three degrees hotter

Photo by Elu012bna Aru0101ja on

It was October 25th, 2021: substitute teacher and former Rockville Heights Book Club treasurer Aileen Middleton’s 39th birthday. Aileen had arrived home after visiting a local bakery to pick up the cake for her party that evening. 

Aileen put the cake box on the stoop and used two hands to dig in her purse for her keys. When they couldn’t be found she checked her coat pockets, then opened the door. 

Aileen put her purse on the kitchen table with her coat, then went upstairs to freshen up. After a little while, she came back downstairs to begin tidying for the party. Soon, her husband Andrew came home from work. He was holding the cake box. 

“You left this outside,” he said. “You might want to check it to make sure it’s ok. I’m going to have a shower, then I’ll help you clean up.”

Having no clear idea of what Andrew thought could have happened to the cake gave her anxiety. Aileen lifted the lid.

Congratulations on your 3rd Master’s Degree Rebecca!

Aileen’s mind was momentarily blank. She stared down at the cake, trying to understand what she was looking at. Who was Rebecca? Her imagination instantly filled in the blanks: Rebecca was young, and pretty, and brilliant, and rich. She laughed like in commercials for vacations. She had perfect hair, and perfect teeth. She managed to earn her three degrees while working part time at a coffee shop where she met her husband and fell in love and he supported her by staying at home with their first baby while Rebecca studied and pumped breast milk. Aileen was not like Rebecca. She sat down at the table and the cake filled her entire field of vision. Her palms developed a thin layer of moisture. She felt hot all of a sudden. Three degrees was too many degrees. Was it hotter in here? Three degrees hotter?

The letters of the word Rebecca began to shift and move. The R began to morph into an A, and the E seemed to have been dotted like an I. The B was now an L, and, oh yes—it didn’t say Rebecca at all. How strange. 

The 3 tasted like red food colouring. So did the Congratulations and Master’s, but the Degree tasted like cough syrup. The velvety smooth layer of mauve icing under the lettering was sweet without any grainy texture. It tasted lovely and melted into diplomas. The cake beneath was vanilla; soft, and fluffy. It was easy to eat large mouthfuls, grab handfuls, one after another. The icing between the layers was flavoured like cream cheese and had little bits of strawberry flavoured achievement in it. It crunched. The bottom of the cake sat on a cardboard circle which had a ribbed texture when the brown cake-skin layer was rubbed off of it. 

“Aileen? What are you doing?”

Aileen turned around to face her husband. She stalled for a moment, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked back at the cake box, which now contained a less than a quarter of a cake.  

“Um, right,” she paused. “This wasn’t the uh, the cake … for tonight.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow but the situation seemed confusing, and dangerous somehow, so he left to begin decorating the living room.

In a nearby home, Rebecca and her friends and family laughed over a silly mistake made by a local bakery. As her loved ones raised their glasses and toasted to her achievements, Rebecca silently raised her glass to a stranger.

Happy Birthday Aileen, she thought.

This story is my response to the February 4th prompt, “Write 500 words with intentionally crafted psychic distance.”

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