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[Fiction] We Will Take It Slow Now

By Hunter Prichard

 

Tracy bought them McDonald’s for a treat. Dutch had gotten a perfect score on his minute-math quiz and Beth was acting a little too stern this evening. It felt good to treat them when they were acting so good but she tried to hurry them along back home.

 

Beth and Dutch had more sense in their heads than they had any right to, being so little, and she was proud of how well they’d been getting on, how well they’d pushed down all that had happened in the last year, with Dad and all that. They hurried back into the town from the McDonald’s, the little neon cabin, sitting by itself in a black field by the interstate exit. It was hard going against the wind. A good idea suddenly knocked her head around. They would make orange-chocolate bread for dessert. The days had been cold and grey and it wasn’t every night they got to do something fun together.

 

She’d been trying her best to make something special out of each day. Because of what Dad had done, disappearing like that, leaving them scraping. That meant little gifts when they did well at school and pancakes on Saturday mornings and letting them stay up on Sunday nights to watch a movie. The other day, she’d come across the chocolate-orange bread recipe in an old book. Maybe her mother left it for her. Suddenly, she started telling them about the recipe book and a little of her mother too. The kids hadn’t known their grandmother. Tracy had come to realize she hadn’t known her so well either. Something about her mother was always too prim and hurried. She’d been careful to keep her distance from others.

 

Now on the walk, Tracy tried to keep her head raised and proud, so the children would see that fun was necessary for them too. Her voice became strained and scraggly the more she talked on their grandmother, the recipe book, their chocolate-orange dessert.

 

“I don’t want dessert,” Beth said into her collar. “I must finish my book report. I don’t have any time to be making desserts.”

 

“Book reports are due on Fridays,” Tracy reminded her. “You have a few more days. But that doesn’t matter. This is something special we can do together.”

 

“I need to finish reading the book,” Beth whispered. Her face was red inside her coat.

 

“You can do that after you get into bed. When I was little reading was for –”

 

“I need to finish it.”

 

“You’ll have plenty of time before Friday,” Tracy said. She was proud of them doing so well, that she never had to tell them to do their schoolwork. But that they wanted to do so well without her saying so made her feel down. It wasn’t how children should be. Adults were supposed to be watching over them, telling what to and not to do.

 

“I’m too tired to do anything,” Dutch whispered.

 

 

“That’s alright. I’ll be there to help.” Tracy rested her hands on their shoulders. They walked rigidly down the main street. “The cold makes us tired. Isn’t it cold?” She reached for them, but they were walking with their heads bent as old men. “We will hurry home and warm up. We will have a good time baking.”

 

“I want to finish my book tonight or else I won’t do it good,” Beth said.”

 

“You mean to do it, ‘well,’” Tracy told her.

 

“That’s what she meant,” Dutch whispered. “She always says, ‘well.’”

 

Tracy suddenly scooped down like her grandma had and took them up in her arms. “It’s been a while since we made dessert together. It’ll be a fun time.” She looked suddenly about. They were back in the center of town, just across from town hall and the library. “I was looking at the pictures –”

 

“There he is,” Dutch whispered.

 

Tracy, lost in her memories, talked as she pleased. “Oh yes, those pictures are remarkable. I remember all the desserts from when I was little,” she told them. “You should’ve seen it on Christmas morning with all the treats laid out on the kitchen table. We ate until we were all fat and lazy.”

 

“There he is.” Dutch tugged his sister’s arm, his voice anxious, his eyes pinpricks.

 

“No arguing between you two,” Tracy said. She closed her eyes and smelled burnt wood and castor oil. “Grandma always made funny cakes and cookies from when –”

 

“I said, there he is,” Dutch demanded, interrupting her reminiscing. He yanked her arm, until it throbbed. “Over there.”

 

Craig, up ahead of them, stood outside town hall’s dreary yellow light, juggling his briefcase under one arm as he attempted to light a cigarette. He shuffled; his back arched against the wind as he fiddled with the lighter. He looked small and pathetic standing in the middle of nothing. His briefcase slipped from his arm and he bent for it. It was almost hilarious, him trying to light the cigarette and reach for the briefcase, and not being able to do either of them. He squatted and spun and got nowhere.

 

Tracy stood still. Abruptly rocked by confusion and shock, she almost called out to him. They hadn’t spoken in several weeks. There wasn’t reason for them to speak. She hadn’t thought much of him. There wasn’t any point to do it, and whenever she found herself slipping into those sorts of dreams she pressed her head with her hands like a vice and said, “No! No! No!”

 

“He’s standing there waiting for us,” Beth said lowly. “Why?”

 

“And he’s not allowed to be smoking,” Dutch told her.

 

“Smoking is bad,” Tracy said. “Don’t worry about him.”

 

Dutch jerked her jacket-sleeve. “I don’t want to see him.”

