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STRESSED DESSERTS
by Natalie Walker

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Julie shut the lid of her laptop with more force than intended. There wasn’t a single work task she could complete at home, especially not today. She stood, bones creaking as she waddled to the kitchen. For her, this would be just another ordinary day. She planned to mix a smoothie and settle into a peaceful slumber until the rest of the world awoke from its reverie.

After methodically placing the ingredients in her new blender, she pressed the button. Nothing. She pressed it again, still nothing. Julie wiggled the power cord, wiggled the jar, and wiggled the buttons. That was it; the blender was done. She cursed under her breath and removed the lid.

Using a spoon in one hand to stir the mixture, Julie looked inside the lidless blender. She tried the button with her free hand one last time. It worked. A combination of berries and yogurt splashed her in the face.

While she was rinsing off her unexpected smoothie facial in the kitchen sink, Julie heard a buzzing noise. She wondered who would be calling her at this hour, on this day. It was a terribly inconvenient time, which could mean only one person.

“Evelynn? What – why are you calling me?”

“Wow! Merry Christmas to you too, Scrooge.” Evelynn replied.

“Oh yeah, sorry. Merry Christmas, Evelynn. It’s just, this is a surprise. I really wasn’t expecting to hear from you today.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting to call, but you left me no choice. You’re late. What happened – did you burn the cookies again?”

“Burnt food was always your son’s doing, not mine. And what are you talking about? I’m late for what?”

“Volunteering at the homeless shelter for Christmas Day brunch, of course! We do it every year. How could you forget?”

“Well, I thought..."

“Juggle-it-all-Julie, isn’t that what Joey always called you? I reckon you need a new nickname.”

Julie swallowed an indignant huff; she always did when her mother-in-law was around.

“Evelynn, I assumed we wouldn’t be going to the shelter together this year. Because, you know, the thing.”

“Are you really going to punish the innocent homeless for your personal problems? That doesn’t seem like the Julie I know.”

“The Julie you knew wasn’t divorced.”

There was a long silence before Evelynn replied, “I expect you here in two hours, with the usual load.”

“As if I’m not stressed enough, now I have to make four desserts?”

“Hey, maybe Joey wouldn’t have left you if you didn’t complain so much.”

“I left Joey.”

Another pause before Evelynn replied, “Just get it done. Don’t burn the cookies this time.”

Beep.

Evelynn ended the call.

Slamming cabinet doors and ripping open boxes, Julie gathered all of her baking necessities. Her mother-in-law would always scold her for slamming doors, but Evelynn wasn’t here. In fact, Evelynn wasn’t even part of her life now. There was no relation between them; that woman had no authority over Julie anymore.

Holidays were never Julie’s favorite. She preferred plain, boring Mondays because she had little joy to spare. Nobody expected much joy from a person on a regular Monday, but everyone expected to see your smile on holidays. Happiness could be faked, but not joy – especially not when you’re married.

Growing up in a house of divorce and remarry, Julie vowed as a child she would never have kids that would suffer through divorce. She didn’t. Joey never wanted kids, at least that’s what he told her. At this moment, though, he was probably snuggled in front of a cozy fireplace with his pregnant bride-to-be and his new extended family.

“Did Evelynn seriously think Christmas would be normal this year?” Julie asked her KitchenAid mixer.

Three hours later, Julie balanced four plastic rectangles full of Christmas treats in her arms. It took countless pounds of flour, sugar, molasses, and ingenuity to finish so many last minute desserts, but she did. After surveying the disaster of a mess she would have to clean when she got home, Julie turned the kitchen light off with her elbow.

Cautiously, she drove to the shelter. The banging of containers and sloshing of carefully placed rows inside the containers rang in her ears at every bump and turn.

When she finally made it to the parking lot, the place was all but empty. Julie scooped up her stack of desserts, and walked to the familiar back entrance.

The shelter’s kitchen was just as baron as the parking lot, with only a few dedicated volunteers remaining for cleanup.

“Julie!” exclaimed a familiar face, with a name she couldn’t remember. “We didn’t think you would make it today.”

“Yes, I apologize for my tardiness. I had...an unfortunate blender incident.”

The nameless girl laughed merrily, “We’ve all been there. Are those your famous crispy cookies?”

“Indeed, but luckily they’re not quite as crispy as usual.”

“Great! Can I have one?”

“Well, if the brunch is over, you girls can have as many as you like.”

Three young, joyful girls opened the first container and began devouring Julie’s “crispy” cookies. Two boys were eyeing the pecan pie from the dishwashing station, so Julie waved them over as she began cutting slices.

“Have any of you seen my, uh, Evelynn?”

“Sure, she’s probably out there clearing tables,” said one of the dishwashers.

Julie thanked the volunteers and left her desserts with them, except the red velvet cupcakes. Those were Evelynn’s favorite.

Sitting alone at a long table with her head in one palm was Julie’s former mother-in-law.

“I put extra cream cheese in the frosting, just for you.” Julie said as she sat in a chair across from Evelynn, hoping with a full mouth of cupcake the older woman wouldn’t be able to give one of those all too familiar lectures.

“You're late. I was half expecting you to forget the cupcakes just like you forgot our tradition.”

“Evelynn, this was our tradition while I was married to your son. We’re not family anymore.” Noticing Evelynn’s sad expression, Julie quickly added, “It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. I would definitely appreciate a phone call every once in a while to check-in, but other than that we don’t have a duty to get along like we did before.”

Silence stretched quite a few moments before Evelynn responded. She was staring at a wall in the distance when she said, “I asked Joey to be here, of course. He declined because he wanted to spend the holiday with his new in-laws. He didn’t even invite me.” Evelynn looked at Julie. “We’ve served this shelter brunch every Christmas since the December his father passed, until now.”

“Yes, I know. I guess this time of year is miserable for both of us.”

“Oh, I’m not miserable at all.” Evelynn said, though she didn’t believe it. “I love Christmas, it just isn’t the same without my husband here to celebrate.”

Julie could relate to that. Christmas Day was always full of chaotic fun for her and Joey. Even the stressful parts he made into an adventure. “So, spending the day with me was your backup plan?”

“No, I always wanted to spend Christmas with you. Joey’s decision to marry you was the best choice he ever made, and the divorce was his worst mistake.”

Julie was shocked. “I thought you hated me!”

Laughing, Evelynn said, “Of course, you had to think that. I was your mother-in-law. Truthfully, I was always quite fond of you, Julie.”

“Wow, that's new." Julie said, "So, where does that leave us now? Friends? Family?”

“It doesn’t matter. You need someone just as much as I need someone.” Evelynn laid her hand gently on Julie's wrist, “Let’s not spend Christmas alone.”

Instead of replying, Julie fiddled with the lid of the cupcake container. “Here,” she said, handing the one with the most frosting to Evelynn.

They talked for hours, until the next round of volunteers started setting up for dinner. After saying their tearful goodbyes and hugging in the parking lot, Julie realized Evelynn would always be her family. She drove home with the warmth of satisfaction. It was the first smile on her face in a long, long time.

“Rachel,” she said. “The girl’s name was Rachel.”

                                                                                                                          THE END

       

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