Still, the slice of bread had refused to climb into the toaster!
Hobart tipped his chair back, gaze fixed on the kitchen counter in disbelief. His toes curled downward against the floor, causing the chair to tilt dangerously on its rear legs. He was more confused than a three-headed troll trying to button its shirt.
Strange things were common in Pennywhistle, but this was a different kind of strange. It was simply something that should not be possible. He blinked again, as if to clear his vision, and studied the slice of bread.
It hadn’t budged.
Hobart tilted the chair back another fraction of an inch. He teetered crazily for a split second―his hands windmilling through the air―then plopped forward. The front legs of the chair smacked loudly upon Flora’s shiny leopard-spotted linoleum. Under different circumstances, he might have immediately glanced around for signs of his grandfather’s housekeeper. But his only focus at the moment was the bread.
He stared at the slice of bread for several minutes. Perhaps he had spoken too softly. “Bread! Jump into the toaster!”
The slice of bread didn’t budge. It didn’t wiggle, jiggle, or twitch.
“Well, I’ll be a snot-nosed snifflesnort,” Hobart muttered.
He cleared his throat and spoke louder still, his voice firm and commanding. “Bread! Jump into the toaster!”
The boy ran his fingers through unruly, reddish-brown hair. In the bright light of the kitchen, his freckles stood out like the spots on a pink, pimpled Poppitt.
He unconsciously tipped the chair again. He tilted farther…farther…
Startled, Hobart wobbled crazily. His hands flailed wildly as he grabbed for the edge of the table. He finally clunked miraculously forward with a loud thud!
Flora Flaxenfluff stood in the kitchen doorway, hands on her hips with a look that could have intimidated presidents and kings. Hobart ignored it. Not out of disrespect, mind you. He simply knew the elderly housekeeper wasn’t the ogre she so often resembled.
“How many times have I told you not to lean back in your chair like that?” Flora demanded.
He glanced at her, but his gaze was immediately drawn back to the bread. “Sorry―”
Flora cut him off. “Sorry doesn’t put the apples back on the tree, young man! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. One of these days you’re going to fall over backward and crack your head wide open. Not only will you bloody my clean linoleum, but you’ll likely break one of my chairs. Those are antiques, you know.”
Hobart smiled. He wanted to say that they were simply old. Wisely, he kept the thought to himself.
He absentmindedly shoved his chair away from the table. Flora’s scowl deepened as the chair legs screeched across the linoleum. The boy stood, smiling sheepishly.
Flora sighed and shook her head.
Even at the age of ten, Hobart was a couple of inches taller than the stumpy housekeeper. He had sprouted up like worrywart weed the past twelve months, although, he had put on a little too much weight as well. Hobart wasn’t exactly athletic.
He took a few steps toward the kitchen counter and stared down at the slice of bread. He flicked it with a finger and then jerked his hand back as if he expected the bread might snap at him or something. Maybe it wasn’t bread. Maybe it was some evil creature enchanted by some evil wizard. (Highly unlikely, but an exciting thought.) Or perhaps his grandfather was playing a practical joke on them. (A much more likely possibility.)
“Have you had any problems with the bread today, Flora?”
The plump housekeeper, whom Hobart thought of more as a member of the family, looked at him. Her left eyebrow arched upward.
“Now don’t you go trying to change the subject, young man.”
“I’m not. I just wanted to have some toast with my mush,” he explained. “I told the bread to jump into the toaster, and well, it wouldn’t.”
She twisted her ample torso and squinted at the bread on the counter. Her silver-rimmed glasses hung from a chain around her neck. She seldom wore them, stating they made her look like an old spinster. Flora Flaxenfluff was, after all, only eighty-nine.
“We’ve had this conversation before, Hobart. You need to be precise with your commands. This is generic bread. You can’t just tell it to jump into the toaster like the more expensive brand.”
Flora glanced at Hobart with a look that said “watch this.”
“Bread,” she said sternly. “Place yourself in the toaster!”
