Horror magic Canada Cake eco fiction

Nonpareil

By Laura Blackwell
Nov 11, 2019 · 4,550 words · 17 minutes

Bride and Groom cutting the wedding cake

Photo by Wedding Photography via Unsplash.

From the author: After her husband's death, Maisie is scraping by selling homemade jam and baking wedding cakes. Surely her culinary talent and a little bit of folk magic will see her through, even with the most eccentric of clients. Even when the eccentric client is marrying the boorish son of the wealthy family Maisie's husband used to work for. Yes, surely that will work out all right. This story was an honorable mention for Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 11.


When a shadow fell across the curtains drawn against the late afternoon sun, Maisie knew the visitor had arrived for the tasting appointment. She waited a few moments for a knock before she gave up and opened the door to a scene that seemed to be from another century. The woman who faced the yard and its tapestry of heart-shaped redbud leaves had a tiny, perhaps corseted, waist. Her long skirts filled the passage between the porch posts.

“Welcome, Miss Householder,” said Maisie, stepping over the thin line of salt and out onto the porch. Maisie had never met this woman, who had just months ago arrived in town with a trio of sisters and taken possession of a beautiful old house that many locals had thought beyond repair. However, there was no mistaking the description of the woman who had captured the heart of the town’s most eligible bachelor. All the reclusive Misses Householder wore old-fashioned dresses, but only one rolled her wiry hair into a tall pompadour.

Miss Erato Householder turned her slender neck and nodded slightly. “Pardon the delay,” she said. “I was entranced by the way the light catches this spider web.” She lifted a delicate, gloved hand to indicate the orb-weaver’s web stretched like drying lace between the nearest post and the light blue porch ceiling.

“I always leave the webs. The spider’s doing much the work your fiancé does, but without the chemicals. I keep an organic kitchen.” Maisie was never good at schmoozing; she’d always relied on the quality of her foodstuffs to smooth over any clumsy words. But catering wedding cakes wasn’t the same as selling jellies at the farmers market. She hoped her dig against Trey Blair went unnoticed. “Won’t you come in?”

“Jacqueline suggested you because of the organic ingredients.” Miss Householder smiled brilliantly. “She seems an excellent caterer, so good at figuring out what’s important. Trey won’t be joining us for the tasting. He said the wedding is the bride’s day, so I should choose. Isn’t that sweet?”

Maisie had heard that line often since she started baking for weddings, and it only served to make her wonder who owned the rest of the couple’s days together. Allen never would have spouted such nonsense. But the Blairs’ pest control business had brought them money and the kind of friends that money makes, and that meant they would buy a large and elaborate wedding cake, no matter what the size of the guest list. She looked into Miss Householder’s dark, long-lashed eyes and returned the smile. “If it’s sweet you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right person. The dining room’s all set up.”

“Couldn’t we do it out here? It’s so lovely on the porch at dusk.” Miss Householder rested a slender finger on the chain of the porch swing.

Maisie had her own quirks—the salt at the door was proof of that—and she had seen that money allowed people to coddle, perhaps even nourish, their eccentricities. If the woman dressed like a Victorian cameo didn’t care to step inside Maisie’s little house, Maisie could accommodate her wish. “I’ll be back out with a tray in a minute.”

The sample cakes were barely cooled on the oak dining table, the little pots of homemade fillings and frostings warming to room temperature beside them. Maisie would have cake for breakfast the next day, and perhaps some jars of trifle to sell next to her jams and jellies at the next farmers market in Vancouver proper.

Maisie set thin slices of what websites said were the most popular varieties of cake on what she hoped were charmingly mismatched plates: the coconut cake soft and white against deep-blue glass; the devil’s food glistening dark and moist on butter-yellow porcelain; the dense crumb of almond-flour chocolate cake and its crust of crushed hazelnuts lending substance to a delicate, old-fashioned floral. Pots filled with inviting swirls of lush buttercreams and brightly colored berry preserves filled in the gaps.

