's gift around the living room. Chasing a mouse might not sound positive, but she counted it as a cardio exercise, and added to the fact she'd been sucking in her stomach since Tuesday, she was way up on her physical exercise for the week.
Her boysStan, Seton and Shaneall helped her try to corner the terrified rodent, while her daughter Stella stood on the couch screaming directions when she wasn't just generally screaming. Uh, the good thing about that was
Samantha was stumped and decided to count it as family time and that was always good, since the boys were thirteen, twelve and eleven, they were frequently more interested in hanging out with friends than with her. But it was hard to count chasing mice as a proper family activity, especially with eight-year-old Stella's shrieking.
Who knew that seeing the glass as half full was so much harder than seeing it as halfempty?
Samantha had held off starting chapter two of How to be Happy Without Really Trying. She wanted to feel that she'd mastered chapter one's positive outlook first. And to that end, she'd asked, how could her day get worse than cardio mouse chasing?
And that one particular thought on her way into work was akin to throwing down a gauntlet and challenging the universe to step up its game. And man, what a game the universe had.
Dr. Jackson's pediatric office had been swamped with flu cases, and since it was only September, and way too early for the official start of the flu season, Samantha had been unprepared for the onslaught of patients. She loved being an RN, but some days she dreamed of doing somethingalmost anythingother than giving shots to terrified toddlers, holding screaming babies and comforting angst-ridden mothers. She tried to find something positive about the day's cases, but the best she could come up with was at least they weren't inundated with stomach viruses. It was lame, and she knew it, but she gave herself points anyway.
She'd finally admitted defeat when she received a phone call from the new principal asking for a meeting next week to discuss her sons. The kids were at their father's this weekend, so she wouldn't find out what happened until Sunday night when they got home. But she would find out. She'd learned, through her numerous trips to the principal's office last year, that forewarned was forearmed.
Yes, today might be Friday, but it had been the hands-down worst day of her week. And while she'd have loved nothing better than leaving work and heading home, the day wasn't quite over yet. She still had her first meeting with the committee she'd been volunteered for. A seven o'clock meeting on a Friday night seemed a rather stiff price to pay for missing one PTA meeting.
As she pulled up in front of Erie Elementary at six fifty-eight that evening, Samantha tried to muster any fleeting remnants of her rose-colored glasses. The best she could come up with was that no matter what happened at the meeting of the Social Planning Committee, she was on her way home afterward. That was definitely a good thing.
She turned off the car. Rather than get out, she sat in it a moment and just looked at the old brick school building, with its row of massive oaks in front of it and the smaller twin maples flanking the entry. The leaves on the trees were that tired green that meant they'd be changing into their fall colors soon. A few had fallen prematurely, and lay on the grass. And others had jumped the gun and started to hint at the oranges and reds they'd all be soon.
The sun was sinking low on the horizon, leaving the city in the pre-dusk gloom. It was getting dark earlier and earlier. Samantha loved the cool autumn nights. Technically, it might be late summer, but to Samantha, as soon as Labor Day had been celebrated, her autumn began.
She realized that she felt a bit more centered.
Coming back to the school was, in so many ways, like coming home.
Erie Elementary School was a small private grade school known for its strong academics and modest tuition.
Not much had changed about Erie Elementary since Samantha had attended the school She did the math could it really be twenty years since she'd graduated eighth grade?
She got out of her car and walked toward the main doorway.
Her mood lifted slightly. It wasn't quite back to her jean-buttoning high of Tuesday, but it was better than her principal's-on-the-phone low this afternoon.
Maybe this PTA committee wouldn't be so bad. How hard could planning a couple school functions be?
Samantha hurried inside, up a half set of steps, and across the hall to the meeting room.
"Hi, Carly. Michelle," she called out as cheerily as she could manage.
She knew the two other women on the committee in a peripheral way. They all had seventh graders. And even without that, Erie Elementary was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, even if only slightly. That was a big advantage. The school had that it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child sort of feel to it. The downside of belonging to a small school community was that it was similar to a small townno one could sneeze without everyone else knowing about it.
Which is how Samantha knew Carly Lewis, a tiny, dark-haired woman who seemed to live life with a giant ferocity that Samantha admired. Carly was going through a messy divorce with her ex because she'd found him and his secretary together. Carly's kids, Sean and Rhiana, were only ten months apart, and both were in seventh grade with Samantha's son, Seton.
Michelle Hamilton was raising her nephew, Brandon, who was also in Seton's class. Tall, blond and always organized, Michelle was PTA President Heidi's friend. To the best of Samantha's knowledge, there had never been anything about Michelle for the Erie Elementary gossips to sink their teeth into, other than the fact she'd been very young when her sister died and she'd taken her nephew into her home.
The two women were seated at one of the small round tables in the school's meeting room.
"Hi, Samantha. Have a seat." Michelle nodded at the chair across from her. "I brought refreshments." There was a small cooler of sodas and a foil-wrapped platter on the table.
"We were just going to open them." Carly peeled back the foil and exposed a tray of cookies.
Behave, Samantha warned herself, sucking her stomach in a bit farther as a reminder. She reached in the cooler and took a diet cola, while Carly and Michelle each took a napkin's worth of cookies.
"They look great," she assured Michelle, "but I'm stuffed. Maybe I'll have one later."
Michelle nodded, and rather than comment on Samantha's cookie-less status, asked, "So how are things?"
Just as Samantha knew about Carly's divorce, everyone at Erie Elementary knew that Phillip had walked out on her and they'd divorced. For more than a year, people's voices had gone soft when they asked about him, as if whispering the question would make Samantha's answer easier. She was equally sure the school was aware of how little Phillip had been involved with the kids since they split up.
