by Kaitlin Richcreek
Helen Martin had found a rare moment of silence and was doing something she hadn’t done in a long time: reading the newspaper. In a glorious happenstance, both her girls had decided to fall asleep at the same time, and so far they were sleeping through the night. Even so, she couldn’t be completely still: she paced her kitchen while she read. She could feel grainy flour under her bare feet. She should sweep that up before she tracked it everywhere. It was just normal store-bought flour—she was far more careful with the other kind—but she still liked a clean home.
She normally just scrolled on Instagram at this point when she was childcare-dazed, but she had already read about the failing economy, divisive politics, and a girl named Anabelle who had gone missing earlier that afternoon. Now she wanted the comfort of paper in her hands and stories that were already in the past.
She came upon a story about one of the professors at Troy’s school, Judson Trompe, that made her laugh. She had heard about him from Troy and thought he was a total buffoon, so it was nice to see him making a fool of himself. But when she read what he was quoted as saying – “the mystery is with the feet” —her smile faded. She stopped in the middle of her pacing and re-read the article, searching for more detail. Reading that he had been reciting poetry in a “calculating” way increased her concern.
Just then, a knock came at the door. She jumped a little.
“Sis, let me in! I’ve got more of our mix ready!”
It was Troy. Helen took a breath, and the smell of the bread she had just put in the oven met her nose. It relaxed her. She glanced at the article again and shook herself. She was reading too much into it.
She walked to the door and let Troy in. He had a big goofy grin on his face, the same one he always had for her. She couldn’t help but smile back. When he opened his mouth to say something, she put a finger to her lips. “Quietly,” she murmured. “The girls are both down.”
Troy’s eyebrows went up and he gave her an enthusiastic thumbs up with the hand that wasn’t holding a large paper sack. He came in and set it on the kitchen counter while Helen closed the door behind him. She followed him and frowned at the bag. She set the newspaper down next to it and leaned down to peer into the oven. The bread was close to done.
“Oh, did you read the one about Trompe?” Troy said. He sat on a stool at the island facing into the kitchen and grabbed the newspaper. “He went crazy or something.”
Her frown deepened. She grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the flour that had been bugging her. “I did. Does he usually act that way?”
“Oh no, not at all. It was so weird too—I swear I was talking to him literally right before it all went down yesterday. I was having an actual civil conversation with him too—probably because we were just talking about regular stuff like food instead of politics or whatever, you know—and it was the most normal I’ve ever seen him. Guess something just snapped after that.”
A small knot of dread formed in Helen’s stomach. She set the broom against the counter with a clacking sound and grabbed a dustpan from under the sink. “Food? What kind of food?”
Troy’s cheerful tone faltered at whatever he heard in her voice. “Well—it’s weird you ask, actually—I was about to take a bite of one of our cookies when I ran into him, and he was asking about it, and I just gave him the whole thing at one point. He had customer potential.”
Helen stopped and stared at Troy, dustpan hanging loosely by her side. She felt cold and still. “You what?”
“Look, I know that one was meant for me, but what’s the—sis, what’s wrong?”
Helen still did not move to address the tidy pile of flour on the flour. “Troy, this is very important. I need you to answer me in as much detail as possible. What did you put into the flour mix for our last batch of cookies?”
“I put in all the same stuff we usually do, I promise.” He listed the ingredients one by one. He had memorized them years ago.
Helen wasn’t satisfied. “And was there anything unusual about this time? Did you mix it in a different place, or…?”
Troy’s brow furrowed. “No… well, I guess Ruff was staying late today, and since he was around he was asking questions about the recipe.” Ruff let Troy use the kitchen attached to the Student Commons to mix up the flour with the other ingredients. While he didn’t approve of the amount of sugar involved, Ruff knew about Helen’s situation and wanted to support their side hustle.
“What kind of questions?”
“Well, you know Ruff—super into weird food—he was curious about what your recipe was and he kept making suggestions, like what we could add or whatever.”
“Troy. Tell me you didn’t add anything.” That knot of dread tightened in Helen’s stomach.
Troy held his hands up. “I didn’t, I promise! But… what’s the big deal?”
Helen ignored his question. “Did you step away at any point?”
Troy’s open, innocent face looked so confused. “Well, I had to go to the bathroom once. Sis, seriously, what’s the issue?”
“Has anyone else eaten any cookies from that batch?”
“No, I only grabbed a couple for myself. This batch was just for—oh, wait.” Troy winced. “I gave the second one to this girl. A new girl or something, in the cafeteria. She seemed super hungry.”
“And how was she afterward?”
“She wasn’t feeling too well, so she said she was going to sit under a tree for a while until her dad could come get her. The big tree, old Doug. She started saying some weird things, but I had to get to a study group so I kind of just took off?” His voice turned up at the end while his eyes darted across her face.
“What was her name?”
“I’m not sure—Analisa? No, that’s not right.” Troy frowned.
Helen heard a clattering sound. She looked down. It was the dustpan. She had dropped it.
“Anabelle?” She murmured.
“Yeah, that’s right. how did you know?”
A wail came from upstairs. Samantha, her youngest, was awake. She shouldn’t have dropped the dustpan, she thought absently.
“Troy. You need to stay here and watch the girls tonight.” Helen rushed to the pantry, stuffed some things into a stray grocery bag, and then to the coat closet. Once again, she was all motion.
“What do you mean, sis? I already have plans to—”
“I don’t give a shit, Troy,” Helen interrupted, not bothering to keep her voice down. “I need to fix this. It’s your fault that girl is missing, so you’re on kid duty tonight.” She instantly regretted her words at the look of hurt surprise on her brother’s face. It wasn’t really his fault—it was hers, always had been hers. But she didn’t have time to apologize or explain. Another wail arose from upstairs. That would be her oldest, Gracie.
