Leni sat on her bed doodling. In recent weeks, she felt a liberation going on inside. When she sat down in her second grade class (where she went back to having the same teacher Lori had), each of the bodies grabbed her eyes. She wanted to spend all day staring at one, but it soon became difficult because there were so many other dazzling sights just nearby. Her heightened awareness rapidly morphed into something more.
Now, as the seven-year-old returned home with her three sisters in the mushy snow, she eagerly went up to her room and began drawing all the fine things she saw in Mr. Henry's class that day. Colorful shirts, pants, shoes, hairpins, bows, and bracelets. To her, the class was filled with wonders. She filled the paper with sloppy, yet generally accurate copies of the clothes and accessories. Thanks to the crayons, they were also in the proper colors.
After recreating all the ones she could remember, she put down her red crayon and lifted the paper to see her work. Although some of the figures were crud, she noticed how the more recent creations were neater than the earlier ones (bigger in size, straighter and cleaner lines, and a more thorough coloring in). Her work gave her a small smile. She maintained that grin as she grabbed some tape from her nightstand drawer and used it to hang it up on her wall. The wall closet to her bed had accumulated a gallery that took up most of the space. But even with that, she was still able to find a little space for her latest creation.
Once she stuck it on with the tape, she sat on her bed and stared at her cumulative work. She grabbed Bun-Bun, who was resting on the bed, and began brushing his fur. She heard a click along with a clutter of steps. Followed by a sigh.
"Leni. When are you gonna take these down?" Lori asked. Ever since her sister started hanging her drawings on the wall, she went out of her way to face the window when she slept at night.
Her sister, though, merely shrugged.
"They've got to come down some time you know! They don't look good!"
What was glaring to Lori was the fact that Leni had never hung up her art in such a public display before. Sure, she drew, but her creations usually went either in the trash or in some drawer to never be seen again. And now, without warning, Leni started making this collection. Not only did she keep her drawings, but she put them up for her sister to see.
"Whose clothes are those anyway?" Lori demanded for the tenth day in a row. Every time she asked, though, her sister didn't respond. As was the usual. Lori sighed, "If you like clothes so much, why don't you just ask Mom to get those magazines at the supermarket?"
Leni tilted her head. It was a relatively new expression she developed, but it didn't take her big sister to decipher its meaning.
"Fine. I'll ask her for you," she said, sighing, "But all these are coming down! You've been in second grade for months now. Start acting like it!"
She stood there firmly and glared at Leni. Sometimes, she didn't know why she got patient with her little sister; sure Leni's reaction times were improving, but they remained below what she wanted.
"Hmph," Lori said, "Well hurry up and get ready. Mom's taking us to the mall."
"Why?" Leni asked as she hugged Bun-Bun.
"Lincoln's birthday is next week and we gotta get stuff for his party."
The second girl gave her familiar groan-sounding murmur before getting up. She clung Bun-Bun to her chest as she followed her big sister downstairs. Lori was annoyed that her sister still carried that thing around. Sure there were plenty of second graders that had stuffed animals, but Leni cherished Bun-Bun. As if it were her friend.
Once everything was settled, Rita and the five girls packed themselves into Vanzilla, leaving Lynn Sr. to watch over the soon-to-be two-year-old boy.
With every addition the Loud family brought on, outings to public places have started to require more planning, more means of maintaining order. Even with the mounting demand, Rita always loved children and was determined to make this trip both efficient and bonding. After Lincoln was born, they decided to take a hiatus from the nearly seamless stream of pregnancies to focus on the kids they already had. Indeed, over these past two years, Rita had become well-acclimated to the six-child structure. This particular trip to the mall, while demanding, was something she had done plenty of times with the existing status quo, so it wasn't as chaotic as it was two years ago. But even at that, she hadn't told the kids yet about her plan to start a new pregnancy at the end of the month.
Upon arrival and getting the kids out of Vanzilla, they headed into Bullseye. Bullseye could be best described as a maze; the two-floor department store was by far the largest outlet in the Royal Woods Mall. With everything in inventory (including the kitchen sink, given the kitchen appliances section) stashed in countless aisles, it was almost to be the mall. It was also a nightmare for most parents with small children. Thankfully, years of experience has prepared Rita all the better with communication and deliberation in movement.
