POTATOES ARE BETTER THAN ROMANCE
(Deleted Scene from The Boy Who Steals Houses)
His attention should be on the knife, on the whorls of potato peels slipping through his fingers. But Sam can’t stop worrying.
About summer ending.
About finally telling Moxie all his secrets.
About Avery boxing himself into a world of sharp corners and dangerous ledges and insisting he can take care of himself. Sam hasn’t checked on him in days. That selfishness twists his stomach like soured lemonade.
Moxie stands next to him as they peel potatoes together. The rest of the family are still out working at the building site, but Jeremy is home early for dinner duties. He’s seventeen, but definitely the best cook in the house. He clatters jars of herbs and butter onto the bench and then surveys them with a mournful expression.
“Why are you both so slow?” he says. “Are we having my infamous herb and garlic potatoes this year or at my funeral when I die at age ninety-four?”
Moxie throws peels at him. “Rude.” She nudges Sam with her hip. “Hey, you’re far away. Everything okay?”
Sam blinks. “I’m fine.” He needs to snap out of it or Moxie will press with questions he’s not ready to answer. He wants to keep this summer, this pretend honeyed paradise, for as long as possible.
Distraction comes in the form of Toby trotting into the kitchen with Jeremy’s phone clasped in sticky three-year-old hands. The De Lainey’s refer to the hour before dinner as the dreaded witching time, when the little ones will hurtle into hangry meltdowns if you even look at them wrong. Jeremy offered up his phone like a sacrificial goat so Toby would be occupied and they could get dinner on. The baby is licking the wall but seems fine. It’s just Toby now planted in the midst of the kitchen with the phone raised above his head as it plays tinny strains of music.
He jumps up and down. “Dance wiv me, Moxie!”
“Um, no.” Moxie stabs an apple. “I have standards.”
Toby forcefully crosses his arms and his bottom lip wobbles.
“If he starts crying,” Jeremy warns, “he will never stop and my fragile eardrums can’t take it. I’m not…not strong enough. Don’t be a monster, Moxie.” He flaps vaguely in Toby’s direction. “At least he put on Twice Burgundy. It’s a good band. Our little terror has taste.”
Toby tips back his head and wails, “Nobody will dance wiv me!”
“Quick put food in his mouth,” Moxie says. “That’ll distract him.”
But Toby’s already gone into a boneless heap, wail escalating.
Sam abandons the potatoes and slips over to the ensuing apocalypse. He’s really good at averting meltdowns. Lots of practice with Avery.
“Moxie is a terrible dancer.” Sam pats Toby’s back. “You don’t want her anyway.”
“Ouch,” says Jeremy.
Moxie raises an eyebrow. “I’m unsure whether to be grateful for that comment.”
Toby picks himself up, face damp, and then flings arms around Sam’s legs. “You dance!” He starts jumping up and down, clutching Sam’s leg with one arm and the phone with the other, which continues a song that tastes of violent summer storms.
Sam gives Moxie and Jeremy a helpless look. They smirk.
“Daaaance!” shrieks the tiny overlord.
He is not a dancer. His ears go hot as he tries to move his gangly limbs in some sort of rhythm. His undone shoelaces flick against the floor and he has no idea what he’s doing. But Toby beams and begins what looks like a demon-possessed-chicken-polka.
Moxie cracks up so hard she starts dropping potatoes.
“Dance! Dance!” Toby shouts.
“Yeah, Moxie. Dance, dance.” Sam snatches her hand and pulls her into a spin, because if he’s going to suffer, so is she.
Moxie is laughing too hard to protest. But when she finally gets her breath, she rests a palm against Sam’s chest. “Fine.” Her eyes are bright as a dare. “But this is how you dance.”
And suddenly they’re not messing around to good music on bad speakers. They’re truly dancing.
Their hearts pound and bodies brush together. Moxie’s arms twirl above her head and Sam’s feet skid across the floorboards. There’s a thump as Jeremy jumps into the middle, proving the demon-possessed-chicken-polka style is a disturbing De Lainey family trait.
They are so happy in that moment, so full of wild abandon, they could have outshone the sun.
They are also so distracted, by music and their own fierce delight, that they don’t hear the front door opening as Mr. De Lainey and Jack walk in.
The impromptu dance party ends with a shriek from Moxie and all three of them drop down behind the kitchen benches. Toby just squeals in delight at this new turn of the game.
“I’m pretty sure they saw us,” Sam says, breathing hard.
