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Cookies in the End

by Emily Cummings 6 months ago in Short Story
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How do you spend your last hours?

Cookies in the End
Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

As Marja opened it, the cabinet exhaled a gentle breath of dust. She had not touched the cookbooks in far too long, she knew. Cooking had brought her joy a year ago, but in the last few months, the recipes had tasted differently. No matter what she tried, what spices she added, how she changed the temperature, the dishes just tasted ever so slightly wrong. Not bad, but wrong. But today, she somehow knew that she could do it. The stakes were high enough today. She wanted her children to eat cookies today.

She brushed her fingers along the edges of the dusty books. Some of the titles were too faded to discern, but she knew their contents well regardless. She recognized the floral pattern on the side of a side-dish cookbook, and the rich, warm brown of the book she hadn’t touched since going vegetarian. There was the date night cookbook, the veggie puree cookbook she had used when Bobbi and James were babies, and the simple 15-minute recipe book she and Thomas had almost demolished in the year after undergrad. And then her finger hit the one she was looking for. It wasn’t even really a cookbook, but a journal that she had scrawled all of her favorites in. None of these recipes came from the internet; they were all gifts. Fancy salad recipes from a bridesmaid, a bread recipe from her brother-in-law, several different pie recipes from her sister, and much more. The ink was terribly faded, but she knew the recipe she wanted so well that a simple glance at the recipe would be all she needed. Besides, it wasn’t as though she’d need the recipe again.

Marja sighed as she pulled the book from the shelf. It felt sadly familiar in her hands, as though she were visiting a childhood home for the first time in decades. She knew where everything was, what lay on each page, what measurements were ever so slightly wrong. She knew that the recipe she wanted wasn’t even attached to the book, but was tucked between a blackberry cobbler and a roast veggie recipe. It was the one recipe she hadn’t written down herself. Nine years ago, when she and Thomas were married, her mother had tucked the recipe into the book herself, the one she’d made for Marja when she was little. She’d wanted Marja to have it to bake cookies for her own children, and Marja had done so many times. But not for months now.

Marja ran her fingers over the faded blue cursive of her mother’s handwriting, remembering how her mother’s hand felt. She had seen her mother only a couple of weeks ago, but wished she could have one more time before today. The recipe she held now would have to suffice. A lump rose in Marja’s throat as she stared at the paper, and she fought to swallow it down. She bitterly wished that she had baked in the last few months. Her children deserved better than grocery-store bakery cookies, no matter the quality. But it was no use regretting it now.

Eggs, brown sugar, butter, flour, salt, baking soda, vanilla, chocolate chips, oatmeal, walnuts. Even now, she discovered, she barely needed the recipe; she knew the ingredients so well. She crossed the kitchen, pulling from the fridge, the pantry. The flour emitted a small puff of white dust as she grabbed it, coating her hand and the counter. She brushed it absentmindedly to the floor, realizing that she wouldn’t need to sweep it up. The thought brought a hint of a smile to her face.

She pulled the stand mixer out from the cabinet, swallowing the lump in her throat again as she saw the tiniest scratch on it from when James had accidentally hit a saucepan against it. He had cried for five full minutes afterward, wracked with the guilt that accompanied damaging something. Bobbi had stood three feet away, spatula in hand, staring concernedly, at a loss for what to do, while Marja showed James pictures of the car she had crashed when she was twenty-five. James had continued to sniffle for a few minutes afterward, and Bobbi had tried to cheer him up by handing him a messy fistful of cookie dough.

The memory brought the tears out; Marja couldn’t help it. It’s fine, she thought, I can’t cry when the children get home. Better to get it out now. She set the stand mixer on the countertop and wiped the free-flowing tears from her cheeks. Cookie time.

She preheated the oven, then creamed the butter and brown sugar in the mixer, added eggs and vanilla, and slowly mixed in the flour, salt, and baking soda. After a smooth, light brown dough had formed, she mixed in the chocolate chips, oatmeal, and walnuts. She scooped a single spoon of dough into her mouth. Perfect.

As she dropped little balls of cookie dough onto the baking sheet, she placed a few spoonfuls in a tupperware in the fridge. On the off chance that she was wrong, Thomas and the kids loved raw cookie dough. Then, into the oven went the baking sheet. She set the timer for twelve minutes.

With that, Marja sat down in the kitchen rocking chair and wept. Flour dusted the floor, the eggs sat, warming, on the counter, and she made no effort to stem her tears. Her nose grew stuffy and her throat hurt and salt stung her cheeks as she cried. The timer ticked faintly in the background.

That morning, Marja had woken in bed three minutes before her alarm went off. At that moment, she knew, inexplicably, with more certainty than she knew her own name, that the world would end that day. She didn’t know how, or exactly when, but she knew that it would happen. Thomas lay asleep beside her, unknowing, content. She stared at his sleeping face, the gently closed eyelids, the fine smile lines around his eyes. They seemed so much more intricate today, as though she were suddenly seeing things she never had been able to before.

