Count on Something Sweet

all illustrations for this series by A. Andrews

In the summer of 2004, my older brother, younger sister and I could count on each other and little else, it seemed. We’d been uprooted from our childhood home—losers on the side of a divorce that left little in its wake but ruin—and deposited in an apartment complex that catered to families like ours. Unmade, and cobbling together the remaking with too-soft flesh and paper-thin walls.

Our poverty no longer sat at the edge of my awareness, a dull hum calling only in the most quiet moments. It roared, untamable, lingered around every piece of secondhand furniture we owned. The horseflies that no amount of bleach and scrubbed surfaces could eradicate. The mice lured in by peanut butter and left screaming in the endless rotation of sticky traps behind the fridge. The hot pink ten-speed I got for my ninth birthday stolen from our patio on move-in day. All echoes of a life that dripped with what was now inescapable.

I had no answers for my little sister then. But my brother. In his teenage wisdom. His endless cool. His constantly-whirring brain. My brother knew all.

We would have followed him wherever he led that summer. And each day, he led us to K-Mart.

My mom left a few worn singles on the counter most mornings before work. My brother was to ensure we ate, to look out for us, to be good. It became an adventure of sorts, counting out the money, walking to the Super K-Mart behind our building that required we jump a shallow creek in order to reach it, picking the meal of the day.

We combed aisles, made a game of calculating sales tax in our heads. The practical options were ramen (cheap, quick, impossible to screw up) and generic Kraft mac and cheese (cheap, quick, shockingly easy to screw up). But that summer, we were only marginally interested in practical. Watched a practical home ripped from underneath us. Sat by as our practical family car was repossessed. Witnessed our practical mother try to hold herself and her children together with both hands as the world threatened to tear us apart.

No. We no longer needed practical. We wanted goodness, even if it was fleeting. We wanted saccharine, even if it left us yearning. We wanted Cosmic Brownies.

We wanted their artificial chocolate flavor staining our teeth, their almost chemical-tasting colored candies coating our tongues, their thick corn syrup crawling through our veins. We wanted their cheapness, their artificiality, the honesty of their emptiness. We wanted to devour to consume to gorge. We wanted to decide what would be our unmaking.

And we did. All summer, bound together by blood and forged under the sickly shine of K-Mart’s fluorescent lights, we did.

Years later, there would come a new house, new side of town, the ending of it all. No brother, no apologies, a family unmade once more.

But in the summer of 2004, my brother counted out the measly dollar bills left on the counter. He walked us over to K-Mart. And he made sure that, every day, we could count on something sweet.

This is the final installment of DINNER PARTY, a four-part weekly series of bite-sized essays edited by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya. Check out the first piece, Hot Cheetos: A Chorus by K-Ming Chang, the second course, Caesar Salad: Anamnesis by T Kira Māhealani Madden, and On Grandmothers and Malai Curry as Thick as My Missing by Sreshtha Sen. Illustrations for the series made by A. Andrews.

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Leah Johnson

Leah Johnson is an eternal midwesterner and author of award-winning books for children and young adults. Her bestselling debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, was a Stonewall Honor Book, and the inaugural Reese's Book Club YA pick. In 2021, TIME named You Should See Me in a Crown one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time. Leah's essays and cultural criticism can be found in Teen Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Cosmopolitan among others. Her debut middle grade, Ellie Engle Saves Herself is forthcoming from Disney-Hyperion in May 2023.

Leah has written 4 articles for us.


  1. Wow. Because I’m not a writer, I honestly cannot put into words how deeply your writing affects me, but I feel it.

    Also, of all the things I’ve read during this Panic! At The Disco, Rise to the Sun was my absolute favorite! I devoured it in one weekend.

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