Fiction by J. E. Trayer
By J. E. Trayer
“How did you do that?” asked Maggie, her eyes wide.
“I just tell things what I want them to do – and they do it,” replied Ama absently, as she emptied a cup of flour into a clear mixing bowl. “Awfully warm today,” said Ama. “Little odd for this time of year.” She opened the kitchen window and fall aromas tickled her nose. “Old Hank must be burning in the fields,” she mused as she sniffed the smoke mixed with the sweet musk of fallen leaves, and leftover pumpkins rotting in the garden.
“What? You mean you just say to the toaster – make my toast, and you don’t have to push any buttons or anything?”
Ama reached for the salt and a measuring spoon on the counter. “Not exactly. I wish it were that easy. There’s a bit of a trick to it…sort of.” She sighed, setting the measuring cup down and looking at her nine-year-old granddaughter with the expression of “there is no way I can explain this in ten words or less.” A question, however, deserved an honest answer, even though she knew the child wouldn’t understand. “There are scientific rules to everything. You just to learn how to work with them, rather than against them. Confidence is the key. And, it doesn’t always work.”
Maggie, perched on her favorite red leather stool by the kitchen island, furrowed her brow and picked at the rivets of the upholstery. “Ama, you are not making sense.”
“I never do, at least not to most of the world. Where did I put that pastry whisk?”
“You didn’t get it out. You got the bowl, the cup, and the measuring spoons; but, you didn’t get the whisk.”
“Well! We can’t make your favorite biscuits without the whisk!”
Maggie’s expression brightened. “Does that mean you will do it again?”
“Make the whisk pop out of the messy drawer like you did the measuring spoons!”
Ama stared at Maggie. Warning bells went off in her head – the kind of whispering mental self-ghost that says you better shut the heck up about this whole thing or you are going to suffer the haunting of your deeds later on. Her failing, of course, was that she often didn’t heed her own good sense. “I’ll do you one better. I’ll teach you how to do it; but, you can’t tell…ever!” As the words flowed easily out of her mouth, she felt the tension of fear pounding on the back of her neck, zipping down her arms. “Now you’ve done it,” she thought.
Maggie’s face glowed with excitement. “Really?”
Ama swallowed, pasting a fake smile on her lips. “Sure! But first, we do it the normal way.”
The corners of Maggie’s mouth turned down, and her shoulders slumped. “You just don’t want to show me.”
Ama shook her head. “That’s not it. If the whisk is already on top – then we don’t need to do it, right?”
Maggie puckered her lips. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Ama pulled out the old wooden kitchen drawer to expose a jumble of tangled cooking paraphernalia. The drawer was 18 inches wide and at least a foot deep piled with all manner of kitchen implements. “I don’t see it,” said Ama.
Maggie smiled broadly. “Me neither! Let’s do it!”
Ama slammed the drawer shut, pounded on the kitchen counter three times with her fist, and said, “Pastry whisk, I bid thee appear!” She opened the drawer with a flourish to expose the pastry whisk at the top of the pile.
Maggie laughed as she plucked the tool from the drawer. “That is so cool! How did you do that?”
“The secret,” said Ama, “is to expect it to be there.”
“I want to try!” Maggie banged the drawer shut, hit the counter three times with her open palm, called for a pizza cutter and struggled to open the heavy drawer which gave way a stubborn inch at a time.
“Old house,” muttered Ama, reaching over to give the drawer one last yank.
Maggie eagerly peered inside the drawer, then stuck out her lower lip and snorted. “It didn’t work.”
“That’s because you don’t need it,” said Ama, easing softened butter into the flour. “We do need a spatula and a round cookie cutter. Why don’t you try to get one of those.”
Maggie hesitated. “What if it doesn’t work again?”
“It won’t if you think it won’t.”
“How do you think it right?”
“Picture the item in your mind,” said Ama, adding a touch of vanilla and the buttermilk to the bowl. “And expect it to be there.”
Maggie closed her eyes tight and flattened her lips grimly. She slammed her little hand on the counter three times, called for the biscuit cutter loudly, and wretched the drawer open with a mighty effort. “It’s there!” she squealed.
“So it is,” said Ama, throwing flour on the cutting board. “Are you grateful?”
“Grateful?” asked Maggie, handing the cutter to her grandmother.
“Yes. Do you feel good that the cutter was on top of the pile as you wished?”
“Remember that feeling,” said Ama, trying to keep the sternness out of her voice and not being very successful at it.
