In the summer of 2000 I entered Writers Weekly’s 24 hour short story contest. You are given a theme, a word count, and 24 hours to submit your best shot. The topic was “They pledged to keep the inevitable a secret.” I won second place with this story that came from an incident my sister and I vividly recalled no matter how the adults refuted the logic and possibly. Dealing with traumatic events and death is difficult for young children and we had already experienced several that year. This is one of my favorite stories because it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Uncle Jack sure didn’t look dead. His eyes were closed, but with the thick, gold wire-rimmed glasses in place, he may as well have been napping.
His body lay in a plain oak box in front of Granny’s living room window where wisps of white lace curtains danced in the breeze from the floor fan. Daddy stood across the room talking to Aunt Hester, laughing every now and then. Mama sat on the sofa, turned sideways with a hint of a frown marring her pretty face. Zoe sprawled on the floor at Mama’s feet, her brown hair pulling out of the ponytail. Granny rocked, a hanky to her face, gently sobbing every now and then. A few dozen friends and relatives gathered in groups, eating from the spread of homemade food on the table, talking in carefully monitored tones, laughing, catching themselves and relapsing into whispers for several minutes.
Uncle Jack was my favorite person. He laughed a lot and gave me presents. He was a terrific cook and we loved to watch him in the kitchen. Of course, that made Aunt Hester crazy. She said a man didn’t belong in the kitchen and when he was done, she’d work for hours scrubbing every little thing until the kitchen shined. Not that the kitchen was ever a mess. Aunt Hester’s kitchen was her most prized possession.
When night came, somebody decided we should stay at Granny’s. Mama and Daddy kissed us goodnight and we were bundled by Aunt Hester into the extra bedroom. Zoe, at five, was terrified. That extra bedroom gave off right into the living room where Uncle Jack lay. Of course, I wasn’t much braver, but I couldn’t tell Zoe that. I was nine now and nine-year olds don’t get as scared as babies.
“Sis?” Zoe whispered. We lay in the dark in the middle of the mahogany four-poster, a light quilt pulled up to our chins.
“What is it?” I just sounded gruff. Really, I was relieved to hear her awake.
“I can’t sleep. I’m scared.” She snuggled closer to me.
“I know. I can’t either.” I put an arm around her. “Do you want me to tell you a story?”
“Okay, but not a scary one.”
I shivered. “‘Course not! How about one with puppies and kittens?”
Zoe clapped her hands. “Goody! I love kittens best.”
So I told her a story, one Daddy had told me about kittens helping in the kitchen. Somewhere in the story we both fell asleep because then I dreamed about something else in the kitchen.
In my dream, Uncle Jack had gotten up out of the coffin and come into our bedroom. We, Zoe and I, had come awake at the same time and looked up to see his smiling face asking if we were hungry. He was still wearing the black suit and white shirt same as he had in the coffin. His glasses sat at a tilt on the bridge of his nose and his eyes looked larger through their thick lenses. He must’ve seen we were scared of him because he reached out a hand to reassure us and when we took it, he was as warm as you and me.
“I thought you were gone,” I told him, hanging on to his warm hand.
He laughed lightly. “Well, I got a little reprieve. That means I get a few more minutes with my favorite girls.”
“We’re your only girls!” I grinned. This WAS him.
“Can’t help that, now, can you? Now, are you two hungry or not?”
Uncle Jack scooped each of us into his arms and we headed out of the bedroom. I hid my face as we passed the coffin and Zoe did, too. Right out of the living room was the kitchen and Uncle Jack dropped us smack onto the kitchen counter.
“How about my specialty, girls?”
“Yay! Scrambled eggs!” Uncle Jack’s eggs could turn your stomach so happy it’d purr.
“Shh! Can’t wake everyone up, now, can we?” He winked and we plopped our hands over our mouths.
His movements in the kitchen were, as ever, smooth, fluid and graceful. He pulled out the frying pan and dropped in a few mounds of butter.
“We’ll let that heat up now.”
He found a half-dozen eggs in the refrigerator and neatly cracked them into a small bowl. Adding just a smidgen of water, he whisked them with a fork until they were a creamy yellow. After testing to see if the pan was sizzling enough by dropping the mixture from the fork into it, he poured the whole mess into the pan.
“Remember the secret to fluffy eggs, girls?”
“It’s in the stir,” Zoe answered, “You have to know when and where and how to stir.”
Uncle Jack nodded. “That’s right.” He then proceeded to stir and cook until the eggs were fluffy light mounds of yellow. “Sis, grab forks.”
I passed forks to Zoe and Uncle Jack and took one for myself. This was our favorite part of scrambled eggs with Uncle Jack. We ate them straight from the pan!
“What’s gonna happen to you now, Uncle Jack?” I asked through a mouthful of warm egg.
“I’ll be fine, darlin’. I’ll be away, but I’ll be fine.”
Zoe said she was thirsty and we all drank milk right from the jar. “No mess,” said Uncle Jack, “you know that makes Hester crazy!”
He carried us back to bed where he tucked us in and held our hands until we fell back into sleep.
It was the greatest dream! When I woke up, I couldn’t wait to tell Zoe.
“Zoe, I dreamed that Uncle Jack got up last night,” I said.
She nodded, “Yeah, and he carried us to the kitchen.”
I stared at her, “That’s right, and we made scrambled eggs.”
“And drank milk! It was so much fun!”
She looked so happy, but it was my dream, not hers. “Zoe, that was my dream!”
Zoe nodded, “It was mine, too! It didn’t make me scared anymore.”
“But it was a dream, Zoe!”
He chin jutted. “No it was real.” She sounded so sure I began to believe her.
“We can never tell a soul you know,” I held out my hand and Zoe took it.
“About all this, I seal my lips,” we said together. Then, as one, Zoe and I leaped from the bed and raced to the coffin. She wasn’t tall enough to see in, but I was.
“Is he there, Sis?”
I sadly nodded, “He’s there.”
Granny’s gentle hands on our backs startled us. “You girls all right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Zoe said, shoulders drooping.
“Go on into the kitchen. Hester’s about to fix breakfast.”
Aunt Hester’s holler sent all three of us running in her direction.
“What’s the matter?” Granny asked.
“I’m about half crazy,” Aunt Hester held up the frying pan in her hand. “I surely don’t remember anyone cooking eggs. Looks like Jack’s mess, too.” She wiped a tear with the back of her hand. “How I missed this pan when I cleaned up last night I’ll never know.”
Grinning, Zoe and I knew, but our lips were sealed.