By Tami Veldura
Anna’s hand tightened on the cellphone she held to her ear. Her sister’s voice elongated and slowed as fear took ahold of Anna’s heart. She heard the creak of tendons under immense pressure, liable to snap–her wrist held under tension as she fought with herself. She desperately wanted to throw the phone, to escape the slow-motion words before she could hear them bring her carefully crafted life crashing down around her ankles. She fought the impulse only because she was in public and might bean some poor passerby with a pound and a half of electronic carrying the full weight of a panic attack.
The moment extended, like it does in dramatic cinema for the best effect, giving Anna plenty of time to memorize insignificant details of this moment. The crosswalk in front of her painted rainbow, the reckless lemon-yellow taxi taking a left in front of pedestrians, how the cloud that covered the sun seemed to suck all of the warmth and life out of the air. It was the breath before disaster, impending and unstoppable. Anna watched it come barreling down the phone like a train in a tunnel with nowhere to turn.
She managed to take her phone away from her ear in that unending second. Only a breath of distance, mere fractions of an atom of space, insignificant and yet momentous. Not far enough to miss disaster, but maybe just far enough to keep it from fatality.
With a snap time resumed its normal pace and Anna’s sister said, ”This is probably Mom’s last birthday. Don’t disappoint her, Anna. Your chocolate carrot cake is the only thing she remembers of us and I won’t let her pass away thinking she’s alone…”
Jasmin’s voice faded as the phone’s distance from Anna’s ear finally reached significance. She watched the timer on the call tick up in continued seconds, Jasmin orating a well-crafted guilt-trip into the lifeless air. Anna’s thumb moved over the screen, like the hand of someone else, and she watched it press the red button. Disconnect.
She hung up on her sister.
The tension released with Anna’s breath, as if Jasmin had been in control of her very heartbeat and now, with the phone silent, she was again free.
The crosswalk’s signal shifted. Traffic moved. Pedestrians crossed the trans-flag crosswalk to Anna’s right. The cloud released what life and light it had sucked away, sending it back to the earth like rainfall, each of the drops coloring the people around her, but missing Anna entirely. She was released, but not brought back to earth.
In this half-life she walked home, oblivious to everything but Jasmin’s words.
Don’t disappoint her, Anna.
Anna had never been a disappointment in her life. As a youth she excelled in school and sport, her college years saw a double degree with honors, her post-grad season exposed her to business and accounting which lead to the pinnacle of her achievement to-date: a highly successful, Michelin-starred bakery and café in the heart of New York which this time tomorrow would no longer be hers. Sold for nearly three million, making Anna all the most educated, most successful, and the most wealthy member of her small family.
A disappointment Anna was not.
Yet the words dug at her gut and squirmed into her chest making it hard to breathe and move. Swirling between anger and desperation, Anna stormed into her small apartment and threw her purse to the couch. She marched into the little kitchen, hot with indignation, and grabbed a dusty grey binder that sat in a forgotten corner of the counter. A corner Anna hadn’t looked at in years.
She slapped the binder on the tile and flicked it open, burning fury overriding any other emotion that tried to spring up. Guilt, nerves, even fear were all plowed to the side in the face of her simmering rage. Anna flicked through the book, old muscle memory pulling her to the exact page she needed.
Salted Caramel & Belgian Chocolate Carrot Cake.
She’d found a similar recipe in a corner of the internet sometime in her early twenties and between studies, reading, tests, and classes she perfected her own version. She tested it on classmates, roommates, friends, and teachers. She tweaked it with care, recording each modification and blind-testing her adjustments in the scientific method. Baking was an art, but Anna had brought the results to a science in six short years.
Her carrot cake had brought her little bakery from a quaint hole-in-the-wall on the edge of Nassau county to the beating heart of Central Park. There were other creations: cookies, custards, and creams, but the carrot cake was queen.
Anna hadn’t stirred up a batch of batter herself in over seven years.
Not for lack of desire, not for lack of trying. It wasn’t even for lack of time, though that was in short supply as the bakery rose to prominence.
It was fear.
Fear stayed her hand when she reached for a whisk. Fear clenched her heart when she set the oven. And now, as she stared at the familiar recipe she hadn’t opened in almost a decade, fear once again overcame her.
She couldn’t make this cake, even with her sister’s insidious voice laying in wait. The guilt weighed heavily, but the fear ran away with her first.
