Happy belated holidays from Writing like a Boss! I trust your celebrations were magical this week, yes?
It’s been almost a year since I announced my 1940s novel, The Girl Who Frosts the Cakes, and I’ve worked on it a ton since then. Shortly after my surprise announcement post, I started my second draft, and now I’m in the middle of the third draft, with at least one more afterward. My goal is to get this novel published before July 2018. If you like cake, history, and the south, you’ll love The Girl Who Frosts the Cakes.
I can tell by the diminutive size of my edits in this draft that my novel is wrapping up. I’m so fired up to finally, after all these months, share an excerpt with you!
Because, as I said, there is still another draft or two after this, this is not the final writing. For all I know, there is a chance none of this will be included in the published novel. But that doesn’t mean this excerpt isn’t copyrighted! I cannot stress it enough: to copy any of this and post it elsewhere without my knowledge is an actual crime! Let’s be nice here, okay? I worked ridiculously hard on this story.
If you want some info before you read over the excerpt, you can read all about it below. After the link is the beginning of the excerpt, and there is no further blog post at the end. If you have some thoughts, the comments are open! Thanks for reading, writer, and happy 2018!
Rosie Fairbanks, though living on the upper story of her family’s Mobile bakery as long as she could remember, wanted nothing to do with cake.
She wasn’t always repulsed by the harmony of moist cake and their infamously oversweet frosting. At least, that’s what she assumed. She couldn’t recall having liked it, but she supposed her constant exposure to cake as a child left her sick of it. She was excused from eating every birthday cake, though the cakes themselves were less of a special occasion for the Fairbanks and the Fujis, who were basically the same family.
Today, for example. The only sign it was Rosie’s birthday was the costly wheel of cheddar they had with breakfast right before opening for the day.
Jack and Arthur Fuji, their favorite and only employees, arrived at a fashionably late eleven thirty. No one bothered chastising them for tardiness anymore.
“Happy birthday, Miss Fairbanks,” Jack said dutifully, bowing mockingly toward Rosie.
Rosie still snacked on her birthday cheese at the table nearest the window. Ignoring her homework left Saturdays monotonous, even on her birthday. For whatever reason, Wednesdays seemed to be their biggest business days. “Thanks.”
“So,” said Arthur, he and his brother both disregarding Aunt Minnie’s shrill calls from the kitchen, “When’re you gonna start working with the rest of us?”
“Chicken,” Jack put in, tearing a chunk of cheese off Rosie’s block.
“I ain’t chicken.” Rosie brushed his hand away from the cheese. “No one’s scared of cake. That’s ridiculous.”
Arthur leaned over the table. “Why else wouldn’t you work?”
“‘Cause the cake is awful.”
The brothers reeled, as though offended. Momma’s thunderously familiar footsteps fell down the stairs, her bird’s nest of a hairstyle bouncing on her broad shoulders. Her long face, permanently frowning, scowled deeper at Jack and Arthur.
“For Pete’s sakes, you two, hop to work. C’mon, get. Minnie needs you.”
But they were on their way to the kitchen before Momma had uttered a word.
“Les is here, innit he?” said Arthur as soon as he could get a word in.
“It’s Saturday,” Rosie reminded him. Leslie had been recruited during the summer to set up for church every Saturday, and for reasons Rosie would never understand, he kept going even when they didn’t need him anymore.
“Hey, hey, hold it! Come back!” said Momma. Jack and Arthur returned. Aunt Minnie’s amused laughter bubbled in the kitchen.
“Haven’t you forgotten to say something?”
Jack and Arthur stared back blankly.
“We already said ‘happy birthday,’ ma’am.” Arthur’s eyes sparkled. “Shouldn’t we be getting to work?”
“Scram.” Momma still frowned, but her eyes were fond. It was something Rosie had always noticed of her – her eyes gave away every emotion.
She heard Aunt Minnie happily give the twins their duties for the day. Momma waltzed behind the front counter, biting her lip, thoughtfully running a pencil eraser down a typed list. Rosie stood up; she had eaten enough cheese to concern a doctor.
“Can I ride to Billy’s?”
“Hm? Oh, yes. Sure. ‘Fore dark?”
“‘Fore dark,” Rosie echoed in return. The door jingled as she pulled it open.
“Tell Missus Fuji hello for – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE NOW?”
Rosie, halfway through the door, started largely. Aunt Minnie yelped and burst from the kitchen at once, mascaraed eyes stretched wide. For a brief moment, yellow light flashed on her back.
“Fire!” she breathed.