“Because it is a part of the process,” she said, slapping the dough on the cutting board.
“Can I roll the dough?”
“Absolutely,” said Ama, throwing flour on the rolling pin and handing it to Maggie. “A half-inch thick,” she said.
Maggie began carefully rolling the pin over the dough. “Mommie says you can start broken cars. Daddy says you can’t. He says you’re crazy. He says it is dangerous for me to spend time with you.” She stopped and looked up at her grandmother, bits of flour and dough had somehow migrated to the tip of her nose. “I don’t think you are nuts at all. I think you are just special. I want to be special, too, like you.”
“Everyone is special, Maggie. They just don’t always acknowledge it. In fact, that’s why so many people act nastily – they want to be special and don’t know that they already are.”
“You mean like Bobbie Winslow?”
“Who is that?”
“Some kid at school. He’s always throwing things at people and saying nasty stuff. I hate him.”
“Has he ever thrown anything at you?”
Maggie nodded solemnly. “A rock!” and she jerked her floured hands wide, specks of dough flipping off her fingers. “This big!”
“That’s terrible!” replied Ama. “Did you tell the teacher?”
“Yeah, but she said I shouldn’t be so tericle.”
Ama paused, looking at Maggie, her brain flipping through years of listening to child-speak. “Tericle? Oh! You mean hysterical!”
“Right!” declared Maggie as she stabbed her finger into the extra dough.
Together, grandmother and granddaughter arranged the biscuits on a cookie sheet. “You know,” said Ama after they put the biscuits in the oven, “there might be more to Bobbie Winslow than just wanting to be special.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe,” said Ama as she rinsed off the supplies they’d used and stacked them in the dishwasher, “there is something wrong.”
“Oh…I don’t know….” Her brain calculated several misfortunes that were all too real but inappropriate to tell a nine-year-old child. “Perhaps there is a reason he is unhappy, and he doesn’t know how to show it other than to be mean,” she said lamely.
Maggie lowered her head slightly, dark hair flopping over eyes. She emphatically crossed her arms in front of her. “Ama! He is just a jerk! Mr. Timberbuckle is screaming at him all the time.”
The oven timer shrilled, and Ama shouted over the sound, “Who is Mr. Timberbuckle?”
“Some guy that brings Bobbie to school every day and takes him home in the afternoon. Though sometimes he forgets to show up. He smells.”
“Is he Bobbie’s father?”
“I don’t think so.”
Ama frowned and pulled the biscuits out of the oven. Maggie’s mother appeared at the back door, ready to take her home.
“Can I take these to school tomorrow for show and eat?” asked Maggie.
“Absolutely,” Ama replied. “Every good person shares their skill.”
Ama waved goodbye, watching as mother and daughter drove down the lane. She left the fake smile on her face until they were well out of sight. A circling hawk screamed overhead. Ama shivered and drew her collar closer to her throat, a sour taste in her mouth. She didn’t like the black clouds that squatted on the horizon.
She didn’t like them at all.
At 2:45 the following day Ama took a phone call from her fast-talking, frightened daughter, just as she about to clean up the last of the garden. Unlike yesterday, the weather on this day was not so kind, so she was already dressed for the outdoors. “Mother! You must get to the school immediately. Something’s wrong. The news isn’t carrying sufficient information. I’m stuck in traffic over an hour away. Please hurry and let me know if Maggie is all right. They say there’s fire!”
Ama didn’t turn on the radio in the car. She just drove in silence, willing everything to be okay. “Never let a problem stop you from thinking,” she muttered. “It ain’t over until I say it is.”
Frustrated, she found she couldn’t get to the school proper. All the roads were blocked with fire trucks, police cars, and other emergency vehicles. In a small town with not much to do, every volunteer in the county it seemed had their light-bar-decked pickups parked all over the place. There were stern uniformed men and women hustling people off the streets closest to the school, or trying to control frightened parents yelling loudly and demanding information. Shop owners satellited by curious customers watched from afar, pacing the sidewalks to get a better view of the red-brick building perched at the top of the hill. Billows of dirty smoke drifted up from the school grounds, but from her vantage point she couldn’t quite figure out what was on fire.
Ama squared her shoulders. This could not be good. She made a U-turn, got back out on the highway and cut sharply to the left, bumping up an old dirt tract leading to the water tower. The tower squatted in an overgrown field bordering the woods above and behind the school. No one in their right mind ever went there because the ruts in the field were so cavernous you could lose the suspension of your vehicle in one bounce. Maybe drop your transmission while you were at it.