Balancing the tray awkwardly, Maisie called out, “Could you please get the door for me?” But although the porch swing creaked, Miss Householder’s silks remained silent. The screen door stayed put.

Biting back a grumble of irritation, Maisie picked her way through the crowded living room. She and Allen had always meant to get a bigger place, but they gave up that goal when he couldn’t work anymore. It was hard thinking about getting rid of his favorite armchair, the ottoman he had used to rest his swollen feet, the history books he collected. Hard even with him gone seven years.

As Maisie bumped the door open with her hip, she thought she saw that Miss Householder’s thick, spiky hair had escaped its bun and was instead held back by a circlet of gleaming black stones. But she stepped out onto the porch and saw the expected picture instead. The setting sun must have tricked her eyes.

“Let me,” said Miss Householder, every hair still in place, rising to hold the flapping door out of Maisie’s way. “My mind was somewhere else.”

Maisie pasted a smile on her face. The minds of the rich were always somewhere else. “Did you have any thoughts about what you’d like for your cake?” The farmers market gossip about the Householder sisters was rich in speculation and lacking in detail. She couldn’t guess at Erato Householder’s preferences.

“I’m not particular about cake,” said Miss Householder. “What do most people like?”

Well, that was different. Most brides arrived with Pinterest boards open on their smartphones. “It really depends. Some brides want a certain look for their cake, and that determines the frosting. Others have some specific cravings for the taste or the texture. Why don’t we start with the devil’s food cake? It’s a classic, and it’s delicious with anything from chocolate mousse to lemon curd.”

With a polite expression, Miss Householder tried devil’s food cake with the suggested fillings and coverings. The cake itself didn’t appear to sway her, but she did express approval of the creamy and savory accompaniments, particularly the chocolate bacon ganache.

Maisie plied her unenthusiastic taster with all the cakes she had, from the flecked banana cake to the light Victoria sponge. Miss Householder nibbled a ray of colored fondant, tasted spoonfuls of filling made with gem-like local strawberries, forked up a tidy bite of red velvet cake with daubed with cream-cheese frosting.

Miss Householder sighed apologetically. “I can tell it’s all very high-quality, but I don’t have a sweet tooth. Really, I just want something Trey’s family will eat.”

Maisie and the Blairs didn’t move in the same social circles. Only the patriarch, Charles Jr., had attended Allen’s funeral. She doubted they remembered her, and she knew little of their tastes. “White cake and chocolate cake are always the most popular flavors. Fillings can be practically anything, or several different ones. As for the outside, everyone always loves the look of fondant, but pretty much everybody prefers the taste of buttercream.”

“Buttercream, then,” said Miss Householder immediately. “The look of the cake doesn’t matter as much as the taste. It’s a small gathering, just twenty or so people.”

“For both of your families?” Surprise startled all the tact out of Maisie.

“My sisters might come, but I don’t expect any extended family. There aren’t so many of us these days.” Miss Householder cast her eyes down and smoothed her gray silk dress. Maisie thought the strange, thin woman was about to cry, but when she looked up again, her eyes were clear. “It’ll be just Trey’s family and a few of their friends.”

No wonder something felt off. If the Blairs wanted to keep things small, then they didn’t approve of the match.

Miss Householder’s choice was a jumped-up version of a grocery store cake: alternating layers of white cake and devil’s food, with Maisie’s mixed-berry filling between them and a rich vanilla buttercream frosting. It was a compromise, something anybody would eat and nobody would remember. And here she’d been worrying that she’d be asked to wrestle cream puffs and rum custard into four unsteady tiers of St. Honoré cake.

“Would you like something different for the top layer?” Maisie asked. “The bride and groom take that home to freeze and eat on their first anniversary, so it’s really only your taste and Trey’s that matter for that one.”

Perhaps Miss Householder wasn’t familiar with that tradition; she perked up at the thought. “Could we add another small layer of the almond-flour cake with the chocolate bacon ganache?”