Arthur swore loudly in the kitchen. “Where’s the fire extinguisher?”
Momma brushed past Aunt Minnie. Rosie followed suit.
Sure enough, the oven door was wide open on the back wall, spewing lashes of auburn flames. It licked the countertops dangerously, and Arthur rummaged the cabinets while Jack threw bowlfuls of water over the blazes.
Rosie couldn’t tear her eyes from the fire: it flickered with treacherous power and control. Every so often the flames parted to reveal a charred cake in the middle rack.
“Rosie! Where’s the fire extinguisher!”
Arthur slammed the cabinet door. “Help me find it!”
Rosie dropped to her knees to dig through a cabinet stuffed with glassware. Her hands were so shaky she worried of breaking something.
Aunt Minnie’s trill voice broke through. “The cupboards! Mary, the cupboards!”
“I see it, I see it! Jack, more water!”
“The water won’t work,” Rosie yelled. The flames ate at the nearest cabinets. Just as the words came out of Rosie’s mouth, a thin glass cake platter slid onto the tiles. It shattered around Rosie’s legs, but even she didn’t notice.
“Rosie!” said Momma.
“Lord have mercy, her skirt’s caught fire!” cried Aunt Minnie.
Squeals of alarm escaped Rosie. She jumped to her feet. Momma whipped her skirt with a wet rag, which stung her legs more than the fire itself.
Arthur seemed to have found the fire extinguisher at last. The room fell abruptly cold as he sprayed the foam all over the oven, the cupboards, Rosie, and Jack (“Hey! Quit it!”). Momma forced him to stop, so he didn’t “waste” the contents of the extinguisher. The kitchen looked as though there had been a miraculous indoor snowfall overnight. Although, that was more plausible than an outdoorsnowfall.
“Lord have mercy. Oh, your skirt’s ruined!”
“It’s all right,” Rosie said to her aunt, but she couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her tone. Skirts weren’t cheap nowadays, and now hers was blackened around the hem. “I broke the platter.”
“Was it ugly?” Jack’s clothes were completely drenched. Surely, he was cold.
“Prob’ly,” Rosie snorted. Momma clicked her tongue at them.
“Nobody tells Frank.”
Aunt Minnie started washing the foam off the cupboards. They hadn’t been white in years, but the char certainly made them look so.
“I don’t think –” she started.
“Nobody tells Frank,” Momma said again, emphasizing her words more clearly.
“Gosh, that sounds awful.”
“It was.” Rosie’s legs burned just remembering the event. Streamers littered the floor all around the huge dining room table, and a Happy Birthday! banner hung askew on the plain gray wall. Rosie still had half a sandwich on her plate, which Billy Fuji eyed with mild interest. “My skirt even caught fire, and Momma had to slap me with a towel. A wet towel!”
Billy cringed animatedly. Having Jack, Arthur, and Harry as older brothers, Rosie imagined he had felt those stings before. But on another hand, Rosie had seen Billy fill pillowcases with books with the intention of chucking it at his brothers.
“You can have what’s left.” She pushed her plate toward him.
Billy smiled a little. He asked around a mouthful of sandwich, “What started the fire? Or is that a silly question?”
Rosie giggled. “A little. It’s a bakery, after all.”
“It wasn’t Jack or Arthur’s, was it?”
“Don’t think so. Don’t tell my uncle, all right? It’s s’posed to be some secret.”
“Sure.” Billy licked strawberry jam off his finger; the sandwich was history. “Say, you gonna start working at your place now?”
Rosie puffed. “Jack ‘n’ Arthur said the same thing.”
“Well,” Billy snorted, “we’re all kinda expecting it. Wasn’t Leslie your age?”
“That’s different. He was a match at bakin’. My cakes are real crummy.”
“Well. Maybe. But I’m sure there’s something else you can do ‘round the bakery.”
“Work the counter,” said Rosie. “Do Momma’s taxes. And put out fires.”
Billy snickered. “Only if you want to. Maybe you can, I dunno, ice cupcakes or other. Jack says it ain’t that hard.”
“Jack’s frosting jobs are awful, that’s why.” Rosie rattled the ice in her glass.
“Speaking of,” Billy said in a more easygoing tone, “my pop says Jack and Arthur oughta find another job. ‘Cause of money.”
Rosie sighed, tapping her glass with an overgrown fingernail. The ice was starting to melt. “Momma ain’t gonna like that.”
“I reckoned. But hey, once they’ve got enough dough, maybe they’ll come back to the bakery. And when I’m old enough, I’ll come, too.”
