We boiled a fireman alive, seasoned the broth with clumps of chihuahua fuzz, and watched a plastic bag melt in the oven like cheese over two miniature boots coated with panko crumbs. She kissed her fingers, inhaling a whiff of toasted Ziploc.
“Freshmen medley. Say it, Carmen. Freshmen Medley. It’s my personal recipe. But we just need a few more ingredients.” Balancing atop a wood stool, Elena stirred the pot above the blue flames of the stove.
“Wait for Auntie Itzel, Carmen.” When Elena leaned forward and the wooden legs lifted off the tile floor, I wrapped my arms around the stool, screaming as if trying to anchor a cargo ship in the middle of a storm, but it was only my sister.
Frantically sprinting laps around the leather couch, tattered with its innards exposed, our brother yapped. “The precincts caught fire! The precincts caught fire! I need him! It’s all wrong. The smoke break’s gone haywire!”
“Sorry, he’s currently at the bottom of something.” Elena sampled a ladle of broth from the pot. “Your green troopers will have to make do.”
“Without their shoes? Give it back!” He bungled a somersault, skating over tiles in the kitchen’s grid of grout, before slamming his nose into the glowing oven door. I held onto the legs of the stool as it rocked from the impact. The pot rattled as it slowly tipped over and disgorged a wave of broth, dousing my brother. From the holes in his socks, his stubby six-year-old toes glowed like glistening cherries. It wasn’t pretty. The second-degree burns, I mean, which were shuffled around the couch as he squealed for momma and poppa.
Elena scaled down the stool, “First, it was a fireman. Next, you’ll be squeaking for a doctor, right?” I laughed at my reflection, watching the puddle of broth expand as vapor lifted off the floor. “Mateo!” But Elena wouldn’t let the accident go, chasing after him. “Squeak again, I dare you. You ruined our medley!” When Elena brandished the spatula with a denizen of Lego City lodged into its center slit like a nail at the end of a wood plank, I ran to pull Elena’s arm back from taking a swing at Mateo. The dogs barked, diving off the couch to join us in laps around the living room. But Mateo suddenly halted, causing Elena to collide with him from behind. Unable to redirect my momentum, I leapt over them, crashing like a foldable chair against the wall. The dog stole a taste of my tongue as it thrashed to announce my pain. But Mateo fell silent, listening to the footsteps that ascended the stairs outside. A key turned the lock of the apartment’s front door.
Elena yanked me upright like a ragged cloth. “Clean it, quickly!” But when Elena slipped across a puddle of broth to seize a towel, a gust of wind introduced a shadow, looming over us from the doorway. A sliver of sunset limned hares of suspended dust that speckled the space. Smoke wafted inside as Auntie Itzel took a drag of menthol. “When I called from school, and you didn’t answer, I assumed you were dead. Faulty intuition, I guess.”
“If Mateo didn’t go ruin it! You would have been right on time to sample the base for some freshmen medley for your first day.” Elena pointed at Mateo, who was seated back on the couch, already zoning out at the TV.
I reached overhead to pull on Itzel’s hand, “I’m hungry.” From the highest cupboard, Itzel grabbed a bag of tortillas and threw it to me. After tearing it open with my teeth, I munched on the uncooked stack, sitting on the couch’s arm. But as Elena ran to join us on the couch, Auntie Itzel dropped a towel over Elena’s head.
“How do you think leaving a mess sets an example for them? What if you had kids, Elena?”
Elena paused before responding, “We’re eight.”
“And Elena, you’ve got twenty seconds over them.”
“How you know that?”
Auntie Itzel ashed the flame in a can where the filters protruded from the aluminum lip like the stamen of a hypericum in full bloom. “My mom. She watched it, all twenty seconds. Now get cleaning! Your folks should be back from the central valley sometime tomorrow.”
“But we made it for you. You told us how to make the base for freshmen medley. Sample it, please! You need to celebrate your first day of high school, please.”
“How about you tell me when you got something to make this day finally end, or when senior salmagundi is on the menu.”
“Fine.” Elena pouted.
“But that’s in four years!” Itzel didn’t guffaw for long. After Elena lifted a pair of tongs, pinching a morsel of melted boot, she climbed onto the stool and rammed the tongs down Itzel’s throat. Naturally, it didn’t go down smoothly. A tooth ricocheted against the ceiling before plinking the aluminum ashtray. A deluge of black ash and brown filters spilled between carpet strands. The tongs hit the tile floor. A swing sent Elena toppling off the stool with a shriek. The metal tongs subsequently cushioned her fall. Drops of carmine expanded across the puddle of broth on the floor. Itzel raised her fist again when a door suddenly slammed. Itzel spun around, but Mateo and I were on the couch with the mutt, pretending to focus on the TV.
“Who the—” Itzel cautiously checked the hallway, before noticing that the bathroom door had opened ajar since her arrival. She glanced back at us, but we didn’t share the same confused look. After sliding into the bathroom, she yanked the shower curtains. There was a sigh of relief, interrupted by a gasp as Auntie Itzel peered into the tub at something peculiar.
“When did you guys afford to buy so many toys, Jesus.” She inspected the twenty or so plastic bags, which were the ones large enough to hold cuts of meat in an industrial freezer, filled with video game cases and toys and plushies that any kid could ask for. From the couch, I could hear her voice quaver as if suddenly overcome with this poignant nostalgia. “I loved this one.” She recognized its hair ombré, fishing in the bag for a doll that reminded her of years elapsed. The elation didn’t last long. After blinking in disbelief, she turned over the doll to see that its face had weathered with senescence. Its eyes lusterless. Its hair dyed to hide the thinning. Its taut skin gone, now draped in wan curtains of rubber. Panicking, she stripped the doll of its miniature clothes, exposing its anatomy. It was a vision of Itzel’s future. The door swung open.
“Elena!” Itzel dropped the doll before feigning an excitement that she knew even a child could understand. “Have you seen this? It’s a miracle, Elena! You deserve all of this, take—” Itzel fell into the tub and screamed.
Wearing a chef’s toque, an apron, and a rubber mask that resembled how Itzel initially remembered the doll’s face, Elena slammed the door and turned the lock.
I groused from the couch, “Elena! I’m hungry, how much longer?”
Examining Itzel’s bleary eyes with a carving fork held by the waistband of her pajamas, Elena instructed me from the bathroom. “Repeat it, Carmen. Freshmen medley. Fresh—” Elena punctured and gutted the bags before mixing the ingredients in the tub. “Well, all we have now is medley.”
From San Jose, Connor Lee McLean has creative non-fiction in Catamaran and fiction in 3:AM Magazine.