Check out this sneak peek of "A Birthday Cake," a short story from our upcoming book:
"A Birthday Cake" Copyright © 2018 by Ava Lepor
I am waiting at the Sweet Dreams Bake Shop with my ticket, number fifty-four, in my hand.
“Take a number,” the white-capped clerk had said. She stands behind the counter over the display case filled with all the desserts I crave, a treasure trove of guilt. Delectable, decadent chocolate eclairs, Italian crostata, lemon meringue pie...The white-capped clerk looks as if she has sampled everything, and then some.
It is the day before Thanksgiving, and it seems like the entire town is shopping here. Based on my number, there are thirty-six customers ahead of me. I came for bagels and baguettes, but I don’t believe I can withstand a long wait in a bakery smelling of apple pie and chocolate chip cookies. Tough luck, I think, this really is sweet torture.
“Sugar is the devil,” someone says to nobody in particular. It is an elderly woman seated on her walker.
“Have you come just for bread, then?” I inquire, trying to be polite.
She shakes her head. “Matilda is turning six, so I’m buying her birthday cake.”
She fingers her ticket, number fifty-two, only two ahead of mine. We might as well chat; we both have a long wait ahead.
“How lovely,” I say. “So is Matilda your great-granddaughter?”
She frowns, disapproval etched on her face. “Matilda is my daughter,” she says icily.
“I see,” I say, as I don’t see at all. Looking at her, I figure the old lady must be in her nineties, probably suffering from dementia. My great-aunt Gertrude used to believe she was a teenager when she was in her eighties...
“I make a special exception for Matilda’s birthday,” she says, interrupting my thoughts.
“And what kind of cake will Matilda be getting?” I ask, regretting the question as it tumbles out of my mouth.
“Same as always, strawberry shortcake with a real cherry on top!” she insists. “I will never let them stick a doctored-up cherry on my daughter’s birthday cake. Never!” She waves a bony, blue-veined fist.
“Ticket number twenty-two!” announces the heavy-set clerk. The smiling customer collects her pumpkin pies and a box of lemon cookies. My mouth hasn’t stopped watering the entire time I’ve been waiting.
The old lady scowls as the next customer, a portly middle-aged gentleman, orders three-dozen glazed doughnuts, a seven-layer cake, brioche and a cherry pie.
“He’s digging his own grave,” the sour old lady snorts. She looks around at the other customers, shaking her head. She looks as though she has never tasted a doughnut in her life.
“Well, I’ve just come for bread,” I say, hoping she will think better of me than the others. She looks me over and I wonder if she will criticize me, too.
“Well, I can see you don’t eat sugar,” she finally decides, satisfied. I exhale, thinking I give in sometimes, though I do try to limit it. I’m also an exercise nut, so I burn up calories like crazy. Yet I still feel guilty by nature.
The aromas in the bakery are over-powering. I fear my will-power will be defeated, especially if the old lady leaves before I place my order.
The white-capped matron calls ticket number twenty-seven. It seems like people are taking their sweet time deciding. I’m getting antsy, so I figure I might as well make more small talk. “Will you be having Thanksgiving dinner with your family?” I ask the old lady.
“I will be alone,” she says. Her emerald-green eyes do not hide her sadness.
“But what about your daughter, Matilda?”
“Matilda was killed long ago by a drunk driver,” she says, “or she’d be with me now.”
I register this bit of information with difficulty, trying to hide my shock and confusion. Is this a demented old woman or a bitter mother grieving a child long gone? “But you said you were here to buy Matilda’s birthday cake,” I object stupidly.
“Yes, I am. Every year, I get my daughter a birthday cake and bring it home. I celebrate her birthday the same as ever.”
It occurs to me that she may be bitter and eccentric, though not actually demented. My heart goes out to the bereft old lady. I instinctively want to protect her, to befriend her. To take her home with me.
My thoughts are interrupted by the insistent ringing of my cell phone. “Hello,” I answer. “Yes, this is Kate Wetherly.” It’s the architecture firm I’m slated to begin work at on Monday, five days from now. They want me to show up an hour early the first day. “Okay, no problem,” I say politely, thinking longingly about the extra hour of sleep I will be missing.
The old lady eyes me curiously. “Well, now, Miss Wetherly, is it?”
“Yes,” I smile. “And you are--?”
“Cybill McLintock. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” She offers her hand, making the introduction official.
We talk some more. I tell her about my upcoming design-consulting job, that I recently moved to San Diego from Des Moines, my hometown. I confide that this will be my first Thanksgiving away from home and that I hope to make new friends in this new place soon.
“Well, Kate,” she says, beginning to thaw, “I’d say you just made a new friend. Me.” She smiles a sad little smile.
Cybill opens up, telling me she’s been a widow now going on eighteen years, albeit a wealthy one. She lives in a lovely home in La Jolla, the same home she has lived in since she and her husband purchased it in the 1950’s, when she was expecting Matilda.
I think how strangely close I have become with Cybill McLintock. How time has flown in the past half-hour or so, conversing with her. She has surprisingly melted my heart.
