Ayesha’s Dream

Listen…

On a velvety night in a desert land, a cool wind moved among dunes and glided into a small village. The curious wind lifted the long limbs of the date palm trees, touched the donkey’s fur in the stable, and poked through the open window of Ayesha’s room in her family’s house. The wind circled the room quietly, then with a rustle and a sigh slipped out the window.

In her bed, Ayesha dreamed. What was she dreaming of? The ocean, although the most water Ayesha had ever seen was in the small buckets drawn glistening from the village’s deep black well. Earlier that day her father had told her stories of the great sea—giant waves, and whales as big as dunes, and strange fish, and sailors on boats riding the sea’s broad back.

So, while the wind whispered through the dark village, Ayesha dreamed of traveling to the water beyond the desert. She picked up a flat loaf of bread, in case she got hungry on her trip, and slipped from her house. Everything was quiet outside and glowed in silvery light.

“Where are you going?” A kangaroo rat sat up on her legs, sniffing the air.

“I am going to see the Ocean,” Ayesha replied.

“Do you know which way to go?”

“Well, no, I don’t.” Ayesha stopped, realizing she had not thought about which direction to walk.

The rat hopped into the air. Then her bright eyes spied the brown loaf Ayesha carried.

“I’m amazed, simply amazed, I can see that you will need help. It’s quite a walk. Is that bread for your journey?”

“Yes.”

“Not just any bread will do, you know. Let me have a piece to see if it’s the right bread. Yes, bread for long trips must be special.”

Ayesha was puzzled. “Why?”

The rat blinked twice, sputtering, “Why, you ask, why? Oh, my word, it has to be…very white, because if it were not, it would be…dark. And my oh my, dark bread, you—” the rat stopped, then leaped into the air, ”You would lose it in the sand, yes, unless it is white it will blend in with the sand. Give me a piece so I can examine it properly. Please.”

Ayesha tore a small piece and placed it before the rat, who lifted it in her tiny pink claws to peer at it closely with one eye.

“Hmm,” the rat muttered, “Yes,” taking a bite, “I think this bread is sufficiently white.” In a flash, she had eaten the small piece.

“Do you know where the Ocean is?” Ayesha asked, as the rat stroked her whiskers and combed the fur on her cheeks.

“Well, I just might. I can see that you will need some pointers regarding the Ocean.” The rat eyed the moist bread Ayesha was tucking into a fold of her djellaba. “Maybe I should travel with you for a bit, to make sure you get off on the right path. I think I shall, because, after all, I am a mother and must help you, child of another mother.”

“Thank you, that would be kind. May I know your name? What should I call you?”

“Well, Bibi is my name. I am Bibi.”

Ayesha introduced herself, then said, “Which way do we travel to reach the great Ocean?”

Bibi stood on her hind legs, took a sniff, and spoke solemnly.

“We must go that way to reach the Ocean most quickly,” pointing with her sharp pink nose to the end of the path, past the last house. The rat scuttled over and stopped at Ayesha’s side, looking up. “Let’s go, for we have a long walk…”

“Wake up, my flower, it is morning. Time to get out of bed, my sleepy dove.” Ayesha’s mother bent down, smiling, her cool hand touching Ayesha’s cheek.

*     *     *

The bucket banged against Ayesha’s leg as she shuffled to the well. However, before she could even see the well she heard voices.

“What will I do for my meals, with the husband’s brother visiting today?”

“Why, I could barely get half a bucket yesterday!”

“My sister dreamed this would happen, two nights ago.”

The well was surrounded by women talking, their dark djellabas flapping as their hands flew like excited birds, bracelets ringing. Ayesha stopped and listened more, then ran all the way home, her bucket banging against her legs.

“The well has run dry! There is no more water!”

*     *     *

In the shade of a date palm the village council addressed the villagers, saying the well-diggers had been sent for. “We did not watch carefully for the signs, and our well has left us dry. We must guard each drop left as if it were a jewel, until our new well gives us water.”

Words flew deep into the night as the villagers talked and talked. Lying in bed, Ayesha drifted as if on water, the voices like waves that kept coming and coming. After her house and the village turned quiet and slept, Ayesha rose up, gathered a half loaf of bread and slipped out to sit under the moon, as she had the night before in her dream. Her parents would scold her if they knew, asleep behind their striped curtain. But things were serious, and she wanted to think.

As Ayesha sat at the top of a dune, eating and wishing she knew how to help the village, a kangaroo rat appeared, hopping up the dune. Ayesha watched, and then, it spoke to her.

“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”

It was Bibi, the rat from her dream! Ayesha was excited, but then remembered.

“No, I can’t, the village well is dry, and we must find new water. Mother worries that the well-diggers will have cloudy eyes and see no place to dig. What will we do?”

The rat laughed a little and chittered, but did not stop her hopping, enjoying the circle she made in the sand. “Humans are so helpless. I know there is water, and I know where it lives. How else could we ever drink in such a dry place? We don’t have nice wells and big buckets to drink our fill from. I can’t dig any more than you can balance on your tail. We have to know where the water is easiest to reach, or we’re in the hands of trouble.”

“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”

“How do you know where the water is?”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Can’t you hear it? Sometimes it’s loud enough to wake a sleeping donkey.”

“Hear what?”

“The water. It talks constantly. Water usually just moves somewhere else. We can listen and find the place where it went. But we’ll need some help, some more sharp ears, to save time.”

The rat stopped her hopping, sat straight up, and passed her paws through her fur a few times. Then she closed her eyes and began beating her tail on the sand rapidly, her eyes shut tight and her whiskers twitching with the effort. After thumping for a while, she stopped. “There. That will do. Whew, drumming is lots of work, I think I need a morsel of bread to keep my strength up.”

“What were you doing?” Ayesha asked, handing a small piece of bread to Bibi, who hopped once then ate the bread in one gulp.

“Just asking for help. It should be here by now.” Indeed, small shadows were hopping toward Ayesha and Bibi; more kangaroo rats. Nine had answered Bibi’s call, and squatted in a half circle before her, whiskers twitching and eyes gleaming under the moon.

“What took you so long? What if I had been in trouble? It certainly seems that I better learn to fend for myself and not count on you lazytails.” Bibi held her sharp nose in the air.

One rat, whose tail had a kink just before its tip, spoke up in a weary voice. “It is the middle of the night, Bibi, this is our busiest time, and we have many chores to do. I was getting ready to catch a juicy cricket when you called. What do you want this time?”

“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the humans scurrying around fussing because the water got tired of the old well and moved. This little girl will give us bread if we will find where the water went. Yes, Ayesha?” Bibi looked up at Ayesha.

“Certainly,” Ayesha said brightly and pulled the bread from her sleeve, waving it. Immediately there was twitching and chittering and a few somersaults. The rat with the bent tail spoke.

“We will happily help, but may we have a taste first? We have hard work to do, after all.”

“Certainly,” Ayesha again responded. She sat, and the rats gathered politely in a circle, balancing on their tails. As Ayesha placed a small piece of bread in each set of pink paws, she heard a quiet Shokran. “You’re welcome,” she replied to each.

Bibi called, “Good, let’s go to the old well and start from there.”

*     *     *

At the old well, Bibi told the other rats, “Now, form a line, and grab the tail of your brother or sister on your right. Good, now spread apart until—”

“Ouch, that’s attached, you know.”

“Mahmoud, stop it. Good. This way we make sure we don’t miss any ground and stay close together. Listen closely for the water’s voice, and we’ll start walking from the well. First, let’s go…that way.”

Ayesha sat on the well’s lip, watching as the line of rats walked under the moon, each holding a neighbor’s tail.

Date palms rustled as the wind returned, and a dog barked somewhere on the village’s far side—at this, the line of rats hopped in the air but then kept walking.

Ayesha climbed down from the well and followed the rats, and soon an excited voice said, “I hear the water, right here.”

The others dropped tails and gathered, on empty sand just beyond the village edge, then all began hopping and chattering.

“Yes, I hear it.”

“Me, too.”

“My, the water sighs loudly.”

But when Ayesha knelt she could not hear a thing except the whisper of sand. “Are you sure?” Ayesha peered at Bibi, who was grooming the fur on her right rear leg.

“Oh yes, it is here, and not that far underground, the new well will not need to be very deep. We promised to find water, and we take promises very seriously. So, let’s mark the spot so it can be found in the daylight.”

Ayesha piled stones where the rats told her. Then, Bibi spoke again.

“We have kept our part of our agreement, now it is your turn. May we have our bread, please? It will be good for us to return to our homes with something tasty for our families.”

Ayesha divided her bread among the rats, each politely saying Shokran then hopping off into the darkness. Last came Bibi.

“Shokran, Ayesha. The water will be sweet and cool. Goodbye.”

