The big kids were smoking as they walked ahead of Peter down the sidewalk beside the Weston Plaza. They were in high school and wore uniforms and rode on a school bus. They were cool, and had walked right out in front of a Model T Ford to cross the street without blinking an eye. The guys’ white shirt sleeves were rolled up at the cuffs and the girls wore stockings and pleated skirts with hand stitches along the bottom so that the hem hung just above their knees. Peter discreetly rolled up the sleeves of his own hand-me-down plaid shirt over his thin wrists and hung back, dropping his eyes to the ground when one of the girls turned around to flick a glowing butt into the grass. The big kids had gotten off the bus in front of the bank, two blocks away from Sir John A. MacDonald Elementary School, and Peter only had to walk behind them one more block to Royaleigh Avenue where he could leave their trailing smoke and be home.
He finally reached the end of his driveway, his journal, Grade One reader and pencil tucked underneath his arm, and bounded up past the crab apple tree to his house. He took one leap and cleared the stone porch steps. The front outer glass door swung back on its spring after he flung it open and squished him a little bit as he tried to open the wooden door with his free hand. He smacked his lips trying to get rid of the dry, bitter taste the smoke had left in his mouth and throat. As the door swung open a sweet, spiced smell met his nose and his mouth instantly began to water. Upstairs he could hear his mother’s voice and the giggles of his little sisters, Nancy and Bonnie. Sounds of splashing water meant that they were helping to give baby Glen a bath.
Peter forgot to take off his shoes and walked through the dining room to the kitchen where beside the stove sat a clear plastic container with a white store label on the top. The label said ‘Fruit Cake’ and the dessert beneath the plastic cover looked like a crown, the ring of delicate, brown cake studded with pieces of emerald apple and sapphire cherries. He had never seen a store-bought cake before. His stomach growled, a deep, hollow shifting of nothing in his insides. He turned to the fridge and opened the door looking at the contents. He didn’t want a piece of bread, and if he wanted a banana he would have to split it with one of his sisters. He reached for the jar of dill pickles and hugged the container to his chest as he worked to twist off the lid. The dill and vinegar had a sickening, fermented smell to it that stung his nostrils and overwhelmed the soft spice aroma that had settled in the kitchen. Almost instinctively he placed the lid back on the jar without taking out a pickle and put it back on the fridge shelf. He turned to the cake. He forced his eyes to look at the hourglass timer on the stove top, to look at the soft rooster cover perched over the teapot to keep it warm, to see the little rainbows dancing on the wall from the crystal wind chime hanging in the window.
He could feel a sort of tug-of-war on his insides, but he wanted to be strong. His parents had told him they named him Peter because it was a strong name. He was the third child of six, but the first son, and he knew that meant special things for him. Just last week he had shown his father that he could open the stiff garage door all by himself and he had thrown a rock at a boy much bigger than himself who was making fun of his older sister, Beth, on the playground. He desperately wanted to be strong, but between each of his forced glances around the kitchen his eyes lingered on the plastic container before darting away.
He strained his ears and could still hear splashing and joyful shrieks carrying down the stairs. His father was staying late at work because another contract had fallen through. He wouldn’t be home until dinner time, and his older sisters would probably have stopped to play at a friend’s house before coming home.
He picked up his books and pencil from the table where he had set them and very quietly knelt down, placing them in a cupboard on top of the stack of cooking pots so that his mother wouldn’t come downstairs and know that he was home. When the cupboard door was closed he carefully picked up the fruit cake in its container, balancing it carefully in his arms, and moved towards the back door with sliding, silent steps.
The backyard stretched out behind the house with dwarf apple trees, perfect for climbing, scattered around the fragrant lawn, hemmed in on three sides by a green metal fence and blooming roses, his mother’s passion. He was greeted by a series of loud barks which came from a young sheep dog chained to a red and white, wooden dog house. The dog leaped into the air, front paws waving frantically and tipped backwards slightly as the chain was pulled taught. “Jodie! Be quiet!” The dog continued to bark and jump and twist in excitement as Peter looked quickly towards the kitchen window and then hurried, trying to conceal the cake in his arms, and dropped to his knees in front of the doghouse. He pushed the cake through the cut-out door and then crawled inside.
It was a split second before the dog was beside him with just enough room for the two of them and the cake. Peter nudged the dog’s inquisitive nose out of the way and popped open the seal on the side closest to him. He reached under the lid and broke off a piece of the cake which crumbled moistly between his fingers. The spice scent once again seeped out, stronger than ever and freshening the air, covering the smell of dog food and damp fur. Peter raised his fingers to his mouth and leaned back against the thin wooden wall.
