by Annie Dawid

The ugly twin, as Lisa referred to herself, preceded her sister into the house, where they would spend the third night of the ice storm, which had decimated power in scattered areas of town, their own neighborhood completely dark.

‘Welcome, girls! Come in quick – it’s freezing out there!’ Mrs. Murdock ushered them from the front hall into the adjacent living room, where a brick fireplace framed impressive flames, fanning heat into the air. She put one arm around Lisa and with her other, pulled Laurie behind her.

Hands spread before the fire, Lisa felt numb after their three-mile walk from where they’d spent last night, at the home of another school acquaintance, where there was electricity but no phone.

‘Don’t tell me you have no gloves!’ shrieked Mrs. Murdock on observing Lisa’s bluish fingers. ‘Let me get you some right this minute! I always have an extra pair.’

‘Mom, she doesn’t need them now! We’re inside,’ whined Arlene, whose house was their shelter until tomorrow, when power would supposedly be restored. Arlene was shaking her head, rolling her eyes for the twins’ benefit, as if her mother’s words and actions were inappropriate somehow.

‘Thank you. That’s really nice of you,’ Lisa said, accepting a pair of grey woolen mittens.

‘You’re welcome! Laurie, do you have gloves?’

Laurie nodded.

All three girls crouched in front of the fireplace, quilts and blankets strewn around them, while Mrs. Murdock bustled between them and the kitchen, shouting, ‘I’m making hot chocolate. Thank God we have a gas stove!’

Arlene frowned. ‘Sorry, ‘ she whispered, ‘my mother loves it when people come over, so she can make them things.’

Lisa’s eyebrows rose at Arlene’s apology. Her own mother, Vanessa, never made anybody anything.

‘Look at this contraption,’ said Mrs. Murdock, returning with four mugs on a tray, and an odd-looking square metal disc, with a pyramid-like center. She handed each girl a steaming mug. Whipped cream overflowed from the rim of Lisa’s cup. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Here!’ Over her right shoulder, Mrs. Murdock sported a dishcloth. ‘Let me get that. It didn’t burn you, did it?’

Lisa shook her head. She’d met Arlene’s mother once before, at Parents’ Night three years ago, in third grade. Like the twins, Arlene did not have a dad in her life, but there the similarities between their families ended. Arlene was an only child, while the twins were situated between an adored older sister and a pampered younger brother. Their mother focused on her firstborn, and their maternal grandparents had eyes only for the boy.

Lisa allowed Mrs. Murdock to rub her hands with the soft red cotton cloth. ‘Is that better?’

Lisa nodded.

‘Why does your sister have gloves but not you?’ Silver-haired and middle-aged, Mrs. Murdock looked directly into Lisa’s hazel eyes.

On the cozy couch against the wall, Arlene and Laurie had nested together, blankets feathered around them. They were whispering, most likely about boys. Whenever Lisa was in a room with people her own age, she vanished from their sight, as if only Laurie were visible.

‘I lost them on my way over.’

‘Oh, I see. Let me sew these mittens onto a ribbon, which you can hang around your neck, or stuff in your sleeves when you take off your coat. That way, you won’t lose them again.’

Little kids wore gloves that way, like her brother, Lisa thought, but she didn’t object. Why would Mrs. Murdock take the time to sew something for her, more or less a stranger?

‘Let me get my basket.’ Mrs. Murdock rose from her perch on the brick ledge of the hearth and bustled off. ‘See if you can guess what that metal thing is for,’ she called to Lisa, words trailing behind.

Sipping the cocoa, Lisa found it rich, made with real milk – not the instant kind from powder and water. Something sweet, a miniature marshmallow, she guessed, lingered on the tip of her tongue. It was half-melted, and she savored the combination of chocolate and sugar.

Settling down once again, Mrs. Murdock lifted a pair of glasses from around her neck and peered through them. ‘Did you figure it out?’

Lisa held up the aluminum, which was light, hefting it in her right hand. ‘Well, it’s something to do with food, I think.’

‘Yes, that’s right!’ Arlene’s mother beamed, as if Lisa had delivered a brilliant solution to a complex problem. ‘Look here: see these wires?’

In the center of the square was a four-sided, box-like structure, its sides tapering as they rose. Slits for air ran across each face horizontally, and at the edges, thick wires descended vertically, then arced out perpendicular before angling back in, forming a tiny shelf before meeting the bottom of the pyramid.