*     *     *

When Ayesha awoke the next morning, she ran to her mother and told her of the kangaroo rats and the place for the new well.

“Hush, child, this is not the time for dreams. Today is baking day, and we have much to do.”

Her father said, “Not now, my daughter, tell me your stories later. I must go out before the sun gets too high. Until the new well is dug, I must take extra care of our garden.”

No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night. Ayesha thought hard about how to convince her parents that she knew where the new well could be dug.

No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night.

And she had an idea.

Excited but tired, she lay in her bed that night, and when the fat round moon rolled out to sit on the soft dunes, Ayesha again slipped from her house. First, she walked to a place in the village where she knew date palm trees had been planted. She carefully dug up one of the young trees, almost as tall as she, and covered up the hole. Then, she carried the small tree to the spot beyond the village where the rats had heard water. There was the stone pile, and she planted the tree. Wind stirred everything in a gust when she finished, scattered sand, and helped erase her traces.

Then she giggled.

*     *     *

Next morning, she said nothing about the tree, although she felt as if she might burst with excitement. But, after chores, when Ayesha played chase with her friends Fatima, Habibi, and Melila, she ran down a village path to the desert’s edge, to where, wonder of wonders, a new tree grew! The other girls ran to their houses to tell their families, and soon grownups stood around the tree that had appeared overnight. “Go get the well-diggers!”

The well-diggers had come to the village to begin their work, and when they were shown the tree they sniffed the air, put their ears to the ground, and looked at each other.

“Yes, we will begin digging here.” They found moisture in the earth after only an hour of digging. And the very next day, cool water began flowing into the bottom of the deep new well.

*     *     *

Ayesha lay—happy and tired—in bed the evening of the day water came back to the village and wanted to thank Bibi and her friends for finding the water. But there was something else she wanted to do, too. In the quiet part of the night she again walked under the moon, holding a fresh loaf in both hands, letting the breeze carry the delicious smell. And, before Ayesha had walked very far, a familiar voice from near her feet spoke.

“It is good to see you, Ayesha, my child.”

“I am glad to see you, Bibi. Thank you very much for finding the water for us.”

“Oh, glad to help. If you really want to thank me you could let me have a taste of that loaf.”

“Sure, you may have some, but only when you keep your promise.”

The rat rose up on her hind legs. “Whatever do you mean? Of course, I kept my promise, silly child, your village has a new well.”

“True, but you forgot your other promise. We have not gone to see the Ocean.”

Somersaulting and chittering, Bibi said, “Well, we’re wasting a beautiful cool night. Follow me.”

Bibi began hopping away. Her long skinny tail stuck straight up, the dark tuft at its tip like a flag in the air. After a little hop of her own, Ayesha followed, walking along the path leading to the end of the village and, beyond the horizon, to the great Ocean.

*     *     *

Was this a dream? All I know is that the next day Ayesha’s mother gathered up Ayesha’s djellaba to wash it in the village’s new water, and she felt dampness at its hem and a delicious tangy salty sea smell rose faintly from it. One tiny shell fell from the cloth. And Ayesha’s mother stared at the garment and shook her head, as if to wake herself.

Ed TaylorEd Taylor is the author of the novel Theo (Old Street), the poetry collection Idiogest (BlazeVox) and the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat (BlazeVox). His fiction, poetry, and essays have most recently appeared in New World Writing, Louisville Review, Great Lakes Review, and Gargoyle. He received a fiction writing MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles.

Angelina Abercrombie

Most little girls wish for ponies on their eighth birthdays. Angelina Abercrombie, however, was not a typical little girl. She already lived in a mansion, along with a very rich father, a very beautiful mother, a chef, a maid, and her own personal cotton-candy machine. Last year she had wished for a pony, and her father had bought her three. “Three’s company,” he’d said, and Angelina had been thrilled, until a week passed and she got bored. Angelina hated being bored, so this year, she vowed she wouldn’t waste her birthday wish on something which now sat in the stable doing nothing but munching on imported hay. She wanted more. She always wanted more.

Angelina watched Paulo the chef carefully slide eight candles into the soft, spongy, pink-frosted cake. “Make sure they stand up straight,” she hissed. “That one looks a little crooked.” With trembling fingers, Paulo tilted the candle a fraction to the left. That was better. Everything had to be perfect on Angelina’s birthday. With dismay, she noticed her father was engrossed in the business section of the newspaper again. “It’s time for my birthday cake!” she yelled, causing him to drop the paper with a start. He caught his breath and boomed his loud, fake businessman laugh. Her mother smiled her beautiful smile. Paulo gave a shivery chuckle.

“Light my candles, Paulo,” Angelina instructed. “I’ve got the perfect wish thought up, and I don’t want to waste any more time waiting on it.”

“Just like a businessman,” her father nodded approvingly, turning back to the newspaper.

Paulo was having difficulty lighting the candles. Angelina huffed impatiently. “Hurry up!”

“I am sorry, Meez Angelina,” Paulo apologized, wiping a little sweat off his brow. “It’s the candles, ma’am. They are a leetle bit old and the wicks are dusty.”

Angelina sighed. She wouldn’t throw a screaming fit at Paulo, not this time. She would just roll her eyes like she imagined a good little girl would.

Finally, the candles were lit. Eight little flames waved up at her. “Make a wish, sweetie!” her mother said.

Angelina screwed her eyes up tight. She clenched her toes. She balled her hands into fists. She took a deep breath. With every last bit of energy directed at this task, she whispered, “I wish that I’ll get everything I ever wish for.” Then, with a huge gasp, she blew the candles out.

*     *     *

Angelina awoke early the next morning, excitement drumming through her veins. Had it worked? She closed her eyes and murmured, “I wish that it would be sunny outside.” Then, with a pounding heart, she drew back the silk drapes which covered her window. Sunlight streamed through.

It was good. But not enough. Sunlight could have been a coincidence—she needed more proof. As she stood in front of the mirror, tying her dark curls back into her usual pigtails, she whispered, “I wish that Paulo will have a stack of chocolate chip pancakes ready to eat when I come into the kitchen.” As an afterthought, she added, “With whipped cream.”

As she peered around the kitchen door, she saw Paulo in his white apron, humming happily to himself as he fiddled with a burner on the stove. She cleared her throat loudly. Paulo froze, his singing ceased.

“Good morning, Meez,” he said quickly. “I have pree-pared a deelicious breakfast for you. Chocolate cheep pancakes. Extra whipped cream.” He pointed to the kitchen table where a steaming plate of pancakes waited for her.

“Yes!” Angelina cried. Paulo stared at her bemusedly. It was on rare occasion that Angelina didn’t berate his cooking skills.

Angelina ate her fill of pancakes happily. Her mother had left the house early, so she wouldn’t be able to irritate Angelina by counting calories. Her father had left early, so he wouldn’t irritate her by constantly yelling into his cell phone. Most importantly, Angelina now had the power to get anything she wished for. What to wish for next? As she pondered this thought, the passing figure of Bobby Fliss caught her eye through the window.

Bobby Fliss was Angelina’s next-door neighbour. He was the only other student at their school who lived in a house as big as hers. He was the only boy who wouldn’t give up his Dunkaroos when she demanded them. His family rescued stray cats that meowed loudly outside Angelina’s window and set off her allergies. These three reasons were enough to consider him her mortal enemy.

She quickly grabbed her schoolbag and rushed out the door, whispering, “I wish that Bobby Fliss will do whatever I say.”

“Hello, Bobby!” she called brightly, catching up to him on the familiar path to school.

“Uh, hi, Angelina,” Bobby replied, looking confused. He was accustomed to her yelling at him for walking too slow.

“It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Angelina grinned, her dark eyes shining. “Here, Bobby, carry my bag to school.” She dumped her large, heavy bookbag into his arms.

“Okay, Angelina,” Bobby said automatically.

“Walk faster.”

“Okay, Angelina.”

“It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Angelina grinned, her dark eyes shining.

“Tell me that I look pretty today.”

“You look pretty today, Angelina.”

“Hah,” Angelina said triumphantly. They were nearing the school. She looked with pride at the image of Bobby hauling her bookbag, and with a sudden flash of inspiration, added, “Oh, yes, Bobby, one more thing. Get rid of all those stray cats you’ve been taking in.”

“Okay, Angelina.”

Angelina clapped with delight.

*     *     *

The bell rang for class to start. Ms. Mortimer rose from her desk, preparing to take attendance. Angelina found attendance incredibly boring. She needed some excitement.

She needed some servants to finish her math homework and buy her candy and tell her how wonderful and smart she was. Smirking, she slid into her seat and whispered, “I wish the whole class would fall in love with me and treat me like a princess.”