The white-capped matron suddenly calls ticket number fifty-two; it’s Cybill’s turn. The clerk smiles at the old lady as she presents her with the birthday cake, tucked neatly inside the pink bakery box.
“Open the box. I want to inspect the cake,” she orders.
The clerk grabs a knife and cuts through the tape that seals the pink box on either end. I watch as she opens the box, revealing a beautiful cake replete with fresh strawberries on a sea of white frosting, topped with a real cherry. In large scarlet print it says, “Happy Birthday, Matilda.”
“Excellent,” Cybill announces, satisfied. She signs her check and hands it to the clerk, carefully carrying the pretty pink box.
“Have a lovely day,” the clerk tells her. Then she calls the next customer, the bearer of ticket number fifty-three.
A pretty blond woman in her late twenties (around my age) approaches the counter. She is wearing an old cotton dress in faded blue. She smiles politely at Cybill as she hands her ticket to the clerk.
“Your order?” inquires the white-capped matron.
“How much is a loaf of whole wheat bread?” the young woman asks.
The blond woman takes a small plastic wallet out of her bag. She finds four singles, three quarters, a couple of dimes and a nickel. As she is about to pay, I notice a little girl, who has been eyeing the display case goodies, suddenly tug on the woman’s dress.
“Mommy,” the child says, “Can I get a real birthday cake for my birthday? Please?”
“I’m so sorry, honey, but we can’t afford it.”
“But Mommy, Pepper had a real birthday cake with icing and her name on it, a real pretty birthday cake. And so did Emma!”
“I know, honey. I’m sorry. We’ll bake oatmeal cookies instead, okay?”
“But I never had a real birthday cake! Never! It’s not fair!”
Embarrassed, the blond woman takes her daughter’s hand, holding her bag of bread with her other hand. “Let’s go, honey,” she says.
Cybill has been watching this exchange with a look of annoyance. But now, I see something in her emerald eyes, a softening.
“Wait!” she calls to the blond woman, “You forgot something!”
Meanwhile, my ticket number fifty-four has been called twice, and I rush over to the counter, distracted.
“Your order?” inquires the clerk behind the counter.
“Uh, two baguettes, please, and a half-dozen onion bagels.”
As she bags my bread, I am mesmerized by what is now transpiring.
“I just realized I have a birthday cake I don’t need,” I hear Cybill telling the blond woman. “Do you have any use for it?”
The blond woman is surprised, embarrassed. “Oh, that’s so thoughtful of you, but I couldn’t afford it. We’re fine, thank you.”
“Please accept my gift,” Cybill insists. I have already swiped my credit card, taken my bag of bread, and turned around. I am now facing the two women.
The little girl looks hopeful. “Please, Mommy?” she says.
The blond woman smiles and accepts the birthday cake, thanks the old lady, and turns to leave. The little girl tugs on her mother’s dress. “Mommy, please let me see my birthday cake!” she pleads. “Please! Please!”
“Okay, honey,” her mother agrees, opening the still unsealed box from Cybill’s inspection. Cybill is still watching, tears in her eyes. The young mother bends down to show her daughter. They both stare at the cake in disbelief.
“Mommy, look! It says ‘Happy Birthday, Matilda’ on it!” The child turns to Cybill. “How did you know my name?” she asks.
Cybill is speechless, tears now flowing from her shining green eyes. I put my arm around her to steady her, even as she sits on her walker.
“Why don’t we all go sit at that bistro table in the corner?” I suggest, sensing a bond has been formed enveloping Cybill, the young mother, the child Matilda, and me. We sit and talk. We learn the blond woman is Maggie Somers. She and Matilda live in Navy housing in Point Loma. They miss their husband--and daddy--who is on a submarine somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and won’t be coming home until April.
Maggie invites Cybill and me to Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment. It will be just the four of us; neither Maggie nor her Alabama relatives can afford the trip to be together. We exchange contact information.
Cybill excuses herself to get another number. She has volunteered to bring dessert. While we wait for Cybill’s number to be called, I volunteer to bring turkey, cranberry sauce, salad and baguettes. Maggie is visibly relieved at our offers.
We sit and talk and laugh as if we are old friends. I feel so much more at home than I did about an hour ago, when I first entered the Sweet Dreams Bake Shop. Cybill’s number is announced, and she scoots over to the counter, smiling. She calls, “Kate! I think I’ll need some help with my package!” I rush over to help her, as she orders chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin pie, brioche and croissants. I carry the heavy bag of goodies back to the bistro table, as Cybill laughs and tells Maggie and Matilda about our upcoming Thanksgiving dessert. Matilda says that Thanksgiving will also be her sixth birthday, and we are all invited to her party.
Matilda now looks at Cybill. “Will you be my great-granny? Emma and Pepper have great-grannies, but I don’t. I wish I did,” she confides.
“Absolutely!” smiles Cybill, “And you will be my sweet great-granddaughter, Matilda.”
We all hug and laugh and look forward to the next day, and many, many happy days of thanks to come.