Moxie covers her face. “Bury me.”
Jeremy pats her shoulder. “Jack’s never going to let this go. We might as well leave the country.”
On cue, Jack starts crowing while kicking off his work boots. “What was that delightful sight?”
“I don’t know, Jack.” Mr. De Lainey’s voice is exaggeratedly loud. “Did you see several electrocuted noodles flailing in my kitchen?”
“It’s almost like they are sooo embarrassed,” Jack says. “I wonder why.”
“These embarrassed noodles are making you dinner,” Jeremy shouts, still safe behind the cupboards. “Don’t criticise us!”
“We did it for the three-year-old,” Moxie adds.
“Please forget you ever saw that,” Sam says.
Jeremy and Moxie look at him.
They burst out laughing.
Moxie laughs so hard she tips over into Sam’s lap, which he didn’t expect. But he doesn’t flinch. Instead he has a perfectly acceptable reason to gently slip arms around her. It doesn’t mean anything. Totally not.
Mr. De Lainey and Jack peer over the bench.
“They’re so freaking cute,” Jack says.
Mr. De Lainey’s voice is mild as always. “I’m off to shower, but try to get dinner on soon. Goodbye, embarrassed noodles.”
The embarrassed noodles on the floor make distressed sounds as Mr. De Lainey heads for the stairs.
Jack is still smirking as he hauls himself up on the bench, shedding sawdust and grime. He plucks a peeled potato off the stack and bites it.
Jeremy picks himself off the floor and looks disgusted at his twin. “You are an animal. Alright, up children.” He nudges Moxie in the ribs with his toe. “Be useful.”
Moxie is still buried in Sam’s lap. “I can’t show my face again.”
“Make her movie, Sammy,” Jeremy says.
Sam carefully sweeps Moxie’s dark chocolate curls away from her ear. His whisper is sweet gold and Moxie stifles a giggle as she pushes off him and they both get to their feet.
Jeremy watches with a dubious expression. “Hm, alright, wait. What did you say to her? Something racy? Because if so, I will have to beat someone with a potato masher. Probably myself. Because ew.”
Moxie flounces over to the pantry for more potatoes. “None of your business, Jeremy.”
Jeremy exchanges a hurt expression with Jack who helpfully offers him the potato masher.
Sam slips back to the pile of potatoes, tips of his ears still red. He tries to keep his voice breezy as he says, “Nothing. I just said she is a cute electrocuted noodle.”
“Oh but this is an adorable development,” Jeremy says with an eyebrow wiggle. “Calling each other cute. My, my. Whatever is next? True LOVE.”
Sam fumbles for potatoes, knocks them on the floor, feels his ears go volcanic red and then promptly wishes for death. He shouldn’t have said cute. He was just copying what Jack said. But OK, it sounded flirty from him. He’s not flirting. He wouldn’t…he…
“Like, I said, so adorable,” Jeremy says. “Look at your little blush! Aw!”
Moxie slams more potatoes into the sink and scowls at her older brother. “What would you know about love, dumbass? Your only love life is you and that potato.”
Jeremy caresses a potato gently. “Potatoes are better than boyfriends anyway.”
“Nobody thinks that,” says Moxie.
Jack stops eating his gross raw potato and points the masher at Sam. “Right, you. Potatoes or Moxie?”
“Man, don’t ask me things like that.” Sam chases the potatoes he dropped and it’s only when he’s set them back on the bench that he notices Jeremy choking on silent laughter and Moxie’s expression is brittle.
“You better say something romantic,” Jeremy says, gasping, “to make up for that.”
Sam panics. “Um, I mean, they’re on the same level. Equal appreciation.”
“That was not romantic,” Moxie snaps.
“What are you saying? It was super romantic.”
Jeremy loops an arm around both their necks and drags them into an uncomfortable hug. Moxie fights. Sam gets far too close to Jeremy’s armpit.
“Let’s just make a unanimous decision,” Jeremy says grandly. “Potatoes are better than romance.”
Sam and Moxie shove him off before he tries to kiss their cheeks. Moxie gives her brother a foul look and then she and Sam go back to peeling potatoes. Dinner is going to be so, so late. Sam takes a careful step closer to Moxie so their arms brush. She doesn’t move away. He passes her a potato so their fingers catch for a second.
“Are you trying to romance me, young man?” she says.
“You’re my favourite potato,” he whispers.
She throws a potato peel at him. A smile plays on her lips and she doesn’t look away from him for a long time.