we still do not own an oven
On the day a man with a sad face dressed as a patient lumberjack carved a hole into our kitchen and dragged our oven outside into his Goliath truck, my sister told me she wanted to learn how to bake.
“Ness,” I hiss-whispered as the lumberjack man—who now had traces of white powder on the edges of his brown beard—carted away the fronts of our kitchen cabinets. All our bottled spices, sticks of unused butter, old coffee mix, and abandoned water bottles were stripped bare; my parents averted their eyes, and I almost wanted to tell them to clean their messes before they asked us to clean our rooms, but I had a younger sibling to deal with. “If you haven’t noticed by now, we don’t have an oven.” Being practical with Ness worked wonders; one couldn’t treat younger siblings as beings with emotional depth to their lives. They were too young.
I had half an urge to remind her that all plans and schedules stalled because a younger sibling somewhere in the world was making a fuss about dinner’s being cold or the bubblegum lollipops’ running out or their lives’ being so unfair that they rolled out of bed and hit their heads on their nightstands. Instead, I watched the lumberjack man wipe his sweaty face with his neon-orange gloves, proceeding to clap his hands at the cloud of dust veiling the mess that was our kitchen. Then, I gestured at Ness. “See? You can’t learn how to bake right now.”
“Qyrine,” she started, faltering at my soft grip on her delicate, snappable wrists. Her small hands clenched into smaller fists. I released my hold in an abrupt motion, taking a step away from her and intertwining my fingers behind my back. The kitchen tile grew hotter every second, and my feet twisted inward so my toes could touch. “I don’t get out of my comfort zone.”
The lumberjack man left the dust alone and our front door opened, so we could hear the faint sputters of his monster truck begin to start up. I let my jaw loosen, comforted by the fact that soon the hole in our kitchen would be masked by a makeshift brown curtain we’d bought from Amazon. “Oh,” I mouthed, words disintegrating on the roof of my mouth; I’d neglected wearing my orthodontist-prescribed bands over my neon braces for far too long. Ness waited for more, so I pushed my dust-coated glasses further up the bridge of my slimy, wide nose and spoke at the overfilled kitchen cabinets. “Why don’t you try new things, then? It’s summer. We have all the time in the world.” I didn’t tell my younger sister—lacking in both maturity and height—that her topic of conversation seemed wholly unrelated from the ovenless-kitchen point I was trying to make. The listlessness of the mid-afternoon was making my head ache.
Ness licked her lips, sucking traces of immaterial sugar syrup from her fingers before whispering at the same spot in the wall I was staring at—that part had an emblematic hue to it, off-white compared to the rest of our home, as if it were dusted by a very faint coating of charcoal. “That’s the reason,” she said, knotting her eyebrows and rubbing up and down her arms. “I don’t know why you think everything I do is stupid.”
I followed her as she retreated to our shared room up our plain, uncharacteristic wooden staircase, consisting of a deflated air mattress stained with Cheeto dust on her side. She lost her pillow last week, and neither of us could find it. Ness flung herself onto the mattress, her loose skin rippling against the dispassionate material. “I don’t think everything you say is stupid,” I said, my throat burning. The dust was following us. “I just don’t understand you.”
She tried to sigh and ended up yawning, her freckles disguised by a mop of brown hair shielding her exasperated face. “I’m about to be thirteen and I’ve never had ketchup.”
“You don’t like ketchup.”
“I don’t know that.”
“Then try it.”
“That’s not the point,” she replied, arms folded across her chest, her voice disappearing into the folds of her straight and thinning hair. I hadn’t realized it was so brown, that our walls were so white. I recalled the day we’d gone to the salon and I’d gotten layers and purple tips, her eyes smarting in the waiting-room chair as my younger sister watched me take another step outside our shared turtle shell.
“Then what is? Nothing you’re saying makes any sense.” At the sight of her blotchy skin and red-rimmed eyes, the lopsided birthmark on her exposed collarbone made fluorescent under the sunlight creeping inside from the slats of our window-blinds, I released the tension from my bony shoulder blades. “Nothing will make sense unless you tell me what you’re feeling.”
I hadn’t realized until now that I despised the color white, and I hadn’t shared this room in a while. The baritone of her voice had changed, somehow. My sister’s name is Ness Smith, I told myself in my head. She doesn’t get out of her comfort zone, and she doesn’t like walking or getting out of bed or doing much of anything.
“Ayeesha is thinking of committing suicide because she isn’t a starfish,” Ness said. My knees wobbled, but I forced myself to tower over her like an abandoned lighthouse.
“Why?” My voice splintered, and I clutched at my throat to right myself; I didn’t know whom this friend was. I’d always thought younger siblings didn’t care much about their social presence.
“Starfish don’t have brains and they can regenerate limbs.” She recited the facts as if they were the plain, unsalted chicken tenders she ordered at the Mexican restaurant across from our home.
“What else?” I found myself asking.
“I would like to be a starfish, if I can’t be a baker.” Considering for a moment, Ness’ face paled. “Don’t tell anyone, please.” I held her secret in my heart. I have a sister named Ness Smith, and she has beautiful hair…
“You are a good friend, but you have to tell her you’re hurting too,” I said. “I’m not good at this thing.” My knees still trembled, and I hesitated before sitting beside her. An electric pulse drummed up between the distance of our flattened thighs.
“You’re not good at getting out of your comfort zone, either, Qyrine.”
I wheezed, the tight laughter fracturing my ribs. “We should try sometime.”
“We should, but you should leave for now.”
“Why?” I rose from the mattress, its exhaustive air stinging my calves.
“You’re trying. And I’m not. And I want to have an oven again—” My younger sister buried her head in my chest and released a torrent of wracking sobs, and at first I drew away at the intimate sensation of snot on a beloved shirt. Then, I returned the favor, and we cried muffled cries until all of our ribs split in even halves, in couplets. Because we had lost our words. We had broken our words, split them on the rocks of our respective cliffs.
After I was sure our reckoning of bittersweet matters had reached its carrying capacity, I wiped the salt trails from my sister’s soft, unblemished cheek and sat upright on our shared deflated air mattress. “There’s stuff we can bake without an oven,” I said, withdrawing my hand and folding it in my lap like a disfigured baby bird.
“Like what?” Ness tilted her head, her delicate, flowering hair grazing her orange tank top, legs folded beneath her. My phone buzzed in its jeans pocket, and I grazed its outer case before wiping my palm on the denim.
“Ingredients?” A small smile fractured her small, round face.
“I can drive now. It’ll be an adventure.”
Flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, milk-of-choice, oil, chocolate chips, and pure vanilla extract. While stuffing the ingredients into my incompetent memory, I’d almost forgotten the meaning of tomorrow.
I figured I’d remember, after the microwave cookies had dissolved in our mouths, Ness had retreated to our room where she sniffled into a nonexistent pillow, and we still did not own an oven. I figured I’d remember when I learned how to ascend our plain staircase and comfort my junior baker.