In my Creative Writing class, our assignment was to write a short story – Realism. The constraints were to take a “myth” and make it into something that represents realism. My submission got a lot of enthusiastic feedback in the peer review portion of the class, and I would like to share it with all of you.
Five Second Rule
There was nothing I could do but watch. The freshly buttered slice of toast seemed to move in slow motion; falling, falling, rotating towards the rustic brown floorboards. I should have tried to grab it. I should have done something. Anything would have been better than nothing. Yet, I stood frozen in time, unable to will my body into action. The toast landed with the buttered side down.
“Of course! Of course it couldn’t land face up.”
“Five second rule.” I whirled around to see my brother standing in the doorway. His left shoulder leaning against the frame, right leg bearing his weight, and his left toe crossed, pointed at the floor. His arms were crossed over his broad chest, and his face bore an infuriating smirk while his crystal blue eyes glistened with mischief.
“Five second rule. You can still eat that as long as you pick it up before five seconds.”
Disgusting! Who knew what had been dropped on the floor recently? Or when the last time it had been thoroughly cleaned? As it was, I stood there with my faded mahogany coloured boots on; the ones I’d worn outside every day this week. I’d stepped in mud, gone into town, walked around shops, and I’d probably stepped in some animal dung of some sort. Birds, rabbits, and other wildlife could be spotted on the way to and from the town often. I’d likely shuffled back and forth across that patch of kitchen floor countless times in the last seven minutes while making the now ruined toast.
My face must have revealed my thoughts, because my brother laughed that way he always did when he was about to push his luck with my temper. It was sort of a single burst, followed by a “hee hee hee”. I knew better than to react to his antics, but I scowled despite myself. That laugh of his put me on edge waiting for what came next.
Garrett swooped in from his place in the doorway and scooped up my piece of toast. He plunked it back down on the ceramic plate and held the entire thing three inches from his face. His black, shoulder length hair nearly grazed the edge, which would have sent a small amount of bile rushing up my throat had it touched my toast.
“It’s not so bad. Just scrape the butter off, like this,” he said grabbing the knife from my hand. “If there’s any dirt in there, it will come off with the crumbs. It’ll be fine. Look at that. Good as new.”
I took the plate and regarded the missing butter, the scratch marks left from the knife, and the exposed white innards of the bread. My nerves were already on edge expecting some kind of mockery from my brother, I couldn’t imagine putting that in my mouth. “I can’t.”
“So you’re going to waste a perfectly good piece of toast? What? Are you afraid of a little dirt? I’ve seen you get plenty dirty on your own. A few little flecks on some toast isn’t going to kill you.”
Easy for him to say; it wasn’t his toast. “The dog can have this one. I’ll just make myself another piece, unless you want it. If you think it’s so safe, you eat it.”
“I’m not hungry, you are.”
“Then what are you doing in the kitchen?”
“I heard you cuss and had to see what you’d done this time.”
He was looking for a reason to rat me out for whatever I’d done, was more like it. Garrett was three years younger than me, but if there was an old saying about respecting your elders, he didn’t seem to think it applied to me. I could never figure out why he loved to tattle on me though, since I’d always showed him respect. Well, at least for most of his eleven years. Okay, maybe only a few years. Or, still off and on. But he was an obnoxious brother; he didn’t really deserve my respect, anyway. He was always teasing me, and convincing me to do stupid things; like now, eating toast that had fallen on the floor.
“Well, now you saw what happened, so you can go along your way. There’s nothing to see here and I’m not going to eat this filthy toast. So get out of here.”
Garrett threw his hands up on either side of his face. The expression of fake hurt, with his dark brows raised, I could see right through. I wasn’t yet mad enough to chase him down and smack him, but I could feel the itch in my skin to do it. “Fine, fine. Whatever. But if I were you, I wouldn’t waste the food. You know that loaf of bread has to last until next week. It’s your choice.”
I watched his dark green shirt and dark brown pants fade into the shadow of the hall as Garrett sauntered out of the kitchen. He had a point. Dammit, I hated it when he had good points.
My attention turned away from him and towards the plate. The ceramic had been glazed with a yellow base and accented with small blue flowers around the rim. Bluebells I think they were called. They didn’t really bloom like most flowers did, but they were still pretty. The yellow on the plate matched the yellow on the walls of the kitchen. Light enough it could easily be mistaken for white at the right time of day, or wrong, if it you liked the yellow. The mangled slice of toast sat perfectly centered on the plate. I scoffed at it. If it had stayed there in the middle, it wouldn’t have fallen to the floor in the first place. Stupid toast.
I’d been in a hurry to get out of the kitchen before Garrett came in, and rushing had made me clumsy. When I realized I’d forgot my cup of milk, I slid the plate back onto the dark green marble counter too fast, and the toast slid off the plate and across the counter, before tipping off the edge and onto the floor. I had no one to blame but myself for the dilemma I was in, but it still seemed like a good idea to pin this on Garrett. Everything was his fault anyway, this should be no exception.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?”
I looked up to find Elliot, the older of my two younger brothers standing in the door. Unlike Garrett, Elliot stood with his hands loose at his sides, and instead of an obnoxious smirk, his raised eyebrows were a sign of concern.
“I- I don’t think so. It fell on the floor. Buttered side up.”
“Five second rule?” Elliot strode toward me. He took up the plate and held it close to his face just as Garrett had done. The difference this time was that Elliot’s hair was neatly trimmed and nowhere near contaminating the plate further. Once the toast had been thoroughly inspected, Elliot handed it back to me and shrugged. “Looks okay. I’d eat it.”
“Really?” If it were Garrett, I wouldn’t put it past him eating just to prove a point, but Elliot wasn’t like that. “You’d really eat food that had been on the floor? Aren’t you worried about germs?”
