“I’ll be right back,” he told Lucinda and Dina. He left the table and went over to Ollie and Rollie.
“How is everything?” asked Ollie.
“Is the table still standing?” asked Rollie.
“It’s fine,” said Joshua. His eyes focused on the Mudd girls.
“Nan and Georgie came over to play and they smelled your cooking,” said Ollie.
“They couldn’t believe it,” said Rollie.
“Are you really cooking, Joshua?” asked Nan, the elder of the two Mudd girls.
“Can they stay?” asked Ollie.
“Is there enough?” asked Rollie.
Joshua knew there was enough for the two little girls. He’d made extra for that night. They looked up at him with wide hopeful eyes.
“Joshua!” Lucinda called.
She pointed to the vigorously bubbling soup.
“I have to go,” he said.
He returned to the grill and stirred the soup. It stuck a little on the bottom but hadn’t burned. He moved it to a cooler section of the grill to simmer. His hands balled into tight fists at his side.
How dare they? How dare they come here after their father left me? How dare they even ask?
Joshua realized that Ollie and Rollie didn’t know. He’d never told the others all that happened that day. But still the girls, they were there. They saw. Didn’t they ask their father what had happened? Wasn’t that Joshua Sage? Was he in some kind of trouble? Why didn’t you help him, father? How could they not know?
He’d walk back over there and scream at them. He’d tell them to go back to the Charity Kitchen and eat soapy gruel if they were hungry. If their father wouldn’t help him, why should he help them?
Joshua tasted the soup again and nearly spat it out. It was the most bitter thing he’d ever put in his mouth.
What could have gone wrong? It didn’t burn. Everything was fresh.
Confused, he tasted the soup again. It was so bitter it made his eyes water.
Lucinda saw his pinched face.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. He tried to think.
He couldn’t serve them the soup. At least he still had the beans and spinach. He tasted the beans. The beans tasted like bile. It was all he could do to swallow them down. Panic welled inside him.
Joshua checked the spinach. Boiled grass would have tasted better.
He stood in disbelief. In seconds his entire meal had turned bitter. What had happened? It made no sense. What had changed?
He turned back to the Mudd girls who stood next to Ollie and Rollie. No need to yell at them now. There was no food for anyone. Only a starving man could possibly choke down the vile tasting selection he was offering.
He felt guilty for getting so angry in the first place. They weren’t to blame for their father’s actions. They’d always been good friends to Dina and the twins. It was wrong for him to deny them a place. He’d invite them to stay now, if there had been anything to eat.
“Joshua?” Lucinda asked him again. Worry crept into her voice.
Joshua tried to think of what to tell her. Just then he spied Dina as she dipped the spoon into the soup for a taste.
“Mmmmm,” she said and licked her lips.
Joshua halted in his tracks.
“Dina!” Lucinda called.
“You shouldn’t do that. You could burn yourself!”
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to see how it tasted,” Dina said.
“And how did it taste?” Joshua asked fearful of the answer.
“Silly, it tasted wonderful as usual,” Dina assured.
Joshua stirred the soup once more and tasted it. It was rich and full of flavor. The bitterness had vanished as mysteriously as it appeared. Joshua quickly tested the beans and the spinach again. They were fresh and bright.
“Is anything the matter?” Heathcliff asked.
He answered, “No. Everything’s ready.”
Remembering his silent promise he called to the Mudd girls.
“Nan. Georgie. Sit. We’re just getting ready to eat.”