Authors: Cassie Wright
I can barely breathe. Scratch that. Depending on Mrs. Strongmeyer's reaction to my honey lemon tart, I may never breathe again. She's the head judge of the Franklin County Bake Off, and looks like the kind of sixth grade teacher who loves to wake up students by smacking their desks with a ruler. That, and she's rail thin. How can you trust or even like a baking contest judge who doesn't have even a few little curves?
I struggle not to wring my hands as I watch her size up my tart. Rachel and Hui are standing behind the rope, at the very front of the crowd. Rachel has her fingers crossed, eyes wide, while Hui has her eyes closed and seems to be praying. I gulp. Mrs. Strongmeyer leans down and examines the crust from an inch away. There is complete silence in the Honeycomb Falls town hall. I watch her eyes narrow behind her horn-rimmed glasses. Is that a frown? I can feel sweat running down my back, tickling and tormenting me. Mrs. Strongmeyer sniffs sharply and straightens. I haven't been this tense since Rachel hired me to cook at Honeycomb Hall. My stomach is tied up in knots, my throat is closed, and I'm lightheaded from lack of sleep.
I glance down the line of contestants. Paula Jones was demolished by Mrs. Strongmeyer's nose wrinkle when she tried her sea salt and caramel cake. Louisa Hayden's not yet recovered from Mrs. Strongmeyer's pitying chuckle, and Jasmine Freyr is still standing on tiptoes, her dark chocolate gateaux having earned a grudging nod. I stick my hands behind my back and raise my chin. I feel like I'm standing before a firing squad. All I need is a blindfold and a cigarette. Maybe not the cigarette. A long, lusciously curled flake of white chocolate will do.
Mrs. Strongmeyer takes up the gleaming silver cake knife that's set by my tart, and inspects it. I see Rachel roll her eyes. She called Strongmeyer "a grandstanding bully who lives all year in anticipation of this one afternoon's power trip," and I'm starting to think she's right. Should I have made my grandma's strawberry rhubarb tart? I know it's a killer, but I just had to use Rachel's secret ingredient. The welcome gift from one of the members of the local Cairn.
The knife descends, and Mrs. Strongmeyer cuts herself a slice no wider than her pinky. I bite my lower lip as she raises it, perfectly balanced on the blade. The whole audience leans in. Rachel raises her hands, crossed fingers pointing at the ceiling, and Hui continues her low-voiced appeal to whomever she's beseeching. You could hear a pin drop. Mrs. Strongmeyer passes the slice beneath her nose, inhaling powerfully, her eyes half-lidded with focus, and then finally, at very long last, takes a nibble.
My stomach cramps. I'm staring so hard at her face, trying to divine her reaction, that I feel like I've memorized every wrinkle, pore, and hair. She chews slowly, in an exaggerated fashion, working her tongue around her mouth. A frown creases her brow. Annoyance? Frustration? No – confusion. Is confusion good? No, not confusion. Surprise. Mrs. Strongmeyer continues to chew, her eyes darting from side to side, and she looks almost upset. I can't take it anymore. I'm going to pass out. Or scream. Or both.
Is she getting flushed? Hui's voice is rising in volume, and Rachel is leaning over, trying to glimpse Mrs. Strongmeyer's face as she slowly, almost reluctantly, licks her lips for any crumbs.
My eyes go wide. She hasn't done that for any contestant thus far. I clench my hands together so hard they hurt. Mrs. Strongmeyer coughs, fluttering her eyelids, and then purses her lips, trying to look stern. "Interesting," she states, addressing nobody in particular. "I'm going to have to try a little more to be sure."
Then, with everybody watching, she cuts herself a fat wedge and stuffs it in her mouth.
I can't believe it! Rachel lets out a whoop and starts shaking Hui, who tries to continue praying until she finally gives up and opens her eyes. "Anita has won?"
