This story is by Conner Lee and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“What are you doing over there, Todd?”
“Oh, nothing PJ,” Jack said, “just getting ready to do some baking.” He pulled the cookbook off the shelf and blew a layer of dust off the top. The recipes inside were hand-written, the book itself filled with years of family secrets and final drafts of culinary innovation, as well as some old favorites that had been pilfered and improved.
“Oh, I love baking,” PJ said from the kitchen table. “I always bake for my husband on important days. Birthdays, holidays—I have a special something for each one.”
“That sounds lovely, PJ,” Jack said. He flipped through the book until he found the page he was looking for. The recipe was weathered—yellowed with age, the corner of the page missing from its frequent use. Her handwriting, though faded, was still legible, with her standard looped L’s in the middle of her print type. The chocolatey fingerprints on the page brought a smile to his face.
“I can’t even believe how much it costs to fill my tank nowadays,” she said. “I remember when gas was thirty cents a gallon. That was what, twenty years ago?”
“That sounds about right, PJ.” He hoped they had all the ingredients on hand. He set about collecting everything he needed, gathering two eggs, almond extract, and a box of chocolate cake mix from the dozen in their pantry.
“It’s been forever since I’ve heard from Norma, hasn’t it? Maybe I’ll give her a call.”
“Might want to write her a letter, PJ. I can drop it off at the post for you.”
“Oh, that’s sweet of you, Todd.”
Norma passed away two years earlier, but Jack stopped reminding PJ of that a while ago. Watching her go through that loss all over again was too much to bear.
He looked back at the recipe. Hope we have this last one, he thought. He dug through the pile of cans in the pantry until he found a can of cherry pie filling. He sighed with relief and smiled. Opening the can was painful, the arthritis in his hands attempting to stop him with every turn of the can opener, but he eventually got the top off. He poured all the ingredients into an old mixing bowl. It took a minute to find a spoon to mix it all together—he couldn’t find anything in the kitchen any more. But he didn’t mind.
“What are you doing over there?”
“Just baking a cake, PJ,” Jack said.
“Oh, I just love baking. Y’know, I have a cookbook full of recipes from my mama and her mama, it’s one of the most special things to me. I’ll have to show you sometime.”
“I’d really like that, PJ.”
“Oh, but not all of them.” She chuckled. “Some of those are family secrets.”
Jack looked at her and smiled. “I’d never dream of stealing them, PJ.”
She chuckled again. “You’re a good boy, Todd.”
Jack set the cake in the oven, set the egg timer for thirty minutes, and started mixing ingredients together for the icing. He looked at the fridge, where a picture of PJ and Todd—the boy who’d grown up next door, dressed in his military uniform—watched as he mixed everything together. Hopefully he can make it home for Christmas this year, he thought.
“You know,” PJ said, “today’s Friday, tomorrow’s Saturday, and then it’s Sunday after that.”
“That’s right, PJ. Have any plans for the weekend?”
“Oh, not yet, but hopefully. We’ll see if Jack Moseley finally gets the nerve to ask me out or not.”
Jack stirred the icing together and smiled. “Oh, I’m sure he will.” Noticing the time, Jack turned on the TV just as Jeopardy! started and PJ turned to watch.
As Alex Trebek read each category, she’d give her answer, and more often than not it was correct. When she did answer incorrectly, she mumbled, “Fiddle-faddle,” and waited for the next category. Jack quietly cleaned up the kitchen while the show was on, making sure not to make too much noise whenever a new category was read. He kept an eye on the egg timer and made sure to silence it as quick as possible—couldn’t let it go off during Final Jeopardy of all things.
After answering the Final Jeopardy question correctly, PJ looked over and said, “What are you doing over there, Todd?”
“Just finishing up a cake, PJ,” Jack said. He spread the icing along the top of the cake and started making square slices in the pan.
“I tell you what,” PJ said, “I’ve done my fair share of baking in my time. Maybe I could teach you some of my old tricks sometime.”
“That sounds wonderful, PJ.” Jack put a slice of cake on a plate with a fork and checked the recipe one last time. The final line was bordered on either side by little hearts in PJ’s handwriting and read, “Always serve on August 26th.” He checked the calendar. Every day of August through the 25th was marked out with a single black line. With a final nod of approval, Jack grabbed a fork and set the plate in front of her on the kitchen table.
“What is this?” PJ asked.
“Just a piece of cake for you, PJ.” He stood behind her and put his hands on her shoulders.
“Oh my, did you bake it yourself?” she asked as she picked up the fork.
“I love baking.” PJ took a bite of the cake and chewed for a moment. “Chocolate cherry cake.”
Jack squeezed her shoulders. “Sure is.”
As he shifted his weight to move, Jack felt PJ put her hand on his. She turned in her chair and looked him in the eyes, and the wrinkles in her forehead deepened as she stared at him. A soft smile played at her lips and she said, “Happy anniversary, Jack.”
His vision blurred with tears. He smiled at her. “Happy anniversary, Peggy Jean.” He stooped close and kissed her on the forehead.
She chuckled. “Peggy Jean,” she said. “Only my husband can get away with calling me that.” She turned back to the table. “Well, what’s this? Is it someone’s birthday?”
Jack rubbed his eyes and sniffed. “Yeah, PJ, it’s your birthday. Let me get you a candle so you can make a wish.” He walked into the kitchen, knowing her mind would change subjects—even decades—before he could find a candle.
“This cake looks lovely. Did you bake this yourself, Todd?”
“Sure did, PJ.”
“Oh, I love baking…”