Spaghetti and Meatballs by Mariya Khan

“It’s just a little something to help.” Mrs. Hamilton smiled. “So you don’t have to worry about dinner with the chemo and everything.”

The foil tray felt heavy in Cara’s trembling hands. She clutched it so Mrs. Hamilton wouldn’t see her fingers buckling under the weight. 

“Thank you. Mark and the kids will love it.” 

Cara forced a smile. Otherwise, Mrs. Hamilton and the other moms would think she was ungrateful. Lately, they all followed a rotating schedule of dropping off meals. Last time, Mrs. Daugherty brought over soggy stuffed bread rolls. The kids complained about the raw dough. Cara said it was disrespectful to deny Mrs. Daugherty’s thoughtfulness and hard work, and Mark gave the kids an extra helping of ice cream to compensate for their empty stomachs. They believed they were extending their sympathies, but to Cara it looked like she gave up on being a mom. The last she wanted her kids to think was that she gave up. 

In the kitchen, Cara gently peeled back the covering. It looked similar to the version Cara made every other Saturday without her gooey mozzarella balls. Maybe her kids should get used to this, eating variations of their Mama’s recipes after she passed. Mark wanted to keep things positive, but Cara knew better with her late-term diagnosis. 

“What’s that?” 

Cara was startled to see her three kids in the kitchen. Only Lizzy, her youngest, showed some semblance to Cara with her blonde hair. Now that Cara shaved away her hair, Lizzy barely bore any similarities. It almost felt like she wasn’t leaving anything for them. 

Cara sniffled and wiped her nose. “Oh, Mrs. Hamilton made us spaghetti and meatballs.”

Lizzy snatched a meatball. “That tastes weird, Mama,” she grimaced. The massacred meat slid off her tongue and fell on the counter. 

“Lizzy!” Cara ripped off a paper towel and wiped the counter. “Don’t be rude. Mrs. Hamilton probably spent hours making it.”  

Alton slurped one of the noodles. He frowned and ran to spit the food in the trash can. “No, Mama, that’s spicy. I want your spaghetti.” 

Cara scooped some out to try herself. She coughed at the stinging that burned her tongue and throat. They were right. She knew that her kids weren’t going to eat something this spicy. The dish looked but didn’t taste the same. Maybe Mrs. Hamilton didn’t use homemade meatballs like Cara did. Or maybe she used a different brand of tomato sauce. Cara wasn’t sure if she could make it for her kids before she left, but she didn’t want their last memory of spaghetti and meatballs to be Mrs. Hamilton’s version. 

Cara sighed and picked up the tray, unsteadily balancing it as she threw it in the trash. The kids cheered and tightly hugged Cara.

“You guys have to finish your homework, though.” They eagerly nodded. “Okay, but first, Lizzy, set the table, and Alton and Elliott, put the pot on the stove.” 

While the noodles boiled, Cara wrote measurements on Garfield stationary so the kids wouldn’t forget. The recipe was simple, but she still wanted to write it down. Just to make sure it was there in case they needed it. Cara couldn’t control when she left her kids, but at least by writing this down she could control what she left for them. Hopefully, it’d help her future grandchildren remember her too. 

Stirring the noodles was easy. Cara grimaced as she tried to get through the rest like she used to. Her trembling fingers put too many spices in the meat. They didn’t let her pack the meat into little balls. She almost threw the deformed meatballs in trash but took a deep breath and plopped them in the sauce. Her kids wanted her to make dinner, and the last thing she wanted was to disappoint them.

Mark came home from his second job to the kids at the table. He kissed Cara and wrapped his arms around her disappearing waist. Cara put down her pen and rested her head against his. 

“Why don’t you sit?” he murmured. “I got this.”

“No,” she sighed. “It’s almost done. Can you check their homework?”

Mark’s nose touched her ear before he nodded and broke away. Cara smiled at the sight of him laughing as they talked about school. This is what she would miss. She hoped that they were still cheerful like this after she was gone. 

When she tried to lift the pot to drain the starchy water, its contents spilled onto the kitchen tiles and burnt her paper-thin skin. Cara yelped and jumped away from the boiling water, the pot crashing to the ground and noodles sprawling out. 

“Cara!” 

Mark ran for an ice pack and wrapped it in a paper towel. He held Cara’s hand, squeezing it gently so her brittle fingers wouldn’t crack and break away. Cara took steady breaths as tears welled up. Alton, Lizzy, and Elliott watched Cara’s lips tremble as Mark held her close. 

That night the family had Pizza Hut for dinner instead.

Mariya Khan is a South Asian and Muslim American writer from Maryland. She is a graduate of The George Washington University and Summer Institute at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her work has received awards from the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, 50 Word Stories, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Asians in America, and Constellate Literary Journal, among others. When Mariya is not writing, she’s trying new recipes and watching crime dramas. You can find more of her work at https://mariyaskhan.wixsite.com/portfolio.

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