In the Bakery
"I was happy to see they have strawberry shortcake," I said, pointing at the case. "They're the real thing. None of that jelly, or too much fruit piled on top or those little figurines they use for decoration. Just strawberries and cream."
"You're right," she said. "I can guarantee they're good. The best thing in the shop. The base is made with our special vanilla."
"I'm buying them for my son. Today is his birthday."
"Really? Well, I hope it's a happy one. How old is he?"
"Six. He'll always be six. He's dead."
He died twelve years ago. Suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator left in a vacant 1ot. When I first saw him, I didn't think he was dead. I thought he was just ashamed to look me in the eye because he had stayed away from home for three days.
An old woman I had never seen before was standing nearby, looking dazed, and I realized that she must have been the one who had found him. Her hair was disheveled, her face pale, and her lips were trembling. She looked more dead than my son.
"I'm not angry you know," I said to him. "Come here and let me give you a hug. I bought the shortcake for your birthday. Let's go back to the house."
But he didn't move. He had curled up in an ingenious fashion to fit between the shelves and the egg box, with his legs carefully folded and his face tucked between his knees. The curve of his spine receded into a dark, cramped space behind him that I could not see. The skin on his neck caught the light from the open door. It was so smooth, covered in soft down --- I knew it all too well.
"No, it couldn't be," I said to the old woman nearby. "He's just sleeping. He hasn't eaten anything, and he must be exhausted. Let's carry him home and try not to wake him. He should sleep, as much as he wants. He'll wake up later, I'm sure of it."
But the woman did not answer.
The reaction of the woman in the shop to my story was unlike anything I'd encountered in the past. There was no sign of sympathy or surprise or even embarrassment on her face. I would have known if she was merely pretending to respond so placidly. The experience of losing my son had taught me to read people, and I could tell immediately that this woman was genuine. She neither regretted having asked me the question nor blamed me for confessing something so personal to a stranger.
"Well," she said, "then it was lucky you chose this bakery. There are no better pastries anywhere; your son will be pleased. And they include a whole box of birthday candles for free. They're darling-red, blue, pink, yellow, some with flowers or butterflies, animals, anything you could want."
She smiled faintly, in a way that seemed perfectly suited to the quiet of the bakery. I found myself wondering whether she understood that my son had died. Or perhaps she knew only too well about people dying.
Long after I had realized that my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.
"Mold can be quite beautiful," I told my husband. The spots multiplied, covering the shortcake in delicate blotches of color.
"Get rid of it," my husband said.
I could tell he was angry. But I did not understand why he would speak so harshly about our son's birthday cake. So I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.--- From Revenge
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