We arrived at a quarter past three and began making preparations. Alice took an old book off of a shelf and opened it up.
“This is my grandfather’s cookbook,” she said, smiling as she looked over the scrawled instructions.
I looked over the book. It was quite thick, and the pages were filled with notes and scribbled illustrations. It made me think of the sorts of books that you hear wizards use. I supposed cooking was a sort of wizardry…
“What was he like?” I asked. “Your grandfather?”
“Well, he was very tall,” said Alice, placing the book on the counter. She began to flip through the pages. “He always smelled of candy. He taught me a lot about baking, actually. I remember one day when I was trying to make biscuits, and… I asked him to try one. He did, and he told me they needed work. I was disappointed at the time. It hurt to hear that from someone I loved, especially since I had tried my hardest. But then he offered to help me make a new batch, and he showed me where I went wrong before.” She tilted her head to one side. “I think about that day often.”
“So that’s why you cook so well now?” I asked, hopping up to sit on the countertop.
“Oh, I don’t think I’m that good,” she said, stepping back from the counter. “I’m just following the instructions, that’s all.”
I looked down and played with my fingers. “I really enjoyed breakfast this morning…” I said.
“You did?” asked Alice. She smiled brightly. “I’ll cook for you whenever you like!” she said.
My eyes widened. “You will?!” I asked.
She laughed. “Of course,” she said.
Alice took a large yellow bowl from a cupboard and began adding in flour, sugar, and the like, measuring each with precision. I mixed the ingredients together, then we played cards while we let the dough chill. Once the timer went off, we rolled out the dough together.
“This is more work than I expected,” I said. My arms were getting tired.
“Few things are worth pursuing that don’t require much effort,” said Alice.
“What?” I asked.
“Good things don’t come easily,” she explained. “You have to work very hard if you want to achieve your goals.”
“Alice?” I asked. “What do you want to do?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, stopping to look at me.
I blushed. “I-I mean, what do you want to do after… after we put the pie in the oven?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Alice. “What do you like to do in your spare time, Mary?”
“Oh, um… I… spend a lot of time outside,” I said. “Sometimes I try to catch bugs. There’s a lake not far from my house,” I said. “It’s quiet there. Sometimes I bring my sketchbook with me and I draw the things I see.”
“Like what?” She tilted her head to one side.
“Flowers, insects… Trees, birds, and stuff like that,” I responded.
“Really? What is it about them that attracts you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just like them.”
The late-afternoon sun shone through a nearby window, illuminating the dust particles that danced in the air. Alice reached across the counter to get some more flour, and as she did so, she crossed the beam of light, causing her bright red hair to glow vividly. I watched with a strange fascination. Her rigid posture and elegant clothing made her look something like royalty.
“What is it?” she asked, laughing.
I turned away. “N-nothing,” I said. “I was just thinking… Y-you remind me of a princess I saw in a book one time. She had red hair, and it was long, like yours.”
She frowned. “Do I?” she asked, taking her hair in both hands and smoothing it out.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she replied. She lowered her head, continuing to roll out the dough.
A moment of silence passed.
“I-I like your hair,” I said, fumbling with my fingers. “I didn’t mean anything bad—”
“Oh! No, it wasn’t you, I—” Alice looked flustered. “I shouldn’t have reacted that way, I apologise. Come on, we need to fill the pie now.”
She lined a dish with the dough we made, pressing it round the edges to make it even. She lifted one of the baskets of strawberries up onto the counter, spreading some out in front of us.
“Ready to cut them?” she asked.
I stole one and popped it into my mouth. “Mmhmm!” I responded, taking a knife and starting to slice the berries. It took longer than I expected, since we needed so many of them. We filled up the space left in the dish with strawberries, then cut some of the remaining dough into strips and layered them across the top. Alice put it into the oven, and wound her timer.
“Now we wait,” said Alice, smiling with satisfaction. We sat at the counter for a total of twelve seconds before I interjected.
“I’m bored,” I said, resting my head on my arm.
“Why don’t you enjoy sitting here for a while?” Alice asked.
“Because that’s boring,” I replied. I thought for a moment, and turned to her.
“What do you like to do when you’re bored?” I asked.
“I like to read,” she answered immediately.
“Oh…” I said.
“What’s wrong with that?” she asked.
“There’s no pictures,” I said.
Alice laughed. “You like pictures, don’t you?” she asked. “They mean something special to you?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“I-I’d like to see your sketchbook some time,” said Alice. “If you would be kind enough to allow me to, that is.”
“I don’t really like to show it to people,” I said.
“Oh,” said Alice, looking down. “I’m sorry, I won’t ask again.”
“W-what kinds of stories do you like to read?” I asked.
Alice looked up. “I read all nearly everything,” she said. “Fairy-tales, Jules Verne is one of my favourite author actually… I like adventures. I like fiction best. It’s almost like visiting another world, or… Visiting another time that you could never go to in real life.”
I hadn’t heard it put that way before. “That sounds exciting…” I said, raising my head.
Alice giggled. She rested her head on her open hand. “It is. I like to think I’m a part of the story. I can do anything I want or be anything I want to be…” She raised her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, putting her fingers together. “I didn’t mean to go on like that.”
“I-I think you can,” I said.
“What?” she asked, tilting her head to one side.
“You can do anything you want, right?”
She looked at me inquisitively for a moment. “O-of course. Yes. Yes, you’re right.”
I was startled as the timer went off.
“Ah, the pie!” said Alice. She removed it carefully from the oven. The air was filled with a delightful smell that reminded me of the food my mother would bring back from her bakery. I got up from my perch and hopped over to the pie, reaching to snatch a piece of the crust off. Alice moved it away quickly.
