“Rise and shine everyone, it’s gonna be a hot one!”
Josephine Grovewood groaned as she slowly opened her eyes. Her body was sprawled over a dull, pink couch, one she had picked up on the side of the road last week before moving into her new apartment. The color wasn’t ideal, but it was hard to find anything that wasn’t pink, lilac or any variation of pastel in Sunshine Town – well, difficult to find anything cheap, anyway. Plus, it wasn’t like she had a choice.
Aside from the TV she had left playing while she slept, an overturned mixing bowl had fallen off the tippy-top of a vintage-looking desk covered with flour. Cherry seeds and glass shards scattered the floor, staining the carpet with a deep red that seemed to sizzle with the leftover September heat. Josephine’s sandals were nowhere to be found, but her socks were on opposite sides of the room as if she had taken them off in desperation during the night. Light pooled in from the window and had mercilessly burned the soles of her feet.
She winced and began to take in her surroundings, Wanda Lovely’s news reporter voice crumbling into the distance along with the vacant static humming of her worn-down television. All that was left was a faint smell of rotten fruit and chocolate, but Josephine didn’t notice it, her nostrils plugged up by the humidity. Instead, she tried to move and was met with the discomfort that was her clothing. Last night had been so hot, her top and bottoms now stuck to her body and drenched in sweat. She felt like she was glued to the couch, and when Josephine attempted to sit up, water squeezed out from the cushion like a sponge onto the floor. It evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and Josephine sprang up, a sudden headache threatening to throw her back down.
Parting stringlike strands of honey-colored hair from her eyes, she scanned the room for a culprit, but could attribute nothing to her current state of being. The bottles of wine Richie had gifted her weeks ago were still unopened and calmly lying on the only good shelf she owned in the corner of the room. No man or woman lay next to her, only what seemed like an overheated phone that blared an alarm that had been muted. She picked up the device only to throw it back down after letting out a scream. It was scorching hot. Not only that, the case had completely melted into what seemed like chocolate frosting. Somehow, part of it was plastered around the legs of the table, as if someone had lathered it there to cover up a scratch.
Josephine resisted the urge to throw up and wiped the goop on her tank top right over a similar, but older, brown stain. She frowned — it smelled like chocolate, but when she brought it to her lips, all she could taste was plastic. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the luxury to spend time wondering what had happened last night. She needed to get to work.
There are two cardinal rules for living in Sunshine Town: Number one, do everything with a smile, and number two, don’t be late for work. Ever. So when Josephine pushed open the doors of Piece of Cake — Sunshine Town’s preppiest and only joint cafe and bakery, decorated with pink vinyl records and an explosion of frills and ribbons — she was met with a devilish grin from Vernon Andrews and annoyed glances from all the other coworkers who had been forced to open up early in her place — that is, if the heat hadn’t woken them up first.
“Good morning mophead, looks like someone’s getting fired today,” Vernon whispered in her ear, passing by with a tray full of blueberry scones. The tray he was holding, however, looked like it was melting into the same frostinglike substance her phone had earlier in the day. Josephine had to rub her eyes to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.
“Not a chance, Vermin,” she hissed, recovering from confusion by mocking him back. Josephine collected her apron from the hook and cringed at how warm and moist the fabric felt, refraining herself from wringing it out.
“I’m the best pastry chef here. There’s no way Margaret would kick me out,” she called over her shoulder, flipping the pockets of her uniform inside out and watching dark crumbs fall to the checkered floor. Josephine stared at them for a while, wondering when the last time she baked a cake had been before kicking them under the shelf hastily. She was already two hours late, no need to fuss over the unimportant details. All that mattered was that the outside part of her uniform was still intact.
Vernon rolled his eyes at her insult and walked into the storage room to get more supplies just as Margaret walked out. Josephine opened her mouth to speak, but Margaret handed her a stack of menus before she could say anything.
“Menus. Assigned to you last week. Loved everything except for pages 2-13.” Margaret crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes at Josephine.
“What … was wrong with those pages exactly?” She was drawing a blank. The dull throb of her headache wasn’t letting her think straight. Plus, what had seemed like dry crumbs from her pockets were now sticky and had made their way into the crevices of her nails. Josephine began to pick at them incessantly.
“Oh, I don’t know, possibly the chocolate stuck in various corners of the pamphlet??” Margaret yanked back the menu from Josephine and groaned.
“Girl, you’re a mess.” She took out a clean rag from her pocket and started wiping Josephine’s mouth.
“Hey —” Josephine recoiled.
“You’re strange, Josephine. I ask you to bake chocolate cake all the time, and you say you can’t out of respect for your mother. Fine. But when you come to work late, mess up the menus and cover them with chocolate, cover yourself with chocolate … ” Margaret handed Josephine the washcloth, which was now a stained umber. “At least learn to cover your tracks better. I know you’re still baking, but you don’t have to lie about it to get out of work. This is literally getting out of hand,” Margaret sighed, obvious hurt in her tone. She shook her head at Josephine’s fingernails.
“But I haven’t been baking!” Josephine protested as Margaret walked back out into the main part of the store, leaving her alone inside the bubblegum-painted kitchen. She stared at the washcloth in disbelief and then touched the corners of her mouth. How had she missed that this morning?
More importantly, Josephine was quite certain she hadn’t been baking, especially chocolate cake. Ever since her mother had died a year ago, she swore off the treat Mama Grovewood used to make her every year. She even refused to consume anything cocoa-based. Chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate-molded decorations, chocolate filling, chocolate ice cream — Josephine always said no. She understood Margaret’s feelings of betrayal, but Josephine was now left more confused than ever, and the heat that seemed to bounce off the walls was suffocating.
