Nothing’s Wrong [Short Story]

The fragrance of fresh bread woke Thomas up one morning. He leaped out of bed excitedly, knowing what the smell signified. It meant that Uncle had come for a visit.

Thomas was six years old, and he could tell, with the instinct that all young children share, that his father liked Uncle a lot, but that his mother didn’t, even though Uncle was her brother. Thomas didn’t know why his mother didn’t like Uncle, but he sensed that it had to do with Uncle being a baker. He thought that maybe bakers weren’t as good as bankers, which is what his mother was. Thomas thought that being a baker was much nicer; Uncle wore comfy clothes and always smelled good, whereas Thomas’s mother always complained about her pantyhose and put too much perfume on.

Uncle was tall and skinny, but this morning, when Thomas went downstairs, he thought that Uncle had become like Flat Stanley, the flat boy that they were reading about in school. The illusion passed, and Thomas realized that it was only that Uncle looked even thinner than usual. He looked gaunt, although Thomas didn’t know that word, and he looked worn out and weary, more words that Thomas didn’t really understand.

“Morning, Tom-Tom.”

“Hi! What’s wrong, Uncle?”

“Drink your milk. Eat. We don’t want you to be late for school.” Thomas’s mother pushed a plate of eggs and a glass of milk at him without looking at Uncle at all. Then she swept right out of the room again, and Thomas and Uncle looked at each other as they hear Thomas’s parents yelling at each other upstairs. Uncle got up and checked on the bread in the oven. Whenever he came to visit, he’d let himself in very early and would bake fresh bread that would be ready for the family’s breakfast when they awoke.

“Here you go,” Uncle said, pulling the bread-pan out of the oven. He cut a thick, still steaming slice, and put it on Thomas’s plate. “Eat up.”

Thomas wasn’t going to give up on his question, though. “What’s wrong, Uncle?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Uncle smiled.

In the car on the way to school, Thomas asked his mother the same question. “Nothing,” she said. “Why? Has Uncle said anything?”

That evening, Thomas tried again. He went into the bathroom where his father was drying off after a shower and began to swing from side to side while holding the doorknob.

“Stop that, you’ll break it,” his father said, without much conviction. Thomas kept swinging.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Well. What did Mommy tell you?”

“Nothing.”

“And Uncle?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh dear. That must mean that whatever’s wrong, it’s a big deal. Listen, bub, you and I – we shouldn’t get involved, okay?”

“Okay,” Thomas said. But when he went to bed that night, he couldn’t help feeling scared by what his father had said. It sounded like his father didn’t know what was wrong either. If nobody knew what was wrong, then what would happen now? For the first time in months, Thomas had nightmares and wet the bed.

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The Baker

The Baker had been known for years as just that: the Baker. Some knew his name, of course, but most didn’t. He didn’t mind. Being a baker was his pride, his profession and the thing he loved most, and he was pleased to be so well known amongst the others of his trade so as to be the only man called The Baker in the whole market. He knew he was a good baker. Little girls begged their papas to buy his cinnamon rolls, boys filched their mama’s coins so as to get a raisin filled treat, youths brought their blushing young ladies to his stall for a warm apple turnover to share on wintry days, and the poor, eyes wide with hunger and bellies swollen, came to his back door for the many loaves of stale bread that he would have leftover at the end of each week. The Baker was a warm-hearted man, and always made too much bread – accidentally, of course.

He awoke every day of the week before the sun had even risen. He liked to work that early, because the mornings were cool enough so that the sweltering hot oven didn’t make him sweat too much at first as he began to heat it up for the long day. He had different assistants over the years – some stayed and some left. They all left in the end, though, to marry, to have children, to open their own stall or to change trades entirely. The Baker stayed constant, and could never envision doing aught different.

When he had been a child, he’d been rail-thin. He had been the kind of boy who had arms as thin as sticks, a belly-button that puckered out because his stomach was so flat, and ribs that seemed to almost poke out. As he grew, his thin arms developed muscle and his belly rounded a little, all while helping his uncle in kitchens of the big house they lived in. His uncle taught him to bake. Not to cook, no, the Baker never enjoyed cooking meals, but he loved working with any and all kinds of dough, and he became good at it. When his uncle died and the rich family they worked for kicked him out, he’d found work at a smith, as an assistant. It was his strong arms, muscled with constant kneading of dough, that had gotten him that job. He worked, and worked and worked some more, hating the smell of burnt metal and hot coal and the mixed, unpleasant scent of sweat-soaked leather aprons and smoke. But the Baker worked, and when he’d saved enough coin, he opened his bakery stall in the market, as far from the smithy as possible.

He stayed, and his stall grew, and his rolls and pastries and cakes became known, and he became a real baker, The Baker. He never knew aught else – for even as a servant boy and later an assistant smith, he was always thinking of the way clean flour looked on a wooden board and the way dough felt in his hands and the the way a freshly baked loaf would be just that perfect shade of golden-brown. He never knew aught else, and he would never do aught different, not if it were up to him.