He could smell his mistake even before he opened the toaster oven door. The stench of burnt toast wafted toward his nose along with a wave of heat that fogged his glasses. The top side of the bread was dark brown, almost black, against the red hot glow of the heating rods. The crust looked crisp and flaky like the peeling bark of the maple trees that grew in the front yard. He sighed, then reached for the bread drawer. His hand hit plastic packaging, but nothing else. He looked down to see only a single heel inside the clear plastic, no hotdog buns or English muffins either. He stood there for a moment, one hand still holding the handle to the toaster oven, and the other resting on the bag.
He wished she hadn’t left.
He coaxed the burnt toast out of the oven with a clean butter knife and added them to the two plates he had taken from the cupboard. The toast shed little bits of char from their corners when they made contact, leaving dusty black spots on the otherwise sparkling white plates. This will have to do.
He spooned a glob of sloppy joe onto each and was about to top them with a slice of cheese before he remembered that Jamie didn’t like cheese, so he slid the second piece back into the package. Even dark red and brown of the sloppy Joe looked lighter than the blackened toast. This will have to do.
“Girls,” he called out the open window over the sink. “Supper is ready.” He could see the two of them digging in the dirt beneath the treehouse he had built for them from an old wooden deer stand. They glanced up at the house, their little arms in the small hole they had made, dirt up to their elbows. Then they looked briefly at each other before abandoning the hole and running to the house, Annie leading the race with her long legs and Jamie right behind her. They disappeared from his view for a moment when they reached the back door.
He set the plates on the table with two glasses of milk while they washed their hands. Soon they joined him at the table, each sitting in the same chairs they always did, Jamie on the left and Annie on the right. He could see that they hadn’t washed past their wrists so that dust coated their arms and clothes. Jamie looked down at her plate.
“It’s black,” she said as if she had never seen a piece of burnt toast before; perhaps she hadn’t.
“It’s burnt,” Annie corrected, lifting a corner of the bread. He held his breath, praying they would just eat the stuff and move on, but instead two pairs of little eyes just like hers were staring at him.
“It’s okay if it’s burnt,” he tried.
“Why?” Jamie asked, her little face turned up to his.
“Because the burnt part helps your singing voice,” he said, surprising himself. Where had that come from? Annie narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“How?” she asked.
“The charred bits work out your vocal cords so that they get stronger.”
Annie looked down at the toast, considering it as if it were something new and foreign to her. He could see the gears turning in her head, measuring his words against what she knew, or thought she knew about the world. Eventually she looked up at him, seeming at last to find logic in his nonsense. Maybe she was still young enough to believe he had all the answers. She took the top piece of toast and smashed it onto the melted cheese and filling. Taking her cue from Annie, Jamie followed suit.
Later that night he heard them singing a song that their mother used to sing to them before they went to sleep. Their voices were lovely, just like hers.