Jasmine Freyr is staring daggers at me, and people all around are laughing, whispering, shaking their heads. Mrs. Strongmeyer has never, ever, in the whole history of the Franklin County Bake Off, repeated a taste. She's busy swallowing now, her chest heaving, her cheeks swollen out like a gerbil's. "The winner," she says out of the corner of her mouth, "Is Anita's honey lemon tart." She fans herself, and shakes her head. "Good gracious. I'm taking this with me."
Then, to everybody's shock, she grabs my tart, the whole thing, and hurries through the crowd and out the side door.
Silence, and then everybody erupts in cheers. Rachel rushes over to envelop me in a hug, while Hui stands by my side, smiling widely and patting my shoulder enthusiastically. I can't believe it. I'm stunned. I feel like I've been hit in the head. "Did I just win?"
"No," says Rachel, grinning widely. "You conquered! My god, did you see the way she scurried out of here? Anita! What did you put in that tart?"
"I won?" It still hasn't quite hit me.
"Congratulations, Anita!" Mindy, the owner of the general store, is beaming at me, so proud I almost start to tear up. She's the one who gave me a place to stay when I ran away from home, taking me off the streets and charging me practically nothing for rent. "I knew you would win!"
This is what it must feel like to be a celebrity. Everybody's smiling at me, patting me on the back, and in usual fashion, descending upon the offerings now that the contest is over.
"Will Ms. Anita Hall come on down?" It's old Mayor Thrushmore, holding a mike and grinning in my direction. The crowd parts, and suddenly nervous – no, terrified – I scoot over to stand by his side. He's wearing his customary white seersucker suit and panama hat, and wraps his arm over my shoulders in a grandfatherly fashion. The audience lines up before us, plates in hand, happy to listen now that they've got slices of tarts, cakes, meringues and more in hand.
"I like to consider myself an eloquent man, but wow. That's about all I can manage right about now, Anita. Just what did you put in that tart?"
Before I can answer, Hui calls out from the crowd, "Trade secret. Anita cannot tell."
Everybody laughs, and Mayor Thrushmore grins. "Fair enough, fair enough. Either way, it seems your honey lemon tart has won the Bake Off handily, and so it is my honor – and delight – to present you with this year's medal, and a check to the tune of ten thousand dollars!"
Everybody tries to do that awkward one-handed clap against the base of their plate-holding hand, and Rachel lets out a whoop. I feel dizzy. Ten thousand dollars. Just two months ago I didn't have a penny to my name. Ten
Rachel links her arm through mine, and leads me off to the side. "You all right?"
Hui hands me a cup of water. I gulp it down. "Ten thousand dollars. Mine. Me. I own it. Money."
Rachel laughs. "Yes! What are you going to do with it? Do you have plans?"
We all sit at a small table, and I set the empty cup down carefully on the red and white checkered cloth. I hesitate, not because I don't know what I want, but because I'm scared to tell Rachel.
Who smiles at me. "A trip to Paris? A new car? Use it to rent a nicer apartment?"
I shake my head. "No, I – what I really want is –" Both Rachel and Hui lean in, eyebrows rising in expectation. My voice gets quieter and quieter. "To open a bakery."
Their eyes go wide. Rachel clasps her hands together, but instead of being furious, she looks delighted. "A bakery! That's an amazing idea. You'll get rich!"
"You're not mad?" I speak all in a rush, like I always do when I'm nervous. "Because I don't want you to think I'm ungrateful, you'll never know how much it means for you to have given me a place at Honeycomb Hall, and I thought I could still provide all the baked goods, but if you want me to stay longer, if you want me to hold off on opening the bakery, I can, I can wait as long as you want –"
Rachel leans forward and takes hold of my hand. Looks me right in the eye. "Anita. You have a gift. You need to do whatever it takes to let that gift shine. I think opening a bakery is a wonderful idea. I'll be your very first customer."
I can't help it. I tear up, my lower lip trembling. I stand up, and Rachel does the same so that we can hug tight. "Thank you," I whisper. "Thank you thank you thank you."
Rachel smiles and wipes away her tears. "You're going to make us all so proud."
