“Pass the ketchup,” she said softly.
Claire laid on the ground and wondered if this was the last carefree day they’d have as children. The warmth of the day dissipated as the sun began its descent. A bird flew overhead.
Earlier that afternoon, Claire had been lying on her bed, flipping through a magazine, when her brother burst into her room waving a handful of french fries.
He hadn’t knocked. Hadn’t given warning of his entrance. And had no idea who else was in her room.
“What’d you find, pea brain?” Sally, her friend from school, sat below her with a yearbook open in her lap. Her finger lingered on a photo of Angelica Matthews—pigtails, braces, and pair of fishbowl glasses—that they’d both found funny moments before.
“Oh.” Jacob recoiled as the door drifted into her wall with an empty thud.
Claire’s room shone bright with sun from the window. A stack of magazines sat in a haphazard pile at the foot of her bed. The radio DJ announced another commercial-free hour of the best music of today. He hid his greasy fist behind his back. “H-Hi, Sally.”
Jacob’s eyes fell to the ground, tracing the patterns in the floral carpet as they stretched beneath her furniture. He was ashamed of the excitement he’d displayed moments before. Very un-cool. His feet began backing up, shuffling to the exit.
“N-nevermind, Sally,” he said.
Sally flipped to the next page in the yearbook, chewing gum from side to side. The fuzzy beginning of the Flaming Lips’ “Bad Days” purred out of the speaker.
“No, c’mon. You’ve got our attention now,” she said. She cracked the gum in her mouth. “What is it?”
Claire pretended not to care. She flipped the page of her magazine, imitating her friend’s movements. A model strutted across the page wearing an oversized blazer as a dress. Her eyes gazed off-page, bored and disinterested. Was this what it meant to be cool?
Claire glanced up at her brother, a pleading look in his eyes.
Her voice came out soft and detached. She hoped it sounded calm and too old to care.
Sally gazed up at her.
Shadows unraveled on the carpet. A lawnmower buzzed across the street. Jacob shifted his feet back towards the door.
“C’mon,” she added turning a page in the magazine again. “He’s my brother.”
Sally shut the yearbook and tossed it aside. It hit the stack of magazines and they collapsed, fanning out across the floor.
“Whatever,” she said.
She uncrossed her legs and stood. “I gotta get home anyway.” Sally brushed off her pants, as if dusting off sand from the beach. “See you.”
She was in the hall before Claire could reply.
“See ya,” she echoed anyway.
Claire kept her eyes on the magazine, listening to the thud of Sally’s descent downstairs, the opening of their screen door, and the whining of its joints until it shut with a click.
“Sorry, Claire.” Jacob shifted his gaze to the window behind her.
“Bad Days” faded into “Don’t Stay Home” by 311.
Always butting into their conversations. Always lost in his imagination. Sometimes unable to tell the difference between reality and things in his head. But she still loved him.
“Don’t worry about it. We weren’t up to much anyway,” she said, closing the magazine and tossing it towards the collapsed stack on the floor. “What’d you find anyway?”
Her brother smirked with excitement. He brought his hand forward and opened his fist. The french fries lay limp in his palm. They looked wet and cold like they’d been rescued from the trash. Salt glistened in the sunlight.
“You’ll never guess where I found these.”
He led her through the forest bordering their backyard. Past the old tree fort they’d built last year and abandoned after a bad thunderstorm. Past the creek they used to jump in, pulling crayfish out of the mud. Up a hill they’d never climbed, steep and rocky. No path, just his certainty at where he was going.
Framed by a canopy of trees lay a golden field shimmering in the wind. Birds and bees flew amongst the crop and she could see why he was so excited by the discovery.
“Yes,” he said. He pulled out a bottle of ketchup. “French fries.”
Every moment they passed a new plant of fast food, fresh from the grill. It all smelled delicious. But they didn’t stop. Their mouths salivated for the salt and grease of those golden fields, longed for the crunch of the bite, the soft inside of french fries.
She dove face-first into the field, the plants tickling her as she slid to a stop. She lay there, the buzz of the bees and the shadow of clouds drifting past her, the last of summer falling away.
Claire felt a little sadness as she opened her eyes, her brother’s imagination evaporating as she remembered where they were. The field behind Old Man Joe’s, empty and yellow, like french fries fresh from the fryer.
Jacob didn’t seem to notice. He pulled strand after strand out of the ground, pitching them into his mouth. Did he really believe that he’d discovered a magical french fry land right outside their backyard? Or was he just playing, grasping at the last days of an untroubled childhood?
She grabbed a small plant near her neck. The top edge frayed into whisps like grain. A long weed, probably. Maybe a species of grass.
A bug buzzed above her. The sun peeked through the clouds. Her brother laughed in celebration.
She licked her lips, imagining the strand of grass salted and greasy.
“Pass the ketchup,” she said softly.