The crisp, fall air made Amanda feel like baking something special. Something really special. Standing at the kitchen counter, she brushes her dark curls out of her face and sips on a steaming mug of coffee. Outside, the autumn winds are stirring. She contemplates her ingredient list. She had almost everything, except for that one last ingredient that had to be at its freshest in order to make the recipe complete.
Pumpkin Pie Spice
Nothing made her happier than baking. Her eight to five job paid the bills, but as she drives home at night over the damp, dead leaves, she dreams of the hushed lights of her kitchen. Her neighbors found her a bit strange. There were pots clanking at all hours of the night and the smell of burnt sugar emanating through the open windows. Sometimes they called the landlord, complaining of the smoke detector going off for hours at a time. As if she didn’t even hear it. And in fact, Amanda usually didn’t. Because for her, baking was like casting a spell and nothing could distract her from that.
Her cup of coffee finished, Amanda was ready for the outdoor chill. She surveyed her mixing bowls and measuring instruments lined up in a row on the counter, ready for that last ingredient. Her coat smelled like pine and she breathed in the aroma heavily, smiling. Remembering the last encounter she had while wearing that coat. Breathless running through the woods, her heart pumping from the thrill. She held up her coat sleeve. But that blood stain really would just not come out.
“Morning, Charlie!” she calls to her letter carrier, passing the lanky, shaggy-haired man in the terrace outside her condo.
“Ms. Clarke,” Charlie acknowledges. His shifts the bag on his shoulder. This woman and her baking magazines, he couldn’t forget her name even if he wanted to. He pulls out an armful of her mail. “I have your magazines.”
Amanda grinned. She steps a bit too close, smelling him. Watching his neck as he swallows. “Wonderful!” she exclaims, reaching over to unlock the front door to her condo. “I’m in a rush, would you mind just dropping those in the kitchen?”
Charlie pauses. “Well, that’s not really allowed.” First it would be dropping off magazines. Then it would be moving furniture. He’d been down this road before.
“I’ll make you one of those cupcakes you love you so much,” she whispered, as though if anyone else heard she was making cupcakes then she’d be overwhelmed with requests.
Charlie pauses again. “I suppose…”
“Thank you so much! Just lock the door behind you. Bye, doll!”
Then she was gone, sprinting down the terrace walkway with a rapid clicking of her heels, disappearing out of sight. Charlie sighed and looked down at the dozen or so magazines he had been carrying around all morning. Sprinkles of rain started to dribble on his head.
“Alright,” he said to himself, stepping through the open doorway. He glanced behind himself one more time and quietly shut the door.
Sometimes he imagined what the inside of the homes on his route looked like. He got small glimpses into his customer’s lives from the mail they received. Some people were obviously in debt, receiving thick envelopes of credit card statements. Others had shopping addictions, their daily mail riddled with enticing coupons. And then there were the magazine subscribers, like Ms. Amanda Clarke. Old school, overcharged customers who were still willing to pay for the written word and a bunch of pictures. He was about to buy her an iPad just to save himself on his chiropractor bill.
Amanda’s house was not much different than he expected. Smelling heavily of perfume, it was a single woman’s paradise filled with candles and wall decals with cute yet inspiring messages like “Live, Laugh, Love” or “Home Is Where The Coffee Is.” Charlie shook his head, stepping into the kitchen. It was impressive, the walls lined with shining stainless steel pots and pans, impeccably organized spices and a bright red refrigerator. With finality, Charlie drops the stack of magazines on the nearest counter, knocking over a measuring cup and sending a piece of paper fluttering to the floor. He retrieves it and examines the writing beneath the window light. An ingredient list.
Illuminated by the warm glow from the oven light, Amanda sits on the kitchen floor. She is safe and calm in that little circle of light. The outside world no longer matters or exists. Her legs crossed, she is folded over in her lap, chewing nervously on her stained fingernails. The warm heat from the oven soothes her, tempting her with sleep. But she won’t sleep. She has worked all day for this moment, as the combination of ingredients reacts with the heat and builds a perfect little masterpiece. Or so she hopes. Will it rise? Did she get the ratios right? Her stomach burns with hunger.
It is better for her to be hungry to do the things she had to do. It raises the stakes and helps with the guilt, she has found. She is a huntress, something out of the storybooks from Amanda’s childhood. Those dark figures in long cloaks looking over their shoulder, half concealed behind a tree high atop a hill. Off to do some no good in which the details were left out. Amanda dares look away from the oven to examine the dried blood on her hands. She is shocked to feel hot tears begin to stream down her face. She wipes them away and presses her face up close to the oven again. There was darkness in the details, sometimes.
It really was a delicious looking cupcake. Dark and velvety, tiny granules of sugar sparkling in the Monday morning light. Charlie stared at it intently, imagining the cupcake would sprout a heartbeat from the amount of blood probably pumping through its chocolate veins. It sat politely atop the mailbox, wrapped neatly in cellophane that was tied with an orange ribbon. A small piece of card stock was tucked into its depths, with the note “For Charlie” followed by a winking smiling face. Charlie swallowed hard. He didn’t trust that winking smiling face.
