Wednesday, July 6, 2016

New Short Story -- Winter Trifle (Part 1)

Here is Part 1 of my new short story, Winter Trifle. It's a slightly ghostly mystery...

Winter Trifle
by Catherine Mesick
“When the time comes, I want you to make sure it goes to the library.”
Hannah stared at Mrs. Mumford.
“Your time’s not coming for a while yet,” Hannah said.
“It might be sooner than you think,” Mrs. Mumford replied. “I’m not afraid. Not afraid at all. Just make sure it doesn’t go to them. I don’t know what happened to those kids.”
Hannah was used to Mrs. Mumford’s habit of introducing topics at random. She was also used to her leaving things out. She knew from long experience that ‘those kids’ referred to her niece and nephew, who were now grown and a constant source of anxiety to her.
Mrs. Mumford sighed. “They’ve finally done it this time. I’m fed up. They’ve done something I can’t forgive.”
Hannah waited for Mrs. Mumford to give her the details of their latest run-in with the law, but instead she returned to her earlier lament.
“I don’t know what happened to those kids.”
Mrs. Mumford sighed again and became businesslike, which was unusual for her.
“The state says I have to give it to them. Well, not really. I can disinherit them. But they can contest it. That’s what my attorney said.”
She paused and then said as if reciting, “A disinherited beneficiary named in a prior will can seek to challenge the validity of the current will.”
A little bell dinged, and Mrs. Mumford got up and bustled over to the oven.
“Be right back, dear.”
A moment later, she returned to the table and placed a plate in front of Hannah. Mrs. Mumford had a beach towel draped over her arm that she'd been using as an oven mitt—she always kept one hanging on the stove for exactly that purpose.
“Ginger snaps," she said. "Go on, dear. Have a few while they’re nice and warm.”
Hannah eyed the cookies before her. She picked one up and carefully took a bite. The cookie was brown in color, but that was all it had in common with normal ginger snaps. It was dry and tasteless and somehow seemed to be all flour—it was even a little gray on the inside.
Feeling Mrs. Mumford’s eyes on her, Hannah smiled and made appreciative noises.
“Do you like them?” Mrs. Mumford asked. “They’re my own recipe. Well, actually I took one from one of my old books and improved it. You know how I like to experiment.”
Hannah nodded as Mrs. Mumford turned away and began to prepare a new batch of cookies for the oven.
Hannah quickly concealed the rest of the cookie in her paper napkin and was considering hiding a second one there when Mrs. Mumford returned to the table.
“There now,” Mrs. Mumford said, huffing and puffing as she sat down. “Standing up and sitting down isn’t as easy as it used to be.”
Hannah glanced over at Mrs. Mumford. She was staring straight ahead and seemed to be really struggling to breathe.
“Are you all right?” Hannah asked.
Mrs. Mumford nodded and waved a dismissive hand, breathing heavily all the while. Then her eyes shifted to Hannah’s plate.
“You’ve barely touched your cookies. Go on, have another. You’re a growing girl.”
Hannah smiled wanly and picked up another cookie. She was relieved to see that Mrs. Mumford’s breathing was going back to normal, and she bravely bit into another cookie.
“So how old are you now?” Mrs. Mumford asked. “Sixteen?”
“Seventeen,” Hannah replied.
“I remember when Lisa—my niece—was seventeen,” Mrs. Mumford said wistfully. “She’s twenty-four now. Seventeen seems like a lifetime ago. I don’t know which one went wrong first—her or that brother of hers.”
Hannah glanced at the little sideboard table. She seemed to remember that an old picture of the niece and nephew with Mrs. Mumford and her deceased husband had once sat there. The table was now bare.
Mrs. Mumford shook her head.
“But as I was saying, they can contest it. And I don’t know what will happen. I don’t really understand it. But I want to make sure they don’t get it. I want it to go to the library.”
“What is ‘it’?” Hannah asked. “Do you mean the house?”
“Yes, the house,” Mrs. Mumford said. She winked. “By the way, do you like the wallpaper?”
Surprised by the change in subject, Hannah turned to look at the wall. It was covered with paper bearing a blue-and-white snowflake pattern, and the paper itself was noticeably marked by bumps and creases.
Hannah frowned in an attempt to recall what the wall had looked like on her last visit.
“Is it new?”
“Yes, it is—I just bought it online. I put it up myself.”
Hannah hesitated. “Isn’t it a little lumpy?”
Mrs. Mumford laughed. “Yes, it’s lumpy all right.” She winked again.
The timer dinged once more, and Hannah got up.
“I’ll get those cookies for you, Mrs. Mumford.”
“No, that’s all right, dear.” Mrs. Mumford waved Hannah back down and rose herself with some effort. “It’s important for me to do what I can while I still can do it. And I’ll make you a plate of those cookies that you can take with you.”

