My heart stuttered as thick gray smoke billowed into the air, rapidly filling Goldeen’s small kitchen. Angry reddish-orange flames licked the sides of the formerly pristine stainless-steel oven, singeing it a sooty black.
Rage snarled bright and furious inside me. I had spent a whole hour last night polishing that oven!
Running on autopilot, I hit the emergency off switch and grabbed the fire extinguisher. “Move out of the way!”
My cousin, Sam, decided somewhere in the depths of her brain that panicking within an inch of her life would somehow magically put the fire out.
Hands shaking, I pulled the pin, aimed the nozzle, and let the life—and business—saving carbon dioxide flow, sweeping it across the base of the fire and into the mouth of the oven until the flames winked out of existence.
“I know what you’re going to say.” Sam fanned smoke away from her worried face. “So I think we’d be better off without you saying it. I’ll just quietly get my bag and exit stage right—”
“Pursued by a furious Winnie. What the hell, Sam?” I slammed the extinguisher on the metal prep table.
Sam flinched. “It was an accident.”
Swaddled in her usual black and neon-colored gear—this time a mix of electrifying blue and dazzle-me yellow—with her permed bone-straight hair held back from her forehead with a headband, she nervously picked at her lips. She wore her post-exercise glow like a supermodel lathered in oil and dropped into an ocean to create that maximum shiny yet somehow sexy drowned rat vibe. Rain or shine, that girl got her endorphins in. And judging by the way sweat continued to glisten on her tanned skin and stain her clothes, it must have already been hotter than hell outside.
Don’t yell, don’t yell, don’t yell, don’t yell. I pinched the bridge of my nose, silently counting to ten. According to my mom, deep breaths in and out would help control my temper in times of crisis or “severe emotional instability.” I would have tried that, too—if I weren’t standing in a kitchen full of lingering smoke because the oven had been on fire!
Seven … eight … nine …
Sam’s eyes would start to water if someone looked at her funny. Berating her first thing in the morning after a near-death experience would make her unleash a torrential downpour at me.
It probably hadn’t been her fault. Maybe. Hard to say. My cousin could not cook. Couldn’t even follow a recipe to make toast without it ending in disaster. Goldeen’s definitely needed a new oven, which hadn’t done Sam any favors.
“I would hope so.” A joke formed in my mind, one Sam would appreciate. “I know Granny is in self-righteous mode right now and refuses to buy a new oven, but this is not how you scam an insurance company. You set an inconspicuous, untraceable, freak-accident fire, and flee the scene. You don’t stand around screaming ‘help me.’”
Sam coughed and let loose a tiny smile. “I would make a terrible criminal.”
“The worst. Which is why you are always the alibi.”
She raised her right hand. “I accept my role as an eternal getaway driver, capable of convincing anyone of my ability to be in two places at once, and hereby subject myself to your masterminded whims.”
“That’s all I ask.”
“Can I have a hug?” Her pouty, remorseful face was too cute for her own good.
“No. You’re all sweaty.”
“Yes, you can have a hug. Come here.” Sam didn’t hesitate, clinging to me like a baby koala in milliseconds. She wrapped her arms around my waist, placing her head on my shoulder, and I perched my chin on the top of her head. The distinct sound of a sniffle made me sigh deeper than I wanted her to hear.
“Why does it smell like barbecued dog hair in here?”
Winston stood at the foot of the stairs that led to the apartment above the diner in his rumpled plaid pajamas, a neutral frown on his face. To be fair, that was his natural state: pseudo-surly and quiet. At fourteen, he’d already grown into a small giant, towering over me at a solid six feet two to my average five feet six, and gave me major attitude when I introduced him as my “baby” brother.
The fact that we didn’t look alike burned my biscuits faster than Goldeen’s faulty oven. Taller, thinner, with darker, richer skin that he’d inherited from our dad and strong, symmetrical facial features he got from our mom, how else were people supposed to know that he was mine if I didn’t tell them every chance I got? No one thought we were related at first glance because we looked like total opposites. I couldn’t trust people to just guess one of the most important facts of my life. I was his big sister—his only big sister. They needed to know.
“It does not,” Sam said, letting me go. “If anything, it smells like burnt Cinnamon Toast Crunch.” She had the audacity to giggle at her bad joke.
“Obviously.” He walked toward the emergency exit that wasn’t really an emergency exit because the alarm had been disabled so it could be used as a regular door, but it still had all of the fancy red-striped tape. He pushed it open and set a box of glass preserves jars on the ground to keep it that way. “It’s from the movie. I watched it again last night.”
We’d watched the original Ghostbusters on the two-hour flight to Misty Haven, the small town where our granny owned a diner: Goldeen’s. We stayed here every summer, me being the record-holder for twelve straight years, sort of like summer camp, except with less macaroni-and-popsicle-stick art, more family time, and better food.
Also, small town meant the smallest. According to Wikipedia—shut up—Misty Haven, with its population of 352, qualified as a village.
Correction: population of 354. The Berkowitz family had twins in April.
“What did you do?” Winston asked.
“Why did you assume it was me?” Sam whined. “It could have been Winnie.”
“I heard you screaming. And besides, Winnie knows how to cook”—he peered into the charbroiled mess of an oven—“cinnamon rolls, without it looking like a botched arson job. Goldeen’s doesn’t need money that bad. Granny will break down and buy a new oven eventually.”
“That’s exactly what I said. Great minds.”
“I thought the kids might like them.” Sam didn’t work in the diner like Winston and I. Somehow, she became the babysitter for Misty Haven. Her phone started ringing the second we crossed the town limits, as if all the desperate parents could sense her presence. They’d probably been staring out the window, waiting to spot Granny’s dark blue Cadillac—still in mint condition for such an old car—and lit up the community phone tree like it was Christmas and no one cared about the electricity bill.
“I’m sure they would have,” I said. “Next time, ask for help. Please. I’m begging you.”
“Winston, can you get me a rag and a bucket?”
“I cannot. My shift doesn’t start until ten so I’m going back to bed. I just wanted to be nosy and get my insults in before you tried to make her feel better. Once again, I was too late,” he said with a wistful sigh.
“Jerk,” Sam said.
Copyright © 2019 by Annie Camill Clark.