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 [EDIT: PUBLISH DATE TBD. CHECK LINK BELOW FOR MORE INFO]. 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!
The bakery was chaotic, and it was her fault.
Flames licked the countertops. Aunt Minnie screamed like the world was collapsing on top of her. Leslie frantically searched for something, anything, to put out the fire. Customers scrambled around the kitchen, trying to get a glimpse of the scene. Momma yelled.
And Rosie Fairbanks stayed put. Mesmerized by the growing flames dancing around the burning cake, embers flying to their freedom only to get caught in Momma’s curls, she couldn’t will herself to move.
Not until the fire snatched her skirt.
“Her skirt’s on fire! Her skirt’s on fire!” cried Aunt Minnie.
Rosie screamed, though she didn’t know why. The fire didn’t hurt; it hurt much more when Momma whipped the burning skirt with a wet rag. Through it all, Rosie heard her mother say, “No one tells Frank!”
“It’s out! It’s out!” Rosie heard Leslie’s voice over the ruckus. His arms were freckled with ashes and dotted with cream from the fire extinguisher he must have found while Rosie was in her panic. Aunt Minnie’s hand flew to her chest in relief.
“Oh, thank you, Jesus.”
Momma coughed. “No one tells Frank.” Her tired gaze traveled over the flood of customers standing in the doorway. They scrambled to seem disinterested. “Not one of you.”
Rosie Fairbanks, though she lived on the upper story of John’s Baked Goods as long as she could remember, wanted nothing to do with cake.
She was always repulsed by the dry cake and oversweet frosting they sold. At least, she thought so. She couldn’t recall ever liking 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 could have been the same family.
The only sign it was Rosie’s birthday was the costly wheel of cheddar they ate with their oats before opening for their doors to welcome the muggy, lackluster Saturday. Momma lugged her early-twenties typewriter upstairs, and Aunt Minnie slapped on her lipstick and planted fresh cupcakes in the display; only to have Arthur Fuji rearrange them the moment he could.
Jack and Arthur Fuji, their favorite and only employees, arrived at a fashionably late eleven thirty. After all these years, no one bothered chastising them for tardiness anymore.
Jack Fuji swept into the store wearing his favorite dramatic airs. He bowed mockingly in Rosie’s direction, picking at the cheese wheel at the table nearest the wall-sized window. Arthur came slower, but with the same expression.
“Happy birthday, Miss Fairbanks.” Jack bowed a second time.
“Most people would say ‘thank you.’”
Rosie scowled up at him, but it was all in play. Wanting the look on his face gone, she said, “Thank you.”
“So, then.” Arthur Fuji crossed the room to the display, distastefully eyeing Aunt Minnie’s sloppy cupcake pattern. “When’re you gonna start working with the rest of us?”
“Chicken,” Jack put in, tearing a chunk 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.”
“Why else wouldn’t you work?” Arthur emerged from the display. He sucked a dab of deep brown, almost black icing off his thumb.
“It’s so awful. I can’t even stand the smell.”
The brothers reeled, as though offended. But they had known it for years. 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, 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?” Arthur said as soon as he could get a word in.
Leslie had volunteered during the summer to set up for church every Saturday, and he kept going long after they didn’t need him anymore. It took Rosie an admittedly long time to realize his reason, watching him comb his hair every Saturday morning, coming home uncharacteristically flustered, and separating himself from his family at the dismissal of the Sunday service. She had caught sight of the gal once: she was all rusty hair and fashionable shoes.
Momma started, as though remembering an urgent thought. “Hey, hey, hold it!”
Jack and Arthur returned.
“Haven’t you forgotten to say something?”
They stared back.
“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 spilled 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; she had eaten enough cheese to concern a doctor.
“May I ride to Billy’s?” She hadn’t seen Billy in nearly a week, and she had stories to divulge.
“Hm? Oh, yes. Sure. ‘Fore dark?”
“‘Fore dark,” Rosie echoed in return. The bell above the door jingled as she pulled it open.
“Tell Missus Fuji hello for –”
Kish! Something shattered in the kitchen. Momma groaned, her mouth stretched open, and Rosie closed the door before she could get roped into the trouble.
“Gosh, that sounds awful.”
“It was.” Rosie’s legs burned just remembering the oven fire.