Glancing up, Amanda catches his eye, watching him from her kitchen window. She nods and acknowledges him with a grin and raise of her coffee cup. She motions for him to take the cupcake and waves, disappearing into the shadows of her house. Charlie picks up the cupcake, being careful not to crinkle the perfectly smooth cellophane. He has just enough room in his pack to nestle the cupcake in between some outgoing mail. He avoids looking at the kitchen window again and tucks his head down, darting into a whirlwind of swirling leaves.
Charlie carried around the cupcake in his pack all day. The last time Amanda made him a treat, he consumed it immediately. In fact, he had consumed many of Amanda’s thoughtfully baked goods and he felt sick at the thought of it. He had been contemplating that ingredient list all day Sunday. Of course, it could have been a joke. Or an early Halloween prop. Or even just a list of random words. He unwrapped the cupcake that evening in the safety of his apartment and sniffed it. There was definitely something else there. And he didn’t want to know why Amanda was sharing it with him.
“Yes, it was on the ingredient list,” Charlie nodded. He brushed his disheveled hair out of his face. He hadn’t slept all night, he imagined that cupcake staring at him through the walls. He began to think he heard it clanking around the kitchen in the midnight hours.
Charlie’s friend, Dan, takes a quick sip of his espresso. He stares at the velvety cupcake sitting in front of him on the coffee shop table. He leans in carefully for a quick sniff.
“I don’t smell anything except chocolate and pumpkin. Did you try it?” Dan asks, taking another sip. He can’t help but smile.
“Of course not!” Charlie exclaimed. He looks around and tucks the cupcake back into his coat pocket.
“You realize carrying a cupcake around in your pocket looks strange. Right?”
“I might need it for evidence.”
“And that’s even stranger,” Dan adds. He sits up in his seat. “Look, if you’re that worried about this chick, just ask to change your delivery route.”
“I’m more worried about where this blood came from,” Charlie whispers, tapping the table for emphasis.
“You don’t even know if there’s blood in there!” Dan shouts. He looks around at the other concerned patrons and lowers his voice. “This is stupid, just toss it.”
“I’m trusting my gut here,” Charlie stands up from the table with a loud screech of his chair.
“Interesting choice of words,” Dan laughs. “And where are you going? I thought we were going to the movies!”
“Can’t,” Charlie zips up his jacket and pulls his hood over his face. Outside, a storm is banging against the coffee shop windows. “If you don’t hear from me in a few days, call the police.”
“Wow,” Dan shakes his head. “I might just call the loony bin and reserve you a spot right now.”
It was a cold and wet evening. A very, very cold and wet evening. Charlie’s cotton jacket was soaked through and it had been for several hours. The cupcake pressed against his chest, it was melting in his pocket simultaneously from heat and dampness. Perched in a Rhododendron in the terrace outside Amanda’s condo, Charlie couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a creeper. He had been watching Amanda since she came home from work. He began to doubt his judgement of her. In that warm glow of the kitchen, she looked like a perfectly sweet girl, her dark curls falling in her face as she laughed on the phone or sang to herself.
For hours, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. She cooked herself some dinner then disappeared for awhile, coming back to clean the dishes. Then she left again and for another hour, all Charlie could see was the faint flicker of a TV screen in the window reflection. Finally, he got sick of being soaking wet and decided to go home. He felt like a paranoid idiot, what a waste of time. He’d have to be up early for work the next morning and he was really going to regret this. Taking off his jacket to ring out the rain water, he noticed a huge stain on his jacket.
“The cupcake. Damn…” he sighed, examining the stain left by the melting cupcake. He grabbed the cupcake and tossed it into the mud beneath his feet. He brushed the remaining crumbles of cupcake off his hands and paused. In the dim light from the terrace, Charlie could see his hands were stained red. Cautiously, he holds up his jacket up to smell the stain. Unmistakably blood.
He starts running, leaving his jacket behind. He runs almost blindly, his hair in his face from the heavy rain. Charlie felt fear, real fear, for the first time in a long time. Was he being chased? He imagines he hears the clicking of Amanda’s heels behind him. Finally, he stops to catch his breath on a street corner, buckled over as he tries to calm the rushing in his head. He jumps as two booted feet appear in front of him.
“You alright, son?” It’s a security guard for the liquor store down the street. His slicker is shining from the rain but it might as well be a gleaming suit of armor for all Charlie cares.
“Oh, thank God. I thought – “
Charlie stops as he sees the security guard staring at the red stain on his shirt. Then down to the red liquid streaming from his hands down his arms.
“What have you been into?” the guard asks warily, his right hand reaching under his rain slicker.
“It was… a… cupcake,” Charlie whispers breathlessly.
Suddenly, a knife appears in the gray rain. Before Charlie can react, an arm wraps around the security guard’s neck and cuts across without hesitation. The man gasps and grabs his neck, falling into the road. Behind him, stands Amanda with a kitchen knife in one hand and Charlie’s jacket in the other. She smiles at him and winks.