She knew she should be terrified beyond belief–if the world was ending today, then so was she, so was Thomas, so were Bobbi and James. But, somehow, she didn’t feel afraid, only a little sad. Everyone’s going, she thought, there’s nothing to miss. We’re all going out together. Maybe that was it. Or maybe death just isn’t as frightening as I thought.

As the kids got ready for school that day, Marja said nothing. Even if she felt calm, she couldn’t be certain that they would too.

Why don’t I keep them home today? she asked herself, why send them to school at all? Why let Thomas go to work? But she knew the answer, even though she never would have thought of it before. Normal is special. They deserve a last normal day. As Thomas left, she pulled him back for an extra kiss, tasting his chapstick, feeling his hands on her back. He held her eye for a moment longer than usual, and she wondered at that moment if he knew as well and, like her, wanted normalcy. Then he squeezed her hand and stepped away. He hugged the kids before climbing into the car, and Marja watched them run down the driveway after him as he backed out.

“Bye, Daddy!” they called, “Bye!” Marja smiled as the car disappeared around the corner. She scooped up her children, one in each arm, nuzzling their heads while they squirmed and laughed. They were almost too old for this, in their minds, eight and seven, but in their squirming they didn’t try very hard to get away. As the school bus pulled around the corner, she kissed them each on the cheek.

“I love you,” she told them, and they turned and threw their little arms around her.

“Love you, Mommy!” They laughed, then ran to the bus without looking back. They waved at her from the bus window as its wheels began to turn again. And just like that, they were gone. Marja stood in the yard, alone, waiting for the world to end.

The timer rang, breaking her from her reverie. She looked at her hands. They were wet. Her eyes felt puffy. The time for tears was over.

She stood and pulled the cookies from the oven. Using a spatula, she lifted one to check the bottom. The bottoms so often burned when she baked, but she could never figure out why, nor prevent the burning. The bottoms of these were perfect, and she said a silent thank you to a god she’d never prayed to. She transferred the cookies to a plate, turned off the oven, and went to the bathroom to wash her face.

The sound of squeaking brakes outside told her that the children were home. Marja dried her face and looked in the mirror. Her eyes were slightly red-rimmed, but she told herself she just looked tired. Once she told her children there were cookies, all would be forgotten.

Bobbi and James burst through the door, tracking in dirt crumbs with them. Marja helped unzip their jackets and took their backpacks. They sat down to pull their shoes off, each using both of their tiny hands. They wore lace-up shoes, but couldn’t be bothered to undo the laces, instead pulling the still-tied shoes from their feet. They dropped them by the door and began their usual beeline for the kitchen for a snack, but Marja stopped them.

“Guess what?” she asked them, taking in every beautiful detail of their coy smiles, “I made cookies. Wanna watch a movie?” The children both squealed with excitement, running to the hallway to pick out a DVD. Marja knew it was old-fashioned, but she had never been able to bring herself to throw away the VCR. Anyway, it took ages for the kids to pick a movie on Netflix, and only moments for them to pick a DVD. Marja pulled milk from the fridge, glasses from the cupboard, and carried the cookies into the living room. The children sat on the couch, happily brandishing Monsters, Inc. at her. She set the milk and cookies on the table and took the movie from their hands as they each grabbed a cookie.

Once it was playing, she sat down between them, and they each wriggled closer to her, leaning against her with cookies in their hands and crumbs on their mouths. The movie played. As Bobbi and James fixated on Mike and Sully and Boo, Marja focused on her children’s hair against her torso, the way they shifted ever so slightly as they chewed their cookies. As they each reached for another, Marja did nothing to stop them. Let them, she thought, what’s the harm? She took one herself, slightly apprehensively, but it tasted perfect. As she ate it, she wondered how these, that she had just baked, tasted so perfect, when she hadn’t been able to make them right for ages. Was it all in her mind? Would anything taste better if it might be the last thing she ever ate? Did the high stakes caused by the end of the world make her try harder? Or was it all simply coincidence? Perhaps she had simply bought better flour the last time she went to the store, or mixed the dough for just the right amount of time…but whatever it had been, for once, there was nothing wrong, nothing she would change.

James had fallen asleep in the last few minutes. Marja gently stroked her sleeping son’s hair, his dark curls wrapping around her fingers as she did so. Bobbi hummed quietly, likely not even knowing she did so. Marja suddenly felt slightly warm. She looked over her shoulder, out the window. The sky outside was red. Not red with smoke, or with sunset–clear, blood red. She turned back to the TV, watching Sully and Mike leap between the hanging doors.

“Mommy,” Bobbi murmured softly, “It’s hot. I’m hot.” Marja rested her cheek on her daughter’s head.

“I know, sweetie,” she said, “It’ll pass soon.”

Bobbi nodded and nestled herself closer against her mother. Marja looked back at the plate of cookies on the coffee table and held her children. Outside, the blazing, dying world crept closer.

Short Story

About the author

Emily Cummings

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