She has always hated the cake. She says it to her brother the moment he presents her with the favor.
“I despise it, Robert.”
He is six years old and she is eight and she has only just learned the word. Despise. He had help making it, but the credit is his, the blame is his for the cake he has brought to her. The birthday girl. It is salt bread slathered in frosting of a sugary pink. It is the tack carried by sailors across seas in ancient times or by the soldiers in their grays or blues once upon a time. Frosting does nothing. She bites and gags and she glares but she takes bite after bite until her piece is gone.
He is eleven years old and she is turning thirteen and he has crafted the cake on his own. The cake is surrounded with an array of file folders stood upright and splayed to hide the treat away while it awaits the unveiling. The birthday girl pulls away folders to find the pink surface over a pan filled with chocolate. There are no candles to blow out, no designs or decorations. Her brother beams. She cuts away a slice and lays it on a paper plate and with a fork she takes a taste. The body is moist but devoid of flavor. The iced top has in it a vague syntheticity. She gulps and blinks and she eats every bite. The smile she offers when the piece is gone is almost convincing.
He is twenty-eight and she is thirty and the single slice he brings to her had been cut days prior from a cake meant for an event at his office. Some stranger’s retirement or promotion. A line of blue design and a candied letter C remain on the piece. The birthday girl forks a bite into her mouth and she nods and she swallows. It is okay, and she says it’s okay, and she does eat the whole piece down, but okay is not enough because she has always hated the cake. She despises it.
Her brother is thirty-seven and the birthday girl is thirty- nine and the piece of cake he has brought to her little home was purchased from an old baker in an old delicatessen with an unremarkable name etched in its unremarkable sign. He looks at her with a shyness now as he hands her his offering.
“I’ve heard only good things.”
She nods and she takes the little tray in hand with its plastic lid snapped in place to hold at bay the world from its sweetness. She lifts it, taking the measure of its heft. Then she begins to cry.
“No,” says the brother. “Hey. Hey, what.”
She tells him. Not like she told him that first time, not with the bratty pomp of an eight year old birthday girl. It is done with a gentleness, but she tells him for only the second time in her life a truth that has always been. She has always hated the cake. When he looks away she tells him still. She does not hide this truth. His embarrassment comes in waves, a radiated heat. His shame and hers. And he is crying now too, and they are hugging, and more words are said, but these are but flair now as the spell has already been cast. When her brother has gone she puts it in the freezer, that piece still shut away in its tray with sealed lid.
She is forty-five and she has not seen her brother in years. She is fifty-nine and she hasn’t aged a day in two decades. She is sixty-seven and the cake is still there locked away.
She is some impossible age at the far end of untold years and she sits in a little house whose every surface is coated in a thick falling of dust. The world is quiet. A stillness envelops everything. She stirs and stands and she moves in a slow shuffling, as if she’s been still for some time. After those first steps her stride quickens and soon she finds herself standing in the foyer of her humble dwelling. She takes in hand the front door’s knob and she turns and pulls. Sunlight erupts all around her. She flinches but she does not turn away. Still the world sits in silence. A world changed, one removed whole cloth from that which she knew. It is this she turns from when in time she does turn. And there she is, in a mirror affixed just inside the door reflecting back the visage of a fetching young woman aged thirty-nine years.
In the kitchen she pulls open the door of an icebox that has not worked in countless eons. From it she pulls a tray with its slice of cake sealed away. The tray gives a sigh as the lid is lifted. She swallows with throat dry. She could get a fork from a drawer but she does not. She takes the piece in hand and brings it to her mouth for an overlarge bite, and she is chewing that spongy delicacy, and it is sweet still, and it is moist still, and it is not like she thought, it isn’t how she remembers. For just a blink of a moment she almost thinks this, this might be delicious, but before that thought can come wholly formed the birthday girl has joined this dead world and turned to dust.
Craig Rodgers has an extensive collection of literary rejections folded into the shape of cranes and spends most of his time writing in North Texas. His newest release is novella The Ghost of Mile 43.