Ms. Mortimer drew out the class attendance sheet. “Angelina Abercrombie?” she began in her usual dull drone. Then, her expression changed. Her eyes widened. She readjusted her glasses and stared at the attendance sheet as if she’d never seen it before.

“Angelina Abercrombie,” she repeated, in a dazed tone, a half-smile forming on her face. “Angelina Abercrombie. Students, excuse me. I am forgetting my manners. We are, of course, in the presence of greatness.” With that, she threw aside the sheet and sunk into a low bow before Angelina’s desk.

“Angelina Abercrombie,” the class repeated in awe.

“Angelina, let me help you with your homework!” a voice exclaimed from the back of the classroom.

“Angelina, please let me buy you lunch,” Mary Scott begged, nearly in tears.

“Angelina, you’re so smart!”

“Angelina, take my wallet!”

“Angelina!” “Angelina!” “Angelina!”

*     *     *

Angelina left school at a quarter past three. It had been a most excellent day. She had received enough offers from students volunteering to do her homework to last until the next century. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t even assigned any homework. Ms. Mortimer had dedicated the day to discussing various aspects of Angelina in admiration (a small fight had broken out between Timmy Shaw, who admired Angelina’s nose, and Louise Parkinson, who loved Angelina’s violin skills more). It had been a bit exhausting to shake off the students, but Angelina handled it like a businessman—she told the class she was stepping out for a bathroom break and left them eagerly anticipating her return.

She entered her house with a huge smile on her face. What could she wish for next? She began to ponder this as she walked to the kitchen; however, she was immediately accosted by Paulo. “Fresh chocolate cheep pancakes for you, Meez. Extra whipped cream.”

“What is this?” Angelina screeched. “Why is there a cat in my house?”

“Oh!” Angelina stopped short. Pancakes were stacked up to the ceiling—on the kitchen table, the chairs, the counter, even in the state-of-the-art microwave. Bowls of whipped cream littered the floor. “I have been working seence this morning, Meez,” Paulo gasped, looking exhausted. He then turned back to the stove, pouring yet another spoonful of batter onto the griddle.

Recovering from this shock, Angelina began to laugh. Another wish could sort this out. Perhaps she would just have a bite of one pancake before she—

Meow!

Angelina’s spine immediately stiffened. She looked towards the source of the noise. A scrawny-looking cat was in her kitchen, eagerly lapping up a bowl of whipped cream.

“What is this?” Angelina screeched. “Why is there a cat in my house?”

“Angelina!” A breathless Bobby Fliss had burst through her front door, a cat squirming under each arm. Two more were at his feet. “I had to get rid of my cats, and I thought, why not give them to you! As a present, to show my love for you!”

“No!” Angelina could already feel her eyes watering and her throat tickling. “I didn’t mean that you should—” She broke off in a coughing spasm as the cats raced past her. “Paulo! Get rid of them!” she croaked out.

“I cannot, Meez,” Paulo said tiredly. “Must make more pancakes.” He heaved a great sigh and placed another batch in the kitchen sink. Another cat raced by Angelina’s feet.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Angelina cried. “Fine. I wish that the—”

“There she is! We found her!”

Angelina’s eyes were burning. She thought, in her allergy-induced haze, that she saw a mob of people running up her driveway. Groaning, she began to rub her face, trying to remove the sticky feeling from her sinuses. When she blearily looked around, she realized there was no mob in her driveway. Rather, there was a mob entering her house.

“Angelina Abercrombie! Angelina Abercrombie!” She made out the image of her twenty-six classmates, struggling to get through the door, arms outstretched, maniacal smiles on their faces, chanting in unison. Alice Mellwick elbowing Brandon Thurnwood in the face to get closer, knocking over a vase in the process. Timmy Shaw somersaulting over Kyle Perkins, a bouquet of sad-looking dandelions clutched in one hand. Ms. Mortimer kicking the shins of her students with her shiny black heels, shouting, “Out of my way! I must see her first!”

Angelina wanted to scream, but her throat felt swollen. She squeaked out, “I wish that—” but Timmy Shaw had fallen at her feet, thrusting dandelions up at her, yelling, “Take them! Take them!” with saliva dripping down his chin like a hungry dog.

They were going to crush her. Their hands frantically reaching for her hair, her shoes, her face. Angelina’s eyes landed on the basement door. Fighting back a sneeze, she kicked off Timmy Shaw and ran.

Angelina had made it down the stairwell when she regained enough breath to gasp, “I wish that—ouch!” She felt one of her pigtails come loose from its neat elastic band, and turned around to see Olivia Plymouth holding a lock of her hair, grinning wildly and murmuring, “I’ve touched her! I’ve got a piece of her!” Shouts of rage followed from the rest of the class behind them. Their footsteps thudded heavily on the stairs, all clamouring to get down faster.

“No!” Angelina screamed, as red-hot panic took the place of the smogginess in her nostrils. They were going to trap her down here. She twisted away from an outstretched arm, tripped over a forgotten Barbie doll, and banged up against her own personal cotton-candy machine. It began to whir. With a whimper, Angelina whispered as fast as she could, “I wish that—”

*     *     *

Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie arrived at home late that night. Mr. Abercrombie had taken an extended business meeting; Mrs. Abercrombie had taken an extended shopping day. Both felt satisfied with the day’s progress, but as they surveyed the foyer, their contentment soon faded.

“Why, there’s broken glass everywhere!” Mrs. Abercrombie exclaimed. “Mud! Blood! Cat hair! Is that…whipped cream?”

“My God,” Mr. Abercrombie said. “We’ve been robbed!”

“Don’t worry, Meezter Abercrombie,” came a feeble voice from the kitchen. “You haven’t been robbed. There was onlee a small mob in here a few hours ago.”

“Oh, good,” Mr. Abercrombie said. “Wait, what?”

“They went…” A long pause. “Into the basement.”

Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie exchanged a confused look, and then, wordlessly, started for the stairs. Mrs. Abercrombie regarded a pile of ragged dandelions with disgust, careful to prevent her heels from touching the mushy stems. She followed her husband down the stairwell, only halting when she heard him exclaim, “What on earth?” Then, she peered over his shoulder to survey the scene.

Twenty-six students sat calmly on the ground, silhouetted by the dim light. Their clothing was tattered, hair askew, fresh cuts visible. An older woman was inspecting a run in her nylons. Mrs. Abercrombie squinted, trying to make out what was in each of their hands. With a sigh of relief, she realized they weren’t holding weapons. No, each child was happily immersed in munching on their own stick of a curiously red, perfectly spun cotton candy.

Sarah BrownSarah Christina Brown is a graduate student in English and Creative Writing at Concordia University. Her work has recently been published in Room Magazine, Literary Juice, and the Vancouver Weekly. Originally from B.C., Sarah now writes, makes music, and practices cat self-defense in Montréal.

No Youngin’ Left Behind

In the overgrown backyard of a neat suburban house, there stood a treehouse falling into loving disrepair. Unlike the catalogue-bought boxes in toy stores, this treehouse sat nestled in the arms of an aging oak tree, almost like it had always been there somehow. If you were passing through, you might have mistaken it for ordinary, or even missed it entirely, but the kids of the neighborhood knew better. On this night in particular, it was crammed full of ten children sitting Indian-style on the floor. Starlight leaked through the slats in the walls, illuminating their eyes like bats in a cartoon forest. The bluish darkness seemed to amplify the youngins’ rumor-swapping, giggling, and the incessant arguing of the backyard crickets. Then there was a scrape and an unmistakable creak at the door.

A hush fell. The first thing they saw was the glint of her sequined cowboy boots. It was her, their leader, Zeeba Yoke.

Zeeba ranked as the oldest member of the club—the BIG BAD ten year old. She was smooth as wax paper rushing along a steep slide, sharp as shattered glass from one of your mom’s precious vases. Some said she had walked on the surface of the sun and lived. It was rumored that a troll lived in her tuft of wild dark hair. Yes, Zeeba was a legend, and on that night in particular she seemed infected by some cosmic force. She stood with the moon hanging full behind her, bathed in an eerie glow from the old lantern in her hand. Moths flocked around the light, and the kids were no better. All of the inferior six, seven, eight year old eyes gazed up at her, waiting expectantly.

And then she spoke. “Evenin’, fartbrains. Boy, do I have news for you.”

A few minutes later they had situated themselves in the usual circle. Billy Bikowski was picking his nose again, tilting his chair back until it wobbled like two toothpicks holding up a marshmallow (he always took the only chair). Little Fritz O’Donnell bounced ethereally in the corner. Dewey Rogers’ pale eyes skittered around the room, waiting for a grown up to appear at any second.

