Horla Fiction (November 2020)

 

STRAWBERRY PIE

by STEVEN SHEIL

KATHERINE had found the recipe card when she’d removed the drawer of the vintage kitchenette cabinet which she’d bought from the second-hand place near the station. It was handwritten, in a sharply-angled script which she’d at first struggled to discern – the tall lines of each letter’s stem leapt across the yellowing card like whip-marks – and dated, she guessed, from some time in the 50s. Across the top it bore the title ‘Strawberry Pie’, with the ingredients listed below and, on the reverse, the method in seven neatly delineated steps.

Just below where the scratchy hand underlined the final word – ‘Serve’- there was what looked like a spattering of strawberry stains, a detail which struck her as delightfully evocative. When she put the card to her nose, she half-convinced herself that she could smell the faint aroma of fruit coming off it, below the ancient must of the paper itself. Earthy, yet sweet. Sickly almost.

*

She began to bake as soon as she got home from the supermarket. As she cooked the strawberries down, mixed in with sugar and a splash of lemon juice, she let the aroma fill her nostrils and felt transported. She could almost see the kitchen where the writer of the recipe had worked, could almost hear the shouts of hungry children from outside. When she opened her eyes and looked down she was surprised to find that no apron strings were tied at her waist. She had almost felt them constricting her.

*

She filled the base and completed the lattice topping, then put the pie in the oven for the twenty minutes as instructed. The light outside was fading and as she stood there, feeling the heat of the stove against her legs, the whole kitchen seemed to grow dim, with just the light from the oven, where the pie bubbled and browned, casting a soft orange glow.

*

When the twenty minutes were up, she took out the pie and placed it on the counter top and felt a sense of satisfaction that was almost overwhelming. Alongside it came a sensation of shifting in time and place. For a moment it was though her hands were no longer her hands. Splayed there on the counter either side of the pie dish, fingers longer and thinner than her own, dotted at the tips with the shiny nubs of burnt skin, it was like she was looking through a stranger’s eyes.

A moment of fear went through her, as though she were losing a sense of herself, and when the phone gave its buzz – Michael asking about dinner tomorrow – she was almost glad of the chance to get out of the kitchen, to find in conversation with him the anchor back to reality.

*

It was ten minutes before she went back in, time enough for the pie to cool, she judged, and though part of her relished the prospect of the first bite, there was apprehension there too, as though in consuming the pie something would be set in motion that she could not contain. She shook off the feeling, stepped across the tile floor – and stopped. There was someone else in the room. A boy, a child she’d never seen before. Seven or so, scrawny, chin barely above the counter’s top, hair yellow and almost the same colour as his sallow skin. His bony hand was to his mouth and she could see that his jaw was moving, could hear the wet sounds of food against teeth.  Before she even could ask what he was doing there he seemed to sense her presence and slowly, as though moving through air thick like liquid, he turned his face towards her.

*

The moment she saw the smear of strawberry juice across his rotten teeth and pale chin, the red juicy fruit pulp which he clasped in the hand he held at his lips, something inside of her seemed to twist and snap. It was like someone else was moving her forward, striding haughtily across the tiles, grabbing the wastrel boy by the arm, feeling him wriggle desperately in her grasp.

It was her hand, but not hers – bone-sharp and burn-scarred – which raised up high, then came down hard and fast against the boy’s cheek, sending him staggering back, tripping, falling, slamming his head against the granite counter with a sickening smack. As the boy fell to the floor, disappearing into the gloom as though sinking into mud, she saw the wet spritz of blood which glistened on the counter’s edge, and felt herself jerk back into possession of her body. She gave a gasp, fell forward against the counter, saw the recipe card before her and realised what she’d missed. The spray of drops which dotted the recipe card were not smears of strawberry juice, and never had been.

 

 

***

Steven Sheil is a writer and film-maker based in Nottingham, UK. His short stories have previously appeared in Black Static, The Ghastling and as part of The Black Library.

Title photo credit –  Cassi Josh on Unsplash

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