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Something Short: A Story for a Prompt: Squeak

Something Short: A Story for a Prompt: Squeak

Performed at Books, Inc., Alameda for Alameda Shorts

Bubble and Squeak

by Bronwyn Emery

James is 15. He is tall and lanky, all long fingers and longer feet and awkward angles—and very clearly

did not ask

to be moved

all the way

from London to LA

to live with his father

and the ridiculous Amber woman who tries too hard. What kind of name is Amber anyway?

He moves through the house like a sullen raincloud, stooped in on himself, forced to grunt at his new stepmother because when he doesn’t respond to her, she just keeps asking him the same thing in different ways over and over.

It’s really annoying.

James takes the stairs to his room two at a time and Amber, standing in the kitchen, blinks back tears. How can one stupid boy make her feel so lonely and inadequate in her own home? Is it a British thing? Are they all this cold?

She turns to her mother. “Did you see that? And what does that sound even mean? Is he hungry or not?”

Carol shrugs. “He’s a teenager. He’s always hungry.”

Amber’s whole being deflates onto one of the kitchen stools. She props her chin on one hand to hold it up. “I don’t think he’s eaten a single thing I’ve made for him this whole time. Or bought. The other night when Ben worked late I ordered pizza and he just Door Dashed Chinese food instead and took it up to his room. Without a word.”

Carol frowns. Two weeks in and things are getting worse with this kid. She sets her coffee mug down and opens the fridge for a little poke around with the leftovers.

Amber sighs. “I just want to get to know him, you know? And show him I’m, like, okay. I’m not going to replace his mom, I’m just me, I’m on his side. I can help him adjust to school and sign up for sports or whatever—I don’t even know if he plays sports.

I just want him to talk to me.

Why doesn’t he talk to me?”

She draws circles on the countertop with her finger. “If only I had a magic wand, I’d make him open up. You know?”

Carol nods, “Yep. Sure do. How old are these mashed potatoes?”

Amber thinks. “Thursday night? Something else I made too much of, because fuck me for thinking James would eat anything I put on his plate.”

“Language.”

“Sorry, mom. It’s just. Hard.” Amber watches her mother pull odds and ends out of the fridge. An onion. Some cabbage. Peas from the freezer. “What are you making?”

Carol dumps everything on the counter. She selects a knife and starts rough chopping the onion and cabbage into small pieces. “Hand me that frying pan, will you? And a mixing bowl. Big one.”

It’s her kitchen, but Amber finds comfort in following her mother’s instructions. Childhood memories of cooking with Carol pile in on her like waves on a warm beach. When did they stop laughing over food prep and lingering over meals together?

Amber helps her mother scoop the onion, peas, cabbage, and potatoes into the bowl. “How long has it been since we cooked like this?”

Carol stirs the ingredients and nudges Amber to heat some oil in the pan, “How long since you discovered boys?”

“Ha! No.” Amber laughs. “Really?”

Carol grins. “Just about.”

“I miss it.”

They smile at each other. And suddenly Amber is talking again like the old days before boys and Ben and Ben’s long nights and Ben’s sullen son from England.

Carol slides the potato mixture into the pan, grinding salt and pepper across the top.

She hands Amber a wide spatula. “Let’s see if this is the magic wand you’re looking for.”

She directs Amber to fold the potato in on itself now and then with the spatula, watching the food change color as it cooks and keeping the whole thing moving from cold and clammy to hot and savory without burning.

The potato browns and the onion sizzles, and the flavors dance up the stairs to tug at the stubborn boy until his stomach forces him back down to the first floor.

Carol sees him first, and jumps to speak first, so as not to break the spell. She’s a bridge; not Amber, but related to Amber, but not a surrender situation.

“We’re just making some bubble and squeak, James. Would you like a fried egg with yours?”

The boy is too polite, and frankly, a little too homesick to lie. Yes, he would like a fried egg with his bubble and squeak. Please. It smells too much like Sundays at home to pretend he doesn’t want it. Passing up on hot pizza the other night had been more than enough sacrifice for one week. He’d made his statement. He was only human, after all.

James feels a bit self-conscious, sitting on a stool while the women cook for him. A bit of a prig, actually. Clearing his throat, he says, “Erm, um, Amber. Would it be alright to invite a friend here? Today?”

Amber and Carol exchange a quick glance over frying pans. “Um. Yes. Of course. Who is he? She?”

“Someone from school. He plays baseball and he knows nothing about cricket, but he’s pretty decent.”

Amber fills a plate with the potatoes and tries to keep her smile small and her heartbeat steady. Carol slides the fried eggs on top. James swivels absentmindedly on the stool and says how people only think baseball and cricket are similar, but they really are not. Baseball will never measure up; it’s a poor American substitute.

Amber places the meal in front of her stepson and holds her breath.