Zeeba pounded her makeshift gavel—a light up Sketcher—against the warped wood, yelling, “Order! Order!” Silence fell. “So I know I’ve been gone these last few weeks, and you probably cried yourselves silly in your mamas’ arms every night I was gone, dreaming of what I might have been up to on my dangerous expedition. If that’s not what you were doing then it should’ve been, because everything I’ve cooked up before this has been a pair of underwear in your Christmas stocking, apples in your Happy Meal…”

A collective gasp. “…compared to what I have now.” She produced a scroll, tied with a purple scrunchie, from her back pocket and, with a crack like a whip, unfurled it. The crowd couldn’t quite suppress their giggles. Her master plan was written on the back of a Dora the Explorer poster.

“I couldn’t find any paper in my room, okay?” And giving up on her aura of mystery, Zeeba showed them the plan.

Incomprehensible scribbles filled nearly every corner of the shiny white surface. Only three words could be discerned in the middle of the chaotic jumble:

“Kids on strike?” Fritz cocked her head to the side, squinting at the words in confusion.

Zeeba smiled. “Yes, Fritz. Kids on strike.”

“What’s a strike?” Billy asked.

“It’s when grownups decide they’re tired of something, so they just don’t do it. Except they use something called a lickit line, where people lick the elbows of the strikers to show they’re on board. I heard my mom talking about it on the phone,” Zeeba said impressively.

“I think I’ve heard of that,” Dewey said, pushing his thick glasses up to the bridge of his nose pompously.

Fritz piped up, “But why would we go on a strike? I don’t want anyone to lick my elbows. ”Kush Patel, a small boy with three charmingly crooked teeth, leaned over, tongue outstretched, and dabbed her elbow. “Ack! Kush, gross!”

“Excellent question. We’re going on strike from grownups. Let me ask you, what causes all the bad things in the world? War, math tests, those stickers in the back of your sticker book that always rip—”

“Voldemort!” cried Billy, “Bad guys in comic books!”

“The Big O Tree on the news,” added Dewey knowingly.

“Parent controls on my YouTube!” yelled a kid from the back.

“Peas!”

“Yes! So you see why we have to do this, right? It’s up to us to fix the messed up world. I was wandering the wilderness, looking for an answer, when I had a vision. I saw a better America, butt-munchers. No tests. Free pizza all the time. All we have to do is build a rocket ship and run away to—”

“Hey wait a second. You didn’t have a vision. That was on Herb and Quinn last night,” said Billy.

“Oh yeah, I saw that one too! They tried to fly to Planet Wobnock. But then a giraffe ate all the parts, and it rained pudding.” mused Fritz, rubbing her chin.

Zeeba turned a choke into a cough and maintained her lofty tone. “Okay, yes. Maybe they had the same idea on the show. But I know that this mission came down to me from something bigger than our stinky club. I’m talking about freedom, where no one can boss you around. ”She paused. “We’re going to build a rocket ship.”

Even the crickets stopped chirping. Zeeba had come out with some outlandish plans in the past, but this one…

Dewey’s hand punctured the air. “Excuse me, but aren’t strikes supposed to achieve something? What exactly do you think a bunch of kids escaping to the moon will accomplish?”

The fire behind Zeeba’s eyes seemed to condense into a single, sharp flame. She had finally reached either the punchline to a long-winded joke or the mic drop moment. She flashed her signature shark smile and said, “We’re going to show them that we can do it better. Grownups can’t handle running the Earth? Fine. Let’s leave. Make a world of our own.”

CRASH. Billy’s chair fell over. Zeeba’s voice evaporated like the needle running out of grooves on a record. The crickets broke out in renewed frenzy, and several of the kids joined the chorus.

The smaller kids’ faces wrinkled like old lemons, imagining warm beds and their moms and dads tucking them in at night. A gif of his grandpa turning hamburgers on the grill looped in Billy’s mind. A few cheered, though they hadn’t heard a word of the speech, busy watching ants crawling out of cracks in the floorboards or picking at scabs from yesterday’s rug burns.

Then there was Fritz. Tiny, wood nymph fairy Fritz. Her nose turned upward like a house cat sniffing at the first weeds in a wild tangle of forest, eyes glassy and restless as a shaken snow globe. Zeeba had never seen a look like that on a person before, let alone on this five year old. It fascinated her. But before she could dwell on it for too long, Billy’s voice boomed over the clamor.

“We’re going to show them that we can do it better. Grownups can’t handle running the Earth? Fine. Let’s leave. Make a world of our own.”

“So you’re saying we should run away from home?” he said.

Zeeba nodded. “That’s what I’m saying.”

Kush called out, “But what about school? What about our parents?”

“Those things will be here when we get back and the planet is fixed. Yeah, it might be hard, but you’ll be independent! You make the rules! Come on, guys. This is, like, every kid’s dream. Don’t weenie out on me here. We gotta save the world!” said Zeeba. It would be the closest thing to a “please” any of them would ever hear her utter.

Silence, then—

“Let’s do it,” said Fritz.

Zeeba broke into a smile, whipped into action once again. “All in favor?” She asked.

Fritz’s hand was the first to go up. Then, one by one, thin and pudgy arms filled the air, each one adding oxygen to Zeeba’s flame. Everyone was on board, all except Dewey. Billy reached over and impatiently lifted his arm for him.

“That’s settled then,” said Zeeba.

*     *     *

They spent the next several days gathering supplies for the journey. Dewey, after letting the rest beg, graciously agreed to draw the plans for the rocket ship. By the end of each day, books and scraps of crumpled paper piled around him in heaps. On these days, his pencil spent equal time in his hand, behind his ear, and between his teeth, until eventually he emerged with a usable blueprint, colored and everything. Everyone got to work right away, blasting a Kidz Bop CD Billy had provided “from his sister” as others scrambled around with armfuls of hodgepodge objects.

Deprived of most conventional building materials, the kids resorted to what they could find buried in the neatly-trimmed grass and the piles of hidden treasure their parents had thrown out with the compost. They cultivated the precious buds and berries, the flexible yet brutally strong trunks of trees that had not yet crusted with bark—all the things that had no place in the square garden plot beside the house.

But not everything could be scavenged outside.

“I’m telling you, I need something to hold this thing together or the whole project is kaput.” Dewey was pointing aggressively at Kush and a little girl with pigtails—the sporty Stephanie Sholes—trying to tie two twigs together with a piece of grass.

Zeeba turned away from them. “What do you want from me?” she asked Dewey.

“Twine.”

“And what’s that supposed to be?”

Dewey sighed, clearly frustrated. “String. Thin rope. For Pete’s sake, Zeeba, haven’t you ever opened a newspaper?”

Zeeba smiled proudly and said, “Nope. But where’s this mystery ‘twine’ hiding anyway?”

Dewey paused. This was the part he was afraid of. “The work bench.”

The work bench loomed in the dank recesses of the underworld, crooked in the armpit of The Dad Cave. Respectable fathers were known to grow extra arms and sprout gorilla hair when they entered, spending long hours hunched over the musky work table, their twisted faces warped in the glaring metal. This was a place no kid could go if she hoped to come out alive. People changed in The Dad Cave.

Zeeba turned a chalky green. “I’m not going in there.”

“You’re our leader. But if you won’t do it, you’ll have to find someone else who will. Just get me my twine,” said Dewey, and he turned away, flipping through pages in his clipboard.

*     *     *

Fritz had no idea that it was the absolute worst possible moment for her to skip up to Zeeba, singing “Love is an Open Door,” but sadly that’s what happened. Zeeba’s head swiveled and locked Fritz in her crosshairs. The singing drifted off mid verse; Fritz backed away involuntarily.

“Fritzy. Fritz. Fritz. How would you like to go on a special mission for me?” Zeeba’s smile burned with a maniacal gleam.

Fritz stuttered, her tiny heart jumping to off-beats, “What m-mission?”

“A special mission that will help us with the rocket.” Not-so-deep-down, Zeeba knew that what she was doing was despicable. But she took it as a freebee and pushed mutinous thoughts aside. She suddenly became aware of the nightmarish smile stretching her face and hurriedly laughed it off.

Zeeba started over. “Listen Fritz, we really need your help. I need your help,” she said. Fritz tilted her head back and took in Zeeba’s full height. The goliath’s face settled into a soft smile. Unable to hold her gaze, she averted her eyes after a few seconds. It was difficult to lock eyes with Fritz, who carried a cloud of sincerity wherever she walked. Zeeba cleared her throat uncomfortably and said, “We need you to get something out of the work bench.”

Fritz crumpled, folding into herself like one of those paper fortune tellers you played with at recess. Then, in the smallest of voices, “Oh.”

Zeeba hesitated, losing faith in the whole plan with each crease in Fritz’s tiny forehead. Steeling herself, she placed both hands on her shoulders and said, “You’re the only one who can do this. We need someone who can…get in small spaces. And think on the fly, you know? You’re good at that. I believe in you.”