Rita led the kids to the clothes section and began her search for some toddler clothes. Little did most of the girls know how boring and long this turned out to be. Within minutes, Luna and Luan had their backs slouched and their feet yearning to sit down. Lynn was pacing around the carriage and the shirt racks, using her boundless energy with the hope of exchanging it for pleasure. Lori was leaning against a concrete pillar that filled the gap between the floor and the ceiling, eyes glazed with idle exhaustion. And Leni was walking along a separate shirt rack, examine each of them he articles that hung from it.
"As long as she stays in my sight, she'll be fine."
Leni was fixated by each shirt she came across. She swung it out to get a closer look at those thin lines that encompassed their surface, she absorbed any designs that were on their fronts, she felt the texture each shirt had. A lot of the shirts in the toddler section were similar (similar colors, similar fabric, similar size). Each attribute she experience was a sensory splash. She was excited at the spectacle, even occasionally producing a smile from what she saw.
She felt a familiar thing grab her hand. She turned to see her older sister Lori, eyes clearly displaying annoyance.
"Let's go!" she moaned.
Before Leni could reply, her sister was already moving on, pulling her along. She looked forward and saw various clothes in Rita's red plastic carriage. Her eyes were captured to the rainbow of colors she saw in there. If only she could have been close enough to touch them.
The mother guided her children through the various sections within Bullseye—electronics, appliances, hardware, food. Occasionally, one of them (usually either Leni or Lynn) tried veering off to look at something, whether it was a pretty dress or a giant flat screen television. The savvy Rita, though, reined them back before they could get lost in the giant store.
They eventually found themselves in the toys section. At that point, most of the girls tried breaking away to look whatever caught their eye. Even Lori felt the need for yet another Barbie doll. But alas, all five of the girls were relegated to the young boy's section. Rather than indulging in the endless supply of dolls and houses, they were surrounded by action figures, toys with batteries, and nerf guns. And for them, that was a punishment (or, at least, for most of them).
"Mommy! Can I get this?" Luna demanded, bringing back some plastic board filled with buttons. Behind her was Lynn, who herself had an Ace Savvy action figure.
"No kids. We're getting things for Lincoln," Rita replied, "now put those back."
The two girls groaned and begrudgingly obliged.
Meanwhile, Leni let herself wander up and down the aisle. Although none of the toys interested her, their bright colorful boxes captured her attention. One of them was a giant cube on the bottom shelf with the perfect mix of blue, purple, and red; the three shades formed a flash that left her paralyzed. Her hands jutted out and pulled out the package. She tried lifting it, but the sheer size of it left her with little leverage. That didn't stop her from dragging it. Loudly.
"Leni, honey. Put that back," Rita said as she looked on. Yet the girl kept pulling it across the floor, trying to get it to the carriage, "Leni," her mother repeated, however at this point, the other girls were catching on.
"Woah! What's that?!" Luna exclaimed as she dashed towards the box. She dropped to her knees and her young eyes spotted the tag lines, logo, toy, and features. The box's cover revealed a giant castle play set with multiple rooms inside and pulpits carving the sides. The most prominent feature, though, were the mini cannons shooting red arrow-shaped ammunition.
"Mommy!" Luna cried, turning the cover in her parent's direction, "Let's get this for Lincoln!"
All the females at this point were aware of the box. Lynn, unsurprisingly, ran to it and pressed her hands against the surface. She smiled widely as she admired the cool toy.
"Lincoln would love this!" Luna added, "Please can we get it? Please!"
A skeptical Rita approached the package to get a better look at it. She lifted it and examined both the cover and the small text on the back. Her face did not reflect Luna's or Lynn's excitement.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think this is safe for babies Lincoln's age," she said upon finishing. She then placed the box down and knelt to her children's level, "This toy has small parts that Lincoln shouldn't be around. Maybe when he's older."
"But Mom!" Luna moaned.
"I'm sorry. Now please put it back," Rita said as she stood back up. Luna sighed and prompted Leni to help her return it. Meanwhile, their mother looked around the various toys in the aisle. Even though many of them also had small parts, the ones that didn't jumped out at her, "How about this one?" she said as she pulled out a large rubber man. It looked like a Power Trooper, but the limbs appeared as if they were flexible, "Lincoln's gonna love this," she told herself as she plopped it in the carriage.
"Okay girls," Rita announced to the children, "Let's look around this aisle for toys to get Lincoln. Make sure you show it to me before you put it in the carriage," she then turned to Luna and Lynn, "and remember. If the box says the toy has small parts, don't get it."
