BY LAURA GARRISON
I’m arranging the display case when the bell tinkles, and by the time I straighten up these two old biddies are right in front of me, nestled together like salt and pepper shakers. One of them has bone-white hair that’s long enough to sit on, and the other’s hair is real short and black as a grave beetle.
What can I do you for, I ask, and the dark one, Pepper, says they want a cake, and I say yes, I figured as much, but what sort of cake do you want.
Lemon, she says. I ask her what it’s for, and she tells me. Boy or girl, I ask.
She and Salt put their heads together, then she turns back to me and shrugs, so I just write “green and yellow frosting.” I ask when they need it by and Pepper says noon, which is only a few hours away.
Well, my shop has been open for all of two weeks—since I stopped going by Patrick and punching the clock as a baker's man, dig it?—and I need the business, because folks don’t seem to have much of a sweet tooth in this town. My only other order is a dozen carrot cupcakes for the Dirty Hoes garden club meeting this afternoon.
So I smile and promise to bake them a cake as fast as I can.
When I ask for a name to put on the cake, Salt's lips peel back from her teeth and she makes this soft chittering sound, like somebody shaking a jar of spiders. But I'm a professional, so instead of screaming and clawing my ears off, I ask how do you spell that and print the whole thing on the order form.
They ask about delivery, and I say sure, if it's close by and easy to find, because I’m new in town and don’t have a car. Pepper draws a map on the back of one of my business cards. Thank you, Patricia, she says, sliding it over to me with a wink that makes me want to clobber her with my rolling pin. Then she puts her arm around Salt's waist, and they glide out the door as smooth as if they're on wheels.
By the time I find the path that matches the squiggle on Pepper's map, I feel like a melted candy bar, and it's a relief to step into the cool green shade. I hike along for a mile or so, enjoying the trees and my own company, before it occurs to me to wonder who would have a baby shower in the middle of the woods. But it seems silly to turn back after making it this far, so I continue, crossing a moss-covered bridge over a murky stream that smells like turtle farts.
A few minutes later, the path dissolves. I keep going, figuring it will start up again soon, but by the time it doesn't I've gotten all turned around. My hands are cramped around the cake box, which gets heavier with every wrong step, and I'm just about to plop down on a log for a good cry when I hear a bleating sound from somewhere nearby. I blunder toward it, crashing through brambles until I trip over a root and go sprawling, the cake box skidding from my fingers.
When I sit up, I’m in some sort of clearing, with patchy tufts of grass and swirls of brown leaves. There’s a big rock in the middle like an overturned mixing bowl. My cake box sits in front of it. One corner is crumpled up bad, and the cake itself is probably worse. Not that it matters, with nobody here to eat it.
Except there’s that bleating again, louder this time. Someone is leading a black goat up onto the domed rock. I recognize Salt’s white hair and I’m raising my hand to wave when the clearing dims like a theater when the movie is about to start. I look up to see the dark circle of the moon sliding over the sun like a manhole cover.
I must have missed something, because there are more people around now. Also, I’m lying down again, and the side of my head really hurts.
Everyone seems anxious, like a bunch of seventh-graders at their first dance, although most of them look old enough to be my grandparents.
A couple of rickety card tables have been set up and covered with plastic tablecloths. One of these holds my cake, which is in surprisingly good shape. I watch as Pepper cuts neat squares and sets them on paper plates. On the other table is a punch bowl full of something red and sticky and seething with flies; a bald man in suspenders ladles this into Dixie cups and passes them out.
Towering over the scene is the goat, which has swollen to the size of a woolly mammoth. Its eyes bulge, and its tongue dangles from its mouth like a strip of pink wallpaper. Salt strokes its hairy coat, whispering.
Suddenly, she steps back and shouts in that horrible chittering tongue, and everybody hits the deck, refreshments flying in the rush to press foreheads to dirt. A splash of not-punch hits me right in the eyes, and the world goes blurry.
I’m blinking like crazy, but I can’t seem to move any part of myself except my eyelids. My vision clears and I wish I’d gone blind, because now I can see what’s sliding out of the goat in a wet, ropy avalanche; dozens of them, hundreds, a thousand. I feel my mind bending like a warm gingersnap yet manage to lament, before the last crumbs of my sanity fall away, that I definitely did not bring enough cake for everyone.
Laura Garrison is creeping slowly southward like an unstoppable fungus that subsists on caffeine and gummy bears. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband, son, and cat. Follow on Twitter.