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February 14, 2022

Story: All that Remained

Story by Jennifer Bostian

“I thought you were going to sleep the day away, Dot.” Mother’s red and white gingham apron stretched tight across her big belly. “I’m getting ready to make Crazy Cake. Want to watch?”

 I nodded with my whole body, bouncing up and down. Mother only baked for special times. Maybe it was someone’s birthday.

She dragged a chair over to the counter for me to stand on and cranked the handle on the sifter. The grinding noise stirred up promises of something delicious. She measured the flour before dropping it into the mixing bowl. A powdery puff burst into the air and floated down on the counter. I traced my finger through it, clearing a path. I put my finger to my mouth and sucked the flour off. It was soft and smooth but tasted like chalk.

She made three wells in the dry mixture and then added the wet ingredients. It twirled together like magic.

“Ooohhh - it looks like a ghost!”

“You sure have an imagination, child.”

The phone rang and she went into the front room to answer it. I tried to be as still as a pin, but the air was thick with the smell of chocolate, and my mouth watered. I inched closer, stuck the tip of my index finger into the baking dish and plopped it in my mouth. I meant to have a small taste but the chocolate kept calling to me. Without even realizing it, I shoveled in handful after handful.

Mother’s shoes clomped on the floor in a rush and when she got to me, she whisked the pan away. “Why – you must have eaten half of the batter!”

“I’m… sorry.”

Her eyes blazed. “This was supposed to be a cake for Mr. Guerney’s funeral dinner. You’ve ruined it!”

She slammed the pan on the counter. “The sugar left in the bin doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and we’ve got no money to buy more.”

I looked down at my hands, dripping with batter and tried shaking them clean.

“Stop it - you’re making a mess!” Her face turned fiery red and her eyebrows melted together.

Just then the front door squeaked open, and my brother, Peter, came in. He stopped in his tracks and stared at us for a moment before setting his books down on the table. He walked over and scooped me up. “Ma, I’ll clean her. Don’t worry.”

As he carried me out the back door and into the yard, I could hear my sister, Rose’s shrill voice. “My word, Mother! She’s a little devil!”

Outside, I peeled off my dress, down to my flour-sack panties. Peter poured water from the pump over my hands, and I shivered as little bumps poked up my skin.

He picked up my batter-stained dress. “This is getting a bit small on you. Maybe it’s time to retire it?”

“Aren’t we going to save it for the baby?”

“You think it’s a girl, do you? We’ll find out soon enough.” He winked at me. “You’re going to have to set a good example, Dot. You’ll be a big sister.”

I liked the sound of that. “A good, big sister!”

I thought we were done when he reached for the washboard. “Well, if we’re going to keep it, rub on some soap.” Then he showed me how to scrub the stain over the waves of the washboard. “Pretend it’s a game - chase away the blob!” We made up a song while we took turns scrubbing, the scratchy noise of the washboard keeping the beat.

“Make the blob disappear while I get your other dress.”

When he returned, he dried me off and helped me into my clean clothes. “Ma doesn’t mean to make you feel bad, Dottie. She’s just tired.” He ruffled the top of my head. “Things are rough right now. Try to do what she says, but what you’ve done isn’t all that bad. Ya hear?”

I nodded.

“Just don’t do it again,” he said, tapping my nose with his index finger. His face brightened. “Oh, I almost forgot. Got us a surprise!”

“What is it, Peter?”

“If you’re good, I’ll show you after supper.”

“Is it a book, Peter? Did you stop by the library on the way home?”

“Wait and see!”

Rose and I gathered dandelion and turnip greens to go along with Mother’s Anything Loaf for supper. I was starving by the time we sat down at the dinner table. But the bitterness of the greens made me pucker and the stale bread mixed with water and leftover vegetables looked like slop for the pigs we used to have. As I placed a forkful in my mouth and began to chew, the lumps of vegetables felt like bugs in my mouth. I could feel them pop and crunch with each bite. Was it a leg? The head? I tried to think of something else, but I couldn’t and I gagged. Rose gave me the evil eye, as if I could help it. Then, she kicked me under the table real hard. My arm jerked, knocking over my cup.

“Dot! I’ve had all I can take of you today!” Mother’s voice cut the air like a knife. “Go to your room now!”

Everyone’s eyes were on me. I’d messed up again and I wouldn’t even get to see Peter’s surprise. I ran to my room, flinging the door shut. I buried my head in my pillow and sobbed. After a bit, I could hear muffled voices while they cleaned up the dinner dishes. I heard Peter say, “Let me talk to her.” Then there was a knock at my door and it opened slowly.

“I’m sorry, Peter.” I started to cry again.

He sat down beside me on the bed. “I guess you’ve just had one of those days.”

I rolled onto my side, looking at him. “Rose kicked me under the table – that’s why I jumped and spilled the water.”

“I wondered …”

“She’s always looking for ways to get me in trouble, and I don’t need any help.”

Peter laughed. “Well, who does?”  He reached under his shirt and pulled something out. “Look here.” He handed me a book with a pale blue cover and a chubby man, a goose and a dog on the front.

“It’s called The Story of Dr. Dolittle. The librarian thought we’d like it.”

I started to smile but then handed the book back to him. “Peter, I wasn’t good. I shouldn’t get a surprise.”

“Nonsense! Do you want me to read or what?”

“Oh yes!”

He laid back in the bed, and I scooched over next to him. I put my head on his chest and he wrapped one arm around me. I could hear the drumming of his heart and the rumble of his voice. While he traced his finger along the row of letters on the page, I tried to match sound to word. But after a while, the words and pictures blurred together. All that remained was the sound of Peter’s voice as I was swirled away into a time and place that I wished to stay in forever.

This story by Jennifer Bostian was the first place winner in our recent "Undiscovered Gems" writing competition. Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to be up to date with Exisle Academy.

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