On our walk up from the sea, we pass a seal, bloated, gashed, and tossed among the crags of that nasty beach. Tiffany leans into it, kisses its forehead. I ask her if she’s worried about flies. She smiles. An obsidian-glossy fat one crawls across her lips. I brush it off. “Ah,” she giggles, “I was hungry.” But her laughter, while rippling and beautiful is missing its bottom end, its gravity. Nothing tethers it to the earth; it simply bubbles out into the fog and hangs there, bumping against my earlobes. Gravity must have exhausted itself in her. I take her hand before her toes lift off the sand. I’ll lead her home up the hill like a balloon if I have to. She squeezes my fingers. She is glad that I’m here. She didn’t mean to scare me. She feels much better now.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I will get you home.” She fingers the buttons of her shirt. “I will hold you in the shower. I will wash you clean. We don’t need much to fix this. We have all we need.” I squeeze her hand.
Still, Tiffany is hungry. Right now! She pulls out of my hands, jogs up the street, not floating away, but so shaky, her ankles shattered, and she flattens herself against a bakery window. “Can we go in? We have to go in. It smells so good.”
The bakery’s windows are fogged over.
The fog tastes like salted butter.
The woman behind the counter, the baker, looks like we startled her. She freezes, wooden spoon held high in the air. Her hair is a knotted and floured nest. Her apron is a smear of colors.
Eyes are her only moving part, scanning us.
A faucet is running.
Water is endlessly pouring down the drain.
Tiffany is trembling.
“We can go somewhere else,” I whisper.
The wooden spoon clatters to the ground. The baker hustles over to the case of pastries waiting there, sitting so politely between us.
“I didn’t see you.” She slams her hand down on the counter. “Scared the piss out of me.” I know this woman. She lives in the same apartment complex we do. She has two young daughters she’s always screaming at. Most nights her husband comes home with a paper bag balled up in his fist. They seem like a nice family. “Sorry if I scared you back.” She smiles. “So what will it be? We have the most unique pastries in town. Choose carefully. Remember you eat what you are.”
Tiffany is pulling at her buttons again. Trying to take her shirt off. “What do you think,” I ask her to distract her. “Get anything you want it’s my treat, “I say.
“That’s a first,” she says. She’s teasing. She traces her fingers along the case, drawing patterns, doodling on the glass. Her focus is gone. I read the names out to her. They have subtitles.
San Andreas Fault Crackle Top Cream Puffs: With Genuine Earthquake Rubble!
Dark Chocolate Brush Fire Brioche: Mixed with Certified Ashes and Sea Salt!
Eucalyptus Monkey Bread: 100% Real Leaves Taken From the Asphalt Outside the Cage Where the Monkeys Cry!
Devil’s Slide Mud Pie Donuts: Minimum 10% Actual Mudslide Content Scraped Off the Highway Before Dawn!
Tiffany presses her body against the case. Her buttons clack against the glass. She licks the case as if her tongue could reach the goodies through it. She is confused. The baker is unfazed.
“Never mind all that,” she says to me. “Go ahead and take a seat.” She gestures at the little round tables and spindly cafe chairs behind us. “I can tell what you want. I can tell what you need. I’ll have it up in a jiffy.” Her body and her stare have not gone anywhere. “Coffee?” she calls out as I put my arm around Tiffany and lead her to a seat by the window, where we can look out into the whiteness that has swallowed our world.
“No. Thank you”.
Tiffany’s scratching at her buttons, trying to pull her shirt open, but her fingers are bent into angles she’s not used to. Angles I am not used to. But I am used to seeing her jumpy like this, in a focused panic.
“It’s ok,” I say, “You’re ok.”
“I’m just a little hot”. She says.” It’s nothing.”
“Is that what it was,” I ask her. “Did you just need some air?”
She’s yanking at her shirt. I get glimpses of what’s underneath.
“Yes,” she says. “I couldn’t breathe.”
“I know that happens to you sometimes,” I say. “You just need to relax. You’ve been working so hard”.