Fritz stared at her shoes for a long time before looking up. “Is that a yes?” asked Zeeba.

She nodded.

*     *     *

Bored with their other jobs, most of the club gathered in a frenzied jumble around Fritz as Zeeba and Dewey marched her toward the house. A few people in the older rungs of the ladder hung back, muttering darkly to each other and glaring at Fritz’s retreating figure.

Fritz herself tried to enjoy the attention—the cheers and chanting of her name from the crowd, Zeeba’s mentorial warmth beside her. However, yesterday’s peanut butter sandwich was threatening to resurface, sloshing unpleasantly in her stomach.

“Zeeba, don’t do this!” It was little Kush, shoving his way through the ring.

Zeeba froze, heart thumping, and turned to face the defector. “Kush, little buddy, Fritz says it’s okay. This is how we’re going to get that rocket built. You want that don’t you?”

“It doesn’t have to be her! She’s too little!” he shouted.

Zeeba addressed the crowd. “Any volunteers? Who wants to brave The Cave?” Silence. “That’s what I thought.”

“Why don’t you do it?” he said almost under his breath but each word clear as a bell.

“Because it’s not my job. Sometimes a leader has to make tough choices.” She approached him. “You do trust me, don’t you?” Zeeba punched him lightly on the shoulder, trying to pretend her insides weren’t crumbling.

Kush’s eyes narrowed. He shook her off and staggered away.

When Zeeba turned around, Fritz was already tramping her way to the basement door at top speed. “What numbers do I push to get in?” she yelled out behind her.

Zeeba’s cool faltered. This was one question she did not have an answer for. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your house!” said Dewey, throwing his arms up in exasperation.

“My parents know it. They didn’t tell me! I’m sorry!”

“Well someone’s going to have to go in the front door and open it from the inside then,” said Stephanie matter-of-factly.

All eyes probed Zeeba, waiting for an excuse or a snappy comeback. But she had never been one to do what was expected. “Alright,” she said. “See you on the other side, jerks.” She sauntered off, circling to the front of the house. The surprised muttering behind her bolstered her step, settling warmly in her chest. This would show them. Did they think she, Zeeba Yoke, would chicken out of a dangerous task? Who did they think they were dealing with?

At the same time, misgivings swarmed in the back of her mind. She saw herself caught by her parents, strung up by her ankles, stuck to flypaper under a heat lamp, or (dare she even think it?) banned from watching TV. No. She pushed these images aside as she stepped onto the porch. The doormat read “Welcome to the Nut House” beside a picture of a squirrel, whose soulless eyes always gave Zeeba the heebie jeebies. Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside.

Every gleaming surface stank of artificial lemons and Pine Sol. Zeeba’s smiling face peered down at her from portrait frames neatly hung in a grid formation.

From down the hall, a voice rang out, “Shoes off, please!”

“Are your little friends done playing?” asked a deeper voice.

“Yeah, we’re just…tired,” Zeeba said, peeling off her muddy boots with the sense that she was shedding her only protection.

“Do you want anything?”

“No, I’m just gonna go upstairs.” Zeeba sidestepped to the stairs and thump thump thumped against the bottom step to give the illusion of climbing. Her ears were perked, waiting for her cue. She would have to sneak down the hall and through the kitchen to make it to the basement steps. If her calculations were correct, madre and padre would vacate the kitchen approximately one minute after the coffee-maker quieted down. The ticking of the clock trudged onward as Zeeba watched it, her eyes bulging, bloodshot, and unblinking.

When the coffee pot finally spluttered to a stop, Zeeba had the look of a soldier emerging from a World War I trench. She snapped to action and skidded silently around the corner. The coast was clear. Without breathing, she sidled down the hallway and crept into the kitchen. She could hear the sounds of daytime talk shows leaking in from the living room, and pictured her parents settled on the couch, sipping coffee. She let out a sigh of relief.

The basement door loomed at the far side of the kitchen. It seemed to retreat further away the longer she looked at it, so she tiptoed as fast as she could across the room. Just as she was about to open the door, she heard a soft, threatening creak. The pantry door had swung ajar of its own accord, blocking her way. Zeeba eased it closed again, biting her lip so hard a trickle of blood slid down her chin. A click, then a thunderous crash. Several boxes of organic, whole grain cereal, cans of Spaghettios and soup, pasteurized juice, pickled olives, old boxes of stuffing, packets of flavoring, peanuts of every variety. Several weeks’ worth of grocery store visits came raining down.

How dare those other kids call her a coward? She was the bravest, smartest person on Earth. And soon she would be the same thing on the moon, too.

Zeeba braced herself. This was the end. Her parents would find her here and lock her in her room until her hair turned gray. Trip to the moon? Ha. Forget it. The screaming and lecturing would start any second…

But wait. The only sound that could be heard was a blaring TV commercial for a cruise line—raucous laughter, the clinking of glasses, and a female voice describing the exotic getaways. No screams. No response at all.

Well, Zeeba wasn’t about to wait around at the crime scene. She threw open the basement door. Darkness washed over her as she descended the stairs one rickety step at a time. The sound of her heartbeat flooded her ears, along with, what was that? A saw? When she finally reached the floor, she noticed a yellow glow coming from the far corner. A single, bare bulb illuminated a masked man standing over a table, feeding wood into a raging machine. The Dad. Panic surged inside her as Zeeba flew behind a stack of tote bins full of her early childhood. What was she going to do?

Then an idea struck that stunned Zeeba with her own brilliance. The Cave was cramped in the very back, far away from where she needed to be to unlock the door. All she had to do was make it the few yards to the door and somehow distract her father. How dare those other kids call her a coward? She was the bravest, smartest person on Earth. And soon she would be the same thing on the moon, too.

Bolstered with confidence, she crawled along between rows of boxes and old furniture and sprinted past the no man’s land to the door. Hands shaking, she turned the lock and snuck one look through the blinds at Dewey standing outside. The sawing stopped abruptly.

Time for phase two.

Zeeba scurried back to the foot of the stairs and curled into the fetal position. Then she cried as loud as she could, an eruptive wail that rattled the foundations around her. Within seconds, her father scooped her up in his arms and launched up the stairs.

“What’s wrong, Peanut? Are you hurt? How did your lip start bleeding? Oh God.”

He deposited her at the kitchen table, where her mother fussed around her, hovering and pecking like a worrywart bird of prey. “What happened? Is anything broken? Ah! I think she has a concussion! Baby, how many fingers am I holding up? HOW MANY?!”

“Don’t yell at her, Honey,” the father said.

Zeeba tilted her head back, eyes welling with well-rehearsed tears. She opened her mouth, outlined in blood, and said, “I’m okay, Mama. I just fell…down the stairs.” She burst into fresh sobs, burying her face in her hands.

Outside, the children gathered around the basement door, preparing Fritz to face the catacombs. At Dewey’s cue, Billy pulled the door open. Absolute darkness engulfed them, and everyone became momentarily hypnotized, intoxicated by the sight of nothingness. Fritz cleared her head and ran forward, swallowed.

Meanwhile, sulking under a tree, Kush watched Zeeba and her parents through the second floor window. He saw her sitting at the kitchen table, spooning chocolate cake into her mouth. Her mother pinched her cheeks. Zeeba smiled.

*     *     *

Fritz was trying to master her panic. She had reached the threshold outside the inner sanctum—natural light at her back, blackness meshing with The Cave’s dim, rusty glow. The single bare bulb swung ominously from the ceiling, illuminating her round face in warped reflections of tin cans and power tools. The mouths of chainsaws, wood chippers, and weed whackers curled their serrated lips threateningly at her.

Waiting to be sucked into the floor or sawed in half at any second, Fritz searched every surface for the twine. She couldn’t see it anywhere, and it was becoming near impossible to focus with herself unravelling at alarming rates. Where was it? She threw open drawers and scoured counters, but still nothing. Then, there it was. Resting on the topmost shelf, desperately out of reach.

Fritz knew what she had to do; there was no other way. She began climbing onto the bench—the altar of The Dad Cave—then up the shelves, one by one. She went painfully slowly, hands slick with sweat, and with each trembling step the metal frame teetered under her. Three to go. Two to go. One.

The shelves buckled, unable to hold her anymore. She fell, clinging to the collapsing frame with her eyes squeezed shut. Heaps of dull metal rained down, knocking over the bench and denting the floor. As it fell, the shelf made contact with the lightbulb, smashing it to dust, soon lost in the piles of black iron. Fritz opened her eyes, and, in the instant before she hit the ground, she realized that this room looked much better without any light at all.

