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An Afternoon Like Any Other

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Another school day was thankfully over, not that getting home was any better.

He’d struggled to do as much of his homework as possible on the bus because he knew that as soon as they got off Dana would be begging him to make her a snack.

Because there was no telling when mom would be home from work and waiting for dinner was ready wasn’t worth it, not when he had school work to do. Unlike Dana he actually liked schoolwork, getting good grades and the teachers commenting on how smart he was. He knew just what to say and do to impress them and that was what mattered the most, praise and having them tell him that he was perfect. That way when the other kids gave him a hard time and he had to do something about it the adults would believe his version of things.

Keeping on the good side of people made things so much easier and at home that meant keeping on mom’s good side by taking care of his sister. Even if mom was as much of an idiot as anyone.

Fortunately making a snack for her as easy as making a peanut butter and banana sandwich on toast, something that she could do for herself, but insisted that he help her with. Her explanation was that he did a better job of slicing the bananas and cutting the toast at a diagonal than her, which was true.

Little sisters were so annoying, that was something he could agree with his peers on, but unlike them he at least made an effort to do something about it rather than endlessly complain. Dana wasn’t all bad and she was easy to impress. Besides, it was kind of funny how she knew that if she told him the truth, that he was better than her at just about everything, he’d be more willing to help her out most of the time. If Dana could learn the trick he’d assumed that anyone could, but most people were slow to catch on.

It was surprising to him that so many of the people he knew couldn’t figure that out, that there was a way to get pretty much anyone to do something. Even the adults were too stupid to figure it out, mom included.

So Dana got her sack and he got back to his assignment, a book report on the book of ‘his choice’, except he’d seen through the trick of that right away. To get a better grade he shouldn’t choose a book that he liked, but one that the teacher wanted to hear him talk about. Which was why, instead of choosing something interesting by Gary Paulsen, he thought about the types of books the teacher was always having them read, and what she liked and chose the absolutely nauseating The Outsiders.

In Alex’s opinion all of the characters were idiots with idiotic names and acted the way no normal people should, just like at the characters in books teachers liked did. None of them could think and just went from stupid, contrived scene to stupid contrived scene, saying things that were supposed to be meaningful and have impact.

He was pretty sure that Dally’s death wasn’t supposed to be hilarious, but when he got to that part he laughed.

Dana looked up from the math problem she was working on, “What’s so funny?”

Did he want to try and explain it to her?

Not worth it, was what he decided, like most people there were things she didn’t get. Like the way it was hilarious how the characters who’d died in the book had all died because they were idiots and the other characters were acting like it was supposed to be a big deal.

“You wouldn’t get it,” he sighed, putting down the book. He’d read all of it he could stand for the time being and his own math homework, boring as it was, would be a welcome break. Math at least had to make sense.

When he was older he figured that he’d try to get a job that involved math because it was easy and consistent and if the job didn’t involve working with people that would make it even better.

“You say that all the time,” she pouted, “You’re just trying to act smart.”

He wasn’t going to bother responding. She was just doing it because she was bored and responding would be giving her what she wanted.

Well, so was he and if he had to suffer through stupidity then the least she could do was do it in silence.

“I’m bored,” Dana stated the obvious and slammed her book closed dramatically, “Let’s do something.”

He ignored her.

She went over to the bookshelf, mostly old children’s’ books that she didn’t read anymore and stuff he’d taken out of the school library and liked enough to keep. The trick was returning the book and waiting a week before going back and slipping it into your backpack and walking out. There were a few books that belonged to mom, but she never read them and when he had tired one he decided that it was stupid and that all the others were just as stupid. He liked books where there weren’t too many characters and people had simple, direct goals.

If she asked him to read her a story she was being an idiot because she had to know that he’d tell her no.

She didn’t though.

Instead she stomped into the kitchen, making noise in an attempt to intrigue him. Or annoy him.

If it was the latter it was working.

When she started banging pots and pans and pulling things out of cabinets she actually succeeded in the former.