Now, if Hobart had been a slice of bread, he certainly wouldn’t have ignored such a commanding tone of voice. This slice of bread, however, didn’t budge. The confidant look on Flora’s face faded.
She took a deep breath, hands placed firmly on wide hips. “Bread! Go into the toaster!”
The bread ignored the command once again.
“Now that’s strange,” she whispered.
Hobart wanted to say that’s what he had been trying to tell her all along, but saw nothing to gain in pointing it out other than irritating the woman. And that was never a good idea.
They glanced at each other.
“Maybe it’s a bad loaf,” Flora suggested.
A bad loaf. Hobart smiled briefly as the thought of Flora sending the bread to its room flickered through his head. But the thought didn’t last long. Bread that didn’t do as it was told? Hobart had never heard of such a thing, but the longer he thought about it, the more it seemed the only logical explanation.
“Maybe it wasn’t properly enchanted,” he suggested. “Maybe they were training a new Enchanter at the bakery.”
“I don’t think so, Hobart. A Level-Four Enchanter still would have inspected it before it left the factory and ended up on the shelf at Gerk’s Groceries.”
“Should I get Grandpa?” Hobart asked.
Flora shook her head. “No, don’t go bothering the old man now. He’s probably conjuring up some new potion. Who knows what might happen if he loses his concentration? He might set the backyard on fire or blow up the greenhouse.”
It wasn’t like it had never happened before.
Flora picked up the slice of bread and examined it from every possible angle. She pinched it, poked it, and prodded it. She held it under her nose and sniffed it. She finally clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and stuffed the bread back in the wrapper.
“Fetch another loaf from the pantry, Hobart.”
The boy opened the pantry door and snatched the loaf from a shelf. He held it at arm’s length as if it might jump onto his face and try to suffocate him.
He tossed it on the counter.
Flora hesitated, then took a deep breath.
“Bread wrapper. Open!” she commanded.
The response was instant.
The end of the plastic untwisted and the package popped open just as nice and neat as you please.
Realizing he’d been holding his own breath, Hobart exhaled. He took another gulp of air and prepared himself for the next command.
Flora’s high-pitched voice was sharp and clear.
The wrapper rustled, and a slice of bread marched out, seeming to stand at attention on the counter.
“Place yourself in the toaster!”
The bread waddled on its bottom corners across the counter, hopped over the butter dish, and without hesitation, snuggled itself into one of the toaster slots.
Flora wiped her hands nervously on her apron and tapped her toe impatiently.
A moment later, a perfectly browned piece of toast popped up, nice and warm.
“Well, then,” Flora said firmly. “That’s that. Just a bad loaf after all.”
Hobart wasn’t convinced quite as easily.
He commanded the toast to butter itself. It did so immediately. He then told it to slide through the juniper jelly. The slice of bread didn’t hesitate. He finally ordered it to perform a double back flip from the top of the counter to his plate on the kitchen table. The toast was on his plate long before Flora had a chance to scold the boy for playing with his food.
The lines on Flora’s face―and if truth be told, there were plenty of them―softened. Order seemed restored to the universe.
Hobart plopped down at the table―careful this time not to scoot his chair across the floor―and grabbed his spoon. His muckenslush mush was cold, but he didn’t consider it much of a loss. It wasn’t one of his favorite dishes under any circumstances.
Flora prepared herself a cup of Tangleroot tea before joining Hobart at the table.
“When you’ve finished eating, I’d appreciate it if you would take the loaf of bread back to Gerk’s for a refund. Money doesn’t grow on Tallyho trees, you know.”
Hobart scowled. “But, Flora, I promised Specks I’d come over to his house this morning.”
“It’s spring break, and you have no school. You have all week to play with your friends. And don’t forget that your grandfather needs the backyard mowed and watered.”
Hobart opened his mouth to complain, then thought the better of it. He quietly munched on his toast and washed it down with a tall glass of tingling cold Mother Mooberry milk.
He didn’t give the incident with toast much more thought.
Perhaps he should have.