Pain. Fritz remembered once falling off her bicycle and scraping her knee, her sister pulling bits of gravel out of the cut, and someone covering it with a bandaid. She remembered the sting and how she felt every pulse of her life blood in sharpest detail. That was the kind of cut that made you feel alive. This pain was much, much worse. Fritz felt nothing but dull, throbbing numbness all over her body. It was like what people buried alive must feel. A silent whimper and the first tick of a wind-up clock. She lay in a bed of screwdrivers and overturned boxes of nails, trapped. This was the end; she knew it. Not a triumphant first step on another world, not Zeeba’s proud face—only blackness and fear.

*     *     *

From the doorway, the children watched Fritz disappear with uneasy feelings in their stomachs. The stairs blocked their view of The Cave, so all they could do was wait and keep a lookout for parents. Why had they let her go in alone? They were all despicable chickens, complacent in Zeeba’s assurances that this was all for a greater good.

“I don’t like this,” Stephanie whispered. “What if somethin’ bad happens? Someone should go in there.”

Dewey silenced her, flipping through notes in his clipboard. “No. She can do this. If you go after her you’ll just get her caught.”

“Come on, Fritz,” prayed Billy, eating his fingernails down to nothing.

A few agonizing minutes passed. Then they heard the deafening clanging coming from inside. Not pausing to think, Stephanie led the charge into the basement. Kush flew from his tree and sprinted after them, all of them desperate to get to Fritz. Many hearts nearly stopped when they saw Fritz buried and unmoving. Everyone grabbed at tools and threw them aside until they could pull their friend free.

The upstairs door opened as Zeeba’s concerned father appeared to investigate. Billy pulled Fritz onto his back and high tailed it from the house. Dewey scrambled around in the debris searching for his twine. Glasses askew, he scooped it up and ran after them, slamming the door behind him.

They laid Fritz in the soft, welcoming grass near the base of the treehouse. She was in bad shape—covered in freshly blossoming bruises and cuts, the sunflowers on her dress obscured with red. A quiet gasp escaped her body. The kids’ faces stared down at her, waiting for a word or phrase to slip out of those panting lips, waiting for the day to turn suddenly to night or for a drop of rain and a thunderclap—anything to give meaning to this situation. But there was no such thing. The partly cloudy skies stayed the way they were. A neighbor pulled into their driveway and began unloading groceries. Zeeba went on eating her cake.

Some part of their brains groped in the dark for images of rocket ships and a smiling Earth, but none came. The goal of that whimpering, broken child on the ground seemed so absolutely pointless in that moment. Their plans were just idle dreams, as fleeting and insubstantial as a single cinder leaping from a bonfire.

At the same time, they needed rocket ships then more than ever.

It didn’t matter that Zeeba had pulled her grand idea from her double digits ego. It didn’t belong to her in the first place. The whole thing was about the rocket ship and saving the world, anyway. In fact, let the grownups come too. Let everyone come. All this passed through the kids’ minds as they stood there in silence, waiting.

Fritz opened her eyes and blinked. “I’m okay,” she said, surprising even herself.

A pause. Then Billy let out a guffaw of confused laughter. Kush bent down and helped Fritz to her feet.

“Everything’s going to be alright,” he said.

“Did someone get the twine?” she asked.

Dewey waved it in the air, looking a wreck. “Yeah.”

“Good,” she said. And it was.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++3…

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++2…

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++1…

Caitlyn CommCaitlyn Comm is a freshman Writing for Film and Television major at Emerson College. Her daily mission is to treat life as a tweener sitcom, regularly doing spit takes and spilling coffee on herself. One day she hopes to create a children’s television show that will bring the kids away from their phones and back to the TV where they belong. This is her first published work.

Secrets from the Underworld

The living room is bleached with a raw November light. I sidestep along a pristine white wall, past three perfectly aligned matted prints of geometric shapes, to the gleaming bookcase and consider the alphabetically organized books, all nonfiction. I keep my hands to myself.

On Tuesday, Dad’s friend, Brett, lost his uncle, and fifteen minutes ago, my parents dropped me off here before heading to Pittsburgh for the funeral. No need to drag a fourteen-year-old to a funeral. That’s the story they’re telling each other and probably anyone asking, “Where’s Stephanie? ”They’re not going to mention the truth which has more to do with thieving and secrets and extraordinary deliciousness.

I’m here to learn how to make my grandmother’s apple strudel.

Grandma Mahr—not the plump, smiling, bedtime-story sort of grandmother but more of a thin, handsome, what’s-on-sale-at-Boden.com woman—selects a card out of her recipe box, rises from the sofa, and cuts to the chase with, “So your mom wants to know how to make my apple strudel?”

I stick my hands in my pockets and shrug.

“Don’t slouch.”

I straighten my back and, since she’s still frowning at me, remove my hands from my pockets, hesitate, then gingerly fold them in front of me. I look like I’m praying. “I also want to learn.”

“Hmm.” She leads the way into the kitchen, pausing to ease off her shoes outside the doorway.

Walking past the covered sofa, I hear the muffled tune of a familiar commercial. Granddad’s watching television in the basement. That’s where he lives. Literally. He’s lived down there ever since he and Grandma divorced. This doesn’t strike me as a weird arrangement. For as long as I’ve been around, it’s always been this way.

I slip behind the covered armchair and remove my shoes, too. My sneakers are sad, dirty disappointments next to her shiny, black loafers.

“I’ll show you, but it’s not something you just watch and learn.” She perches the recipe card on the windowsill between a pot of basil and a pot of rosemary, unbuttons her cuffs, rolls up the sleeves of her white blouse, and heads for the sink. As she washes her hands, she adds, “Strudel’s something you do, over and over again. When you’ve made it many times, you might make it correctly.” She grabs the towel off the oven bar to dry her hands and eyes me critically. “But I guess you have to start somewhere. You’re the only one to pass this on to.”

“Ah…thanks.” I shuffle to the sink to wash my hands.

Then she orders me to the pantry and begins to rap out ingredients. As I struggle to keep up, fumbling the flour (“Not cake flour.”), salt (“Put the kosher back. Get the table salt.”), cinnamon (“That’s the cheap stuff. The Korintje is better.”), and sugar (“White, please.”), I alternately cringe and remember to stand up straight, so that I practically undulate like a tortured snake.

While I make a mess of finding the pantry ingredients, she pulls items from the fridge. Milk gets poured into a small saucepan. She lets it heat for a few minutes before shutting off the flame. In a separate pan, she melts a stick of butter then turns and organizes the collection on the kitchen table, pausing to grimace at the all-purpose flour. “Nothing’s as fine as Hungarian flour.”

I have no idea if that’s true, but I nod anyway. Though Grandma Mahr’s parents grew up in Hungary, close to the Austrian border, she never lived there herself. But I’ve heard her slam American television, American politics, and American eating habits enough times to conclude her parents must have passed down a certainty of the motherland’s superiority in all things. Including all-purpose flour, apparently.

I pick up a bottle of apple cider vinegar. “What’s this for?”

“Ah. That’s one of the secrets.” She takes the vinegar from me and returns it to the table.

I can’t help it: I give her a disbelieving look. I’m not about to steal the vinegar.

Her mouth quirks, but she merely says, “We need to work the dough to make it elastic, but a few drops of vinegar will keep it from toughening.”

“How do you work it?”

“Kneading. Have you ever tried to knead?”

I shake my head.

She seizes the sifter and begins snowing flour and a bit of salt directly onto the table. No bowl. No measuring cups. She pokes the center of the mound, swirls it open, cracks an egg, and empties it into the well. The pile looks like a miniature volcano about to erupt. “Your mother—with her homemade baguettes and homemade ciabattas—she probably uses her KitchenAid, right?”

I nod slowly, worried I’m somehow betraying my mother. Grandma Mahr spat the name of the appliance like a curse.

“Using a mixer—” She stops talking to splash a tiny amount of vinegar on top of the yolk, pour the warmed milk into the well, yank a fork out of the silverware drawer, and start whipping the murky liquid. “That’s cheating.”

“Her breads taste good, though.”

She dismisses this with a grunt. “Watch.” Under her swift hands, the volcano collapses in on itself and blurs into a lumpy mass. She lifts the bag of flour and pours, swipes some across part of the table, and moves the jagged ball to the white center. She begins to knead, drawing in the extra flour from time to time. “As soon as the dough starts sticking, you need more flour.” This continues—mashing, collecting, turning, mashing, collecting, turning. The heels of her hands squashing the dough and her fingers jerking it back with a quick, whirling, hauling sort of slap.

