The maroon kitchen counter top looked nothing like Mrs. Simpson normally left it. My tender footsteps on the dark gray tile floor crunched beneath the dropped cups of brown sugar. Egg shells sprinkled the sink and an empty milk jug rested on its side next to the garbage. I slipped off my flip flops and headed for the living room where I heard Heather Simpson crying. Her sniffles drowned out my brown sugar walking trail.
I rubbed Heather's back to let her know I was there. She lifted her head off the couch armrest and gave me a hug. The hug transferred some kitchen contents off her shirt to mine. She let out a frustrated sorry and tried to brush off the shortening blob and liquid stain.
"I knew I couldn't use the oven without help but I wanted to get ready for mom. I can't remember the ingredients. I can't reach the recipe. Everything's wrong!"
Fresh tears washed her second grade cheeks. I hugged her once again.
Living in a Youngstown suburb cul-de-sac full of kids gave me ample babysitting opportunities. Heather Sue Simpson hands down was my favorite. When I told her it was bedtime she immediately fell into her bedroom routine without another prompt. We watched movies like Lizzie McGuire and pretended we were part of the movie too. When Mrs. Simpson told me last Memorial Day she was expecting I was thrilled for the family. I knew they wanted more children and I knew my wallet could use more cash for my upcoming senior year.
As busy as I was with babysitting, family and church my life centered on the high school senior internship with the local newspaper. A favorable experience would enhance my journalism pursuit to Boston University. I needed every dime I could get. Taking Simpson dollars produced guilt because Heather was a babysitter's dream. Yet selfishly I still took their money.
"Hey Heather, what's this stain here? It doesn't seem like water or vanilla."
Heather pulled on her own Kim Possible shirt to look at the round spot in the middle of her chest. She inhaled a dramatic sniff supplemented by a small test lick. She immediately let out an "eewww." Her words quickly spilled.
"Vinegar. I tried so many things to make the cookies like I remember with mom. I tried to dump the bowl in the garbage but it was full. Dad was upstairs getting ready to see mom and Anna. I didn't want to bother him so I tried to take care of everything but"
She stopped speaking and turned to the main living room. Heather traced the family photo frame revealing Anna with a six week old smile.
We tackled cleaning up floors and wiping down counters. I knew it was more than the Simpsons' expected me to do. I felt like it wasn't enough. This was Anna's third hospital visit in six months. Croup came first and Anna nearly died. A month later RSV socked Anna's lungs. Now pneumonia. It didn't seem fair.
Some of the neighbor kids teased Heather one afternoon and announced Anna was going to die. I knocked on head bully Jeff Walker's front door and spoke to his father on that one. While Anna had tubes, machines and an oxygen tent surrounding her, Heather dealt with a revolving door of caretakers. None of us were adequate replacements for her mother.
After clean up I reached for the recipe box. I felt compelled to finish what Heather started. The cookies represented routine and normalcy. Heather's vinegar addition seemed more than a mistake from a young child. Brown sugar is sweet and enjoyable even as a taste off a finger apart from other ingredients. Vinegar? Pretty strong bitter stuff to handle, especially when the baker was seven. The fears Heather never dared voice were taking its toll. The kitchen and failed cookies were her emotions spilled over.
I washed my hands and turned on the oven. Heather's smile erased any thoughts I had of college, money, myself or anything outside the circumstances surrounding the Simpson family. Together we picked out the correct ingredients, read measurements, and poured our hearts out about life as we watched the cookies evolve from dough to our dessert. I know I smiled the entire baking time too and again later when Mr. Simpson tried to pay me.
"I'll just take a cookie for the walk home."
Julie Arduini, http://thesurrenderedscribe.blogspot.com/, is devoted to writing for Christ in ways that encourage and inspire. A graduate of the Christian Writer's Guild, her writing resume is on her blog's sidebar. Happily married to Tom, they have two children.