Mystique died of food-poisoning. The Red Food dyes I had ordered weren’t really for food. And although the town hospital was only minutes away, fortunately, time failed us.
“Tick-tok, Tick-tok. Time passed, time arrived, time flying. Time and time again, time over, time out. ” The parrot’s refrain finds my audience every hour or so.
Sometimes she slurs and the tick-toks become just ticks when he’s low on sugar. I try to make up for all the time my wife Chantelle and I mistook him for the coco bird in the shop’s grandfather clock.
“Just shut-up.” I order while trying to gorge her on cake. The bird abides and for a moment I see the invalid she thinks I am in the way she looks at me. I want to correct her on that thought, and tell her that I am mostly a man stranded in his own thoughts and that’s why burnt cake is all I can manage. I also want to add that my oven is old-fashioned, unlike those with digital timers Chantelle had installed in the shop.
I say nothing.
The temperature drops as my feet lead the way. The parrot’s talons curl around my shoulder, their edges benign, reassuring.
We are both drawn to the brick-red warmth of the shop, the mid-rise of its louvered windows and those seeping scents flowing right through concrete. I let my hand touch the curlicues and rosettes streaked with grime on the door’s frame. I want to touch the slab of one-way glass at its heart. Chantelle had wanted it to look like a framed mirror so that customers could see the yearning and the hunger on their faces. She trusted her shop’s onrushing aromas. They’ll sense their way to it, Chantelle had said when we argued about display windows.
The shop sulked and disapproved of us when we wouldn’t go inside.
“Tick-tok, tick-tok…” The parrot chimes, flexing her wings before landing on the moon-shaped handle.
“Come back, you good-for-nothing bird, or I swear, I’ll shove you’re sorry behind straight in that clock.” The parrot retains her position.
The locked door opens just a crack, the aromas intensifying along with the spilling coppery light.
I close my eyes imagining my wife’s fingers in a pâte sucrée, rolling back and forth. I smell her fraise des bois breathe as she assembles rows of marzipan petits fours in floral tin boxes, a gift to her high-school bullies. She pipes tea-cake dough in cookie trays for her dear Uncle Matt, fending off his dirty hands with a smile. She sings fragments of old songs while serving our creditors, miniature Pavlovas topped with clouds of cream and shaved chocolate. She watches them sigh, watches the high of ecstasy on their faces as the pastries dissolve on their tongues. She watches them all lose their breath, the glow of satisfaction still lingering. A good way to go if it was ever someone’s last day, she’d say.
I also watch Mystique, the new assistant, walk in, her amber eyes seeking my wife. Mystique loves the colors of the seasons, the yellowish green of a dying leaf, the black-brown of charred toast, the liver spots on aging hands, and the rust- flecked red of dried blood. Chantelle is mesmerized, hungry for a new muse. Chantelle discovers the missing Mystique in her creations. Chantelle finds her new accomplice. Together they build the best layered cakes, crisp pecan wafers, strawberry genoise, and then comes their masterpiece: the airiest, red-velvet meringues with melted bits of the darkest chocolate. I watch them revel in discoveries. I watch them merge and become one.
My hands slip to the base of my throat. I feel it clogged with ice. It burns. I try to shut the chasm I opened in my heart, but I can stop it from pumping angry guilt. My breath is high and thin. Tendrils of scent fill my chest. I feel the ribs crushing under a rolling pin. My eyelids flutter open in rebellion.
Before my wife invites me in, I see, in the one-way mirror, a man drowning in the shadows of his own absence.
“Mystique had to go away.” I utter as I lower my face, inhaling my wife’s essence.
“Honey, it’s alright. I understand why you do the bad things you do,” My wife looks more radiant tonight, her voice like syrup. “I’ve got Geraldine, now,” Chantelle looks up lovingly at her new assistant.
My damn parrot flaps over to Geraldine, talons curling around her shoulder. A picturesque huntress with her bird.
“Honey, you know how hard it is to work a fondant dough when it chills, yeah? Becomes almost rock-solid?” I dart a couple of furtive glances around before my wife bends down and whispers in my ears. “Geraldine’s like that, too.”
When Geraldine smiles, I feel like someone blasted to cinder. She offers me a plate.
“We baked this especially for you. Your favorite red-velvet meringue.” My wife’s voice is a trepidation in retrograde, like the un-crushing of coarse sugar.
The shop’s eastern wall closes in on me with its photos of all those framed women. Amoree was my wife’s first…assistant, followed by Felicity and then Epiphany, and then Diana, and then Charmaine, and of course, the Mystique. I thought she was going to be the last.
Geraldine rhymed with Guillotine. I wonder what Marie Antoinette would make of my wife’s miraculous meringues.
“Eat.” The women say at once.
And so, I eat.
Riham Adly is a first reader in Vestal Review Magazine and has worked as a volunteer assistant editor in 101 words magazine. Her fiction has appeared in Bending Genres, Connotation Press, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Vestal Review, Five:2: One, Anti-heroine Chick, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Danse Macabre and Soft Cartel among others. In 2013, she won the Makan writing award in Egypt and recently she’s been shortlisted in the Arab-Lit Translation Prize. Riham lives with her family in Gizah, Egypt.