I love really short stories. Drabbles, 100-word stories, are great fun. I've seen terrific 55 - word mini-Drabbles, and excellent 250 word stories, too. That's what I was aiming for with this one that's been bouncing in my head for a long time. I could probably get it down to 500 with a lot of work and editing, but I don't feel like doing it right now. So, instead, you get the long version. Even so, I think it's somewhere between 800-850, which is still pretty short.
Forgive me ahead of time, please, for being rather maudlin with it. Like I said, it's been in my brain for a bit and sometimes I can't help what's in there. I haven't thought of a title I like yet. Suggestions welcome.
I watched Josh's bare feet swinging back and forth as he sat at the table, silent tears starting to roll down his cheeks. He reached out and pushed the cereal bowl away, sloshing milk onto the placemat. "What's wrong, little man?" I asked, feeling helpless for the hundredth time. "You liked that cereal yesterday." I was nearly pleading, but he just slid off his chair and padded over to the bookshelf. Carefully, slowly, he pulled out a large cookbook, the kind that's so big it comes with ribbons attached so you can mark the pages. With difficulty, he struggled to push it onto the counter, then deliberately held onto the ribbon, and opened the book. He glanced up at me, but said nothing.
Josh had said nothing since the funeral. Not one. Single. Word. For the first week, Gram had been here, cooking, cleaning, steering me and Josh around. We got up when we were told, ate when we were told, went to bed when we were told. I had been in a haze, and hadn't noticed his silence. In truth, I wasn't talking much either. Sarah had been the talker in our family. After a week, Gram had gone, and I had returned to work, and for dinners we lived on casseroles baked by kind neighbors, fast food, and when that failed, peanut butter. Not that we were eating much. We rarely ate at the table. Usually on the couch. Watching TV. It wasn't until one of the daycare teachers had mentioned it that I realized that Josh wasn't just quiet, he was mute. "Sometimes we find him crying in the corner," one of his teachers told me, "but he doesn't say anything at all." I told her I'd watch him.
She was right. He'd nod, or shake his head, or I'd find him, silently sobbing in our bed, but he never spoke a word, even when I begged him to. Anything. Even "No!" would have been enough. But the light had gone out of his eyes, and he wouldn't talk.
But now, I was mute one as he walked to the fridge, opened it, and delicately pulled out the carton of eggs, followed by the glass butter dish and the milk, which was too heavy for his little hands and it thumped to the floor. I rushed to pick it up, and as I set it on the counter I read the page he'd opened to.
It was splattered and stained, and obviously well used. "Pancakes." I read aloud. I felt that familiar hollow feeling of helplessness rise up in me again. "Josh, I don't know how to make pancakes." I really didn't. I couldn't cook. I'd never been able to. Sarah kept threatening to teach me, but as long as I cleaned up after her, she was content to be the household cook and baker.
Josh continued to ignore me, instead fetching his step stool so he could reach the back of the counter, pulling forward containers of...something. Sugar? Salt? I'd lived in this house for nearly ten years, but I didn't know what all magical things were kept in this kitchen. This was not my domain.
This is Sarah's domain. Was. My chest hitched.
But Josh seemed to know his way around, and the array of items grew steadily as he pulled a canister of salt, another of baking power, a vial of vanilla, teaspoons and cups from the drawers, and carefully placed them on the counter. "Josh," I started again, but he looked at me, almost accusingly, and headed over to the calendar, pointing.
I looked. "Yes," I said, "today is Saturday." It was our first Saturday alone together. Last Saturday, Gram had taken us out for breakfast before saying goodbye. The Saturday before that... My throat caught. I must have made a noise, because Josh looked up at me again. He pointed more insistently and I suddenly remembered. Saturdays I slept in, and Sarah and Josh made pancakes. There was always a stack of them waiting for me when I eventually roused myself around noon. Sometimes they were full of blueberries, or chocolate chips or there was apple-cinnamon syrup to pour over them. I'd always sort of assumed that they'd made them from some kind of mix. I opened the door to the pantry. Gram had restocked it, but there was no mix. Not that I thought it would satisfy him anyways.
He wanted me to make pancakes. My heart felt like it would freeze. "I can't do this," I thought. "I can't be Sarah. I don't know how to do this." I tears welled in my eyes as I looked at my desperate, silent son. I felt like I was drowning, and I didn't know how to save either of us. He stared at me, his eyes willing me to do for him what he needed, to keep this one tradition for him. Something had broken so deep inside of him that he couldn't find words to express it, and I felt so profoundly helpless I could barely speak myself.
"Josh," I croaked, "I'm so sorry, I don't know how to make pancakes." Tears started down my own face now as I stood there.
After a moment, Josh reached out and took my hand in his. He pulled me back toward the kitchen. I was about to tell him again when he stopped, and looked up at me. Taking a deep breath he said, in his tremulous, little-boy voice, "It's okay, Daddy." He nodded his head reassuringly. "I can help you. I know what to do."