He looked at the impressive mess she had spread out.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to make brownies,” she smiled, holding up the red and white checkered book she’d taken off the shelf. Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book was the title.

He hadn’t even realized that mom owned a cookbook. The stuff she made for them when she didn’t just order takeout certainly didn’t hint at it. There were even a few dog-eared pages, marking recipes that she’d never made.

Thankfully never made, he decided when he took the book from Dana and looked things over. ‘Porcupine meatballs’ didn’t contain porcupine, but they sounded awful.

He flipped to the index in the back to see if there were any brownie recipes and there were. Five of them in fact, each calling for ingredients that they didn’t have. Cream cheese in one, baking powder in three, canned chocolate syrup in another, and walnuts nuts or squares of chocolate in all of them. It was like a stupid word problem from his math homework.

“We’re doing this one,” Dana pointed to the simply and descriptively named ‘Fudge Brownies’.

Funny how all it took for it to become ‘we’ was him walking into the room and taking the book out of her hands.

“How?” he handed the book back to her, “We don’t have squares of chocolate, whatever that’s even supposed to mean.”

“We have chocolate chips,” she smiled, pointing to the bright yellow bag on the counter.

They did.

They always did, even though mom never baked chocolate chips were a constant. She just ate them out of the bag.

“Okay,” he rolled his eyes, “But we don’t have a pan.”

Dana rolled her eyes right back at him, like he was the one that was being stupid, “Yes we do!”

Passing the book back to him she grabbed the big glass pan that had always sat in the back of the cupboard, never once used.

He looked at the recipe and then at the pan, “That’s not the right size.”

How was it that she wanted to do something without looking at the instructions, printed right there for anyone to see. ‘Grease an 8x8x2-inch baking pan’, the recipe said and the pan Dana had found wasn’t.

“It’s close,” Dana argued, “Just a little bit too… big.

That she had to look at the book to figure out that it was too large was a big indication of how well this was thought out.

“Not it’s not,” he put the book down on the table and rather than argue with her, went to his backpack and got his ruler. He’d learned that there were times when showing people they were wrong wasn’t always enough, but it was still better to prove it than just argue.

The pan was, by his measurements, thirteen inches long and nine inches wide. It was the right depth at least.

Dana scowled at him when he showed her the proof that she was wrong.

“The pan’s nearly twice the size you need.”

“Well only use half the pan,” she pulled the pan from him.

“The brownies’ll spread until they cook and then they’ll be too thin.”

She had a retort to that, “Thin brownies are fine.”

He had to think that one over. What would happen if the brownies were spread too thin? He’d never baked before, but he had eaten brownies. Before they were cooked they were a liquid, when they finished cooking the center ones were soft and gooey, the edge ones had harder, chewier parts. Most of the water was lost.

“They’ll dry out and be like eating rocks,” he said at last, dashing the hopes that had been growing if Dana’s expression was anything to go by.

She looked at the pan, the cookbook and at him before coming back with the ultimate retort, “Well, if you’re so smart and know so much about making brownies what would you do?”

‘Not make them,’ was the easy reply, but what would he do if he wanted to? That was something to at least think about.

The answer was obvious with a pan twice the size of what they needed, “Double the size of the batch.”

Because more brownies wasn’t something he’d object to and Dana had wasted enough of his time that he had an investment in this.

And they’d skip the walnuts that the recipe called for because cookies with nuts were gross and he couldn’t imagine them being any better in brownies.

The whole cup of butter turned out to be two sticks according to the helpfully labeled packaging, which they mostly had. Some was missing from one because of toast that morning and they needed to take a bit more off to grease the pan, but it shouldn’t make too much difference, at least not that he could see. Baking didn’t seem like a terribly exact thing.

Four ounces of chocolate chips was guess work for the most part based on how much the package weighed and how much was left in it.

The chocolate and butter were melted in the microwave, a process during which he learned something. Butter sizzled and popped, making a mess, when you microwaved it.

For the two cups of sugar he used one of mom’s teacups, figuring that was probably what the recipe meant. Just to check he eyeballed it, figuring that the butter probably would have fit in it before they melted it together with the chocolate.