“You can come whenever you want. Momma don’t care.”
Billy shrugged lazily. “Too much homework. Next year, maybe.”
Rosie’s next words went unfinished: a toddler, clad in yellow pajamas, crawled out of the hallway. Little Beverly. She had the same plump cheeks and soft olive skin as her sisters, and she was as itty-bitty as her mother. At the suddenness of her appearance, Rosie couldn’t help but laugh.
Mrs. Fuji, a plump woman even shorter than Rosie, came bouncing in the room. Her thin lips stretched into a huge, wrinkly smile; the only face Rosie ever saw on her. She scooped Beverly in her arms.
“I’m sorry, Rosie dear,” said Mrs. Fuji, struggling with the squirming girl. “I can’t seem to control her.” She glanced at the kitchen clock. “It’s getting to be late. When should you be heading home?”
The translation of Mrs. Fuji’s words was, “It’s seven-thirty, and I don’t want to get in trouble with your momma.” Rosie, abiding by tradition, had spent the entire day talking to, and eating with Billy. She had spent some time with his other siblings, but most of them had more interesting goings-ons on the weekend than Rosie and Billy did.
Billy retrieved a gift wrapped in fresh Christmas paper and headed outside with Rosie. After all these years, she still heavily envied the Fujis having their very own backyard. Mrs. Fuji even had a vegetable garden.
The pair took up their bicycles from the shed around back and set off. Into town again, it was eleven blocks to John’s Baked Goods. They climbed off on the corner of Fair Anne Avenue and Church Street, every nook and cranny in the asphalt vividly exposed in the light pooling from the bakery windows.
Billy handed her the gift. It was small, hard, and rectangular: it felt much like a book. On the red-and-green surface read happy birthday, Rosie! in crooked script.
“Mom said to let you open it when you wanted, but. . . .”
Rosie first glanced through the bakery window to be sure she wasn’t in trouble for staying out so late; most of the lights were off, except for those over the counter. Their slight glimmer gave Rosie a clear sight of Momma and Aunt Minnie at a table. It was hard to tell apart the smoke from their teacups and that from their cigarettes. Their lipsticked mouths were moving, but the glass blotted out all sound. They hadn’t noticed Rosie and Billy yet.
Once she was certain she was in the clear, Rosie tore away at the Christmas paper. She was half right – Billy had given her a book, but it wasn’t of the sort she was expecting. The pages laid a faded and soft yellow; completely blank; and the inch-thick cover comprised all the empty book’s weight.
Rosie felt the corners of her mouth turning down. She tried her best to hide it.
“Thank you,” she said. The words sounded papery even to her.
“You’re welcome,” said Billy firmly. It was clear that he sensed her displeasure, but that wouldn’t stop him from being satisfied with it. Rosie tried looking through his smile to find a reason for the gift, but found nothing.
She waited until Billy rode around a corner before slipping inside. Certainly he, of all people, knew the awful significance of this gift.
She disappeared to her bedroom on the second story, after a few “goodnights” and “happy birthdays.” Rosie kept the journal under her sweater until she was safely upstairs.
She had to duck a little as she came in the attic bedroom. The ceilings were too low in some places, even for her. She couldn’t imagine the discomfort Leslie felt, sharing the room with her; he was tall, like Momma.
“How was your little party?”
As though on cue, Leslie appeared in the doorway. He must have come from the church. Rosie hid Billy’s gift behind her back, but she knew it was too obvious.
“Did you have cake?”
She shot him a sour look. Satisfied, Leslie walked past her – she turned so he wouldn’t see the gift behind her back – and sat at his desk. When he wasn’t looking, she dropped Billy’s book on her bed. It bounced twice: puf-thump. Lying there, it looked like a run-of-the-mill sort of book.
“How was church?” said Rosie. She hoped she sounded more nonchalant than she felt.
He shrugged. “So-so. Someone called Thomas joined us, but he didn’t do a lot of talking.” He watched her strangely. He knew her too well. “What’s up?”
He didn’t sound upset, or even puzzled – just exasperated. They both knew if Rosie got into trouble, Momma would then round on him.
“Nothing. You shouldn’t grill me, it’s my birthday.”
Leslie peered as his hand-me-down watch, yawning. “Just for two more hours. Then I’m allowed to grill you all I want.”
“Sure,” said Rosie, her tone bubbling with sarcasm, but he had already turned to whatever books he had piled on his desk tonight. Rosie suspected textbooks. She couldn’t recall a time he wasn’t behind on his homework; especially math and history. Rosie lacked a better grade in English.
