When Mrs. Phillips answered her door, she was wiping flour from her hands onto a soft pink apron, tied around her waist.
It was just a few days after I almost killed my baby brother and the first time I talked to Mrs. Phillips by myself. Hopefully she’d buy one of the raffle tickets I was selling for my fifth-grade class.
Mrs. Phillips smiled as she stepped into the sunny light of her front porch, the aroma of fresh baked bread following her from behind the screen.
She said, “Yes, she’d buy a raffle ticket and then I said, “That smells good, Mrs. Phillips.”
“Do you like to bake, honey?”
I loved to bake.
I heard Mrs. Phillips telling me that she baked every week and when I didn’t look up at her she coaxed, “Would you like to come back and bake with me next Saturday?”
A picture of a spotless, orderly house floated into my head. I was sure that in Mrs. Phillips’s kitchen the cupcakes wore tiny pleated skirts and the measuring spoons were nestled inside each other and five month old babies didn’t die from spinal meningitis.
I was a ghost floating inside my life while I waited for Saturday to come and when I knocked on Mrs. Phillips’s door my baby brother was still in the hospital.
In the kitchen Mrs. Phillips offered me a small bread and butter sandwich. The homemade bread tasted fruity and chewy. I didn’t really like it, but seeing the little sandwiches waiting for me gave me a warm feeling inside.
I sat at the kitchen table across from a mound of fleshy, stretchy dough, and watched as Mrs. Phillips folded and pounded on it. Pointing to a bowl on top of the refrigerator, she told me the dough up there was almost raised enough to go into the oven.
But I could hardly pay attention to her. My mind was full of scary thoughts about my brother. When Mr. Phillips handed me a loaf of just baked bread, in my mind she turned into my mother the night she came home from the hospital with a new baby.
“Here, take him,” my mother had said, putting a little bundle in my arms. “He’s your new brother, Tony. We named him Anthony Joseph after your grandfather.”
I walked over to the sofa and sat down, the new baby smell like a cloud around me.
Then I wasn’t on the sofa anymore and it was Mrs. Phillips asking me something.
“What do you like to bake, Carmelene?”
I began to tell Mrs. Phillips about the biscotti we baked at my house.
“My mother doesn’t use a recipe for biscotti, though Mrs. Phillips. She makes biscotti the way her mother made them. There’s no recipe written down.”
I felt confused and a little ashamed, like I should have known what the recipe was. That was how I felt that day with Tony, like I should have known something I didn’t know.
“You should’ve never made me take him to Lake Arrowhead!” My mother was standing in our living room yelling at my father. “That’s how he got sick!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Clara. He didn’t get spinal meningitis from the mountains!”
“Well then what did he get it from, if you’re so smart!”
My father turned his back like he couldn’t answer her.
I could have answered her, but I didn’t. The guilty words were trapped behind the pounding of my heart.
Through my nightmare daydream I kept hearing Mrs. Phillips’s talking. “You’ll have to get me the recipe for biscotti, Carmelene.”
I kept my body in her kitchen, but I couldn’t keep my mind there.
Tony had begun to run a fever as we started back down the mountains from Lake Arrowhead.
When we got home I helped my mother rub him down with alcohol. She said that would cool him. Afterwards she fixed him a bottle but he wouldn’t take it. He just got hotter and hotter.
He cried all through the night and nothing could make him stop. The next morning my mother had to go to work. I stayed home with Tony, changing him and trying to feed him. I sang to him and rocked the crib. He was still miserable and fretful.
Nothing I did made him feel any better.
“Don’t pick him up,” my mother had said. “He’s too sick for you to be handling him. Just stay by him and keep him company, I’ll be home for lunch to check on him.”
I couldn’t stand Tony’s crying, it made me hurt inside. I stood over the crib and thought about how much he liked to nuzzle his head on my shoulder with his thumb in his mouth. It had always made him stop crying before. I picked him up and tried to put him over my shoulder.
That was when he screamed.
It was a piercing scream like a wild monkey, not like a baby. I almost dropped him back down into the crib. He couldn’t really have screamed like that. Babies don’t scream like wild animals.
I couldn’t believe what I heard and had to pick him up again to be sure. That time he didn’t stop screaming even when I put him down and when I looked into his awful face, I saw the soft spot on top of his head bulging as big as the bread dough on top of Mrs. Phillips’s refrigerator. Something was wrong.
I ran to the phone and called my mother at work. I didn’t tell her about me picking Tony up or about making him scream, but I did tell her he was still crying and he still had a fever. I told her how purple the veins on his forehead were and how red his face was and how his soft spot was bulging way out of his head.
By the time my father got to the house, Tony wasn’t crying or screaming at all. He wasn’t making a sound. He was just laying on his back, with his eyes half closed. My father looked into the crib. Tony’s head was all swollen.
I sat in Mrs. Phillps’s kitchen watching her knead the bread. No matter how hard she pushed on that soft spot in the center of the dough, it kept coming back up again.