‘See that little ledge?’

Since each side was roughly the dimensions of a piece of bread, Lisa guessed. ‘For toast?’

‘You’re a smart girl.’ Mrs. Murdock pushed Lisa’s long hair behind her ears, preventing it from falling into her eyes, which was how she usually wore it, to shield herself from the gaze of others.

‘When I was a kid, my family used these on camping trips out to Deer Isle. Ever been there?’

Lisa shook her head.

‘Ever been camping?’

Again, she shook her head.

‘That’s too bad. Maybe you can join us this summer.’

A groan rose from the couch.

‘Mom! God! Not camping, please! I never want to sleep on the ground ever again!’ Arlene complained. ‘Ugh! You wouldn’t believe the bugs!’

Though she shook her head, Mrs. Murdock was smiling. Her gray hair descended most of her back in a long sloppy braid. ‘You make it sound like torture, Arlene. I always loved getting out in the woods.’

‘That’s you, Mom. Not me. I like to sleep in a bed, not a sleeping bag. In a room, not a tent.’

Whispering conspiratorially, Mrs. Murdock said, ‘I think you’d like it in the forest under the stars, wouldn’t you Lisa?’

Lisa nodded, picturing herself and Arlene’s mother in front of a campfire, ringed in stones they’d collected earlier, crickets serenading the crackling of embers. Laurie was not there, nor Arlene, which Lisa knew made her vision a fantasy.

‘It belonged to my father,’ Mrs. Murdock said, admiring the toaster, its metal black in various places, glowing in the light of the fire. ‘I thought we could try it tonight. I’ve never used it indoors before, but now is the moment, right? Carpe Diem!’

Another groan ascended from the sofa, followed by more than one snort.

‘Oh my god, Mom. Please stop embarrassing me!’

Lisa heard Laurie giggle, ever the chameleon, now going along with whatever Arlene said, mimicking the girl’s disgust.

But Mrs. Murdock did not appear fazed. She winked at Lisa.

‘Can you sew?’

Lisa shook her head.

‘I’ll show you.’

‘Mom!’ Arlene barked from the couch. ‘Quit it!’

Ignoring her daughter, she said, ‘It’s really easy. First make sure it’s doubled.’ She unspooled some white thread and stuck the end in her mouth. Again she brought the glasses up to her eyes. ‘I have to wear these.’

When she put them on, Lisa saw that the frames of the glasses had been chewed, and they rested lopsided on her nose.

‘Our dog,’ said Mrs. Murdock. ‘I couldn’t keep her away from them. But Buffy’s gone now.’ She sighed. ‘I miss her every day, even though she destroyed everything in this house. But she had a sweet heart.’

After her fifth attempt brought success, the thread secured, she handed another needle to Lisa. ‘Here, you do this one. I’ll sew the right side, and you do the left.’

From time to time, Arlene’s mother added logs to the fire from a basket. Humming, she showed Lisa the best way to attach the ribbon to the wool, using what she called a blanket stitch. ‘You see? It’s easy!’

Immediately, Lisa jabbed her fingertip. A tiny drop of blood appeared. ‘Ow!’

‘You are such a klutz,’ Laurie called. ‘Let me do it.’

‘No, Lisa’s doing just fine.’ Mrs. Murdock smiled encouragingly. ‘Everyone pricks themselves when they start out. I still do.’

Lisa’s stitches were uneven and messy, but when she finished, she felt she had accomplished something important. ‘There.’

‘Well done!’ Mrs. Murdock held the now-attached mittens and ribbon before her, turning them over, examining the results. ‘Are you hungry? Have you eaten anything?’

The ‘fat twin’ was Lisa’s other label. Everyone else in her family was like a blade of grass, long and slender. According to her mother, Lisa had acquired a recessive pudgy gene from her father, who was apparently hated by all, though Lisa was more indifferent than disapproving. She wanted to meet him some day, to see if she resembled him after all. In a fit of rage after his desertion, her mother had ripped up every photograph in which he appeared, forbidding them to speak his name. Supposedly, he now lived in France, married to yet another heiress, with a new slew of children, if Vanessa’s most recent rant was true.

‘No, we ate dinner already.’ Actually, Lisa did want to eat, but she knew how the world regarded fat people claiming hunger.