“No. Five second rule. If you pick it up before five seconds are up, the germs don’t stick.”
“You know that’s just a myth, right?”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s fine. I’ve eaten plenty of stuff using the five second rule, and I’m not dead yet. Besides, I overheard Mister Porteous when I was in town last week, and there’s some trouble with transportation right now. This loaf of bread may have to last us all week. If you took this slice, you really ought to eat it. It might be your last for a while.”
I looked in his sapphire eyes for a trace of scheming. He was certainly more trustworthy than Garrett, but he’d been known to get roped into one of our little brother’s bad ideas of a joke on more than one occasion. I saw nothing that convinced me one way or the other, though. Elliot was hard to read sometimes.
“You want it then?”
“No. I just wanted a drink. Is there any milk left?”
“Yeah, a bit.” I had heard about the transportation trouble. So had Garrett. So had everyone. Food was going to be scarce for a while.
Elliot pulled out a small cup; smaller than mine and filled it half way. Our already meager food ration wasn’t going to stretch too much thinner. Elliot and Garrett were younger than me, and they were growing so much faster. Both of them had already surpassed me, and at eleven and twelve and a half, they still had a lot of growing to do. I was almost fourteen. I could do with less. As much as it turned my stomach and threatened of vomit, I decided to eat and savour the toast and milk. Five second rule, right?
My boots shuffled across the worn wooden floor to the old oak table. The floor had warped a little from all the traffic over the years, and the table didn’t sit quite flat. I’d learned that even though it wasn’t great manners, if I leaned on one corner with my elbow, the table would hold still for the most part.
Sitting at the table, head in my hand, staring at the toast on the yellow and blue ceramic plate, on the Berber place mat over the oak table, I sized up my lunch. With my free hand I picked a few crumbs from the toast that resembled too closely a speck of dirt. I heard Elliot’s boots shuffle out, and him murmur something about being a food snob, but I didn’t respond. It was just the toast and me now.
I can’t do this, I thought. I’d had food poisoning once in my short life, and it was the most horrific two days of my life. The stomach pains, fever, sweating, vomit… it was all too much for me. I had hoped day after day that I’d never have to experience something like that again. Yet now I sat here contemplating the idea of putting this disease-ridden filth into my mouth on purpose. Not only did I plan to eat it, but I set my mind to enjoy it too, all in the name of saving the remaining food for my brothers. Sure. No problem, right?
I inspected each bite before raising it to my lips. I chewed slowly and carefully, feeling around for anything that would crunch more than just the regular toast crunch. It didn’t taste very good with most of the butter scraped off, but after what Elliot and Garrett said about transportation and food shortage, I dared not be greedy enough to take more.
Each bite was easier than the last. It tasted more and more like regular toast. It had the right texture for toast. I rolled the crusty bread around in my mouth, sifting for abnormalities. Wheat. Yeast. Not quite enough salt. The flavours weren’t anything exotic, but something about it made me relax. It would be fine. Five second rule. This toast was good enough.
The sound of vomit splattering on the floor made enough of a stomach curdling sound it triggered another retch. If the bread and butter had been bland on the way down, they weren’t any nicer coming back up.
It had taken me almost to the end of the day before I knew something was off. It started in my stomach; sort of a crampy feeling. It then turned into a headache and sweating, followed by a close call on the toilet. I’d chalked it up to me being paranoid my fallen toast had anything to do with it, but it was nearly midnight, and I knew something was very wrong.
“Are you in here?” The sound of Garrett’s voice was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was furious at him for even suggesting I eat food off the floor. There was no five second rule, and I knew the explanation for it was pure hokum. I knew it and I did it anyway. Garrett and Elliot had persuaded me to do it, using the transportation problems to make me feel guilty about throwing the bread away. I should have given it to the dog. It would have still served a purpose that way. But once again, I listened to those two nincompoops and got myself into a pickle over it.
“Oh, damn, what happened? You look awful.”
“Oh shut up! It’s all your fault!”
“How is this my fault?” Garrett stepped closer, took a subtle whiff, and stepped back outside the door.
“You told me to use the five second rule! I knew it was just a myth, and I knew I shouldn’t have eaten the toast, but thanks to you, I did. And now I’m sick as anything!”
Garrett tread carefully, but took a deep breath and came over to me. He pressed the back of his hand to my forehead, clicked his tongue, and returned to the safety of the hall. “You’ve got a fever. I’ll send for help.”
Yeah, he’d just love that, wouldn’t he? Get everyone to come over and look at the sick girl who ate toast off the floor. He and Elliot would have a good laugh at that and would never let me live that down. On the other hand, if someone were to call the doctor, and she was able to give me something to feel better, well, what’s a little more ridicule from my brothers? They could find reason enough anyway, what did it matter if it was the toast or something else?
“Okay,” was all I said. I didn’t have the energy for a snappy comeback. I didn’t even feel my temper flare. All I wanted was to feel better. I heard Garrett’s footsteps fade, and from the quickness of the pace, I knew he was running. Good. Let him panic a little. This was his fault anyway. There was no such thing as a five second rule, and it would do him some good to know it.
While I waited for Garrett to return with help, I slumped on the floor and pressed my right cheek against the cool tile floor. It felt good but sent a shiver through my body. I’d been hot moments ago, but now I felt cold. I curled into a little ball and pulled the towel that rested on the side of the tub over me. I would just wait for Garrett to return with help. I would feel better soon enough. In the meantime, perhaps I would take a small nap to distract me from the pain. My eyes closed and all I felt was the churning inside me and the cool tile on my face. Garrett would be back soon. And I would never eat toast again.