Four tiers for twenty people? That was a nice order. “Yes, of course. We’ll need the buttercream to look the same for all the layers, but they can be anything on the inside. I love it that you’re thinking about the taste first, but we should talk about the decoration as well.”

“There’s something I’d like to do with that.” Miss Householder opened the drawstring of her tiny handbag—a reticule, was it?—and pulled out a round porcelain box, the kind Maisie’s grandmother used to keep on her vanity table. Miss Householder lifted the lid and held the box out for Maisie’s inspection.

It was full of tiny, elongated white balls with a fine, soft sheen. “Are those spun sugar?” asked Maisie, although they looked too delicate even for that.

“My family makes them. We always have. I have to ask that you don’t eat any of them,” Miss Householder said firmly as Maisie’s hand went out to the snowy little pills. “We must use them all on the outside of the cake, as decoration. The number must be precise, or bad things will happen. Superstition or tradition, it’s important to me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of going against your tradition, and I think superstition is just a cruel name for what’s important to somebody.” Her philosophy exhausted, Maisie turned the conversation to how to use the decorative elements. Would it be all right to add dragées and nonpareils to make sure she had enough sprinkles to make designs? Yes, of course. And what kind of design? Maisie produced a clip book for inspiration, but Miss Householder barely glanced at it. Maisie had free rein.

Miss Householder seemed to be a person of few opinions and fewer requests, save one. “Will you be able to serve the cake yourself?”

Maisie tried to mask her surprise. “Usually the caterers do that, but I certainly can if that’s what you want.”

“It is. I’m so glad Jacqueline recommended you,” Miss Householder said, standing up in a rustle of skirts. “We really do see eye to eye on many things.”

The deposit pinged in Maisie’s PayPal account later that afternoon, while she was cooking custard. It was for more than half of the agreed-upon amount, so she called Jacqueline to confirm.

“Oh, just enjoy it!” Jacqueline’s bright laugh pealed like a bell. “I told them your price went up due to the complexity of the project. They complained a little, but I know the Blairs have the money—and frankly, I think they owe you.”

Maisie coughed to clear the lump in her throat. She had no way to prove the pesticides Allen had used as an exterminator for the Blairs caused his cancer. There was just no other reason she could see for it. Jacqueline had worked for the Blairs, too, in marketing. She didn’t have proof, either, but she quit after another of Allen’s co-workers got diagnosed with the same kind of tumor.

“Thanks,” Maisie managed. “I should go. Making custard for trifle, don’t want it to burn.”

“Ooh, you’re branching out into trifle? I’ll stop by early tomorrow before you sell out.”

Maisie would comp Jacqueline a jar, of course, but there was no point in arguing about it on the phone. “See you then. And thanks again for referring Miss Householder to me. She seems like a good client. Very…” she searched for the best and most positive words out of the many that suited the odd woman. “Very easy to get along with.”

“That’s great to hear.” Jacqueline’s voice was all warmth and sweetness, like simple syrup cooled just enough to taste. “I think you’ll like what she’s trying to do with the reception. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The canopy of the oak tree in the Householder sisters’ front yard was bigger than Maisie’s entire lot. The Queen Anne home they were renovating looked well up to the task of hosting a wedding reception, its single turret stark and proud against a gray sky. Maisie was grateful for the cool, cloudy day; it would be easier on the frosting than the usual summer heat. As she was unloading her car, Jacqueline came out the back door to lend a hand.

“Thanks for making the time and the room to let me set up,” said Maisie, hefting the cooler full of extra frosting and decorating supplies onto her cart. “This cake looks to be straightforward, but it’s good to be ready for surprises.”

“It’s my pleasure.” Jacqueline slowed to an uncharacteristically stately pace as she carried the largest tier of the cake. “The kitchen is old-fashioned, so it’s good to be prepared.”

Big windows let in ample light, but there wasn’t enough table and counter space for more than a handful of workers. The fixtures looked very old, all white enamel and rounded corners. “Is there room in the fridge?”

