They waited in the lobby of the doctor's office, three children in the midst of another dozen. Around them, pictures of farm animals decorated the beige walls. Yellow-shaded lamps and bright, fluorescent lights cast a cheerful glow. The youngest child, a toddler, grabbed a toy truck from the floor and hit his sister in the knee with it. In retaliation, she kicked him in the stomach. He fell. They both cried.
Their mother shouted for them to stop. She grabbed the toys and threw them into the office toy basket. Their older brother sighed and put down his book.
Just then, a door opened between the office hall and the lobby. A doctor leaned out.
"Can I see you alone for a moment?" he asked the mother.
She nodded. After ordering her children not to move, she marched out. The older brother waited for the door to close. He turned to his sister.
"The doctor doesn't want to give you medicine, I think," he said.
His sister forgot about her knee. She nodded.
"But mommy wants it for me," she said. "So she'll get it. She wants me to stop feeling sad."
"You're sad a lot."
They watched their younger brother stop crying and start looking around for something more to do. A physician's assistant glanced up to observe the three of them from her seat at the front desk. After a few seconds, she returned to her work. The older boy leaned over the arm of his sister's chair.
"I know a way to feel better," he whispered.
Her eyelids narrowed a little. "No you don't."
"It works for me." He settled back in his seat.
"Do something nice."
"I don't want to help someone, dummy. I want someone to help me."
He shook his head as he tried to think of how to explain. Then their eyes turned to the youngest child. He had located the toy basket. Now he was turning it over and dumping out the toys.
"You want a grown-up to help you feel better?" he asked with a wary eye on the toddler.
"I don't know that that works. Anyway, the doctor said no medicine."
A few feet from them, the youngest child sifted through the toys on the floor. He pushed aside a pile of wooden blocks. A soft, plastic truck seemed to meet his approval. He grabbed it. But when he tapped it against the floor, it made no noise. He dropped it. A moment later, among other plastic cars and trucks, he found the big one.
He slammed it against the floor. It made a solid sound. Then he ran up to his sister.
As he swung it, his older brother took the truck out of his hand. The toddler yelped, startled, and burst into tears.
"There's no one who needs help except an annoying little brother," the girl said as she watched the toddler cry. "And he's a brat."
"It works even with annoying brats."
He got down on the floor. After a moment's consideration, he handed the toddler the heavy toy truck. His brother stopped crying. His sister joined them on the floor.
The girl built a tower out of blocks. Then she knocked it down. Her little brother smiled at that. Then she built a bridge out of the blocks.
"Go ahead," she said.
Her younger brother hesitated. When no one moved to stop him, he set his truck down on the floor. He drove it almost to the bridge, backed up, and swerved into the side to knock it down. Blocks tumbled. He squealed so loud with delight that his sister laughed, too.
Still smiling, she picked up a block to build the bridge again.