By Stefani Cooke
The duplex is a fat slice of layered pound cake, the tidy white siding glazed with a serrated knife; all it was missing were sugar-paned windows. My heart squelches in my knocking fist, and I am careful to keep it from spattering on the door. The rosy woman conflicts with the disquieting tone of her Facebook Marketplace ad.
All flat surfaces bear the frilly doilies typical of senescent ladies, and red gingham swathes a tea cozy, the curtains, even the inside of the coat closet. She ushers me into the kitchen, and I notice a dish towel slung over the oven handle: a chubby gingerbread man proclaiming, “Open the oven and take a look. If you complain, you’re next to cook!”
She invites me to sit. Cross-legged, my right foot bobs up and down, my knee bumping the underside of the small wooden table. Many folds frame her soft smile, and she rests a withered hand on my forearm. I squirm. The woman nudges a brown paper sandwich bag toward me, its top folded.
Name it, I’ve tried it: hypnosis, cannabis, a psychologist, the list goes on. I know the risks, but I will try anything to stop the jittery misery controlling my thoughts and actions.
I clear my throat.
“This will change your life,” she assures me, her voice a saccharine dram that I swallow.
My emphatic nod convinces no one, and I slide her an envelope of three twenties and stand to go. She waves me off, wetting her lips as I walk away.
I hide behind a large, leafy tree, hoping it is far enough that the witch cannot see me from her window. Unfolding the bag's top, I reach for the expensive crumbly confection. It is dry on my tongue, a mouthful of heavy sand, and then it transmogrifies into a cooling mud that calms the unending effervescence that dances in my belly’s pit. It works downward, congealing, stuffing every cranny.
My simper flattens into a smooth line, and the hunch in my shoulders relaxes. The gray world colourizes, now brighter and sharper, and I have entered Oz.
A teenage girl stands at the bus stop across the street, eyeballing me from head to toe. The usual flush of heat is absent, and as I glare back, I feel the power of this moment in my tingling fingertips. She studies her phone, and I ride this jubilant high: I am the big bad wolf, not the squealing pig.
I stride through the intersection without looking, my beam wider than the Cheshire Cat’s
When the truck roars, I do not flinch.
My arms flail, and I lay on the blacktop, scrambled. The horses and men will struggle to put me together again. The witch’s ad glimmers in my mind’s eye:
I can bake the fear out of you, but I will eat your soul when you die.
Stefani Cooke is a writer and middle school teacher from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada whose narratives focus on identity, self-discovery, and anxiety. Her writing will appear in a forthcoming issue of Ryga Journal. You can find her on Twitter.