“How was your visit?”
Hannah and Alex were sitting in a booth at a Chinese restaurant the next day, which was a Sunday. It was their lunch break.
“I don’t know,” Hannah replied. “I love her, and—”
She stopped.
“And?” Alex prompted.
“And it was confusing. Mrs. Mumford said she wanted to tell me something, but she never actually did. She said she didn’t want her niece and nephew to get something after she died, but she never said what that something was. I think she disinherited them.”
“Why?” Alex asked. “What did they do?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said. “Mrs. Mumford just said it was bad.”
“What are their names?”
“Lisa and Jack—no, Jonah,” Hannah said. “Lisa and Jonah. McDonough. McDonough was Mrs. Mumford’s maiden name.”
“How do you spell that?” Alex asked.
Hannah spelled the name for him. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’ll look it up tonight.”
“It may not have been something you can look up,” Hannah said. “Maybe it was personal—you know, family related.”
“From what you’ve told me about those two, I bet it was something I can look up,” Alex said. “A little googling will turn up the truth.”
Hannah glanced at her phone. “We’d better get back to the bakery.”
Alex glanced at his phone, too. “Yeah. It’s about that time, isn’t it?”
The two rose and went to pay the cashier. As they finished their transaction and stepped out into the cold, mid-December afternoon, Hannah stopped abruptly and turned back.
“I forgot my fortune cookie.”
“You and your fortune cookies,” Alex said.
Hannah hurried to the table and picked up her little plastic-wrapped cookie. Then she hurried outside to join Alex. As the two began to walk toward the bakery, Hannah broke her cookie open.
“Oh!” she said.
“What is it?” Alex asked.
“My fortune cookie,” Hannah said. “It’s empty.”
Alex shrugged. “So?”
“So, I want my fortune,” Hannah said.
“You know they’re mass produced in a factory somewhere, right?”
“I know. It’s just that—”
“It’s just that you’re superstitious.”
“I’m not superstitious,” Hannah said.
“You totally are,” Alex replied.

The next morning Hannah went to school, and when she returned home, she found her mother in a state of distress.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” Mrs. Lynn said as Hannah set her bag down on the table.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” Hannah asked.
“I know how close you were to Mrs. Mumford.”
“Mrs. Mumford?” Hannah felt a chill run through her. “What’s happened?”
Mrs. Lynn rushed to give her daughter a hug. “I’m so sorry, honey. She’s—she’s passed on.”
“Passed on? You mean she’s—”
“It was kidney failure. Apparently, she’s been ill for a long time. She passed away yesterday.”
“Oh,” Hannah said quietly. Suddenly, she couldn’t move—she could scarcely breathe.
“I knew she wasn’t feeling well,” Hannah began. She felt the tears slipping down her face.
“Have a seat, honey,” Mrs. Lynn said gently.
Hannah sat down, and the world in front of her dissolved in a haze of grief. When she was calmer, Hannah looked up at her mother.
“When is the funeral?”
“It’s Thursday,” Mrs. Lynn said. “I’m going to cancel my trip to the expo this Friday.”
“No, Mom, you need to go. You’ve been looking forward to this expo forever.”
“Handmade soaps can wait,” Mrs. Lynn said. “You’re sad right now. Besides, I don’t want to leave you alone. With your dad off visiting his brothers, you’d be alone all weekend.”
“Dad will be back Sunday night.”
“I still don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I’ll be okay,” Hannah said. “Don’t cancel your trip.”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Lynn said doubtfully. “We’ll see how things go.”
“Please don’t cancel it,” Hannah said.
“We’ll see,” Mrs. Lynn said again.