Anna spun away from the counter, gasping like she was drowning. She leaned heavily on her small-enough-for-two table and gulped. She was too hot, then cold in an instant. Shakes started in her legs and she had to sit down. She refused to look at the binder of recipes, even the counter itself. That entire half of the kitchen couldn’t exist–the oven, the microwave, the elegant set of neglected knives–anything that spoke of preparation had to be forgotten.
The panic only faded with Anna put her hand against her temple and blocked her peripheral vision. If the kitchen didn’t exist there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
Exhaustion suddenly overcame her. She leaned over the table and breathed until the shake in her legs subsided and the ache in her heart eased a little. She was hungry, she realized, and it was nearly time for bed. Where had her afternoon gone? Hadn’t she just gotten home?
Anna decided not to prod that dangerous line of thought. Something sinister lay buried there. Something better left forgotten. The line between sanity and panic was thin for some reason, a veil that breathed on either side, but obscured just enough that Anna could move past without naming it.
She retrieved an apple from the fridge and a jar of peanut butter from the pantry. She fished a spoon out of the drying rack. Her food was simple, often raw, and healthy by necessity. One couldn’t run a business on packaged pizzas. Anna kept to a strict diet, went to the gym three times a week, and the dentist twice a year. All of these elements of her life she had organized and structured, just like her work. Structure kept her on track.
Structure meant she didn’t have to think about the parts of the kitchen she’d forgotten.
An anxiety dream held Anna fast at night, worming into her subconscious, pulling things out that she’d buried years ago, exposing their rotting guts to the wan light of the moon.
She was baking.
With a steady hand, Anna whisked eggs into flour and sugar, the very basic elements of a dough that would become her award-winning carrot cake. The steel whisk was warm in her hand, the steel bowl, cool to the touch, and every circle her arm made scraped the egg and flour together into something more than the sum of its parts.
Beside her, the oven warmed. In this moment of beginning, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Her ingredients were arrayed before her like a palette of colors before a painter, and she selected them with the care of a chemist. She was focused. Intent.
She didn’t realize the oven was overheating.
The countertops caught fire just as Anna tested the final batter on the tip of her tongue. A little chocolate. A little carrot. Just enough sweet.
Her bag of flour exploded into flames, followed by the sugar, salt, and powdered cacao. Anna picked up her mixing bowl just as the counter melted out from under it and ran like warm frosting down the face of the cabinets.
She opened the oven. Wild flames greeted her, but despite this she slid the baking pan–full of batter–into the oven and closed the door.
Anna walked out of the kitchen as the flames roared higher, consuming the mixing bowl, whisk, and her doughy offering. Like an overdone cookie, nothing would come of this baking but ash.
There were nearly thirty pages of small-font, dense legalese that comprised the contract before her. Anna sat in a chair in an office situated above her bakery across from the buyer and his attorney on the couch. She paged through the document slowly, evenly, one paragraph at a time, comparing the words before her with the agreement they’d hammered out over the last year through email and snail mail drafts.
There were no surprises.
The bakery, its website and social accounts, its financial records and histories, its entire existence as an entity independent of its creator was to be turned over in full to one Julian Penning at the time of signing. In return, Anna was to receive a very large sum of money in a few timely payments, every detail of which had been finely honed to a knife edge.
Anna initialled several subparagraphs, then with a florioush she had practiced in college, she signed the final page.
Julian smiled at her, but she didn’t return it.
He signed his name beside hers.
Anna moved a small box from her lap to the table between them. Inside contained keys, passwords, and all manner of sensitive information critical to running the bakery.
In exchange, the attorney handed Anna a check with more zeros on it than she had years of school. She slipped the paper into her clutch and stood.
Julian wanted to shake her hand. Anna resisted the urge to run. She shook hands, shook the attorney’s hand, tolerated a few pleasantries. When she was released, it was only into the waiting jaws of the staff downstairs, who had come together despite the busy hour to applaud and celebrate.
Their cheers sounded to Anna like the crackling of fire, and their applause, the crashing of a kitchen burned to ash.
It hadn’t been this kitchen. It hadn’t even been this staff, but the anxiety dream had pulled the forgotten day out from the other side of the veil and it blended now with the crush of emotion and bodies.
She couldn’t breathe.
Signing that paper was supposed to free her from this nightmare, from the perpetual reminder every time she walked into the kitchen doors. And yet here she remained, burning, no further from that day than she was from the doors marked in neon green EXIT.
Fire consumed her the way she’d always wished it had, but no one saw the rush of flames eating her from the inside out. Hands patted her back. Arms hugged her close. Tears stained her shoulder. Cries of joy and sadness commingled with Anna’s living memory of fear. There had been crying that day too.