Tony had been in the hospital for a long time when I decided to make Mrs. Phillips’s recipe for peanut butter cookies.
Every day my mother would come home from the hospital exhausted and sink down onto the sofa in our living room to sleep for a few hours before she went back. I thought I would surprise her with the cookies. While I was mixing the ingredients, I began to eat the raw peanut-buttery batter.
I’ll just have one more bite. I kept eating the raw batter and kept imagining Tony in a plastic bassinet not moving, not crying, just laying there like he was made of plastic, too. I pushed small globs of dough onto the cookie sheet the way I had seen Mrs. Phillips do it.
Here Tony, want to taste it? Waving his arms the way babies do, he reached back to me. I ate and ate the cookie dough, trying not to picture Tony or the bubbling tube of fluid attached to his ankle. My father had explained they couldn’t find a vein big enough anywhere else, so they put the needle in his ankle.
“Tony’s so sick they’re giving him the same amount of this new antibiotic they would give a horse. They have to, there’s nothing else they can do. They don’t expect him to make it.”
I saw my father’s face twist and crumble as those horrible words fell from his mouth.
“Don’t say that!” My mother put her hands over her ears and ran into the bedroom. If she couldn’t hear what he said, it couldn’t come true.
I ate so much raw dough I vomited into the toilet. I never did finish making the cookies.
The next time I went to Mrs. Phillips’s house she was baking an Angel Food cake for her husband.
“Angel Food cakes are hard to make,” she explained. “Until I got really good at it, I only had a fifty-fifty chance of getting them to rise.”
“Fifty-fifty chance.” That’s what my father had said about Tony.
“Your brother has survived so long he’s been upgraded to a fifty-fifty chance.” My father’s face seemed happy, but I could tell that he was anxious, too.
“What’s a fifty-fifty chance?” I asked Mrs. Phillips.
Tony was in a place called Children’s Hospital. I hated that name. Children shouldn’t have to have hospitals named after them.
My dad had snuck me in to see Tony, and as I walked up to the window of the nursery I noticed my reflection in the glass. It scared me to see myself there and it scared me to see Tony there. He was thin and looked shrunken since the last time I had seen him.
I looked up at my father standing next to me and watched as he tapped his finger on the window, trying to get a response from Tony. My father leaned forward into the glass like he wanted to reach right through it and pick up his son. He took his car keys out of his pocket to make a louder noise.
“Look, Tony, Carmelene’s here.” Tap. Tap. Tap.
Nothing happened. The hallway floor vibrated beneath my feet.
My dad tapped again.
Then he turned to me, “Here, Carmelene. You try.”
I took the keys and jangled them against the glass.
“Tony, look. It’s me, Carmelene.”
Again, nothing but the hum of the hospital and the sound of the keys and the sound of me and my father waiting.
Once more, I lifted the keys and jangled them.
“Did you see that!”
I had seen it. Tony had moved his head. It was just a little movement, but he had moved his head in the direction of the keys.
“What’s it mean, Daddy?”
“Don’t stop jangling the keys, Carmelene.” I could hear my father’s breathing. “It means Tony’s coming out of the coma. It means he’s not gonna die. He’s gonna live!”
A few days after my parents brought Tony home from the hospital I walked over to Mrs. Phillips’s house to bring her some biscotti.
“How’s Tony doing, Carmelene?”
We sat in Mrs. Phillips’s red and white kitchen where I had watched her punch down the bread dough so many times before.
I put the package of biscotti on the table in front of me and looked at it dumbly, noticing how the corners of the waxed paper were neatly folded under. Slowly, I began to tell Mrs. Phillips about Tony.
I told her everything.
My mouth just kept moving. I told her about bulging soft spots and needles in the ankle and doses big enough to save horses. I told her about comas and deafness and brain damage and finally I told her about how I had gone against my mother’s instructions and made Tony scream by picking him up.
I never took my eyes off the red table. I just told it all out like I was telling a recipe. Mrs. Phillips sat and listened to me. When I was done the only thing I heard was the small ticking of the clock over the refrigerator.
“Thank you, Mrs. Phillips.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I got up to walk to the door.
That was when Mrs. Phillips put her arm around me. She’d never done that before. She smelled good and her arm around me felt strong and warm.
“You know, Carmelene,” Mrs. Phillips spoke in my ear in a soft and perfect voice, “I was thinking,” we took a few steps together toward the doorway, “it’s a good thing you did what you did with Tony. If you hadn’t picked him up like that and made him scream, he probably would’ve just laid there in his crib and nobody would’ve found out how sick he was until it was too late.”
That night, as I lay in bed, I thought about Mrs. Phillips, the words she said to me playing back in my head.
Some day I would bring Tony over to Mrs. Phillips’s house and let him sit on my lap while we watched her knead bread dough. He would like that. I saw Tony wave his arms at Mrs. Phillips while she punched down sticky, stretchy white dough into a fragrant loaf.
I reached across the table and unwrapped the package I had brought and we all three sat around the table while I fed a biscotte to my baby brother.
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock