Annie drew her fingers across the grease-smudged page, the glossy image of lemon bars with shortbread crust and a snowy dusting of powdered sugar. The cookbook, heavy and thick, had a tattered jacket, a skinny velvet bookmark cord. Her mother flattened a section of the local paper on the table and read, cradling her cabernet. Obituaries first, then movie reviews and arrests. Her father skimmed the sports section, holding a bourbon on his thigh. Neat in a Glencairn glass. Oliver squatted in front of his old plastic bin of Legos.
“You’re way too old for that,” Annie said.
“I have to make something for English class,” Oliver said. “A diorama.”
It was five and dark, and the bay windows mirrored the back of her mother’s head, her father’s profile, his long hooked nose. Sunday afternoon was designated Together Time. When she and Oliver were in middle school, they had Family Time, and they watched movies and played games and ate dinner, but for the last few years, they could not agree on what to watch or play. They gathered from three to five or whenever UberEATS deliered their food order. No screens.
“Toby from accounting,” her mother said. “His mother died.”
Oliver churned the Legos with his hand.
“For Christ’s sake, Ollie,” her father said, lowering the paper. “Cut that out.”
“I need mini figures,” Oliver said.
“You sound like you’re in third grade,” Annie said.
Oliver put up his middle finger. “At least I do homework.”
“Enough,” her mother said, sitting cross legged in yoga pants, cupping her bulbous glass like a goddess with a lotus flower.
Annie flipped through the images of pastries and puddings and went back to the page with the yolk-yellow curd, the longtime lodging of the velvet cord.
“There was a burglary,” her mother said. “Just a mile from us.”
The bars had only seven ingredients: flour, salt, butter, eggs, lemon juice, vanilla, and sugar. She thought of them mixed and layered and baked, the warming smell of the sum of their parts, the puckering sweetness of the final product.
“Here’s something that didn’t make the news,” her mother said. “Nancy’s getting laid off.”
“Not surprising,” her father said. “She refused to go into work after the lockdown.”
“She couldn’t, not with little kids at home,” her mother said. “And she never stopped working.”
Oliver arranged figures on a Lego board, most of them facing a lone figure on a platform of stacked blue bricks. He stood and went into the front hall.
“You need to be in here, Oliver,” her father said.
“I’m just getting my backpack,” Oliver said.
Oliver squatted again by the bin and unzipped his backpack. He took out a tangle of twigs, snapped off the thinnest branches. Crumbs of leaf and dirt littered the carpet.
“You’re making a mess,” her mother said.
“I keep rereading the same goddamn line,” her father said.
Annie watched the reflection of her father, tilting his drink to his lips. A glinting montage of black, amber and gold. He thumped it on the front page of the paper, the shadow of the bourbon glass falling over headlines. Annie leaned over the table. Historic Heat Wave in CA. Water rationing and wildfires. Despite Blackout, Texas Has No Plans to Join the National Grid. Photographs of dagger-like icicles on chandeliers and the frozen carcass of a tabby cat. An enlarged and bolded quotation: “I’m not kidding. It’s like the end times.”
Her brother placed toothpick-sized twigs in the hands of several mini figures. He collected more twigs, wrapped a rubber band around them.
“What’s that even supposed to be?” she asked.
“A fable.” Oliver was winding the band, but the band was too big, the twigs too small. “The father makes each of his kids break a stick. Then he has them try to break a bunch of them. Which is impossible.”
“You should use a thinner band,” she said.
“Didn’t ask for your advice.”
The doorbell rang. “Finally,” her mother said, getting up.
“This sucks,” Olivers said, tiny twigs slipping from the band. He swept his hand across the board, toppling the figures. He stood, stomped up the stairs, slammed a door.
Her father emptied his Glencairn glass. He went to the kitchen, brushing past her mother, who stood beneath the arched doorway, holding a grease-stained paper bag.
“So much for Together Time,” her mother said. She picked up her wine glass and brought it with the food to the dining room.
Annie pulled out the velvet cord and stood, glimpsing her solitary reflection. She kneeled by Oliver’s project and refashioned the twigs, bare and brittle, into a tiny bundle, and she tied it with the soft cord. It would make an awkward bookmark, but she wanted it paired with the lemon bars.
Leigh is a writer and history teacher based in Massachusetts. Her work can be found in Into the Void Magazine, The Bangalore Review, Flying South Literary Magazine 2021 and elsewhere. She is a city person who moved to the woods and takes daily crepuscular walks in them.