I am making a Crunchy Top Lemon Cake from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, in a cardigan from Value Village that cost thirteen dollars and pulls on the back of my neck like the sense of guilt leftover from buying it. There is a nicer cardigan in the closet that only cost five.
It is a Monday in January, and winter has just started.
Janice and Sawyer called me into their bedroom last night to ‘touch base’, a niece’s performance review. Zoe, their daughter, compared it to a lice-check, or getting passport photos taken. They told me that I am not a disappointment, after all, which is a relief. I have spent the past year and a half imagining that, when they raise their voices or purse their lips, they are asking themselves how anyone could be such an idiot, and how much they wish I wasn’t there. Because I know that I’m not a piece of cake, and that, over time, it got too hard, and I just stopped wanting to be. If I was supposed to be stupid and lazy and callous, then, fine. Improvement was exhausting. By that time I had learned to brush my hair and teeth daily, how to wash dishes, and manners (more or less). I decided that, as long as I didn’t unlearn those things, a backslide was permissible.
I am making the cake knowing that nobody else is going to eat it. Zoe has a stomach the size of a walnut, Al eats nothing he can’t put sriracha on, Mei is trying to lose weight, Janice is gluten-free, and Sawyer hates sweet things. Tonight, perhaps, someone will help me eat it, because the church women’s group is meeting at ours; if they don’t, I will find someone at work tomorrow who likes cake and dump it on their desk, wrapped in tin-foil. Baking is not about the end product, after all. It’s about making something beautiful and good out of a cacophony of ingredients, which cannot contain themselves and are each disgusting when swallowed alone and raw, but you can put them together in a certain way that yields anything from the shamefully rich to the so-light-there’s-barely-a-flavour-at-all, and leaves your hands smelling of flour, lemon, and vanilla.
Grace March is a young writer from the Canadian prairies. This is her first publication.
I’ve got the sharp, little scissors palmed in my hand, and I’m waiting in line. Your brothers and sisters, your mother, they all went first. Chelsea, crying, her makeup streaking down her cheek like ink from a broken fountain pen. Your mother tucks Chase’s beanie little head against her hip, and she’s gasping for air. And maybe you finally did it, took away all the oxygen? Remember, how we’d put those balloons to our lips, shrugging away the taste of latex, staring at our chests in the mirrors, our bird bodies taking the shape of women, until you gagged, the ball of air sputtering out of our fingers, racing around the room, before falling, limp, at our feet.
I made the mistake of hugging your mother before I asked for the snip of your hair. I could feel you whispering, “Ask first,” but it was too late. The intimacy I had to trade was given freely, your mother leeching my little thread of power, mine and yours, bodies, so similar, down to the misshapen pinky toes, the nails like flattened pennies, our hair the same honeydew coloring that usually comes from a box. I was proud of her, your mom, for not saying your name, though I would have taken your place.
I’m alone up here, and its the first time I’ve been close enough to see that your makeup is all wrong. That instead of scissors, I should have brought more foundation, an eyelash curler, certainly, some blush, a touch of lipstick, because I want to remember you smiling, crying from laughter, our stupid jokes making the walls of your house ring with our promised youth. But I’ve always been the selfish one, right? So I’m going to make use of these scissors, because why should the Earth get the best of you? I skim the blades over the plush crèche of the casket lining, the points ripping the fabric subtly. The darkness will know I was here first. I tug sharply, but you don’t cry out. We’ve seen too many horror movies, joked too often about zombies, wondering why you couldn’t look half-dead and gorgeous. If anyone had a chance, it was you. I take a plait of hair, wishing they had let me braid it. Your bangs sit awkwardly against your forehead. You look like one of those late-in-life movie starlets, reaching back for the summer of their ingénue fame; a soccer mom on a Sunday morning sipping her Chamomile tea. The scissors jump in my hand, raking across that unnaturally flat space of skin, metal grinding, as the hair shreds into fine whispers of eyelashes, as I grab the larger pieces that dot your cheeks. I bend toward you, blowing, giving you my last filaments of air.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Spartan, JMWW, Split Lip Magazine, and New World Writing. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.
My father rode in a tank through France, or sometimes in a jeep. The tank was a M24 with 75 mm guns. The jeep was a Willys. He took a round in early forty-five and came home with a limp. Here he’s standing straight, hands on his hips, wearing a black string tie and his something-to-tell-you smile. His face tilts down an inch too far and his lips look about to explode. My mother took the shot. I watched him sleep at night. He never had much to say. Twice a year he left home and days later called from a jail and my mother made calls and begged for money until she could send a wire. At the mill she had to cover her hair with a scarf. He had a girlfriend in Portsmouth with her own children. We all knew better than to care. He grew stout and his limp grew worse until he was trapped in a recliner. My mother brought him soup and adjusted his pillow and answered his questions the best she could. He died one day while I was at school and she got a new job and bought new dresses and shoes. At night before going to bed I loved to watch her brush her hair.
John Riley lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he works in educational publishing. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Metazen, Connotation Press, Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Five Notebook, Willows Wept Review, The Dead Mule, and many other places online and in print.