Leni looked on as her sisters began walking alongside the shelves in search of a toy. Yet even with that, she merely stood there, taking in the colors of all the various packages.
"Leni, honey," she heard her mother say. She watched as her smiling parent approached her, "don't you want to find a toy for Lincoln? His birthday is coming up and I think he would really like a gift from you."
"Linky..." she said as she stared into Rita's caring eyes. She then pointed to the shirts and pants resting in the carriage. Rita followed her daughter's finger.
"Do you want to give him clothes?" Rita asked.
Leni nodded, rather decisively.
"Well how about this. We'll stay here until the others find a toy they want to give him," she then turned to her daughter, "you can get him one too if you like. And then after that, we'll go back to the clothes and you can get him some. How does that sound?"
After a moment's silence, the girl smiled.
"Yes. I love Linky and clothes," she said, clapping her hands and her eyes brightening a little.
"I'm glad to hear that," Rita replied, chuckling.
The next few minutes moved slowly, however. Leni stood beside the carriage as she looked around at the different boxes, interested more in the designs than their contents. The big challenge was finding toys that were simple and cohesive enough for a soon-to-be two-year-old to safely play with. Thankfully with Rita's guidance, even Luna and Lynn were able to settle on two cool-looking toys.
With that, as Rita promised, they then proceeded back to the clothes section.
"Really? This again?" Luan protested.
"Yeah!" Luna exclaimed.
"Don't worry kids," Rita said, "just give your big sister a little time to find something special," she then turned to Leni, who was walking alongside her and the carriage, and beamed at her, "Go ahead, honey, find something you think Lincoln's gonna like."
After staring at her mother for a little longer (as if she were looking for additional approval) she walked to the nearest rack and began sifting through each individual shirt. Each one was a different color, yet never failed to impress her.
"Just pick one for now, honey," Rita said, "we can come back on a different day if you want to get more."
Heeding those words, Leni pulled out the one she was currently looking at, even though it didn't necessarily impress her the most. She went over to Rita and held up an small orange shirt. Rita recognized it; it was already in her carriage. Yet Leni's eyes were glowing in a way they didn't very often. She understood that her second daughter had some work to do when it came to expressing her feelings, but she was never foolish enough to think that she didn't have any. Just like her other children, she had a beautiful mind, yet there was something extraordinary about Leni opening up. It made the mother smile.
"Very good, sweetie," she said, "Lincoln's gonna love this."
And that made Leni gasp.
"Yay! Linky! Linky!" she exclaimed. She smiled, this time with her mouth open. Her hands were clapping together, even if they didn't always align.
Rita felt like she could cry right there. There was something about the way her daughter's voice sounded (bubbly, high, genuine) when she got really excited that always caught her heart by surprise. An enjoyable one.
The morning of February 13 came as any other. Rita and Leni's sisters did a decent job at keeping the presents a secret. Whenever Leni was tempted to tell Lincoln about the special shirt she got him, one of them swooped in just in time and handed her paper and crayons, asking for a drawing made just for them. By now, Lori had a drawer full of orange shirt colorings.
Leni sat on her bed, holding Bun-Bun. Beside her was a box covered in wrapping paper. Using her fingers, she twiddled the doll around. Meanwhile, Lori looked on from her's.
"You know, I still don't get why you didn't get Lincoln a toy to play with," Lori said, eyeing her own package, "do you really think he's gonna like some shirt that Mom already bought one of?"
Leni, though, grabbed her own present and hugged it, along with Bun-Bun.
"Linky looks cute in orange," she said.
"I don't know," Lori replied, rolling her eyes, "he seems like the type of kid that wants toy. Wouldn't you want toys for your birthday?"
The younger sister turned to her.
"It's not my birthday," she said.
"I know it's not. But if it were your birthday," Lori said, sighing. Sometimes, she felt she should have been more aware of her wording around Leni, "Wouldn't you want stuffed animals or something instead of nothing but clothes?"
Even with that clarified response, Leni simply shrugged.
"I want Linky to look good," she said.
"He won't care if he looks good. He's a baby!" Lori retorted as she recalled a time where she would have said 'boy'. Funny how growing up worked.
Leni, though, simply focused her attention back on the objects she was holding. All she could think about was her precious baby brother opening his presents.