She watched his back. He rested his head on his hand; she had difficulty deciphering whether he was asleep, or reading. Regardless, he didn’t seem prone to moving anytime soon.
Rosie took up the journal once again. For a book, it was appallingly ugly in their dim lighting. But she reckoned it would look just as awful in direct sunlight. She grew shaky from the black guilt that spun in her belly. She wished she liked it. She wished she appreciated it. But she just couldn’t.
She glanced once more at Leslie: he snored gently, sitting upright in his chair.
Ignoring her churning stomach, Rosie stood on tiptoe to toss the journal to the very back of a top shelf. It was the shelf her father had hung when she was a child, back when they had assumed the second floor would be wholly for storage. The layer of dust on the edge of the shelf was thick as a glob of glue. Anything on that shelf would be forgotten in an instant.
There, she decided, the journal would remain. She looked meaningfully at Leslie, who merely coughed halfway through a wheeze.
The sun rose on the seventh of December, but the clouds set so thickly no one would know. The Fairbanks dressed up for church, right across the street. Rosie found the sermon just as monotonous as usual. Aunt Minnie whispered candy wrapper jokes in her ear, who stifled her giggles. The jokes weren’t even funny.
Rosie didn’t think of Billy’s journal once. Just as she planned.
They didn’t return home until three in the afternoon. The cabinets had dried, but there was a circle of ash stains around the oven. It looked as though a cake had spontaneously combusted. It would be difficult to hide this from Uncle Frank.
Leslie seemed to have the same thought: he started scrubbing at the tiles at once. Momma pulled a bounty of leftovers – their primary food source – from the refrigerator.
Aunt Minnie turned on the radio. She opted for her favorite station, but instead the kitchen drowned in something drastically different: an emergency broadcast.
It was odd that life went on even after Rosie found out about Pearl Harbor. She and Leslie went to school on Monday, and the whole world buzzed. No one could sit still; everyone was shifting in seats, chewing on nailbeds, or drumming on desktops. Rosie caught herself staring out the window, and when she looked around, she counted at least seven doing the same. Their history teacher, an old woman with dread in her eyes, let them out of class early.
It was an unusually warm day: everyone in the kitchen that afternoon had sweat streaking their faces. Leslie tried to get Rosie to try her hand at baking, but to no avail. Jack and Arthur had not turned up that day. Rosie could see why.
The door jingled to announce Momma’s entrance. She was a powerful sort of woman, with a stony face and long legs. But her eyes were soft as butter. Today, her hair puffed out like a poodle’s.
“You were gone an awful long time,” said Aunt Minnie from the counter, “for one newspaper.”
Momma nodded, letting out a long breath. She offered the paper to Rosie, who had been reading the same textbook page for an hour and still didn’t know what it was about.
“I couldn’t find any, Minnie!” Momma leaned her elbows on the counter, so to speak without their standard few customers overhearing. “I looked everywhere, not even that fuddy-duddy drug store uptown had any. I got one, of course, but don’t ask how.” She reached up to pat her hair with a cringe. “Everyone won’t quit gabbing about the war, either. It’s a real pain in the neck.”
Rosie scanned the pages of the newspaper. Surely there was something of use in here, something that would assure her there was actually a war going on. There were a few grainy photographs of President Roosevelt, and a lot of articles on Pearl Harbor. She didn’t find it all that convincing.
She broke into a sudden cough. It raked her throat when she tried to breathe, and she coughed some more. A young woman by the window cast disgusted looks at her.
“Are you sick?” Momma held a hand to her forehead. She looked up at Aunt Minnie. “She’s warm.”
“Everyone’s warm. It has got to be ninety degrees out.”
“I feel swell,” said Rosie, folding the newspaper again. It was only a partial lie. Aunt Minnie took the paper and flipped to the advertisement section.
Momma, her previous thought forgotten, peered through the window into the kitchen. The main concern at present was filling the display with pre-made cupcakes and cake slices, which took time and effort. But Leslie was the only one working. Shame ached in Rosie’s chest.
“Where are the twins?” said Momma, her thick brows furrowing. “Have they been here at all?”
“No, ma’am.” Rosie bit her cheek. Momma looked down her nose at her.
“You know where they’re at, don’t you?”
“No, but. . . . Billy said they’re s’posed to find another job.”
“A better job!” said Aunt Minnie, looking up from the paper. “Why, how could it get any better than this?”
“Isamu doesn’t like this biz,” Momma reminded her. Her mouth had become a straight line. It was true – though he loved them dearly, Mr. Fuji, a proud man, was never fond of John’s Baked Goods.