 

Tracy patted him. “Come on now. He’s going home, the same way we are.”

 

Craig had turned and now peered at them through the smoky dusk, his eyes slight as wisps of smoke, innocent and frightened. He took up the briefcase and wrenched his figure straight and proud. He hugged the briefcase closer to his chest and pulled his wool cap lower over his eyes. His person was white and black as columns of numbers on a blank page, and under his thick black coat, his necktie, like a flash of personality, flickered a royal blue.

 

“Craig is a friendly man,” Tracy whispered. “He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s one of –”

 

“I don’t want to see him,” Dutch said. He rubbed his eyes with a balled fist.

 

“Nobody will if you don’t want them to. I will make sure of that.”

 

“He’s right there,” Beth whispered. “I don’t want to see him.”

 

 

“We’ll just say hello very quickly.” Tracy patted them on their shoulders and held them close. “He’s one of Dad’s old friends. Mine too. It’s impolite if we don’t say –”

 

“No!” Dutch said into her eardrums. “I don’t want to see him.”

 

Tracy took them up in her arms and pushed them into a corner store. It was a little shop that sold gifts and knick-knacks – paperweights and magnets and postcards to send home and hard candy. She’d been in once or twice before, maybe a year or two ago, when things had been different, when there was so much money it made better sense to spend it and she’d gone about as she pleased, buying stupid things to make the time go. The name of the place was something like Margot’s or Angela’s, the kind of place that got named after the daughter of some millionaire, the sort of place that rich people liked. The last time she’d gone in she’d worn clogs and her wedding ring, and an ornamental scarf around her crown that the clerk admired.

 

“Let’s get some candy,” Tracy said as she bent down on one knee. “Don’t worry.”

 

“I didn’t want him to say hello.” Beth looked anxiously at her brother.

 

“You know,” Tracy said, her hands rubbing them up and down. “Craig is one of our old friends. He doesn’t mean any harm. There’s nothing for you to worry over. He remembers when you were babies. He wouldn’t ever hurt you.”

 

She sucked in her breath and was about to launch into a laundry list of traits that would explain to the children how good a man Craig was, that it was out of the goodness within his heart to why he’d spent so much time with them, making sure the bills were paid and taking care of little household projects. Even if Craig had abandoned them, this was his town the same as it was theirs, a truth that they would need to get used to. Before she could begin, there was a worried, panting sound from behind her. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” The clerk, a young woman with a trim haircut, stood over them.

 

“Oh, hello,” Tracy said, raising her head and smiling. The young clerk loomed over them.

“We’re here to get candy. It sure is cold out there.” She stood and smiled. “Winter keeps going and going.”

 

“We don’t like our customers eating in here,” the clerk said. “It’s against our rules.”

 

“Dutch and Beth, please go stand by the door.”

 

“You don’t understand,” the clerk said. “There’s no eating allowed in this store. None.”

 

“Aren’t they well-behaved?” Tracy asked. “They won’t cause trouble, I promise.”

 

The clerk stared at the children. Her eyes flashed to the clock above the wall. “I’m sorry, but we’re closing up.”

 

“I only wanted to get them a snack. Because they’ve been doing so well in school. Perfect marks all around.”

 

The clerk swallowed. “We’re not a store for children,” she continued with a grimace that looked too severe for such a young person. “We have many expensive things in here,” she said.

 

“As I said, we’ll be only one tiny moment,” Tracy replied. Her eyes flashed to the door. The store window was a mere reflection and she couldn’t see if Craig was still there. He’d probably wandered off by now, cigarette smoke puffing from his nostrils. But she couldn’t be sure. “I promise I won’t be long. I know exactly what I want. They’ll stand right by the door.”

 

“Please,” the clerk said. “They can’t be eating in here. They really must go.”

 

“Surely you don’t want me to leave my children out in the bitter cold – unsupervised – over a few possible crumbs?” Tracy asked rhetorically with a little laugh. “Sometimes, we need a little treat when it’s so cold.” She stepped forward and acted as if the display tables, where various good were artistically scattered, was where she’d meant to go all this time. “They really have been doing so well in school.”

 

“I’ll be doing some cleaning,” the clerk said, turning away.

 

“That cold! I swear it doesn’t feel like it’ll ever end. Don’t you think?” She picked up little bags of caramelized fruit and held them up in the light. “They’ve been working so hard at school that I just had to stop in. You have the best sweets in town. And now they’re about the best students in the whole class now. Can you believe that?”

 

“Have you made your selection?” the clerk asked.

 

“Sometimes, I think I’m spoiling them.” Tracy came forward with a package of caramelized apricots. “But then they bring home such good reports. So, how can I not?” She kept her voice soft and polite despite the clerk’s distressed glare. “They’ve been so well that I must buy something special. They better start getting a little dumber,” she said with a tiny laugh. “Otherwise, I’m going to buy so much candy that their little teeth are going to pop out of their head.” She smiled bright and wide, as the clerk made the sale. “What else can I do about such smart, well-behaved children?”