Michelle's voice had that asking-about-your-ex tone to it. "Everything's great," Samantha replied in her most optimistic voice. "My ex has the kids this weekend, so I've got the night to myself."
She tried to sound enthused. And really, a night to herself was a treat. But she was worried about the kids. This was only the third time in a year that Phillip had taken all four of their kids. She could deal with him walking out on her. They'd married so young and people changed. Though it hurt at the time, she'd accepted they'd grown apart. But walking out on his kids? That was harder to forgive. She worried how, after such a long absence, Phillip was dealing with them.
She changed the subject. "So we're in charge of the PTA social events this year?"
"Yes. We're the official Social Planning Committee. Heidi gave me the files." Michelle reached into her briefcase and pulled out manila folders.
Carly grinned. "So, did you both join the committee on your own, or were you volunteered for missing the general PTA meeting, too?"
"Missed it," Samantha admitted and smiled, as well. "I should have known better. Remember Connie?"
"Michelle? Volunteer or volunteered?" Samantha quizzed. Both she and Carly looked at the cool blonde as they waited.
Samantha expected Michelle, who was always working on one committee or another, to say she'd volunteered, but for a moment Michelle's placid facade faded.
"I missed it, too," she confessed. Carly looked as surprised as Samantha felt. Michelle was not the type of woman who missed meetings. She was the type who probably had a color-coded calendar hanging in the kitchen, along with a PDA that kept her apprised of her schedule when she wasn't home.
"I was sick," Michelle explained, then added, "but I'd have probably volunteered if I'd been there, so it's no problem. At least it won't be if we divide the duties."
"What exactly are the Social Planning Committee's duties?" Carly asked, popping another cookie into her mouth.
Samantha's stomach growled, so she took a sip of her diet cola, and tried not to look at the biggest chocolate chip cookie in the center of the tray. It was calling to her like a siren singing for a passing ship. She sucked her stomach in again, and tried to focus her attention on Michelle.
"We plan all the PTA's major social events. The Thanksgiving Pageant, the Christmas Fair, the Valentine Dance and the end-of-year hoopla. Heidi had hoped to find a fourth member for the committee, that way each of us could assume the lead for one of the events, but "
Michelle left the sentence hanging, and Carly filled in, laughing as she said, "But we were the only three moms who missed the first meeting?"
Michelle grinned ruefully. "That sums it up. And the parents who were there knew better than to volunteer. This is an all-year committee. Heidi said she'll continue to look for a fourth member, and if she can't find someone then she'll take over the end-of-year event herself. So that leaves the three of us with Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine's Day. I've given this some thought " She paused. "Samantha, you have Stella in third grade, right?"
"That's what I thought. The third-graders traditionally put on the Thanksgiving Pageant. They're old enough to learn the lines, and young enough to be cute, prancing around as turkeys and pumpkin pies."
"Yeah, can you imagine seventh-graders doing it?" Carly asked.
They all laughed, then Michelle continued, "Well, it seems logical for you to take the Thanksgiving Pageant because of Stella, if that's okay? And then "
Michelle was an accountant, or belonged to some other such number-crunching profession that required organization, which might explain the folder with its papers, breaking the three events down, assigning Samantha point for Thanksgiving, Michelle for Christmas, and Carly for Valentine's Day.
They'd both accepted Michelle as the head of the committee without a vote or even discussion, but as far as Samantha was concerned, that was fine. Whatever activity she was in charge of was pretty much the same. And because she was responsible for the first of the events, she'd be done sooner rather than later.
Maybe it was time to read the next chapter in How to be Happy Without Really Trying, because she was pretty sure she was getting the optimism chapter down to a science.
Michelle handed Samantha and Carly notes from the previous social committees. "I think by making one of us the leader for each of the activities, and the other two just providing backup, things shouldn't be too tough. Does that work for both of you?" Michelle asked, her hands neatly folded on top of her file.
Carly had just eaten another cookie, and Samantha was desperately trying not to notice the look of utter contentment the woman obviously felt as she chewed the hundred-plus calories. Since Carly's cookie-stuffed mouth precluded her answering, Samantha replied for the both of them. "It all sounds good."
"Great." Michelle slipped her folder back into her bag. "Why don't we plan on meeting every other week? Unless babysitters are a problem for you, Samantha?" Samantha knew both Michelle and Carly had seventh graders, so babysitting wasn't too much of a worry because they were old enough to be on their own for a few hours. Things were harder with four kids, especially when her baby was only eight.
"Now that Stan's in eighth grade, I've been letting him babysit for short spurts, and so far he's done fine." She knocked on wood, which made Michelle and Carly grin.
"It's only been a year that I've let Sean and Rhiana stay home without a babysitter. It's hard to let go, but I'm bound and determined they learn to stand on their own two feet." There was a quiet determination in Carly's expression. Samantha wondered if Carly's ex had something to do with that.
Michelle smiled. "Okay. Then, same time, same place in two weeks. Samantha, in the meantime, you can read last year's pageant notes, and see what you need from Carly and me."
Samantha nodded. It was clear the business portion of the meeting was over.
The chocolate chip cookies were still there, beckoning her, and since positive was her new watchword, Sam decided that she was positive she'd be happier with that chocolate chip cookie than with just the diet cola.
Cookie in hand, she did indeed feel happier as she turned to Michelle and Carly. "Have either of you met the new principal? I have an appointment with him on Monday."
She took a bite of the cookie and admitted she'd been wrongthis wasn't mere happiness, it was nirvana. "This is amazing."
If she'd written the book, she'd have definitely included a chapter on chocolate chip cookies being the key to earthly contentment.