Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Devil's Food: A Story

I write lots more than essays.  Here's a short story with a religious bent.  I hope you like it.


Devil’s Food

By William P. Lazarus

Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

If his wife hadn’t been ill, none of this probably would have happened to Brian McKinley.  His garden in the front yard, the one he worked so hard on, wouldn’t have been decimated.  Mrs. Cosgrove wouldn’t have had a conniption fit.  The police wouldn’t have come walking through the front door.  The Rev. Hardy Goren wouldn’t have started preaching on the curb, and all Hell wouldn’t have broken loose in an otherwise-quiet Daytona Beach, Florida neighborhood.
Then, too, maybe the fault lay with his two sons, Bradley and Gerald, who had decided to go shopping with him and were squabbling as usual in their most annoying manner.  Had they been quiet, McKinley might have had second thoughts or even been able to concentrate while selecting items from the grocery shelves.  He didn’t know they were going to distract him.  He hadn’t expected them to come with him on a Saturday morning.  They usually had other things to do on the weekend.
They had different reasons for tagging along.  As a teenager, Bradley never wanted to be seen with either of his parents or even acknowledge their existence, but had a science fair project due and wanted to avoid that beyond anything.  A supermarket seemed a promising alternative, especially since young women shopping there might be impressed with a seemingly domesticated, virile young man.  His little brother joined the excursion for something to do.  He was not fond of supermarkets either, but he was less interested in remaining home with a sick mother and no friends readily available until later in the day.
McKinley wanted to stay away from the house, too.  Connie was coughing and wheezing with some awful flu, and he couldn’t afford to get sick and miss work at the height of the income tax season.  He had already suffered through a cold a few weeks previously.  As the owner of a small accounting firm, he typically drove himself to exhaustion preparing returns for ungrateful clients.  The supermarket was a safe, if brief, refuge.
He took his time, pushing a cart slowly down the aisles.  Here and there, he would spot something intriguing, some item Connie had somehow missed purchasing for the dinner table: Mexican chili beans, a jar of peanut butter mixed with jalapeño peppers and something that seemed even more appetizing, Jamaican Hellfire.  Connie preferred bland American food, but McKinley had developed a taste for more-spirited cuisine by regularly eating lunch at a Mexican bistro near his office.  Now, he daily sought a spicy transfusion, regardless of how much his stomach protested.
He was still puttering along the aisles when Gerald, paying his usual amount of attention, bumped into him.  They happened to be in front of the cake mixes.  The collision jarred McKinley and made him more conscious of his surroundings.  His eyes lit on the various cakes highlighted on the front of the colorful boxes.
“Do you think Mom would like some cake?” McKinley asked, a simple question with grave consequences.
“Sure, Dad,” Bradley said with dry disinterest.
“We could make it,” Gerald piped up. 
“Maybe I could use it as my science project,” Bradley mused.  “What effect does baking flour and a brat in an oven for three hours at 400 degrees have on the quality of a cake?”
Gerald swatted him.  Bradley skipped away, laughing.  He saw a teenage girl not that far away and immediately assumed a more dignified look with his stomach tucked in, shoulders straight and head erect.  She pretended not to notice of him.
McKinley ignored the boys, too.  Connie could use something to cheer her up.  Why not a cake?  But, which one?  There were so many options on the shelf.  Every picture on the boxes looked delicious.  He debated a moment, then selected a plain, brown box with no picture on it.  Bearing the headline “Devil’s Food” in unadorned type, it had a short list of directions on the back.  Nothing else.  There wasn’t even a price on it.  Odd, McKinley thought, but he was attracted by the lack of hype and the solid impression created by the plain wrapper.  It seemed almost like the numbers he dealt with every day: unpretentious, stolid, sure.  He liked that.  The box joined the other items now filling up his cart.