Tuesday after school, Hannah went to work at the bakery.
“Are you okay?” Alex asked as Hannah tied on her apron.
She looked up at him. “Yeah, sort of.”
“What’s wrong?”
“Mrs. Mumford died on Sunday.”
“Oh, Hannah,” Alex said. “I’m really sorry.”
“You okay with being here today?” Alex asked.
“Yeah. It’s better to keep busy.”
And Hannah and Alex were indeed busy. The bakery soon filled up with customers stopping by at the end of the work day. The two of them rushed around behind the counter while Elise, the owner, ran the cash register.
“Was everything all right with Mrs. Mumford’s death?” Alex whispered as they worked.
“What do you mean?” Hannah whispered back.
“Was it—natural?”
“Yes, it was” Hannah said. “Why?”
“I just wanted to be sure,” Alex said. “I know you’d mentioned her niece and nephew being in trouble recently.”
“Did you find out something about them?”
“No—I looked them up, but I didn’t find anything. I just wanted to be sure, that’s all.”
Hannah nodded.
“So, do you want to get some Chinese food tonight?” Alex asked.
“Tonight?” Hannah said. “After work?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “Maybe we could have kind of a late dinner. In honor of Mrs. Mumford.”
“I’d like that,” Hannah said.
The bakery closed at seven thirty and by eight o’clock, Hannah and Alex were seated in their usual booth at the nearby Chinese restaurant. They ordered what they usually ordered and talked about ordinary things, but Hannah felt comforted by it. She was feeling a little less gloomy as they went up to the cashier.
“Did you remember your fortune cookie this time?” Alex asked, holding up his own.
“No—I forgot it.” Hannah turned to go back and banged her knee painfully on the corner of the counter. She reached out to steady herself and brought her hand down hard on a dish of mints. The mints flew up in the air and rained down all over her.
“Careful,” Alex said. “It’s not worth dying over.”
“Sorry,” Hannah said, but an amused waitress waved her off and began to sweep up the mints.
Limping a little, Hannah hurried over to her table and retrieved her plastic-wrapped cookie. Then Hannah and Alex stepped outside.
“You know, Mrs. Mumford used to make a really, well, terrible dessert out of fortune cookies,” Hannah said as they walked to her car. “She called it her finest achievement.”
“Really? Do tell,” Alex said.
“It was called ‘Winter Trifle,’” Hannah said. “It was layers of crushed fortune cookies, strawberry jam, and whipped cream. She always made sure the topmost layer was fortune cookies, and then she sprinkled the top with powdered sugar—so it would look like snow.”
“Wow. That sounds—indigestible.”
“It was a little too sweet,” Hannah said. “To say the least.”
“Well, in honor of that dessert,” Alex said. “I propose a toast.”
He tore open the plastic on his cookie. “To Mrs. Mumford.”
Hannah tore hers open also. “To Mrs. Mumford.”
They clicked their cookies together.
Alex broke his open. “I got ‘You will be invited to an exciting event.’ And I also got a list of lucky numbers. What’d you get?”
Hannah had broken open her fortune cookie, and she was frowning at the little slip of paper in her hand.
“Wait just a minute before you tell me,” Alex said. “You’ve got a mint in your hair.”
He plucked a little pastel candy from her hair and flicked it aside. Hannah did not look up.
“So what is it?” Alex said. “Is it blank or something this time?”
“No, it’s not blank,” Hannah said.
“Then what does it say?”
“It says, ‘A stumble will bring unexpected sweetness.’”

***Click here for Part 2***

Thanks very much for reading!

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