 

“It’s seven dollars,” the clerk said. “They’re quiet,” she mumbled. The cash register made a singing sound as the register door popped. “I guess not many kids are.” She looked around and yawned, the back of her hand touching her lips. “Growing up, my mom always was making sure I thought before I said anything,” she said as she made the change from a ten-dollar bill.

 

“And did you like that she told you that?” Tracy asked, almost mechanically. “Did you do so? As she said? Did you?”

 

“What do you mean? She was my mother.”

 

“What I mean is do you think it was good that you weren’t allowed to talk much?”

 

The clerk looked a little shocked, as if she’d never considered a thing before. “I don’t know. I was only saying that I was taught –” her fatigued voice declined.

 

“Yes, you’re right.” Tracy took back her change and turned. “I apologize on taking up your time so close to the end of the day.” She carefully walked back over to the door and bent down to show Dutch and Beth the candy.

 

The clerk trailed behind her, a keyring in her hand. “They’re good children,” the clerk replied. “They do what you say. They’re quiet.”

 

“Like I said, not a crumb or a peep out of them.”

 

“Just how I tell them. Well, it’s better to be quiet nowadays.” With the clerk talking to her a little bit, she couldn’t help but to smile big and earnestly. “People talk too much. Sometimes I want to grab people and tell them not to be so noisy. My mother always told me the same thing as yours.” She turned and pressed her face against the glass, her eyeballs darting about. “I don’t know if I liked it or not. But it seems that people talk too much and for no reason at all. And that’s what I think.”

 

Outside, Tracy jiggled the candy in front of their faces and said they should open it and all have a piece for the walk. Beth was finished with her McDonald’s and she took the bag in her tiny, cold hands and looked down at it. Her eyes were wet and a bit dazzled and she looked it over. Her bottom lip twitched. Dutch was folding both their wax-paper hamburger wrappings into perfect, neat squares and he put the squares in his pocket and held out his cupped hand. Beth gave him an apricot. As they moved away, the dull noise of a bolted lock could be heard from inside the store. There wasn’t anybody on the street, and the world was quiet as it always was and always would be on wintry evenings. Not even the bars were buzzing.

 

They continued the walk, their frames bent against the wind. Tracy started talking, chatting really, as if to a friend. “I was thinking we could go ice skating this weekend.”

 

“Why?” Beth asked.

 

“I loved it when I was little. That and sled-riding were my favorite things.”

 

“There’s no snow anymore.” Dutch took a piece of fruit from Beth’s outstretched hand.

 

“It’s important that we have fun on the weekends,” Tracy told them, as they turned off the main street and down their street. “When you work hard and do what you’re supposed to, you get to do fun things as a reward.” She felt she was talking too loudly but couldn’t stop herself. “I’m proud of you, you know, for all your hard work. And I’ve been working hard too.” Dutch and Beth looked up at her, somewhat confusedly. She tousled their hair.  Dutch smiled but his hand reflexively smoothed it back in place. Beth, watching him, did the same. “When I was little, there was a big pond down the road that we used to ice-skate at. I swear it was the most fun I’ve ever had. I still remember it like it was yesterday.” She almost laughed. “We’ll go Sunday morning. Skating is better than sitting in some musty old church. Isn’t it?”

 

They didn’t say anything. Tracy quieted, and her thoughts returned to Craig and all the nice things he’d told her, how he was to take care of them, and the rest. Maybe she could forget all the bad that had happened. And she could go loiter nearby his office and pretend to bump into him. She wanted him to come back to her, to beg and plead and barter. But that was a hard dream to take seriously. As far as men went, he was about the best she’d ever known. She’d always told him so and had meant it. Being reminded of him, Tracy grabbed Dutch’s collar. She laughed a little, holding onto Dutch, watching Beth eat her candy in small bites. It was pointless to worry over Dad. Not even Craig really mattered. It hadn’t been his fault that it was only the three together now.

 

Lost in dreamy thoughts, they reached their home. The little dark house with the clean front lawn and the bedrooms in back lay placidly amongst the others on their street.

 

 

“Home sweet home,” she told them once they were inside, and she was scrambling to turn on the lights. “Let’s get you all warmed up and start the baking!” She went into the corner and fiddled with the electric heater. Behind her, they were getting the milk and flower out. Dutch pulled two chairs to the counter and stood up on one. “Good job getting it ready,” she called. “Beth will make the dough. Now, Dutch, you take out a pan so we can boil down the chocolate.”

