DEBRA COLEMAN JETER
FLASH FICTION FRIDAY
EXCERPT FROM JOY AFTER NOON
Within minutes, clumps of damp flour dotted the granite counters and tile floors. A powdery fog blanketed the air, and Joy’s hands were a clammy mess. What she had failed to do, however, was produce a pie crust. Staring at the disaster before her … a crumbly, perforated mess with holes like Swiss cheese … Joy threw up her hands in despair.
“Mother always says you should clean up as you go.” Marianne spoke from the doorway. Something about her face struck Joy as ethereal. She was so beautiful, nearly luminous, with her heart-shaped lips and red-gold hair falling to her shoulders. Fourteen months older than her sister, Marianne seemed more mature than her fifteen years. Despite her small stature and flat chest, she possessed an ageless quality—a miniature adult.
Mother? Not Mom or Mama?
Joy forced a smile. “Cleaning up as you go sounds like good advice. I’ll have to try it next time.” The gunk clung to her fingers, refusing to wash off. A sign, perhaps, she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, give up. Not this time.
With chunks of dough clinging to her damp hands, Joy redoubled her resolve to salvage the mess in front of her, whether Marianne was watching or not. The girl remained in the doorway, making no move to help except for an occasional remark. Finally, the crust was nearly intact, and Joy turned with some relief to preparing the filling.
“Mother always scoops out the last of the egg whites with her thumb,” Marianne said.
Noticing her use of the present tense, Joy squelched a gasp at the feeling—as if Carolyn stood next to her daughter, smirking at Joy’s incompetence. Then, getting a grip, she forgave Marianne for the comparison. Joy had known loss and the refusal to accept that loss as final. She almost said as much, but didn’t.
“Mother always sprays the pan first.” This time, Marianne’s gaze met Joy’s. Was there hostility in those gold-flecked eyes? Resentment at the intrusion? Fear?
Joy took some of her suggestions and ignored others, determined to survive the process without breaking down in front of this woman-child. Marianne left after a time, a certain smugness marring the lovely features. Now, the younger daughter, Jenny, was the one who watched when Joy removed the pie from the oven.
Joy’s heart thudded in anticipation, the way her body behaved when she opened a letter from a journal, hoping for a positive review but fearing a rejection.
The crust was black around the edges.
“I never eat pecan pie anymore,” Jenny said, “not since Mother died.”
Her shoulders slumped and her face sullen, Jenny wore a white tee shirt with Michael Jackson’s face above the scrawled album title, “Thriller.” Her feet were bare beneath a pair of lace-edged black leggings ending just above the ankle. Her toenails, so short they might have been bitten off, were painted a fluorescent fuchsia. Joy’s heart went out to the younger, less beautiful daughter.
When Joy was Jenny’s age, she had rescued a skinny, bedraggled kitten from a dumpster. Mom, allergic to cat dander, had allowed Joy to keep the kitten only after exhausting every effort to find Buttons another home.
“Please, please, please!” Joy had cried. “Look at her. She needs me! We can’t abandon her, can we?”
Joy had lavished all the pent-up love she possessed on dear little Buttons, who had soon grown into a not-so-little but still dear and loving cat. Did she identify Jenny with Buttons or with herself? Maybe a little of both.
She would take Jenny out for ice cream and encourage her to talk. Somehow, Joy knew she’d find a way to connect with this somber-faced girl.
“If you change your mind, you can have the first piece.” Joy kept her tone as bright as if the pie being offered were perfect.
Jenny shrugged, something wistful in her face distracting Joy from the fear that her pie might be inedible. The girl’s eyes were lovely, the color of burnt sienna.
“You want the first piece?” Joy tried again.
When Joy removed a slice, the center oozed, running to fill up the empty space, the filling in Jenny’s piece spreading rapidly to the corners of her dish as well.
“Maybe we should have waited,” Jenny said. “Mother never cut the pie right away.”
Joy stared at Jenny, fighting a sudden impulse to burst into tears. Instead, she sank into a chair beside her stepdaughter. With spoons instead of forks, they ate pie together in silence.
By the time Ray came home from the bank, Joy had only the burnt but runny pie to show for her afternoon in the kitchen. She’d hoped her creation might settle into something firmer after cooling, but no such luck.
Hearing his footsteps, she jiggled the pan one last time, grabbed the miserable concoction and headed toward the trash can. “Whoa!” he said, and she whirled to find him leaning against the doorframe. “What have you got there?”
Sheepishly, she showed him the pie. He frowned for an instant. The caramel-colored stubble on his cheeks and chin glinted gold in the fading sunlight slanting through the windows. Then he laughed, grabbed her around the waist and twirled her. “How about pizza?”
Over his shoulder, she caught a glimpse of Jenny’s expression, a curious blend of sadness and surprise. Joy wondered how many times Jenny had seen her dad swing the first Mrs. Jenkins like this, and wondered if the girl was thinking that never again would she see her parents together.
ABOUT JOY AFTER NOON
Joy marries a widowed bank executive caught in an ethical dilemma and misreads his obvious frustration while struggling to integrate into her new family. Inspired in part by Love, Come Softly, this novel explores the challenges of second marriages and dealing with step-children during the crucial years of puberty and teenage angst. A college professor coming up shortly for the huge tenure decision, Joy finds herself falling apart as her career and her home issues deteriorate and collide.
ABOUT DEBRA COLEMAN JETER
Debra Coleman Jeter’s first novel, The Ticket, was a finalist for a Selah Award. Her short story, “Recovery,” won first prize in a competition sponsored by Christian Woman. She is a co-writer of the screenplay for Jess + Moss, a feature film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and captured several international awards. She loves to be in the water—whether snorkeling, water skiing, boogie boarding, or just floating around—which may explain the setting for her newest series, Sugar Sands. She lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, with her husband, a retired veterinarian.
JOY AFTER NOON
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