“Room? Yes, plenty. But it doesn’t work.” Jacqueline turned her near-grimace into a wry, confiding smile. “Don’t ask me how the Householder ladies eat.”

“I guess they concentrated on refurbishing the rest of the house. They’ve only been here a few months.” Perhaps that was why Charles Junior was throwing a lavish but small party for his son’s first wedding. If he had reservations about Miss Householder’s intentions, he might not want to invest much in the marriage.

Jacqueline’s attention was devoted to the skewers of carved fruit she was arranging in a vase. “I’ll be out of your way soon,” she promised. “These need to be ready to go, but after this, it’s just a matter of piping the salmon mousse into the sesame cones.”

Not wanting to steal time from Jacqueline’s prep, Maisie hauled the rest of the cake and her gear in by herself.

Assembling the cake didn’t take long. The witch-hazel twigs she used to support and secure the tiers held the towering cake fast. Binding magic, her grandmother had said. Sometimes Maisie wondered what more her grandmother could have taught her. But Maisie’s grandmother had died while she was still a child, so Maisie learned only the simple things that her more worldly mother said were just family tradition.

Decoration, now—that was the challenge. The crumb layer of buttercream lay thick and even on the cake already, and Maisie and her offset spatula made short work of adding more of the rich frosting to make the layers like a seamless staircase. The tricky part was working with all the little balls Miss Householder gave her. Calling them “sprinkles” was a misnomer, because they clung to one another and everything else; Maisie had to apply them one by one, with tweezers. She wondered—not for the first time—what kind of foodstuff they might be, but quashed her misgivings. After years of poisoning her husband, the Blairs could spend an afternoon eating what she served them.

Per Miss Householder’s instructions, Maisie used the not-exactly-sprinkles on the lowest three tiers. “They won’t freeze well,” Miss Householder had said, “and they won’t cut well, either. Please avoid doing those things.” Feeling more like a jeweler than a cake artist, Maisie delicately set them to sketch in an Art Deco-inspired pattern that delineated each cake portion. She filled in the design with pearly nonpareils and gold dragées, a sleek combination that would emphasize the voluptuousness of the frosting on a cut slice. She found a rhythm and worked steadily, blocking out the clamor of Jacqueline’s assistants arriving and taking instruction.

The completed cake stood nearly two feet tall. Maisie had placed the dragées and nonpareils so close together, they glittered like diamond pavé in 1920s engagement ring. Miss Householder’s spun-sugar pills limned them with softness, creating a dreamy effect. Smooth buttercream frosting gleamed between the panels of decoration. Maisie hoped for a murmur of surprise when she cut into the cake and to reveal not only layers of cloud-white cake, but the deep chocolate of devil’s food as well.

“Gorgeous!” Jacqueline took advantage of a lull in her own work to admire the cake. “Miss Householder will love it. Let’s get it set up before the guests arrive.”

As she wheeled the cart into the parlor, Maisie looked up. The Householder sisters had done a phenomenal job restoring the room. The cedar wainscoting glistened under the candles that flickered in the etched-glass chandeliers, and the richly patterned upholstery was a deep, lush shade of green. It was clever to paper the walls in a pattern on French grey; without that drab background, the room would be riotously sumptuous, richer even than the food. In that setting, her glittering tower of cake looked sleek and modern, its elaborate geometry almost restrained. She felt overwhelmed just being there, and was glad to retreat to the kitchen before the guests arrived.

Voices bubbled in from the parlor as the servers glided back and forth, ferrying trays of salmon cones and spiced beef lollipops. Maisie pulled a chair out of their paths and sat down with a can of pop she’d stowed in a cooler and a plate of not-quite-pretty-enough hors d’oeuvres.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” The DJ’s voice boomed through the speakers, making him sound like a carnival barker. “I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Charles Jacob Blair III!”’

