Rosie felt only fear. Rosie felt deafened by the voices howling in her head that she was mad to consent to this, that it was her judgment which was not to be trusted. And underneath that cacophony she could just make out the narrator who pointed quite peaceably to the fork in the road before them. The path on the right was paved and shady, rolling gently along a childhood filled with acceptance to an adulthood marked by requited love, grandchildren, and joy, whereas the other path was rock-strewn and windblown, uphill both directions, and led she had no idea where. Here she was at the crossroads letting her baby boy run blindly down the path on the left (in a skirt and heels) while the narrator looked on reprovingly.

“It just seems like such a hard road”—she took deep breaths until she felt herself inflated to the brink of bursting—“such a tough life. This is not the easy way.”

“No,” Penn agreed, “but I’m not sure easy is what I want for the kids anyway.”

She looked up at him. “Why the hell not?”

“I mean, if we could have everything, sure. If we can have it all, yeah, I wish them easy, successful, fun-filled lives, crowned with good friends, attentive lovers, heaps of money, intellectual stimulation, and good views out the window. I wish them eternal beauty, international travel, and smart things to watch on TV. But if I can’t have everything, if I only get a few, I’m not sure easy makes my wish list.”


“Easy is nice, but it’s not as good as getting to be who you are or stand up for what you believe in,” said Penn. “Easy is nice, but I wonder how often it leads to fulfilling work or partnership or being.”

“Easy probably rules out having children,” Rosie admitted.

“Having children, helping people, making art, inventing anything, leading the way, tackling the world’s problems, overcoming your own. I don’t know. Not much of what I value in our lives is easy. But there’s not much of it I’d trade for easy either, I don’t think.”

“But it’s terrifying,” she whispered. “If it were the right thing to do, wouldn’t we know it?”

“When was the last time something was bothering one of the kids or he was acting strange or he wasn’t sleeping or doing well in math or sharing nicely during free-choice time, and we knew why?”

“Knew why?” Rosie said.

“Knew why. Absolutely knew what was wrong and what should be done to fix it and how to make that happen.”

“As a parent?”

“As a parent.”


“Never,” Penn agreed. “Not ever. Not once. You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.”

“Sure there is,” she said.


“Birth control.”

“I think that ship has sailed.”

“So the comfort you can offer me about sending our son to school next week dressed as a girl fairy is that it seems like a good guess.”

Penn shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”

“It would be nice to be a little more certain.”

“Then we should have gotten a dog.”

“We did get a dog.”


“Happy New Year.” She leaned across the table to kiss him.

“It’s 9:15,” he said, but he kissed her back.


Three nights later, the one before school started up again, Penn had a full set for storytime. More and more lately, it was just Claude, Rigel, and Orion, but this night, everyone was anxious—anxiety being as contagious as anything Rosie saw in the emergency room—and when Penn opened the door to Claude’s room, he found five boys, ages five to thirteen, piled on the tiny single bed.

Since Grumwald had been joined by a night fairy princess named Stephanie, Claude and the twins had been making a persuasive case against the notion of bedtime as a calm, peaceful winding down before sleep. It was more like the floor of the House of Commons. Rigel and Orion only wanted to hear about Grumwald; Claude only wanted to hear about Princess Stephanie. Fortunately, they had decided to work together and help each other out. Not Claude and the twins. Grumwald and Stephanie.

“She couldn’t help him be a prince really,” Penn explained to his subdued brood. “There was nothing she could do to lessen all the ribbon cutting and baby kissing and peasant mediation that came with the job. She couldn’t ease the student government love triangle either—the secretary simply would not see reason. But Algebra II? Now that she could do something about. She didn’t have much of a head for numbers herself because she was magic, and magic people have no need for math, but she thought that trick—magic—might work for Grumwald too. She had quite the toolbox, but unfortunately, the only way to see what worked for any given problem was trial and error. He got a C minus on the quiz where he kissed the frog she gave him. He got a B minus on the test where he kept the eye of newt in his pocket, and that was better, but a B minus still wasn’t very princely in his father’s opinion. He couldn’t even answer half the problems on the homework assignment he did while rubbing a lamp Stephanie thought might be magic. Crying on the grave of a would-be fairy godmother she pointed him toward yielded a please see me on the imaginary numbers worksheet (Stephanie’s question was if they’re imaginary who really cares, but the answer to that, unfortunately, was Grum’s algebra teacher). In the end, what worked was what she should have known all along: magic wands are good for practically anything. Grumwald was delighted. He could rejoin Mathletes.