“They need better pay. Billy said.”
“All right,” Momma said slowly. “If you’re feeling good, ride up to their place before school. I’ll call Frank tonight about raising their pay.”
“No need, doll.”
At the husky voice, everyone in the bakery spun around. Even the few customers that were sticking around as long as they could turned in their seats to see Uncle Frank, who closed the bakery door behind him with surprising grace for such a large man.
“Well.” He clapped his great hands together loudly. A little boy at a table started. “We seem to have a situation on our hands, don’t we?”
Rosie immediately thought of the bakery fire. Her mind conjured the image of a skirt hidden away in a drawer, blackened to a crisp at the hem. That almost evil circle of ash in the kitchen.
Evidently, Rosie wasn’t the only one who had had that thought.
“Frank, I can explain,” said Momma, holding up her left hand as though to reassure him. Her tone was even, but Rosie saw the panic in her mother’s telltale eyes.
Uncle Frank guffawed, snorting. “If you can explain what’s going on in the heads of those Japs, you’re a better person than I am!”
Rosie could have cried with relief. Her uncle didn’t know about the fire – at least, he made no sign of knowing of it. Aunt Minnie fanned herself with her hand, exhaling faintly. Just as long as he doesn’t go in the kitchen.
Momma frowned. “You came all this way just to discuss war? Certainly, there’s some people who’d like to talk of it with you, but we aren’t those people. We’re staying out of it long as we can.”
“I reckoned you would say that,” said Uncle Frank. Rosie noticed those last few customers had left since her uncle arrived. “This isn’t a woman’s war, Mary. I’m here for business. If I wanted to discuss war, battle, and guns – and I do, but that’s for another day – I would go to my favorite nephew.”
Uncle Frank was Rosie’s favorite relative on her father’s side, albeit the only one she had met. He inherited John’s Baked Goods after Rosie’s father passed away, and would continue to run it until Leslie was old enough to claim it himself. Despite owning a business in Mobile, Frank lived out in the middle of nowhere in Georgia, with nothing but a pair of hunting dogs as companions. Or so Rosie had been told.
“Leslie’s staying out of it, too,” said Momma firmly. “All of us.”
Uncle Frank scoffed, looking at the newspaper that was now folded beside the register. But he didn’t press the matter.
“Come upstairs and we’ll talk.”
Momma’s nose crinkled. “What of?”
“Business, Mary. Just like I said. We’re gonna make some” – he grinned at Rosie – “changes.”
Momma sulked upstairs to the Fairbanks’ living space, arms crossed over her chest like a child who didn’t get her way. Rosie heard her muttering under her breath.
Before following her up, Uncle Frank smiled warmly at Rosie. He gave her a half-hug of a greeting. “Good to see you, kid.” He squeezed her shoulder and departed upstairs.
“Was that Uncle Frank?”
“Yes.” Rosie took in the kitchen. Leslie had spent all his free time, it seemed, filling out orders and baking cupcakes for the displays tomorrow morning. Even now, he was pulling a yellow cake out of the fire-blemished oven.
Don’t let him come in here, she prayed, though she knew in the pit of her stomach it was inevitable.
“Why’s he here?” Leslie stuck his fresh cake in the fridge for cooling. After all this baking, his hair was still flat and neat on his head.
Rosie shrugged. “He’s talkin’ war and business and other gobbledygook with Momma. How many cakes have you made today?”
Leslie had to pause at the question. He opened the fridge, pointing at each cake on the shelves as he counted them off on his other hand.
“Roughly eight, if I’m counting right. And heaps of cupcakes. But Aunt Minnie made a good deal more, since I didn’t start till after school.”
They didn’t even receive that many orders in a week.
He looked up at her. “Jack and Arthur Fuji rung me today. Doesn’t seem like they’re coming back anytime soon.” He raised his eyebrows. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
She did. If Billy’s brothers were going to stop working in the bakery, Rosie would need to start making cakes to make up for them. The Christmas rush would come in soon. The thought of sticking her hands in the oven again, feeling that unnatural heat soak through her oven mitts, if even for a split second, left a sizeable stone in her stomach.
“Not . . . necessarily,” said Rosie, stumbling over her own words. “Momma can . . . can hire more. More workers that’re better than, you know, the twins. Billy said he would . . . once he’s old enough. . . .”
“It’s going to be a while before he can work here, Rosie.” Leslie grinned grimly. “Sooner or later – sooner, preferably – you will have to try again. You know it.”