She shoved her bare feet, gritty flour and all, into tennis shoes. No time to get socks. She grabbed a coat and her bag of supplies before reaching for the handle of her front door. She paused and turned. Troy looked utterly bewildered. “See if you can get them back to sleep, and take the bread out of the oven before it burns,” she said. Her girls’ wails from upstairs pulled at her heartstrings. She opened the door and realized something. “And whatever you do, do not give anyone else the rest of those cookies,” she added over her shoulder before she walked out and closed the door behind her.
Helen shivered in the brisk night air. She grasped a locket around her neck and closed her eyes. “Mom, be with me tonight,” she whispered. Then she began her walk to the big tree at the edge of campus where Troy said he had left Anabelle.
As she walked, she ruminated about the choices she had made that had led to this moment.
When she was in high school, she had been labeled as strange because she kept to herself, didn’t try to be nice, and did not make friends easily. She was really only close to her mother, and from her mother she inherited a secret. But her mother had died under mysterious circumstances, and so Helen was left alone. When a boy showed interest in her, she acted like a fool and ended up pregnant even though she wasn’t even attracted to him. She wasn’t sure she was even attracted to men at all. But she hadn’t realized it was an option to expect someone to stay by her side unless she was giving them something in exchange.
Well, that boy definitely didn’t stay once she told him about the baby. And when she turned to her father for help, he raged and practically threw her out then and there. Eventually, he said that he would support her if the baby was a boy, but if the baby was a girl or even intersex, he wouldn’t give them a single penny. He wasn’t willing to support his late wife’s “legacy,” a word he layered with disgust. “Her line dies with you,” he had emphasized in a special moment of cruelty.
When it became known that she was having a girl, her father really did kick her out. She worked at a bakery practically until she went into labor so she could afford a tiny apartment, but once she had Samantha, she was desperate for the financial support of a spouse. She married someone who left her after they had a baby girl. One night when she was feeling particularly sorry for herself, she made a vow that she would never lie to herself again for a false sense of security. And that’s when she made her first batch of cookies.
She made the recipe herself, and it wasn’t just any recipe. It was a combination of ingredients that lent itself to supernatural properties. Because that was the secret of Helen’s maternal heritage: she came from a long line of witches, dating back centuries. And one night when Helen was feeling especially ashamed of her past, she decided to make comfort food that was not only delicious, but a safeguard from inner falsehood.
Unfortunately, there were some unexpected consequences to her midnight baking. The next day, Samantha, a toddler at the time, was speaking in strange riddles with vocabulary she couldn’t possibly know at her age and Gracie, just a baby, wailed without ceasing. Then Troy visited her—thankfully after her daughters had returned to normal—and before she could stop him he had taken a bite out of one of the cookies. The next day he started going to the gym and working out, and in hindsight she had realized that he had taken the first step to becoming true to himself and his bodybuilding dreams. Her cookies worked better than she had anticipated. Even the residue in the air was enough to affect young children.
Troy kept asking for more, and she felt excited at the opportunity to use her gift to help her baby brother when he had helped her so much. So she had Troy take pre-imbued flour and mix it with other raw ingredients elsewhere, away from her sensitive daughters, with the excuse that the food processor in the Student Commons was better than hers. They made a tradition of it, until eventually she figured out he was selling them under the table to other students in a sort of Westminster Academy black market. She couldn’t tell Troy about the magic, and she couldn’t say no to the extra money he was bringing in, but she did start only giving Troy regular flour.
Every once in a while, though, she made a batch just for them, and then she still used the special flour. What she hadn’t counted on was the one ingredient that her mother warned her to never use, under any circumstances, somehow making its way into the batch: blood.
She didn’t know how or why or by whom, but when Troy went to the bathroom and left the mix unattended, somehow, blood—even just a small amount—had been mixed in. She was sure of it. Perhaps Ruff had a small cut on his hand and snuck in some quinoa or something. Helen snorted when she thought of that. Ruff would never do something so unhygienic.
Nevertheless, only the added ingredient of blood could cause a fully grown adult to attempt to undo a falsehood so far beyond himself that he began to channel long lost secrets in the form of riddles. Blood could enhance any spell to a dangerous degree.
She didn’t know how a teenager would be affected, but she had a bad feeling about it. She needed to find Anabelle.
Once she arrived at the big fir tree at the edge of campus, she looked around her to make sure she was alone. It was after midnight now and the area was deserted.
Helen began a basic tracking ritual using the supplies from her grocery bag. It took her a while to recall all the details—she was pretty rusty, she admitted to herself at one point—but in the end, she was settling into a cross-legged position to wait at the center of a tight circle of sliced almonds sprinkled with cocoa powder, immersed in the sharp smell of cloves and vanilla, and to her relief, she could feel the magic being released. Baking ingredients were her preferred medium.
The spell was reliable, if a little unpredictable in how it carried itself out and how long it took. It always gave her a clear path to follow, one way or another.
“Wish me luck, Doug!” The shout rang nearby. Helen’s eyes snapped open. She kept the rest of her body still so that she wouldn’t catch the attention of the girl running past her.
This was it. She could feel it. Helen got to her feet, her knees unbending painfully. She had been sitting for hours, only getting up a few times to stretch. She carefully stepped over her circle of almond slices and jogged after the girl in the pre-dawn light. The girl was traveling toward the old growth forest between the academy and the Olivier estate.