Somehow she found herself outside, walking across the familiar rainbow crosswalk, dodging the lemon-yellow cabbie making a left before the pedestrians. The fire burned, but she’d left some of it behind, fueled in the bakery where it had been born. Anna smoldered. A fire in waiting.
There was no fire waiting for her in the apartment, and in that chilly two-bedroom place her glowing embers were quenched. She shook. Her teeth rattled. She sat on the couch and finally cried. There was nothing left to hold her up–no fire, no fury–and she lay on the couch sobbing fat tears that still weren’t big enough to beat the flames of her fear away. She wilted, lessened by her terror. Not bolstered with it.
When the crying stopped, more for lack of water than lack of grief, there was only emptiness left. No fire, no tears, no bakery, no fear. Just a hollow echo before the inevitable downfall to come.
She had peaked.
Perhaps Jasmin was right. Perhaps she was a disappointment, now.
The whisk in her hand and the ingredients arrayed before her were familiar in the way the memory of a childhood home is familiar. In the way coming back to a place is much like catharsis, as nostalgia conflicts with the new.
The whisk was familiar. The kitchen: familiar. The oven… new.
Anna realized as she set the oven to preheat and positioned the rack that she’d never baked with this oven before. How long had she lived here? Five years? Six? Ah, yes, after the fire when she’d stopped baking, and then stopped cooking entirely. If she didn’t have to use the tools, she never had to address that day.
But now she whisked with a firm grip, she chopped with a confident knife, her muscles moved in perfect memory to batch, stir, mix, and knead. Her fire remained quenched, her mind: blank. If she was a disappointment there was no need to fear what was about to come next.
Anna sacrificed a loaf of bread to test her untested oven. A little hot in the back, light in the front. She would have to turn the cake halfway to ensure an even bake. A minor detail for a perfect cake.
Nothing caught fire between the second she turned on the oven and the moment she left the apartment, cake in hand, destined for her mother’s final birthday. She sustained no injuries. The baking produced no ash.
The fear had been quenched and now there was only expectation. What could a disappointment bring to the party except a perfect cake?
Anna let herself in to her mother’s house. Aunts and uncles were arrayed in the living room, getting on in years. Cousins wrangled nieces and nephews to the dinner table. Mom sat at its head among the Martinellies and the roast beef as much a ghost there as Anna felt, the two of them haunting a house that hadn’t moved on.
The oven in this house was familiar, a sharp and festering reminder of things not settled.
The family sat to dinner.
Anna provided dessert.
It was clear Mom didn’t have much time. Her lucid moments were brief now, she largely stared into the middle-distance with a half-confused tilt to her head, as if she felt she almost understood something but hadn’t quite caught it yet.
Jasmin prompted her to take each bite. To sip each sip. Mom obeyed when she noticed enough to do so. When she didn’t, Jasmin fed her by hand. Jasmin had done Mom’s hair in the style she liked, pulled up at the back and draping down over shoulders. It had been freshly cut.
Seeing her sister occupied, Anna took it upon herself to cut and distribute the cake. One slice to Mom, half slices for each nibbling who couldn’t wait any longer, a slice for each aunt, uncle, and cousin.
Mom took a bite of her cake an suddenly blinked. The taste had brought something of herself back. Her eyes focused on Jasmin, then the table spread before her. She smiled broadly as she spotted Anna at the opposite end.
Then Mom’s head crashed to the table and disrupted her cake as she died.
Jasmin dropped her first bite. The nibblings all laughed, thinking a game was afoot. Some smashed their faces into their cake. Some didn’t come back up.
Aunts slumped to the side.
Uncles rose to their feet only to collapse with their next breath.
Jasmin froze, half stood at Mom’s side, as the dinner table became the final resting place for each of their small family. All of them except Jasmin at one end, and Anna at the other, who sedately finished the last of her slice.
”Are you disappointed now, sister?”
”What…?” Jasmin was stuck, stooped, wide-eyed. Lost.
Anna lifted her empty plate like a toast. ”You should have a slice of cake.”
This story is available from October 5th — 12th. If you’d like to be notified of free fiction when it goes live, please join the newsletter! This story is exclusive to the blog and unavailable anywhere else. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short story possible.
This story was available from October 5th — 12th. If you’d like to be notified of free fiction when it goes live, please join the newsletter! This story was exclusive to the blog and unavailable anywhere else. Special thanks to my Patrons who made this short story possible.
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