"Kids, come down! It's a special somebody's birthday!" Lynn Sr. shouted.
Lori got up and exited while Leni followed behind, carrying both Bun-Bun and her present. From the hallway, she saw her other sisters filing through with their own. Once they consolidated into a clump, all five of them descended the stairs to be greeted to both their parents and Lincoln settled on the couch.
"Happy Birthday Lincoln!" Luna exclaimed as she made her way over to her. As the other sisters uproared into their own messages. The chorus of girls produced quite the cheery sound, even if Leni was murmuring her compliments under the confusing chaos.
"What's this?" Rita told Lincoln in her 'baby' voice, grinning like a loon, "Your big sisters all got you presents for your second birthday."
One by one, each of them proceeded to hand over their gifts, starting with Luna. By age two, little Lincoln's fine motor skills were improving and he was largely able to rip the wrapping paper by himself, much to his parents' delight. With each toy he received, he smiled and happily squeed.
As this transpired, Leni observed each gift being opened from the back of the pack. She kept both her present and Bun-Bun close to her chest. Even as she imagined her brother enjoying his new shirt as much as the toys, she couldn't stop thinking of what Lori just told her. Sure clothes were still good and cute, but now that she thought about it, toys were also good, but they were also fun. She wondered if she should have picked a toy from the store. Would that have made a good present? Would that have been fun for him?
"Leni, honey. Do you wanna give Lincoln your present?" Rita asked.
Her legs automatically moved forward. Her eyes were having difficulty locking themselves onto anyone, preferring to veer off to the dining room table. Suddenly, she felt this weird feeling, as if she didn't want to see Lincoln. Her precious Linky. To her, it seemed that Lori was always right; she had made a mistake and now she wasn't gonna give her brother anywhere near as much as she should have. Why did she have to go against her mother, sisters, Lori, Lincoln. Even she understood that she couldn't go back to the store now. Nothing seemed to make sense.
Now, in front of the couch, she stood there, unmoving. Her parents could clearly tell that their daughter's mind was elsewhere.
"Leni," Lynn Sr. said gently, "do you want to give those to Lincoln?"
And then, in a single motion, slid her present and Bun-Bun onto Rita's lap and stumbled back to the clump. Lincoln reached for the wrapped package and ripped it open. He froze when he saw the orange shirt, unsure of what to make of it. Then again, he was expecting to get something he could play with. Rita, though, looked down and saw the stuffed bunny plopped down on top of the wrapped surface. She lifted it up.
"Leni, sweetie," Rita said confused. Sure enough, the girl turned to see her mother and her doll, "Did you want to keep Bun-Bun?"
"Linky can have him."
The mother's eyes widened. She thought that her ears had failed, even though sixty was still decades away for her. Did Leni even understand the question she was answering? Rita knew all too well how attached Leni had become to Bun-Bun. She remembering getting the doll at the baby shower shortly before she was born. For the past seven years and nine months, Leni had been almost everywhere with her friend; she snuggled with it at night, played with it at the house, and sometimes even talked to it. But she also knew that Leni could be impressionable, especially when she's around Lori.
"Are you sure, honey? I know that Bun-Bun means a lot to you," Rita said, her eyes and voice conveying concern. Leni, though, looked blank.
"Yes. Linky can have him."
The mother gave her daughter another look. She watched for a minute, to give her a chance to change her mind. Sometimes Leni did that; she would say or do something before suddenly rolling back. But a whole minute passed and it didn't happen. Leni merely watched Lincoln with expressionless eyes, nothing uncommon.
"Besides, she can share it if she really wanted to."
"Well...okay," she said as she brought the doll into Lincoln's tiny hands. She then curled her lips into a smile and turned to her daughter, "That was very kind of you, Leni."
Lincoln held the doll in his hands. He quickly absorbed the large eyes, the soft fur, the cuddly proportions. He then cheered and embraced the stuffed bunny. The young boy felt warmth with the doll, one that was (admittedly) stronger than that of the rubber and plastic action figures. Leni heard her brother's cheery smile and mirrored his expression.
Meanwhile, the family basked at all of the gifts they got Lincoln, the clothes and the toys. All of them were elated by the joy they had given to their special little guy. And they were grateful that there were already so many people in the house to love, so many birthdays to celebrate.
"It looks like you have a lot of loving sisters," Rita said to the toddler as she gave him a kiss, "Happy Birthday!"