“There’s too much sitting on me,” she says.
“What’s sitting on you?”
“Everything. You. Sorry.”
“I just believe in you,” I say.
The first two buttons pop free from her shirt, skip off the table, and land on my lap.
The fissure splitting her chest starts just under her collarbone, an angry “V” that widens down to her belly button.
“I needed to not have to think about anyone else. For a minute. Not even you.”
“Of course,” I say. “We’ll paint the kitchen. We’ll paint it green. Everything will work out.”
A piece of hair falls over her eye. She leaves it there. I want to brush it away so I can see her eyes, but the hole in her chest is so wide, blazing red, and angry, I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid the injury will spread if I touch her the wrong way.
“No matter what,” I start to tell her, …
“Here you go,” the baker breaks in, sliding a cup of coffee and a plate in front of each of us.
The baker stands there, hands on her hip, where her apron hangs.
Tiffany looks into the ramekin before her.
“Delicious.” Tiffany says.
“You eat what you are,” the baker says again.
“What am I?” Tiffany asks, picking up a fork.
“Fog Soufflé,” the baker answers. “Made with gorgonzola from a small farm in Sonoma and from fog right out there,” she points to the window, “harvested every morning, by my two sleepy and resentful daughters, caught in pillow cases my mother slept on daily for seventeen years while ridden with depression and what the doctor called a female spirit deficiency, but turned out to be MS. The fog is caught just as the sun begins to rise, just as it heats the water and the fog rolls up and in , catching the leftover ghosts from the night, catching the nightmares that creep out of the sleeping heads and windows of the town and blow down to the shore on the wind. My daughters tired, and crying, sometimes bleeding from falling on rocks bring it right over, and they invariably fuck it up, so I hit each of them with my spoon until they collapse on the ground, and then I grab each of them and beg for their forgiveness, and they tense up and don’t hug me back. All of that seeps into the fog, and before it can weep out, I beat farm fresh egg whites and fold the fog and cheese in and bake at 350 degrees for an hour.”
Tiffany plunges her fork into the ramekin and shakily carries a bite into her mouth.
“You’re not eating it right,” The baker says. “Aren’t you hungry?”
Tiffany drops her fork. “I’m scared.”
The baker says, “I know sweetheart. But don’t think of this as the scary part. Think of this as nutrition. It’s going to give you what you need to get where you need to go.”
“But,” Tiffany says, “What if I don’t want to go where I need to go.” She looks at me.
“If that was true,” the baker says, “I would have served you something else. If that was true you would be someone else.”
Tiffany looks up at me, and then throws her hand into the steaming ramekin, pulling up fistfuls of fog soufflé and stuffing them into her chest. Into where she’s hungry. The fog covers over the angriness of her heart. It moves over her as if it’s digesting her, instead of the other way around. The fog foams and spreads, covering her until she’s translucent and floating off her chair, through the door and back to the sea she threw herself into.
When I look up, the baker is staring at me.
She points down to my plate.
“What is this? Is it fog berry pie? Will it let me follow her? Will it allow me to bring her back? To fix her?”
“You eat what you are,” she says, “That’s not what you are.”
“Then what?” I ask, “Um…kelp crumble? Will it help me hear her song in the wind?”
“Like you’d listen. It’s cherry pie.,” she says. “Eat it up happy girl. I know you want to.”
“Where are the cherries from?” the emptiness hits, the sudden absence. My love is gone and I wouldn’t even look at her wounds, I wouldn’t even stop talking.
“The fuck should I know that for?” The baker answers. “It’s cherry pie. Sweet. You’ll like it.”
Flaky crust, cherries like bombs of tart and sugar, brightness exploding and splashing across my tongue. The baker is right. I love it.
Caroljean Gavin's work has appeared in places such as Bending Genres, honey & lime, Barrelhouse, and is forthcoming from The Cabinet of Heed and The Conium Review. Currently she’s raising two rambunctious boys and a novel while looking for a home for her story collection. Image: Mists, Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, 1906