Ama didn’t give a damn. She jostled and slipped, bounced and tipped, urging her little tin-kettle-of-a-car to make it or die. At the edge of the woods, she threw the vehicle into park. Using an overgrown conservation path, she rushed through the tangled patch of trees, vines, and boulders, willing her old sneakers to stay on her feet.
At the edge of the school property where the underbrush fell away to rolling lawn, she stopped short. Her heart pounded so hard she thought this might be the autumn day for her journey to the other side of the grass. Even from her gasping, bent over position, she could see the school was not on fire. There were no littered bodies of mangled children in the tanbark. No screaming terrorists hanging from the windows of the two-story building. Relief slumped her shoulders. Her breathing slowed. The grounds looked relatively serene except for some type of consternation to the left in the parking lot, but her vision was obscured by a line of empty buses.
The schoolyard itself wasn’t bustling with people, but it wasn’t empty either. To Ama’s relief, she saw Maggie sitting quietly on a giant plastic turtle, her little arm protectively around a young boy munching biscuits. Ama moved forward quietly, knowing from experience that someone might notice her and escort her off the grounds. But, whatever the excitement of eminent danger had been, it was clear that it was over now. She pulled her phone out of her bulky sweater pocket and texted to her daughter: “All is well. With Maggie now.”
A woman in a brown dress and a police officer stood off to the right, their backs to Ama and the children. The woman, probably a teacher, gestured at the sky, speaking rapidly. “And it just came down and swoop!” Her arms lifted high, and then she smashed her hands together in a big clap. “Car up and flipped over just like that! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life! Clear blue sky, I tell you! Crystal clear! And Wham! Up, over, smashed right down on its roof! Flat as a pancake! That poor man! Boom! Blew up! Him, the car, and the bicycle rack!”
As Ama moved forward past the blocking view of the buses, she could better see the macadamed parking lot of the school. It teamed with emergency personnel gathered around a flattened, smoldering car. Ama could neither tell the make nor the color – only that it was burnt, black and absolutely compacted.
Relieved that Maggie seemed perfectly fine, Ama ran the disturbing snatch of conversation through her mind as she quietly walked up to the children.
“Ama!” exclaimed Maggie, letting go of the boy and hopping off the playground equipment. “You should have seen it!”
“Oh yes!” said Maggie. “It was awful!”
Ama looked at the child’s expression, which was far from terrorized. “You don’t really seem upset,” said Ama.
“It was incredible!” Maggie’s eyes rounded, this time the color wavered a vibrant, birdie-egg-blue. “Mr. Timberbuckle came to pick up Bobbie? Like usual? And he was so mean! And I remembered what you said about being special? And about sharing your skill? That confidence is the key? Yesterday! Remember? And Mr. Timberbuckle was pulling Bobbie and screaming at him, and being mean to him, and his face was all red, and he threw Bobbie against the car! And Bobbie hit his head!”
Bobbie, still munching a biscuit, nodded vehemently. Ama saw a nasty bruise beginning to purple above his right eye. She carefully looked over at the woman in the brown dress and the police officer. They hadn’t seen her yet, which was good because they also weren’t paying attention to Maggie and what she was saying. “And then what?” asked Ama quietly.
“Well!” said Maggie, putting her hand on her hip and cocking her head, “What Mr. Timberbuckle was doing to Bobbie was so wrong, and nobody was going to help. They just all stood there, Ama! Why would they do that? Why wouldn’t anyone help Bobbie?”
Ama shook her head and sighed. “Perhaps they didn’t see what he doing to Bobbie?” she asked hopefully.
“Oh yeah, they did!” Her little eyebrows compacted angrily.
“I pounded on the ground three times with my fist, and then I reached into the drawer of heaven, and I pulled out the wind! Like you said, Ama, You share your special. That’s what good people do.”
Ama cleared her throat, her eyes sliding sideways to the mangled car. “What about Mr. Timberbuckle?”
Maggie smiled, flicking a bit of dark hair definitely from her brow. “He’s quite alright. I heard him screaming when the wind picked him up. I’m sure it will put him someplace where he can’t ever hurt anyone again!”
“Like Hell!” volunteered Bobbie.
Ama did not argue. Instead, she held out her hand and said, “Bobbie? Let’s go find someone to look at that nasty bump on your head.”
“Oh!” said Maggie! “I almost forgot!” She jumped on top of the playground turtle, throwing her arms wide and shouting at the heavens. “I am grateful! Okay, Ama, we can go now.”