As I stand there doing nothing, the lumpy ball slowly smoothes and takes on a gloss. The transformation impresses but doesn’t surprise me. This is Grandma Mahr. I imagine my father’s childhood. His ball-throwing, running, yelling, and jumping systematically vanquished from the house, and his unruliness kneaded out of him, leaving him entirely pliable, neat, and obedient. I see my mother. A managing woman herself, when she occupies her own turf but, on Christmas Eve, in this kitchen’s doorway, a cowering subordinate, holding protectively at her breasts her prized blue Dutch oven or the red snowman platter, certain the best recipe she discovered during the course of the year will fail to impress her mother-in-law and, every winter, absolutely right on this account. I think of Granddad. A broke boozer banished to the basement and doomed to perpetual humiliation, literally under Grandma Mahr’s foot. And then there’s me: a mumbling, bumbling sloucher whenever I step foot in this small ranch on the hill at the edge of Coraopolis.

Straightening my back, I glance down at my t-shirt and jeans. I’ve hardly done a lick of work, but I’m smudged with flour. Grandma Mahr, with the exception of her hands, is perfectly clean.

“Good. Done.”

When she takes her floury hands away, the dough gleams like a pearl. But it’s small, about the size of her fist. “Not very big, is it?”

“Apples make a difference. Not the purple washcloth. That’s for dishes. The orange one. ”

She washes and dries her hands. “Big enough. You’ll see.” After transferring it to a mixing bowl, she brushes the dough with some of the melted butter and covers it with a cloth. “Now we talk apples.”

She sits on one of the stools by the door but, before I can do the same, jerks her chin in the direction of the sink. “You can wipe down the table. ” She taps her fingertips together. “Apples, Stephanie,” she says. “Apples make a difference. Not the purple washcloth. That’s for dishes. The orange one. ” She crosses her long legs, slowly bobs her foot while I wipe the table then abruptly leans forward. “What kind of apple does your mother use?”

I return to the sink with a washcloth full of white crumbs. “Well, I guess she likes a little peanut butter on slices of Gala for breakfast some morn—”

“Not to eat. For baking.”

“Oh.” I start rinsing the washcloth, watching in alarm as the dough particles turn gummy and adhere to the fibers. I twist the cloth and return to the table to wipe it again, hoping she doesn’t notice the sticky white strands. “I don’t know for sure. They’re a bright green…”

“Ah-ha!” Her expression turns menacingly satisfied. “Granny Smith, no doubt. Americans are utterly infatuated with Granny Smith apples.”

Grandma Mahr’s American, too. You’d never know it.

Why?” She barks a harsh, mean laugh. “Grannies are sour and hard.”

I peek up from my table scrubbing. Does she hear the irony? No.

I rinse out the cloth, and as soon as I return it to its post between the purple one and the red one (What’s the red washcloth for?), my grandmother rises. “Come with me. I’ll introduce you to some better options than your mother’s Granny Smith.” I trail her into the living room. She halts at the door leading to the basement and yanks it open. “Hank?”

No one answers, but I hear the soft sounds of a televised game: cheering crowds, the excited announcer. Sounds like hockey, but it’s a Saturday morning. Granddad must have saved a Penguins game on his DVR.

“Hank!”

Still no answer, but the volume on the television noticeably increases.

Grandma Mahr huffs and peers into the gloom. “Hank, would you answer me please? What are you doing down there?”

The sound of the game disappears. I hear a muttered curse and a clang, perhaps the remote getting slapped onto the side table. “What do you think I’m doing, Liz? I’m working in my meth lab.” His voice is growing closer. He blows a sigh then begins stomping up the stairs, continuing with, “I’m starting up my bookie business. I’m entertaining sexy strip—oh, um. Hello, Stephanie.”

Grandma Mahr observes his startled face with narrowed eyes. “Your granddaughter’s visiting for the morning.”

“So I see.”

“Hi, Granddad.”

After his rant, I don’t know where to look. He doesn’t know where to look. We blindly find each other for a hug.

My grandmother smiles slightly during this awkward exchange, one of her eyebrows levitating in evil delight. “It’s always ‘poor Granddad, poor Hank, poor, pathetic sap forced to live under the wicked witch,’ but now, Stephanie, now you see a little glimpse into his true nature. Don’t feel so sorry for the prisoner. He’s in prison for a reason.”

Granddad scowls. Though Grandma Mahr’s tall, he’s taller, and when he stares down at her, he looks a little like Clint Eastwood in the old movies my father watches Friday nights, the kind where problems get solved with fast-moving guns in silent, dusty streets. “What do you want?” he asks.

“Baking apples.”

The irritation vanishes from his face. “You’re making strudel?”

“With our granddaughter’s help.”

He looks at me, and I shrug. Help exaggerates my role. So far, I’m nothing but a pantry item finder and table washer.

Grandma says, “We’ll need a Winesap, two Braeburns, a Jonagold, and a Gala. Make that two Galas if they’re small.”

He nods and, as Grandma returns to the kitchen, smiles at me. “Want to come with?”

“Sure.”

He waves me ahead, but when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I pause. I’ve been down here dozens, even hundreds of times but don’t recall seeing apples.

“This way.”

He trudges through his makeshift living room area, and I follow, past the Steelers blanket that sprawls over half of his brown chair, past the breaker box, and past the golf ball collection arranged in a wooden case that looks like a spice rack. The chest freezer clicks on and hums. He pulls a string overhead to turn on a naked light bulb then opens a door to a room I’ve never entered.

The basement’s mustiness sharpens and sweetens. In the dim space, an entire wall of shelves houses Ball jars: quarts, pints, and half-pints. I make out my grandmother’s sauerkraut, pickled beets, grape juice, tomato juice, whole tomatoes, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, peaches, and pears. On another wall, two shelves hold sparkling jams: bright red strawberry, seed-speckled raspberry, golden peach, and blackish Concord. On another wall, butternut and buttercup squashes share shelves with potatoes and onions. But the apples take up the rest of the room, and it’s the apples that scent it, too. As he bends over the bushel baskets, Granddad mutters under his breath, “Winesap, Jonagold, a couple Galas…what was the last one? Honeycrisp?”

“Braeburns, I think.”

He selects two brightly colored apples and passes them to me. His big hands easily hold the others. Straightening, he glances around. “Which jam’s your favorite?”

“Um…strawberry?”

He shuffles the apples into one arm and grabs a pint-sized jar. “Here.”

“Thanks, Granddad.”

He nods and widens the door for me.

Upstairs, he heads for the kitchen with the apples, but I veer toward the closet and slip the jar into my coat pocket, just in case Grandma Mahr doesn’t approve of me taking her jam. When I get into the kitchen, Granddad’s sitting on the same stool she occupied a few minutes ago, and my grandmother’s at the sink washing apples.

She takes mine, washes those, too, then dries her hands. “Let’s chop them up.”

We sit at the table and peel and dice. Every so often, she hands me a small slice with an instruction: “Give that a sniff. Braeburns smell wonderful.” “Winesaps are juicy; aren’t they?” “Jonagolds will balance all the sweetness with a little sour.” And the last one: “Galas are good cooking apples. Ignorant people think they’re just for eating.” The condescension in her tone clarifies that by “ignorant people,” she means my mother. “But Galas have a beautiful texture after baking. They’ll hold their shape until they melt in your mouth.”

Half of the time, however, she talks to Granddad. Drills might be a better word. She wants to know if he called back someone named Suds, asks him if he remembered to shut off the water to the hose out back, reminds him he’s due for a colonoscopy, and tells him Save-a-Bunch has a sale on turkeys, sixty-three cents a pound.

He responds with grunts and grimaces and leans forward from time to time to select a peel and eat it.

Things happen quickly after that. She plucks a thick slice of bread out of the toaster and hands it to me. “Dice it as fine as you can.” And while Granddad holds the remaining peels in his hands and keeps munching, Grandma Mahr wipes the table again and plunges into a long complaint about Germany and austerity cuts and poor people freezing to death in Greece because they can’t afford to pay their electric bills.

I don’t understand the topic, so it doesn’t distract me from the things she’s doing—chopping almonds and pecans, toasting them in a frying pan, running a lemon against a zester over a bowl, tossing the fragrant yellow threads with my finished breadcrumbs and a heaping spoonful of cinnamon, draping a fresh cloth over the entire surface of the cleared table, and liberally showering and rubbing it with flour.

I’ve never seen my mother do anything like this with flour and a tablecloth, but when I glance at Granddad, he obviously misinterprets my curious expression because he pauses in his apple peel chewing to explain, “Germany’s important because she thinks she’s European.”

Grandma Mahr flicks him a dirty look but doesn’t say anything. She has the gleaming ball of dough in the center of the floured, covered table now. At first, she spreads it with a rolling pin, just like anyone making apple pie, but then she sets the pin in the sink, returns to the circle of dough, and slips her fingers under it.

Hands clenched, palms down, she starts in the center and begins to stretch the dough. I see her knuckles travel under the round. They find the center and gently tug toward the edge then slip back to the center and tug again, coaxing the dough wider and thinner. She repeats this, circling the table, working quickly but precisely, with long, even draws. “Play it out carefully,” she murmurs. “In the best Hungarian kitchens, you have to start over if you rip it.”