Streamers littered the floor all around the mammoth dinner table, and a Happy Birthday! banner hung just askew enough to be noticed on a stark 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 three 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 younger siblings; even his sisters.
“You can have what’s left. Just one more bite.” She stuffed as much of the sandwich as could fit in her mouth. Immediately regretting her choice, she dropped the remains on the plate and pushed it to Billy.
Billy smiled. He asked around a mouthful of sandwich, “What started the fire? Is that a silly question?”
Rosie tried to move her mouth around the mouthful of peanut butter. Billy laughed at her.
“Quit it,” Rosie choked out. When he laughed, his face squished and wrinkled all over. She swallowed the bite.
“It was a cake,” she answered hoarsely, sucking the last drops out of her glass.
“It wasn’t Jack or Arthur’s, was it?”
“It was mine. Don’t tell my uncle, all right? It’s s’posed to be some secret.”
“Sure.” Billy brushed crumbs off his hands onto the table; he didn’t care that it was Rosie’s attempt at baking which nearly burned down their home. She was grateful.
He broke the comfortable silence. “Say, you gonna start working at your place now?”
Rosie puffed. “Jack ‘n’ Arthur said the same thing.”
“Well, we’re all kinda expecting it. Wasn’t Leslie your age?”
“That’s different. Bakin’ is his match. My cakes are real crummy.”
“Well. Maybe. But I’m sure there’s something else you can do ‘round there.”
“Work the counter,” she said. “Do Momma’s taxes. And put out fires that I caused.”
He snickered. “Only if you want to. Maybe you can, I dunno, ice cupcakes or other. Jack says it ain’t – isn’t hard.”
“Jack’s frosting jobs are awful, that’s why.” She rattled the ice in her glass. It was the one with the chips all along the bottom from constant drops.
“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. She was expecting it. “Momma ain’t gonna like that.”
“I reckoned. But hey, once they’ve got enough, 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.”
He shrugged lazily. “Too much homework. Next year, maybe.”
Rosie’s next words went unfinished. A toddler clad in yellow pajamas crawled out of the dim 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.” She struggled 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 birthday tradition, had spent the entire day talking and eating with Billy. She had spent some time with his other siblings, but most of them had more interesting goings-ons for 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, to which she was very attached. Rosie had once gone to the market with her, helping sell her plump potatoes for a plumper price.
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 North Dearborn Street and St. Louis Street. Every nook and cranny in the asphalt popped off the pavement 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 at the Christmas paper. She was half right – Billy had given her a book, but it wasn’t of the sort she expected. The pages laid a faded and soft yellow; completely blank; and the inch-thick cover comprised all the empty book’s weight, rather than characters and stories.
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 smirk to find a reason for the gift, but found nothing.
She waited until Billy rode out of sight 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. She hid Billy’s gift behind her back, but she knew it was too obvious. He didn’t pay any mind.
“Did you have cake?”
She shot him a sour look. Contented, Leslie walked past her – she turned so he wouldn’t see the gift – 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, only missing its dustcover.
“How was church?” 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. I liked him all right.” He watched her strangely. He knew her too well. “What’s the matter?”
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, stretching his other arm above his head. “For two more hours. Then I’m allowed to grill you all I want.”
“Swell,” 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, but she had no desire to study now.
She watched his back. He rested his head on his hand; she had difficulty telling 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.
They didn’t return home until three in the afternoon. The poor fire-stained cabinets had dried, but there was a circle of ash stains round 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 took a sponge from the sink and started scrubbing 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 shifted in seats, chewed on jagged nailbeds, or drummed on desktops. Rosie caught herself staring out the window, and when she looked around, she counted at least seven doing the same. Her history teacher, an old woman with dread in her eyes, let them all 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 again, but to no avail. Jack and Arthur had not turned up that day. Rosie could understand why.
The door jingled to announce Momma’s entrance. She was a powerful sort of woman, with a stony face and long legs. Today, her hair puffed out like a poodle’s.
“You were gone an awful long time,” Aunt Minnie said 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!” 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 handful 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,” Minnie said. “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?”
“Do you know why they’re not here?”
“Momma, there’s a war.”
Momma stuck her hand to her hip. “War or otherwise, the bills still have to be paid.”
Rosie forced herself to stop gnawing on her cheek. At her mother’s look, she said, “Mr. Fuji wants them to find a better 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 grimly. 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 telephone Frank 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 get away with 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?”