“Lila … I think I have a problem.” Josephine sat down with her best friend on a tiny bench in Melrose Park. A circle of doves flew by them, followed by curious children who chased them with open hands. One of them splashed into a dirty puddle and ruined a dove’s wing, staining it a rich carob color. Josephine looked away quickly before the dove fell.
Lila put down her drink and raised her eyebrows at her friend with an annoyed smile.
“Don’t we all.” She gestured to her phone that was going crazy with texts from an ex she had just dumped.
“I’m serious.” Josephine frowned, smacking the brunette’s tan leg and scooting closer to her. She looked over her shoulder and watched the kids surround the dove, which seemed to be struggling to get up from the pool of mud. Screams filled the air, and she clenched her fists anxiously. The heat seemed to be weighing the dove down, and Josephine wiped at her neck nervously, expecting to find mud running down her own body, only to find beads of sweat. Relief filled her body, and she eased into the burning bench.
“I think I’m sleep baking.” She didn’t realize she was whispering until Lila put down her phone and yelled “What?!” straight into her ear.
Josephine winced and cleared her throat.
“Sleep baking. As in, I get up in my sleep and bake.” She fidgeted with her apron. The various stains from work used to comfort her, but not anymore. They reminded her of a lack of control and made her wonder what exactly went on at night.
“Sweetie, I think the heat’s gettin’ to ya.” Lila stood up and stretched. Somehow, she seemed unbothered by the way the sun poured down its wrath on the little city. Her body had no sheen or sign of sweat, only a glimmer of makeup from the highlight on her cheekbones. She looked fabulous.
“Possibly … ” Josephine sank deeper into her seat, ignoring the way the hot bench grilled her legs. Maybe Lila was right. Maybe it was more than that too. Her mom had only been gone for a year, and Josephine had grown up with her. After her death, Josephine had to move to Sunshine Town to live in her grandmother’s old apartment — no friends, no family, no one. Only a talent inherited from her mother to bake and the occasional visit from Lila who lived in the next town over. She had felt a need to get away.
Maybe she was just stressed.
It had been rough, and she still wasn’t used to being alone. She liked solitude, but usually it came with unwanted company inside her head. More often than not, it was her mother’s voice, criticizing her for spending her money on too much takeout, eating unhealthy food or using her fingers to measure stuff when she could just follow the recipe. But sometimes it was her father — a man she had never met, a man she had been destined to meet if her mother had not been found dead when Josephine had come back from school that afternoon. He would creep in and take on various voices, but he would always say one thing:
“Let me see Helen.”
That night, Josephine decided she would bake something. She had never meant to get the cocoa powder out of the drawer where she had it locked up or mix all the ingredients for the chocolate frosting, but yet there she was, topping layer after layer of the cake. It was as if her fingers had a mind of their own.
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Halfway through the baking process, she found herself breaking down from a memory.
Every time Josephine had a birthday, her mother would bake her a cake. So turning 18 would be no exception to tradition. That May, her mother asked her what she wanted for dessert. Josephine was surprised.
“Well, at this point in my life, I feel like you shouldn’t even have to ask me that,” she giggled. Helen smiled warmly, but then cleared her throat.
“Yes I know, sweetheart. It’s just this time we’re having a special guest.” Her voice went quiet, and that’s when Josephine knew her father was coming to visit. She had overheard her mother speaking to him on the phone in hushed tones throughout the week, but Josephine never actually thought he’d follow through with the idea.
Alexander McCullen left Helen Grovewood right after she had given birth, too afraid of having to deal with the responsibility of being a father, too afraid to face the bundle he had created, one that would signify the loss of his status as a single man with no responsibilities. Josephine grew up without him, and while she resented Alexander for it at first, she had gotten over the idea of not having a dad. So when her mother told her that her father was coming back to see Josephine for her 18th birthday, she revolted.
Josephine made sure to get home from school right before her father. She was planning on taking her mother out instead, but Helen insisted on staying, still frosting the chocolate cake on the table, her back to Josephine.
“How are you sure he will come?” Josephine screamed through anxious sobs. She didn’t understand why her mother was so focused on Alexander when it was her special day.
“Why do you want him to come back?? He left you. He left us. He left me!”
She remembered staring at the cake in a bitter silence. She remembered seeing how tall it was. It had to have been the biggest cake her mother had ever made. Josephine wanted it gone. She wanted to grow even larger, even taller and topple it. Have it crush her father, so her mother would never see him again. So he could be out of their lives forever. She remembered calling out to her mother.
Was she making the cake for Josephine?
Or for him?
She remembered the screams that seemed to shake the windows down. It was hot that day too. Not nearly as scorching as Sunshine Town, but enough to confuse the tears running down her face with sweat. To dilute the blood from the knife that would be used to cut the cake. To melt the frosting into a puddle of sweet currant ganache that gurgled out of Helen Grovewood’s body.
Alexander McCullen had left Helen Grovewood, and so Alexander McCullen would never get to taste the chocolate cake Helen had made for him. No one would.
Josephine opened her eyes suddenly. Her body was strewn across the kitchen floor, covered in cocoa flour and egg residue. The gummy tile was painted red, and chocolate dripped over the counter. And standing right there, next to a toppled cake of many, many layers, was her mother. Standing there was Helen Grovewood, watching her daughter with a plate of chocolate cake in her hands, a sad expression on her face.
The glass shattered, and Josephine screamed reaching for the plate, for her mother, shards and chocolate covering her bloody hands. With blurred vision, unaware if she was sweating or crying, Josephine made her way to the living room and hoisted herself onto the couch, curling into herself and picking the glass out of her hands. Slowly, she brought her hand up to her mouth and tasted the bread, tasted the chocolate.
Just like mom used to make.