The dough grows and grows and grows some more, thinning to transparency. It stretches to two feet square then three then four then five. And her hands beneath it make it look alive, organic—a prehistoric creature caught in metamorphosis, a prenatal ripple under skin, a landmass shifting and expanding.

I’m astonished. It almost covers the entire kitchen table now and is sheer enough for me to see the tablecloth’s faded print of roses.

Grandma Mahr glances up, and my expression must please her because she smiles and says, “The story goes, you’re done when you can read a love letter through it.”

I check to see if Granddad is as awed as I am, but he’s frowning at my grandmother. He leans against the wall. “Aren’t you going to let Stephanie help?”

What? I shake my head, but he’s not watching me.

She stops. “Now?

“How’s she going to learn?”

“At this point, by watching.”

“And yet you always say a person can’t figure out strudel unless she makes it herself. You, Liz. You,” he points at her with his last peel, “are a control freak.”

I take a step back. “Really, Granddad, that’s okay.” I’m fourteen. I pour cereal in a bowl for a snack. I know how to cook a frozen pizza. I’m decent at decorating cut-outs, as long as I don’t have to get fancy. I understand my limitations. What Grandma Mahr’s doing requires expertise. Possibly alchemy. I possess neither.

“And you, Hank,” Grandma responds, ignoring me to glare at him, “are a bum.”

“I’d rather be a bum than a bitch.”

I hear her exhale then her gaze descends on me. “Come here, Stephanie.”

I take another step back. “I’m good with watching.”

My hands shake when I slip under the border. I’m very conscious of how the dough feels, not crumbly like cookie dough and not brittle like pie dough, but diaphanously thin and moveable and alive, what I imagine a butterfly wing must feel like or a web or skin.

“No, no. I can’t have Hank going around telling everyone I’ve neglected and abused you.” She waves an impatient hand, and I inch closer. Maybe to offer moral support, Granddad rises and walks to my side. More gently, my grandmother says, “Only the edge has anything to give now. Just ease your hands under it and slowly bring the thickness toward you.”

My hands shake when I slip under the border. I’m very conscious of how the dough feels, not crumbly like cookie dough and not brittle like pie dough, but diaphanously thin and moveable and alive, what I imagine a butterfly wing must feel like or a web or skin. Yes: skin. I remember an eighth grade science class, when we learned human skin was actually an organ: the body’s first guard, protecting what’s inside, keeping a world of sickness and cold at bay.

I hold my breath and, after imitating how my grandmother closed her hands, try to maneuver the ridged edge a millimeter toward me.

Immediately, the dough tears. I freeze and blink at the slit, an inch from my clumsy knuckles. Then I remove my hands and clench them under my chin. I want to swear. I ought to apologize. But a horrible impulse to cry keeps me from speaking. Instead I raise my miserable gaze to my grandmother.

She’s not looking at me. She’s staring straight at Granddad—not with anger or even annoyance but with smugness. Behind me, Granddad mutters something under his breath and returns to the stool.

I swallow. “I’m sorry. ” Exhaustion makes me slump. I glance at the clock by the window. “Does this mean we have to start over?”

Grandma finally focuses on me, surprise in her face. “Heavens, no.”

Granddad shakes his head. “See? You scare the shit out of your own granddaughter.”

She scowls at him. “No, I don’t.” Then peering closely at my face, she asks, “Do I?” I shake my head but probably don’t come across as convincingly fearless because she gives my back a little pat. “Not to worry. We’ll patch it with a trimming.” Then she’s moving, pulling a paring knife out of the butcher block, circling the table, and slicing off long lengths of the quarter-inch rim. She covers the rip with a tiny piece. “We have to work quickly. If the dough dries too much, it’ll shatter when we roll it.” I hurry back a few feet but she points to her side. “Where are you going?” She hands me the saucepan with the melted butter. “Trickle half of this over the entire surface. Go ahead. Take it.”

I hold my breath again, certain I’ll screw up this job, too, but she doesn’t even watch me. She’s giving the cinnamon, crumbs, and lemon zest another toss with her hands. As soon as I’m finished, she scoops a cup of sugar out of a bin on the counter, turns, and scatters it over the butter-speckled surface. She does the same with the cinnamon mixture and orders me to follow her with the apples. Then she’s fast on my heels with the toasted nuts.

“Okay, Stephanie.” She plucks up an edge of the tablecloth. “You take that side.” Standing at her left, I pick up the adjacent corner. “We lift the cloth to make the dough roll. Carefully now. Keep the tumble loose. The dough will expand in the oven.” She doesn’t give me a chance to freak out but immediately begins rolling so that I only have time to imitate her speed and rhythm: flump, flump, flump, flump, flump, flump. And it’s over.

She carefully folds the edges of the rolled mass, as if she’s enclosing the sides of a half-wrapped present. After transferring a parchment-lined baking sheet to the table, she slides it next to the long, fat roll. “You take that side. Ready?” I hesitate and want to shake my head, but she says, “I can’t do this alone. It’s too big.” And because I have to, I run my hands under the roll, lift it when she does, and shift it to the pan, acutely aware, in the three seconds the strudel rests in my hands, of its weight and strange lumpiness and everything it encloses: yards of wound dough separating layers of spice and tartness and crunchy things and sweetness.

I exhale when I’m done and smile at Granddad.

He winks.

She shifts the roll into a horseshoe shape and brushes it with the last of the butter then runs her hands under the faucet at the sink, turns, and flicks water over the dough, like she’s baptizing it. “Good. Now we bake it.”

Before I can relax, she puts me on dishwashing duty, pointing out the permissible sponge and tapping the purple washcloth. Behind me, she winds up the tablecloth and returns containers to the fridge and cupboard. She occasionally adds dirty utensils, bowls, and pans to the sink. I take extra care with the dishes, scrubbing longer and rinsing more thoroughly than I would at home. And while Grandma Mahr works, she talks.

I’m surprised Granddad sticks around to listen. And now that I’ve survived the strudel challenge and can note what’s going on around me, the fact that he entered her kitchen in the first place strikes me as strange. Grandma Mahr and Granddad: they don’t usually overlap. But here he’s still sitting on the stool, angling it on its back legs, resting his head on the wall, and eating the dough trimmings. And just like my mother when she’s got my father cornered, Grandma Mahr’s barraging him, alternately complaining about politics and something Granddad did or didn’t do. With the warm water rushing over my hands and the baking cinnamon and apples beginning to perfume the air and my grandmother’s scolding comments about entitlement reform and sequester cuts and my grandfather’s blood pressure, I start to feel downright cozy.

But when she starts in on his cholesterol, Granddad growls, and the stool legs hit the floor. He rises with a groan and makes for the living room.

Grandma pauses to scan the kitchen. I’ve finished the dishes, and she’s cleaned up everything else. She nods. “Let’s pick out our plates.”

She trails Granddad, moving so quickly, it’s almost like she’s chasing him. To his back, she says, “You think, just because you’re thin, you don’t have to worry about your health. Plenty of skinny men have heart attacks and strokes, you know. It’s the cholesterol you’ve got to check. And you’re ignoring your choles—”

Granddad glares at her over his shoulder. “You wear me out.” He stomps past the bookcase, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m taking a nap. Call me when the strudel’s ready.”

“Yes, go take a nap,” Grandma grumbles, now directing her frown at the china cabinet where she stands with the upper glass doors opened, before rows of artfully stacked bowls and plates. “Go take a nap, like a bad little boy, all worn out from fooling around and eating whatever he wants, drinking whatever he wants, never thinking about what’s good for him.”

I hardly register what she’s saying because I’m watching Granddad and wondering where the hell he’s going.

Instead of wrenching open the basement door and stomping down the stairs, he heads down the hallway and kicks open the door to Grandma Mahr’s room. The hinges creak. The sound seems to stir him from his grumpy distraction because he halts. The sound arrests my grandmother’s attention, too.

His gaze flies our way. He shuffles at the threshold, moving back a step and forward a step and back again. “Shit.”

I look over my shoulder. My grandmother’s face is suspiciously red, her eyes now militantly averted.

Then down the hallway, Granddad suddenly snaps, “Screw it.” And the next thing I know, he’s in her room.

He shuts the door, hard enough to send askew the first of the three matted prints by the bookcase. The slant has turned the layered, dull-colored squares into diamonds.

Grandma Mahr selects three dessert plates, bordered with violets. “We’ll use the fine china.” She turns stiffly and heads for the kitchen, not even pausing to straighten the tilted print.

I don’t either. A little crookedness doesn’t bother me.

Melissa OstromMelissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York with her husband and children. She serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her four-year-old and six-year-old let her. Her fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Oblong, Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and elsewhere.