He could just see Connie’s smile when cake appeared at some dinner in the future.  He knew he had done the right thing.
Eventually, the trio got into the checkout line.  Bradley continued to preen.  Gerald tried taking gum, candy or other items from the shelves near the counter and slipping them into the cart.  McKinley kept returning them.  He also checked the headlines on the supermarket tabloids.  In one paper, every movie or television star seemed to be having an affair, an illegitimate baby or enduring some unspeakable disease.  In another, threats of world destruction, as seen by Nostradamus, promised to bring Hollywood’s bacchanal to an abrupt end.
The box of Devil’s Food was passed over the price scanner by the robotic clerk, who didn’t note whether it was recorded or not.  McKinley paid the bill with cash without checking for accuracy.  Everyone was perfectly content with the arrangement.
Once back at the house, located on a corner of North Peninsula Drive, only a block from the Halifax River in an area once covered with pine trees until developers leveled it flat in the 1960s, McKinley and the boys carried the bags into the house.  They filled the kitchen floor.  He cautioned them to be quiet so their mother could sleep, but they continued their usual bickering.  McKinley finally ordered them to put away the groceries.
While they sullenly complied, McKinley tiptoed into the rear bedroom to check on his wife.  The bedroom had a strange scent, a mixture both warm and medicinal.   Connie was asleep with her dark hair splayed across the pillow.  A box of tissue lay on the floor to her left; wads of used issue were scattered near it.  She was breathing easily, but her face was flushed.  Sweat beaded on her forehead.  He could see she was still not well and carefully closed to door behind him.  Then, he went into his small office adjacent to the laundry room to work.  The computer awaited, along with a pile of unfinished returns.
In the kitchen, Bradley and Gerald had finished shelving almost everything except the box of Devil’s Food.  Neither was exactly sure where to put it.  Their mother rarely baked; neither had seen a cake box in the house before. 
“Figures, Dad bought something like this,” Bradley snorted.  “He is such a dork.”
“It’s just cake,” Gerald objected.
“It’s just cake,” Bradley mimicked sarcastically.  “Put it with the cereal,” he directed.”
“Why don’t we make it?” Gerald asked.
“I don’t know how to make a cake,” Bradley objected.  “I’ve got a science fair project to do.”
Gerald grimaced.  “Sure,” he said sourly.  “Now.”  He took the box and looked at the directions.  “Hot water.  Pour in mix.  Stir,” he read.  “How hard is that?” He glanced at Bradley.  “I’ll do it by myself.”
“No, you won’t,” Bradley immediately stopped him.  He could envision the mess created by his 10-year-old brother and who would get blamed.
“Then, you do it,” Gerald suggested.  Making a cake seemed like an interesting project until his friends Steve and Jay returned from wherever they were.
“We’ll do it together,” Bradley decided.  The science project could wait.  Besides, he wanted to get Jennifer Cosgrove to help him, and she said she wouldn’t be home until later in the afternoon.  She was in his biology class, lived down the street and, most importantly, was a pretty female.  She also hadn’t seemed appalled to acknowledge him on those rare moments he nervously said hello.  Important qualifications for a 16-year-old boy.
Bradley took the box.  “Dumb looking thing,” he announced.  “We need a pot that will hold six gallons of water.”
Gerald rummaged among the pots and pans on the shelves under the stove.  He almost climbed inside the cupboard before emerging with the largest pot he could find.  Hearing the jumble of cookware and the banging caused by the search, McKinley rushed out from his small office.  “Keep it down,” he said in a low voice.  “Your mother is trying to sleep.”
“Sorry,” Bradley said.
McKinley went back to his desk.  Those boys were so noisy.  He had to concentrate.  He started punching more numbers into the computer program.  Oh, oh, he thought.  Mr. Jenkins was going to owe a lot of money to the IRS this year.  He dreaded the phone call that would have to be made regarding that.
