Grief – a Short Story by Pepper O’Brien

There really wasn’t anything quite as satisfying as beating bread dough into submission.

Don’t think about it. Don’t go there. Keep it together. 

I chanted silently to myself over and over as I kneaded, the smell of the yeast wafting up to remind me that I was safe, I was home, and I was getting on with my life. I baked every day and made bread twice a week, sometimes more.

This week, all I’d done was bake. I woke up for a batch of muffins. The instant the bowl was clean, a cake was next, then there was buttercream to mix, and then a pie crust to roll out.

I baked for hours until Kyle came to either eat his fill or take away the extra to whomever. I never asked. As long as there was need, I’d keep baking.

Need in myself or need in others to eat, I didn’t pause for long enough to consider.

“Honey,” he said tentatively as I continued to knead.

“There are lady fingers just there and some chouquettes,” I told him. “This needs to prove again, but I’ll have an Angel Food out soon.” I spared a glance for the upside-down tin where the cake was resting before I returned my attention to the dough in front of me.

I didn’t hear my husband’s resigned sigh, but I knew it was there. I could feel it in my bones.

“Okay,” he finally said. “I’ll take care of it.”

You’re okay. Everything’s fine. Don’t think about it. 

***

Late that night, sounds drifted through the house in an uneven pattern. Baseball highlights floated in from the den’s television as my mixer whirred together butter and sugar. Kyle muttered on the phone, the ceiling fan spun in a hum, and cicadas happily sang in the yard. The oven timer beeped. The water ran in the sink. The kitchen radio played bachata. I used to dance as I baked, and I hadn’t quite gotten out of the habit of playing music whenever I had cookies on the brain.

I didn’t dance anymore.

“Terry?”

At first, I didn’t hear him. I was too busy chanting in my head and watching to make sure the chocolate I had melting in the saucepan didn’t burn.

“Terry, baby,” he said again.

“Hm?” I didn’t look up.

“That was your mom.”

I tensed, unsure of why she’d call now.

“Janet’s kids… her students keep sending cards and things. She just wanted to know if you… if you’re interested in taking a look. Or maybe coming for a visit.”

I barely heard what he said after “Janet”. My sister’s name reverberated through my head as I stared at the blade of my mixer.

Janet. Janet. Janet. Janet. Janet. 

I could scream. I could vomit. I could curl in a ball in the corner and refuse to speak to anyone.

I didn’t. I just baked.

“Sweetheart? Maybe you could call your mom back tomorrow. She didn’t sound like she was doing very well-”

He cut himself off before he could say “either”. We both heard it anyway. What he stopped himself from saying, but meant just the same. She’s not doing any better than you are. 

Meaning I wasn’t doing well. Meaning I wasn’t handling my sister’s suicide.

“Kyle.”

My voice rasped from underuse. He probably hadn’t heard me say his name in weeks.

“I can’t…”

“Can’t what, baby?”

I didn’t know what to say. I reached up and turned the mixer off. Suddenly, all the noise in our house seemed to rush to a halt. I no longer heard the sports commentators. I no longer heard the ceiling fan. Kyle must have lowered the radio’s volume when he tried to get my attention. Even the cicadas seemed to hold their breath as I stood in my kitchen and tried to tell my husband what it was I couldn’t do.

“I can’t think about her right now, Kyle.”

“You don’t have to, Terry,” he whispered, never moving from his place by the door. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, but you’re scaring me.”

That snapped my head up in a hurry. I finally met his eyes.

“You can keep doing this. I’ll bring you all the flour and eggs you want. I’ll keep bringing cookies to work with me. I’ll take your mother’s calls, and I’ll tell all of our friends that you’re doing okay. I promise I will. I’ll do all of it until you bake through every ounce of butter in the state, I swear.”

My eyes filled. My poor, worried husband looked pale and gaunt, barely propping himself against the door jamb.

“If that’s what you need, honey, that’s what I’ll do. But no one knows you like I do. Not your mom, not your brothers, and baby, I’m so sorry to say this, but not even Janet knew you like I do.”

The tears fell because he was right. I knew it and so did he.

“I know every part of you, and I know you’re trying to make yourself feel better. I know you’re trying to forget, because all of this,” he gestured to the counter in front of me, “is something you love.”

He took a step forward and I felt my hands shake.

“I miss my wife,” he said softly. “And I don’t want you to forget. I’ll go along with whatever you want, whatever you need to do, but sweetheart… I’d take years of your anger and your tears and your frustration over a single moment of your reserve. I miss you so much, and I don’t know how to show you anymore.”

Without another word, Kyle turned and walked out of the kitchen. I heard the game highlights come back on. Rubbing my face on my apron, I turned the mixer back on.

***

The next morning, I stepped outside and sat on my front steps with a cup of coffee in my hands, and I waited. I’d woken up to an empty bed. Kyle was probably out for a run, and I wanted him to see me here. I wanted to show him that I could leave the house, that I could behave like a normal person. Or at least pretend to for a time.

It was another ten minutes before I heard the telltale rhythm of his running shoes hitting the sidewalk.

I smiled even though it hurt. I stood even though I didn’t want to. My hands ached for my whisk and my rolling pin. Still I gripped my mug and made my way down the front walk.

Sweating and exhausted, my husband pulled up in front of me.

“Terry?”

“Hey.”

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