They were lucky to have the four eggs, something he should have checked when they started, but there was no point in worrying.

The same went for the two teaspoons of vanilla. He didn’t know what a teaspoon was, but he figured that it would be smaller than a soup spoon, not that they had vanilla anyway. They did have some vanilla flavored creamer that mom sometimes used in her coffee and the bottle in the fridge wasn’t expired, so they poured a spoonful of that into the mix. He didn’t even know what vanilla was supposed to be for in chocolate brownies. He was pretty sure that chocolate and vanilla were basically opposites, but the recipe called for it and he was going to follow it.

The difference between stirring and beating a mixture was something he had no clue about, though it sounded like a pointless distinction. That there was such a thing as ‘overbeating’ and that the brownies would ‘rise too high, then fall’ if it was done was fascinating, so he decided to err on the side of caution and stop stirring when everything was combined, like the recipe said, rather than keep going because Dana kept insisting that she saw lumps.

The cup and a half of flour was easy, just a matter of estimating the halfway point of the cup he’d used for the flour. He just hoped that it wasn’t expired, if flour expired. Mom only used a bit of it at a time, sprinkling it in the cabinets an around the garbage when ants showed up, which they did every summer and fall. She claimed that it would keep them away. He thought that getting bug spray or ant bait would be easier, but using it in the kitchen probably wasn’t a good idea. If it got in someone’s food…

While he measured the flour out and mixed it in he had Dana go and turn the oven on, because the recipe made it sound like that it had to be hot before you put the brownies in. Or at least that was what he assumed it meant by a ‘350° oven’.

“Crap!” Dana swore, “The oven doesn’t go hot enough.”

“What do you mean?” he hadn’t imagined that would be a problem because he didn’t think that it took a special oven to bake things.

“It needs to be seven-hundred degrees and –”

“Seven hundred?” He stared at her.

She was standing in front of the oven with his calculator, holding it up, “See, I even checked. Because we’re doubling the recipe I multiplied the temperature by two.”

“You don’t need to do that,” he laughed. He was pretty sure he could apply what he’d learned in his science classes to this, that the amount of reagents didn’t change the amount of heat necessary to start a reaction when heat was necessary. They also didn’t need to bake for any longer.

Which meant that they’d only need to wait half an hour to see if it worked or not.

He checked the time, did the math and, once they’d cleaned up the mess they’d made, brought his textbook into the kitchen so he could keep track of the time while he worked on his math homework.

Dana did the same, occasionally asking for help as they waited for the brownies to cook.

It didn’t take long for the smell of chocolate to fill the kitchen and for Dana to start asking if they were done.

“Fifteen more minutes.”

“Ten more minutes.”

“You just asked me, eight.”

“Five.”

“I’m sure it’s not time, I’ll tell you when it is.”

“Three. No, the recipe said half an hour so we can’t take them out early. No, I don’t know why it takes that long, but until we’ve done this once I’m not going to experiment. I put enough work into this that I’m going to do it right. And they’re done now. I’ll turn off the oven, you get me a towel from the bathroom so I don’t burn my hands taking them out.”

The recipe had said to wait for the brownies to cool, but with how good they looked and smelled and how annoying Dana was being, he wasn’t going to wait.

The first one he tried to cut fell apart and he gave it to Dana to eat with a spoon.

“It’s hot!” she whined, but kept eating, “Can I have another?”

“After I have mine,” the second came out slightly better and he took it for himself.

They were better than the ones that came from the store, that he as sure of when he first tasted it, not just because they were warm, but there was something about the texture and the fact that he’d made them.

He cut himself and Dana another brownie, and then cut the rest up and put them in Ziploc bags to hide from mom.

If she knew about them she’d want some and for all the effort it took he wasn’t going to share.

Half for him, half for Dana and a promise of secrecy.

Opening the window to get rid of the smell, he washed the pan and hoped, not for the first time, that mom wouldn’t be home soon.