“How many gallons?” Gerald asked.
“Six,” Bradley read.  He stopped.  “Six gallons?  None of the pots are that big.  What kind of cake is this?”  He checked the box.
“This big enough?” Gerald asked, holding up a large pot.
Bradley shook his head.  “The only thing big enough to hold six gallons is the bathtub.”
Gerald brightened.  This was going to be a very large cake.  The idea of a bathtub filled with cake seemed hysterically funny.  He couldn’t wait for his friends to show up.  He rushed into the bathroom and turned on the tap.  Bradley shuffled along behind him.  Steam was already starting to rise by the time he ambled in.
“I’m not sure this is a great idea,” he murmured.
Gerald ignored him.  “How hot?  How much is six gallons?” 
Bradley shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It says six gallons of hot water,” he reported.
“We can put icing on it,” Gerald decided.  “Should we add Jell-O?  Ice cream on top?”  The water was slowly rising.
Steam was filling the bathroom.  Bradley leaned over the tub and opened the window.  The early April air filtering through the screen was cool.
He pulled back on the top of the simple cardboard box.  It opened easily.  There appeared to be residue of tape along the edges.  He peered inside.  The cake mix had settled a little.  The flakes were dark and thin, like frozen snowflakes.  Bradley shook the box.  The flakes barely moved.  They seemed almost to have solidified into a small ball.
“Let me, let me,” Gerald pleaded.
Bradley gave him the box.  Gerald leaned over the white, ceramic tub and slowly poured out the contents of the box.  The flakes fells softly and gray until they hit the water, then, abruptly, they turned a bright, almost lime green.
“Cool,” Gerald announced.
The color swirled through the rising water, deepening as it spread.  Some of the flakes clung briefly to the sides, but all were eventually absorbed into the rising water. 
“We’ve got to stir,” Gerald remembered with an exclamation and ran out.  He quickly returned with a long-handled, wooden spoon.  He dipped it into the water and began to swish it back and forth.  The spoon didn’t seem to do much.  The syrupy mixture was very thin.  The spoon ran through it like an oar through a shallow lake, getting little resistance.
Slowly, however, the center of the water began to solidify.  Bits of green seemed to be drawn together, merging into an almost coherent pattern resembling a rectangular box with projections on the top and the sides.  Happily stirring, Gerald didn’t appear to notice, but Bradley could tell that this was already the strangest cake he had ever seen.
“That’s probably enough water,” he decided, placing the box by the water basin.
With his left hand still holding the spoon in the water, Gerald reached over to turn off the spigot.  The room grew quiet, save a last drip or two from the faucet.  Then, slowly, a small, green tendril began to crawl up the side of the tub underneath the tap.  It inched up, almost like a long, green worm.  The boys stared at it, then each other.  Then, it reached the hot water tap and, seemingly with no effort, turned on more hot water.
Abruptly, the wood spoon was spun from the boy’s hand and sent arcing toward the door.  Gerald drew back.
“Whoa,” he gasped.  “What was that?”
“Are you all right?’ Bradley asked him anxiously.  The cake was taking on a decidedly human appearance with arms and legs and a round head.
“Yes,” Gerald said tremulously, inching back away from the tub.
He could barely breathe.  Very clearly, as though emerging from a mist, the shape of a human figure was forming in the water.  The creature’s head rested against the back with its arms on the sides.  Its legs were too long for the tub and were bent at the knees.  And, it was thoroughly, completely, amazingly green.
Water poured down on the creature’s feet.  Finally, long, thin fingers capped by sharp fingernails reached toward the spigot and turned off the hot water.
“Hi,” the creature said calmly.
Gerald screamed and fled with his brother not far behind.
The creature shrugged and squirmed a moment to find a more comfortable position in the hard ceramic tub.  “Ah,” it said with a contented sigh.  “This is Heaven.”