‘Yes, but then you walked here, right? The roads aren’t cleared, or I would have picked you up.’ Again Mrs. Murdock pushed the hair out of Lisa’s eyes. ‘I bet you worked up an appetite getting here, especially being scared every second that some tree might fall on you. I started for the mailbox this morning but gave up after a huge branch crashed on the sidewalk a few inches away!’

Lisa surveyed Mrs. Murdock. She was chubby, with nondescript clothing, no makeup, and a quick smile. About as opposite from Lisa’s fashionplate mother as a woman could be.

‘Mrs. Murdock, do you work?’ she asked suddenly.

‘Actually, I’m not Mrs. Anything. I’m a professor, and my students call me Doctor or Professor Murdock, but you can just call me Polly. At school, I like using my title, but not at home.’

‘Okay, Polly.’

‘I’ll get some bread, and you’re going to figure out how to use that toaster. We have to be careful, so it doesn’t burn. Let’s stop feeding the fire for a while. Using coals works best.’

When Polly left the room, Lisa stared into the fire, listening to the wood crackle and spit, the sound drowning out the murmurs of her sister and Arlene gossiping about kids in their school, who had smoked what, who was dating whom, etc. Although the twins had a fireplace in their Architectural Digest home, Lisa could not remember it ever being used.

The house was dark except for the glow from the fireplace. Hail now pelted the glass, a fusillade of noise like pebbles against tile, and Lisa felt glad to be inside, here.

Carrying three different kinds of bread in plastic bags, Polly returned. ‘I brought an assortment,’ she said. ‘This little gadget can be very tricky; success depends on the texture of the bread and getting the timing exactly right.’

Before them she spread her offerings: a loaf of cinnamon raisin from the Mennonite bakery, a store-bought whole wheat bread, and finally a box of English muffins, a treat Lisa had tasted in other homes but which her mother refused to buy, because, she insisted, they were more fattening than the skinny bread she preferred.

‘Arlene! Go get butter, cream cheese and the raspberry jam out of the fridge, please. Also knives, plates, and napkins.’

When her daughter sputtered in protest, Polly said, ‘Just do it. Right now.’

At school, Arlene complained incessantly about her mother, though almost everything she mentioned did not seem like a problem to Lisa, as Arlene apparently suffered from an excess of maternal attention, while the twins received none.

All four sat before the fire, which was no longer flaming, though still emanating plenty of heat. The coals evanesced as if animated, lively, gleaming, then suddenly shrank, fading fast from brilliant orange to a dull gray. When Polly turned her head sideways to blow, they responded with fervor.

‘Now, it’s perfect. We’ll experiment with each kind of bread and see what works best.’ Wearing a pair of long asbestos gloves, she perched the empty toaster atop a bed of coals, forming a small plateau, getting it level before removing it.

After removing the gloves, she rested a piece of wheat bread in the niches on one of the four toaster faces. ‘You do the next one,’ she said to Laurie, who took a slice of cinnamon raisin, giggling, and dropped it twice before getting it right. ‘Lisa?’ Lisa opened the English muffin box and separated two halves, placing one on each remaining face. ‘Nicely done. Here goes.’ Again she put on the asbestos gloves and gently set the toaster on the coalbed. After blowing on the embers once more, she sat back on her heels, waiting.

Arlene and Laurie rolled their eyes at one another, Lisa watching. She gazed at Polly, who regarded the fire with anticipation, a smile playing on her lips. ‘My dad loved making toast this way. Sometimes, in the mornings, he’d get up before everyone else and catch some trout to have with breakfast.’

‘Yuck!’ said Arlene.

‘Gross!’ said Laurie.

‘It was delicious,’ said Polly, now allowing a full smile, immersed in reverie. Lisa envied her.

‘Smell that?’ Gloves back on, Polly took the toaster out and asked Lisa to flip each piece of bread before putting it back. The scent of cinnamon, sweet and somehow tart, curled its tendrils into the air.

‘The smell of toast is the best thing in the world,’ Polly said to Lisa. ‘Don’t you think?’

Lisa breathed in, the homey, yeasty smell enveloping her. ‘I agree,’ she said. ‘Let’s make more.’

Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain Voices Award (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction. Her three published volumes of fiction are York Ferry: A NovelLily in the Desert: Stories, and And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family. Annie’s newest publication is a poetry chapbook, ANATOMIE OF THE WORLD, Finishing Line Press, 2017, available on Amazon. Her short stories have been published by Litro, Tube Flash, Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others.