Maisie entered the room in time to see the former Miss Erato Householder walk in, white skirts wide, a few steps behind her smirking husband. It wasn’t a fair comparison, but neither of them showed the elation she had seen on Allen’s face and felt animating her own. Trey cast a defiant “See? Told you I’d do it” look at his parents. Erato’s eyes were bright with excitement, but the determined set to her jaw made her look grim. Perhaps parties weren’t her thing.

This party didn’t look to be much of anybody’s thing. The older Blairs stood with sour, make-the-best-of-it expressions, as if someone were making a speech about them that aired too much dirty laundry. The guests clustered around the groom’s parents, not the newlyweds; it was clear whom they wanted to honor and impress. The bride’s family was not apparent.

The guests walked a short, strained receiving line to the syrupy strains of “My Heart Will Go On.” The song faded out a little too quickly, as if the DJ couldn’t take another moment. “And now…the cutting of the cake!”

Mindful of the former Miss Householder’s admonitions, Maisie positioned the knife at a gap in the decoration before stepping aside. Trey’s hand pressed down on his bride’s, driving the knife through the cake at an angle. Maisie served out the sloppy slice and handed it to them with a forced smile.

Trey rammed half the slice into his bride’s mouth and smeared frosting on her face. The new Mrs. Blair scraped the frosting from the remainder onto a fork and quirked an eyebrow at him, as if in challenge. A low rumble of laughter went through the small crowd, who expected a messy comeuppance.

But Erato delicately popped the frosting into Trey’s open mouth. “Let it melt on your tongue,” she murmured sweetly. She squeezed his arm, then cleaned her face with a proffered napkin.

Maisie cut the rest of the slices herself. The meticulous work of setting the pattern paid off; the cuts were easy to gauge. The trays next to the cake quickly filled with slices of snowy white and deep brown, the berry filling jewel-bright against the fine porcelain plates.

“Oh, let me help pass them out.” Jacqueline swooped in. “I picked the wrong time to let everybody go on break.”

As Maisie set a slice of devil’s food down in front of what she thought was the last guest, three figures glided into the parlor. She did a double-take at what could only be the remaining Misses Householder: tiny-waisted figures in full-skirted, possibly hooped, gray dresses with high necklines and long sleeves that mocked the season. The younger sisters rarely appeared in public, and Maisie had never seen them all together. Their eyes were large and dark, their hair rough and wild. They had not taken their sister’s pains to look polished, and Maisie found them disquieting, like wild animals in an ill-secured private zoo.

To Maisie’s surprise, the new Mrs. Blair clinked a knife against a glass. She had expected Trey to do all the talking.

“Now that my sisters have arrived, I would like to thank you all for coming to our home to celebrate with us. It has been several years since the influence of the Blairs has extended into these walls, and this is the happiest of occasions.”

Guests shifted uncomfortably as Charles Junior’s expression grew stony. The house had been abandoned for decades, since right around the time the Blairs hit on the perfect formula for killing everything on six or eight legs. If a Blair had ever entered the house before, it would have been as an exterminator, in the days before they had workers like Allen to spread the poisons on their behalf. Maisie moved the top tier of the cake to a waiting box, ready to exit the room looking busy if the mood got more uncomfortable.

“You are all Blairs, or friends or supporters of Blairs, and I am thrilled to share this day with you.” Erato turned to Trey in a rustle of silk. “I always said I wanted to have several children with you. Really, though, several hundred will make a more stable population. I propose a toast to the Householder children.”

Anger flickered across Trey’s face, but he tamed it into a confused scowl. His bride tilted her champagne flute toward him, then took a sip. Trey lifted his own glass awkwardly and opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words issued from between his lips.

Instead, a tiny spider climbed out of Trey’s mouth, followed by a trickle of blood.

“Blurrgggh,” he said before vomiting up the remains of Maisie’s cake and several intact spiders.

No longer a Blair, Erato Householder shimmered in the candlelight. A spell was breaking, Maisie realized. She should have trusted her own eyes. This was what she saw when she looked across her house’s threshold, across the line of salt.