“Can’t you please be quiet?” Connie called in anguish.  Her voice was clogged with mucus, and she coughed
“Boys,” McKinley said sternly, looking up from his paperwork as his sons stood panting beside him.  “Your mother is very sick.  Just be quiet.”
“Dad,” Gerald whispered in a terrified voice.  “You’ve got to look inside the bathroom.”
“Not now,” McKinley said.  “I have work to do.  April 15 is little more than a week away.  If I don’t get these returns done, I’ll lose my clients.
“Brian,” Connie yelled hoarsely.
“Your mother needs to sleep,” McKinley continued.  He ran down the hallway, past the closed bathroom door and poked his head into her bedroom.  “Sorry, dear,” he said.  “The boys just got a little rambunctious.”
“I made them stay quiet when you were sick,” Connie reminded him fiercely.
“Yes, dear.”
He stepped back.  The two boys had followed him.  He finally put a finger to his lips.  “Boys, please.  Play quietly.”  He then returned to his paperwork, not giving the bathroom a second glance.
Gerald watched him.  “Dad,” he murmured anxiously.
“You are such a wimp,” Bradley told him.
“Then you go in there,” Gerald told him.
“I’ve got a science fair project to do,” Bradley announced archly.  He hurried to his bedroom to call Jennifer again.
Gerald looked around.  The bathroom door had no keyhole.  Slowly, he touched the knob.  It was cool.  He turned it slightly.  The door creaked, as it always did.  He peeked inside.  The green man was still there.  The creature turned and gave a slight wave, and a wink.
Gerald shut the door quickly and loudly.
“Quiet!” Connie demanded.
For a moment, Gerald stood open mouthed, not sure what to do, then tiptoed away.  There was no point in being concerned.  No one else apparently was.  Besides, there was the master bathroom in his brother’s bedroom that was linked to his parents’ room.  On the other hand, the appearance of the strange being was too good to keep secret.
Jennifer and her brother, Steve, came over a little while later.  Bradley happily settled down in the living room to think of a science project and study her.  Steve joined Gerald in his back bedroom.
“Green?” he said incredulously.  “Maybe he’s wearing a costume?  It isn’t Halloween, but he could be dressed up for something else.”
“I don’t think so,” Gerald decided.  “He’s just green.  Want to see?”
“Sure,” Steve said, albeit a bit hesitantly.
They tiptoed to the door.  Gerald opened it slowly.
“Hello,” the green man said with a smile.  He waved a green hand at them.
Steve shut the door quickly.  “Wow,” he said.  “Horns and tail too.  What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Gerald admitted.  “He’s cool, though, isn’t he?”
Steve screwed up his lips.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I’ve never seen a green man before.  I’ll ask my mom.”
He went into the kitchen to use the phone.  Gerald tagged along.
“Really,” Steve said into the receiver. “Green.  Yes, horns.  He looks like that picture you have in your Bible.”
The doorbell rang within minutes after the two boys had returned to the bathroom. 
“Brian,” Connie called.
“Coming,” McKinley replied.
He hurried to the bedroom.  The doorbell rang again, insistently.  He was caught between answering his wife or the door.  Connie took care of the problem.
“The door,” she said.  “Can’t you hear the doorbell ringing?”
“I’m never going to get any work done,” McKinley muttered.
He walked rapidly to the door.  Mrs. Cosgrove stood there.  McKinley only knew her slightly, mostly because of her two children.  Steve was over the house all the time, and Bradley was smitten with Jennifer.  The mother was a thickset woman with short, light brown hair and a down turned mouth.  With small dark eyes and a perpetual scowl, she looked invariably angry, none more so than at this moment.  She had been upset when he planted his garden, objecting to his choice of beach daisies, upset he left his palm trees untrimmed, upset he didn’t control weeds with herbicides.  McKinley was sure, however, that the garden was not upsetting her now
She didn’t say anything, but stared up at McKinley.  He tried to smile.  She clearly was not in a pleasant mood, although he wasn’t sure what the problem might be.
“Hello,” he started.
She brushed by him.  “Steve!” she yelled.  “Jennifer!”  She stood in the foyer and glanced around.  “Where are they?” she demanded.  “What have you done to them?”
McKinley blinked.  Mrs. Cosgrove’s fast was reddening rapidly.  Her fists were clenched; her lips pursed tightly.  She glared around, almost avoiding looking at him, but rather through him.
“Please,” Connie almost whimpered.
“Steve!” Mrs. Cosgrove bellowed.  She started down the hallway to the right and almost ran into her son coming from the bedroom.  She grabbed his arm.  “We are getting out of this hell hole,” she thundered.
“Ow!” Steve bawled as his mother held him firmly.
Jennifer emerged from the living room.
“Run, Jennifer,” Mrs. Cosgrove said.  “Run!”
Jennifer stood paralyzed, her jaw open, staring.
“Mrs. Cosgrove,” McKinley tried.
“You fiend,” she screamed at him.  “I might have known.  Green men!”
“Brian,” Connie moaned, sounding almost in tears.
“Mrs. Cosgrove,” McKinley tried soothingly, “my wife is ill.  Do …”
“You’re all sick,” Mrs. Cosgrove shrieked at him.  “All of you!  Jennifer, move!”
“My book,” Jennifer mumbled.
“Never mind,” her mother insisted, reaching for her and tugging Steve at the same time.  “Just get out of here.”  She flung them both outside one by one and backed up making the sign of the cross with index fingers from both hands.
Bradley stood in the doorway.  “Is something wrong?” he asked innocently.
“Can’t anyone keep quiet?” Connie wailed.
“Just minute, honey,” McKinley called.  He plastered a grin on his face.  “Mrs. Cosgrove …”
His neighbor was beyond listening.  She grabbed her children protectively.  “Run,” she ordered.  Run!”  All three then hurried down the street with Mrs. Cosgrove occasionally looking back as though something awful was on their heels and gaining.
“See you later, Stevie,” Gerald said wistfully.
“My science project,” Bradley moaned.
“Brian!” Connie called angrily.
“My head,” McKinley managed.  He stumbled into the bedroom.
“All I ask is a little quiet,” Connie said sharply.  “I don’t think I’m asking too much.”
“No, dear.”
“Don’t say that.  You know I hate ‘no dear,’” she snapped.  “You’re patronizing me.”
“Yes, dear, no, dear,” McKinley tried.  He rubbed his forehead.  Now, he was feeling ill.
“What was all the ruckus about?” Connie asked wearily, nestling down on her pillow.
“Something about a green man,” McKinley said.
“Well, offer him a cookie or something,” Connie ordered.  “At least, he’s quiet.”
“Yes, dear,” McKinley managed before slipping away.

To be continued

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