The cake rolled richly over his tongue as the spices spread through his mouth with each chew. The fruit was sweet and tangy and the bigger pieces of dried cherry could be sucked and held between his front teeth. His hand ducked under the lid for more cake faster and faster. The dog whimpered and pawed at the lid, dragging its claws across the store label. Peter pulled out a handful of the cake and dropped it on the ground in front of her. The dog picked it up in her mouth and chewed twice before the cake fell back onto the ground, slobbered and broken into soggy chunks. The dog sniffed, turned and walked out of the doghouse.
Peter stared at the discarded mess beside him and then turned his head to the ravaged cake in his lap. A third of the ring was missing, crumbs and fruit pieces lay scattered over the plastic platter, and a sharp crack ran up the side of the lid where it had been opened. His stomach growled, this time a gurgling, unsettling growl that churned the rich contents of his stomach. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, his heart beginning to pound. He didn’t want to crawl out in the the sunshine, didn’t want to uncurl from his position, didn’t want to look at what he had done to the cake.
Jodie began barking again and Peter hastily pressed the cake seal closed and peered out the door. With no one in view he crawled out, turned around to pick up the cake and ran to hide behind the shed. There the flowerbed soil had been freshly turned up and watered, some egg shells and orange peels poking out where kitchen scraps had been mixed in as fertilizer. The soil worked under his fingernails as Peter dug away at an empty spot in the back right corner. He made the hole just big enough for the broken container and dropped it in upside-down before covering it up. He didn’t pack the soil, but left it loose on top to blend in with the rest of the flower bed, brushed the extra soil from his hands onto his pants, and then walked past the shed, around the side of the house, to the front door where he quietly walked in.
“Peter, you’re home late. How was school?” His mother was sitting on the well-worn couch in the living room surrounded by all the kids. Beth and Janet were sitting at the bottom of the carpeted staircase talking about possible topics for their class speeches. Nancy and Bonnie were occupied with a box of crayons on the floor and were coloring pictures in an old newspapers, while the baby laughed as he was bounced around on his mother’s knee. Peter’s mother had her long hair neatly pinned up in a very fashionable style and had small bags under her eyes, but she was smiling as she looked at him.
“Fine,” Peter replied softly, and glued his eyes to the carpet.
“Good. Your father will be home soon and I could use some help with dinner. You know he’s been working so hard. He’ll be really tired tonight, but I’ve got a special treat for the family.” Conversation stopped and crayons were held still at the word “treat”. She looked at them with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ll show it to you.”
The girls jumped and scurried to the kitchen, but Peter stayed rooted to the spot, his hands hidden inside his pockets, his chest starting to tighten. He could hear his mother mutter something to herself and hear the fridge door open and close. There was the sound of feet pivoting on the linoleum floor and the fridge door opening and closing again. “Girls, do you know where the dessert is?” he heard her ask. He could see Beth nodding her head no, holding the baby on her hip, looking around the kitchen, but not knowing what to look for. Then he could hear the sound of wooden doors banging, the glasses rattling slightly as each one closed until there was a pause and the sound of a pot being shifted. “Peter. Come here.”
His stomach churned again as he walked stiffly and haltingly to the kitchen. Looking up he saw his mother holding his books and pencil in her hands. They were trembling slightly. “Peter, did you… where is it?”
He couldn’t look up any more, he couldn’t talk. A ball had formed in his throat and it was burning. It hurt to swallow. His sisters were all looking at him. Beth’s eyebrows were pulled down angrily, Bonnie’s lip started to quiver, little Glen held still. “Peter?”
She looked at him with her head turned to one side and then slowly reached out for his hand and led him out to the garden. She walked over to a dip in the yard along the fence where a group of tall bulrushes grew. She picked one to use as a switch and came back to stand behind Peter.
Peter began to cry. Not because it hurt; he could barely feel it; he knew it wasn’t supposed to hurt. He wasn’t really in trouble, but she had to do it. Precious dollars were spent on that cake while every other penny was being saved, his sisters would never get to see the rich crown with its fruit jewels, his father would come home tired and have no surprise. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the beautiful cake would be enjoyed only by worms.
Peter turned with tears running down his cheeks and looked up at his mother. Her eyes were red and she was biting her lip. She knelt down and wrapped her arms around her boy, pulling him in tightly. He put his arms around her neck and buried his face in her shoulder. She was warm and soft, and she smelled like spice.
I submitted this story to a peer for review awhile back and got the saddest response from them. “This is more appropriate as a children’s book than an adult short story.” This was not written for children, but through a child’s eyes. I hope that none of us ever forget what it was like to be eye level with the kitchen counter and to be brilliant and devious, repentant and loved by somebody bigger than us who could envelop us in one hug.