Hui is frowning, however. "How are you going to open a bakery with only ten thousand dollars? Is that enough?"
I nod as we sit. "Yes. Almost. I'm hoping to get a bank loan to help cover the extras, but it's enough to rent the empty store next to Mindy's. I've already worked out the costs, the overhead, and I won't need to hire anybody else at first, I'll do all the work myself. If I can have a good first couple of months, I should be set."
Both women nod. "You really have thought this through," says Rachel. "I'm impressed."
How can I convey my excitement at the thought of owning my own little bakery? At waking up at three in the morning to set my bread in the oven, the experiments I'm eager to try, the little confections, the display cabinet I can't wait to put together? "I'm hoping to put in a couple of little tables so people can have coffee and a croissant in the mornings. A little nook by the front window."
Hui nods approvingly. "Do you have a name yet?"
I blush. "I thought I'd just call it 'Anita's'. Is that too boastful?"
Hui nods again. "Yes, it is boastful. But you have the right to boast. So it's good."
I laugh happily. This is all so surreal. Nathan, Mayor Thrushmore's hunky son, stops by to congratulate me and my heart does flips. Helen, the owner of the Gypsy Café, does the same, followed by Joanna Kilmarten, a curvy girl about my age who's volunteering as a town patrolman. She gives me a big hug, her green eyes alight with happiness for me, and I'm surprised by how sincerely warm she is. I've felt invisible for so long.
For a few minutes I just thank people, and fend off all questions as to the ingredients of my tart. More and more people line up to congratulate me, and when Rachel sees me starting to get overwhelmed she stands up and pulls me away, out the same side door that Mrs. Strongmeyer fled through, grabbing our coats as we go, into the fall sunshine.
The air is crisp, and the trees along Bridge Street are all showing their glorious fall colors. They look like flames, their crimson, umber, cadmium yellow and passionate orange leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze. We all zip up our jackets, and linking arms, start to walk down toward the Conway River, leaving the madness of the town hall behind.
"You used the honey, didn't you?" asks Rachel casually.
"The honey?" Hui sounds confused.
"Mmm-hmm." Rachel nods, a sparkle in her eye as she looks at me. "Remember when all the shifters came by with gifts, welcoming us as the new Lodge? One of the gifts was a little vial of honey. A very handsome man brought it by, bigger even than Blake and with eyes of the richest chestnut. A very nice young man. But what was his name?"
"Rachel gave me the honey as a thank you present," I explain. "And yes, I did use the honey. I had to. It was... amazing." I sigh. I allowed myself one taste. The glass of the vial had been cloudy like seaglass, but the cork that stoppered it was brand new. And oh, what honey. What amazing, delicious, seductive honey. I carefully poured a single drop out onto the tip of my finger, but before I even tasted it I knew it was special. The smell was rich and spoke of late summer, of bees traveling from one wild flower to another, of lazy afternoons in meadows, of sunlight sparkling in gushing streams. And the taste, when I brought that bead of amber to my lips? I had groaned and sat back, luxuriating in the rich, complex flavors that ran through that one little drop. It made me feel like I was sitting beneath a great old oak, a straw hat on my head, a sunny afternoon stretching before me with nothing better to do than rest and enjoy watching the clouds stream by.
"I used the whole vial, because there really wasn't that much. I didn't even get to bake a practice version. I had no idea if it would work out, but apparently..."
"Mrs. Strongmeyer lost her shit," says Hui matter-of-factly.
Rachel hops with glee. "She really did! I wonder where she ran off to? Do you think she's hiding in the bushes somewhere, gobbling up the rest of the tart?"
I grin at the image. "I wish I'd had a chance to taste it, though. To see how it came out."
"Me too," sighs Hui.
"And me." Rachel sighs as well, and, sad for the lost cake, we reach the Conway River. Cars rumble over the wooden boards of the truss bridge, but of course we cross over the placid waters via the bridge of flowers, which now in the height of autumn is looking bare.