Miss Householder’s pale silk skirt peeled away, then vanished, showing six long, chitinous legs covered with stiff, spiky hairs. The long gloves, the high collar, all rolled away as mist, leaving her last two legs and her segmented torso open to the air. Her face was now adorned with a circlet of gleaming black eyes, and long, hairy palps framed her large, red mouth.

Screams broke out as spiders burst forth from Charles Junior’s mouth. Mrs. Charles Junior fainted to the floor, brown-black shapes streaming away from her ashen face. Some guests fell, and others shoved each other out of the way as they ran for the parlor doors, but the other Misses Householder dropped to all eights and blocked them with wide-legged stances.

Jacqueline tugged Maisie’s sleeve, careful not to upset the cake box Maisie carried. “Through the kitchen.”

A Householder scuttled before the kitchen door, snapping her palps menacingly. Maisie’s stomach plummeted, and she held out the box full of cake as a surely ineffective shield. But the spider stared at them for a moment, examining the two of them with all her eyes, and stepped aside. Apparently the help was allowed to leave. The anguished noises Maisie heard after the door slammed behind her suggested not everyone was afforded safe passage.

The two of them were already in the driveway, startling one of Jacqueline’s servers out of a cigarette reverie, when Maisie realized no one had followed them. “Where is everybody?” The screams had died down, replaced by a crackling sound.

“You didn’t think Blairs and their kind would step into a kitchen, did you?” Jacqueline’s eyes twinkled, but her smile was close-lipped and hard. “Just like they wouldn’t use the sprays themselves. Not when they had good, uncomplaining people like Allen to do things for them.” She cast a look at her employee, who was staring at the house, and dropped her voice to add, “That’s the story we should stick with.”

Maisie’s vision swam. She set the cake box on the boot of her car with shaking hands, then slid to a sit on the bumper and stared down at the ground. A trail of wobbly baby house spiders trickled past her and headed down the block. Four larger ones herded them, like teachers taking a crowd of preschoolers on a field trip. Even for the species called “giant house spiders” in British Columbia, those four were remarkable specimens. Not woman-sized—more like cat-sized—but clearly out of the ordinary. The spider magic could conceal and redirect, but it was always at least a little bit visible.

Maisie realized that her vision was flickering because the light was irregular. “The house is on fire.”

“Oh!” Jacqueline’s eyebrows went up, but her eyes didn’t look surprised. “We’d better call it in, then, hadn’t we?”

The fire department arrived quickly, but the wood of the once-beautiful house was old and dry, and the building had not been retrofitted for modern fire codes. What was the couple thinking, using real candles? No one expected to find survivors.

At home that evening, Maisie set the top tier of the cake on her porch swing. Maybe someone would come for it. Maybe it would be eaten by ants. Either way, she was done with it. She wasn’t sorry that Allen had been avenged, but she didn’t like being an unwitting part of someone else’s vendetta. She wouldn’t work with Jacqueline again.

When she rose in the morning, Maisie peeked at the cake box through the doorway. She kept her eyes on it as she crossed the line of salt. It did not change.

Maisie flipped open the box to see that one slice was missing. An envelope with her name written in lacy, old-fashioned handwriting contained somewhat more cash than the balance due, and there was a note on the inside of the box lid in the same hand. The red-brown letters spelled out, “Thank you, and good-bye for now. You have a friend here, if you want one. Sincerely, The Eratigena Atrica Householders.”

Stuck to the inside of the lid was one intact spider egg. Although it looked as random as a stray nonpareil, Maisie was certain it was not there by accident. The egg was an ordinary sort, one that would hatch a perfectly normal giant house spider.

Maisie picked it up gently. “Come on in, then,” she said to it. “I could use some company around the place, and I know you’ll help me keep a wholesome kitchen.”

All the same, Maisie freshened up the salt before she closed the door.

 

This story originally appeared in Tales From the Lake, Vol. 5, edited by Kenneth W. Cain.


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Laura Blackwell

Laura Blackwell writes along the fantasy-horror continuum, dipping into fabulism or the weird as the story demands.