“Ah-ah, it needs to cool!” she said. “You’ll burn yourself. We’ll save it for tonight.”
“Fine,” I pouted.
“I think I must be getting tired,” said Alice. “I think I’ll go do some reading now. I’ll be in my study. Would you care to join me?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Please let me know if you need anything, alright?” she replied.
“I will,” I said.
She nodded and left the kitchen.
The sun was almost down. I went upstairs to my room and lied on the bed, my arms outstretched. I stared up at the canopy, my mind empty. After a little while, I sat up and looked out at the sunset. Reds and oranges mixed together in the horizon, the low light turning the incoming clouds a dark purple. I hopped off the bed and took my sketchbook from the drawer beside me, heading out to the balcony for a better look. I worked with an array of coloured pencils, varying the angle and pressure to achieve a more dynamic texture on the page.
My visual reference didn’t last long, as it began to get dark out. I returned to my room, turned on a lamp, and closed the curtains. I sat back down on the bed, resting my sketchbook on my raised knees and flipping back to the hibiscus I drew the day before. I hadn’t noticed before, but I had made some mistakes due to the motion of the train. Maybe I ought to redraw it…
My stomach rumbled. I put my sketchbook away and went down to the kitchen to scavenge for food. It was then that I noticed the pie that sat on the countertop. My eyes lit up, and I hurried straight for it.
Suddenly, I stopped myself, remembering that I hadn’t eaten dinner yet.
The pie would spoil it, you know, I thought. My fingers hovered over the plates, as I weighed my options. I’m sure just… one piece wouldn’t… wouldn’t hurt, right? I put my hand on one of the plates. But no… Hmm, Alice would find out… And she’d be disappointed in me… I heard footsteps and drew my hand back quickly, turning to see my Uncle Ian walked in.
“I’m in the middle of—something,” I said haltingly, before he had a chance to greet me.
“What’s that?” he asked in his typical jovial manner, continuing his stride.
Drat it! “I—I—” I stuttered. “… I wanted to… have some of the pie before dinner,” I mumbled, lowering my head.
“You did?” he asked. He quickened his pace and came to my side, ducking down slightly. He looked around, then back at me. He lowered his voice.
“The coast is clear,” he said, a look of seriousness replacing his usual smile. He took a plate and a knife, and carefully began to cut a sliver from the golden-brown pie. The crust fragmented as the knife went through it. The sweet smell of baked strawberries filled my nose. A smile crept onto our faces as he lifted the piece, a thin layer of fruit welcoming our eager eyes. He set it down gently, taking two forks from the drawer beside him. He gave one to me, grinning.
We each took a piece and held our forks up, brandishing our trophy while we shared a look of achievement. We brought our forks to our mouths, when we heard someone walk in. We froze, turning round. It was Aunt Clara, a stern look on her face. My uncle and I exchanged glances. After a few seconds of silence, we took our prize and bolted out the room. I peeked out from behind the doorway. Aunt Clara stood still, her head slowly falling into her open palm.
I ended up having room enough for dinner. Afterwards, we shared more of the pie, and then I went to my room. I lay on the bed, staring up at the canopy. I thought about our outing in town earlier that day. Alice was so unlike what I remembered. She was… Almost motherly, in a way. She scolded me like my mother did, at least. Even though we were only a year apart, it felt more like several. It was hard to talk to her.
I began preparing for bed, and remembered what Alice had said during lunch. I tried to recall as many details as I could about my friends from school, about their lives and habits. It was harder than I had expected. I could remember most of their names, maybe a few things they liked to do… Alice told me to get to know their stories. I understood what she meant, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. You don’t just ask someone for their life story. Besides, it would be boring to listen to someone chatter for hours. I’d rather be doing something fun.
I heard a light knock on the door. I ran over and opened it, and saw Alice standing in the doorway, wearing a lavender nightgown.
“Mary, come out to the balcony, I have something to show you!” she said, taking my hand and pulling me along before I could say anything.
We walked out into the cool night air. Through the clouds, we saw shooting stars streaking through the dark night sky. I looked at Alice. Her eyes sparkled, her whole face lit up in awe. She closed her eyes and clasped her hands together. After a moment, she opened them, then glanced at me.
“Go on, make a wish,” she said.
I was a little embarrassed. I looked up at the sky again. After a moment, something came to mind. I closed my eyes for a moment.
“What did you wish for?” asked Alice, after I opened my eyes.
“I-I can’t tell you, or it won’t come true!” I said.
“I suppose you’re right,” she replied.
We sat on the balcony in silence, watching the stars together. Alice began to hum a song. It was a slow melody, a simple one that made me want to sway back and forth as I listened. After a moment, she looked at me, and stopped humming, a look of embarrassment on her face.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, I liked it!” I said.
“You did?” asked Alice. “It was… It was a song my grandfather taught me. He taught me all sorts of old Scottish songs.”
“He taught you a lot of things, didn’t he?” I asked.
Alice blushed. “He did. I miss him…” She took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.
“Can you sing it again?” I said.
“Oh…? A-alright.” She began to hum once more.
I rested my head on her shoulder. Her hair was soft. I closed my eyes as I listened. As I did so, I imagined an old forest filled with tall trees and sparkling streams. Little white orbs floated everywhere, making the whole place feel magical. I wondered what sorts of things might live in a place like that. Maybe fairies, or elves, or maybe a talking owl…
I smiled as my mind created this little scene from Alice’s song. Nestling deeper into her arms, I drifted off to sleep.