 

Tracy went to light the stove-top for him with a match. Everything about their home took a little more effort now. The burners wouldn’t automatically ignite anymore and she had to release the gas and wave a flame. Like how their electric heater didn’t get so hot, and how the bathroom sink-drain was clogged – more of the house had been breaking. One of these days, she would have to make a list, and start taking care of all the things Dad had.

 

“I feel like I’m a little girl again,” Tracy said as she watched them. She turned down the heat on the stove and showed Dutch how to zest the orange rind with the little tool she’d gotten as a wedding present oh so many years ago. She had a lot of appliances like that but she hadn’t ever had reason to use them until recently. “Reminds me of baking with my grandma.”

 

“I’m doing it right, aren’t I?” Beth asked in a small voice, as she rolled out the dough.

 

Tracy bent down next to her. “You got to press it a little harder. Use all your weight.”

 

Beth tried so hard that she almost slipped off the chair. “Like this?”

 

“You’re doing better than anyone,” Tracy said. “Isn’t it nice, making dessert together?”

 

“It’s alright,” Dutch said as he stirred the orange zest into the chocolate.

 

“When I was little, there wasn’t anything I loved better than baking.”

 

“It’s better now than when it was all of us. Don’t you think?” Beth had her eyes on the swirled dough in front of her. “It’s better now that it’s only us.”

 

“All of us?” Tracy asked as she fixed her hair. “Do you mean Craig?”

 

“I don’t want him to come here anymore,” Dutch told her. His lips were rigid as he spoke, but his face was wrinkled and froggy. “Make him stay away. Forever.”

 

“Now, that’s not fair. Craig is one of the nicest men we know,” Tracy said. “He was best friends with Dad since they were little as you. He cares very much about you two.”

 

“That’s not true,” Beth said.

 

“No, he didn’t like us,” Dutch said. “All he did was stare at us, mean staring.”

 

“I think that’s maybe because you looked so much like Dad.” Tracy spoke softly. “And you do. Dad knew him so long that I even have some pictures of them together from when they were about your age. You can look at them if you want.”

 

“I’m only saying I didn’t like him,” Dutch said. “Beth didn’t either.”

 

“No, I didn’t,” Beth whispered. She’d finished rolling out the dough, and was staring at the chocolate mixture, watching the boiling-bubbles swell and pop.

 

“It’s two against one,” Dutch said.

 

“Like at recess,” Beth told her solemnly. “He can’t come back anymore.”

 

Tracy tried to smile. “But he was nice to come and help us out for a bit. Wasn’t he?”

 

“I don’t like him, and I don’t care if he’s your friend.”

 

Tracy tried to grin. “He’s not my friend, if you don’t want him to be.”

 

Tracy got them the big wooden spoon and showed them how to fill the inside of the dough with the chocolate-orange sauce. Dutch let Beth do it and helped her smooth down where the big pools had gathered. They had to be careful so as not to break the dough, but Tracy didn’t feel like she needed to tell them that.

 

“If you don’t want him to come here again, then he won’t,” she told them. “No matter what, I’m going to be right here. You don’t worry on anything.” Her mouth hung open before each word, so that her cheeks and throat felt hollow. “It’ll just be us. Just us three.” She shook the emotions from her head and bent over them, so close the smells of their day lodged in her nose and filled her back up. “You’re making the dessert better than I could’ve ever done it,” she said. “I couldn’t ever do it like you did. Grandma was the best baker and she taught me. But I still wasn’t good enough.” She laughed a little. “Not like you.”

 

“It wasn’t so hard,” Dutch said. He’d gotten off the chair and was helping Beth down.

 

Tracy showed them the pan before she put it in the oven. “It’s going to be about the best dessert in the world.” She made sure they knew it, how the right ingredients and a little heat and patience could make a wonderful thing. “Won’t it? It’ll just be like when I was little and Grandma and all the others would show me how to bake like they did. I never thought I was good enough as them. But you are.”

 

“How soon can we have it?” Beth asked, peering down into the oven.

 

“Very soon. We only must wait a little bit. But we have plenty of time for that. You don’t want to be eating a bunch of gooey dough, do you?”

 

Tracy took them up in her arms. They wiggled a little but eventually settled and rested their little heads on her shoulder. This was simply the way things now were and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. She’d been angry a long while, the belligerent and insistent sort of rage like little kids have when they don’t get a toy they wanted. There wasn’t anyone to be angry at – not Craig, not their dad, not herself. This anger, blue and cold, the resentment of being cheated and the warmth of self-pity, was beginning to fade. Like the sniffles, it was only something that creeped in when she wasn’t looking. A slow, patient process. But there was too much goodness elsewhere. All it took was a little patience, a little elbow grease. As Tracy squeezed them closer, she felt their little hearts thumping against her shoulder and neck. “Everything takes its own time,” she whispered. “There’s nothing we can do to rush it.”

 



Hunter Prichard is a writer from Portland, ME.

 



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