Everyone’s been baking during lockdown and Lilah’s no different. In the course of Keyflame, she has to stay locked up in a cottage while the bad guys think she’s dead. She turns to comfort baking, but things don’t go exactly as planned…
(Small spoilers for Keyflame as these events happen later in the book, between chapters 37 and 38, but the story should stand as self-contained.)
“Okay Fatso, we’ve got an hour to pull this off.”
The cat looks up at me with his tongue out, caught mid-bath, his leg pointing delicately towards the front door. I press down the centre of the old recipe book to keep it open. “Possibly more than an hour. I guess he could have errands to run after visiting George.”
It’s Tuesday, which means that Kalin will be out visiting his best and only friend at the old age home. I mean, I assume that’s where he is. Not like he told me. He hasn’t said more than a few words to me in days.
I swallow my hurt feelings and run a finger below the first line of the recipe. “In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt.”
That could be a problem. I’ve got a big bag of self-raising cake flour but no yeast.
“Do you think baking powder can do the job of yeast?” I ask Fatso.
He ignores me.
Like most of my recent ideas, this is probably a bad one. All I know about bread is how often people get eliminated from Bake Off for getting it wrong. I take a deep breath and read the next line of the recipe. “Add one and five eighths cups water and stir.”
“What’s five eights of a cup?” I ask the cat.
When he remains unresponsive, I ask Google instead.
“Half a cup plus two tablespoons.” While I’m at it, I also Google, substitutes for yeast and discover that I can create something called a sourdough starter from potatoes and use that instead of yeast. Now we’re cooking. Well, baking.
I set some potatoes to boil and measure out the rest of the ingredients. Even if I only manage to get the bread in the oven before Kalin gets back, it will be worth it. No one can stay grumpy when enveloped in the smell of baking bread, can they? Especially someone whose idea of a fresh meal is pizza made to order instead of pizza that’s been frozen.
A few weeks ago, I would have given anything to be trapped in this cottage with Kalin. I loved being here – in the warm kitchen with its yellow linoleum and orange cat, in the study packed with ancient books, with the mysterious man who seemed to understand me on a level no one else ever has. But then I learned the truth and the curtain lifted. The wizard of this particular Oz has a darker past and is far less human than the one in the tale. And no matter how many times I’ve clicked my heels together, I can’t go back to thinking of the cottage as home.
Not that learning the truth changed my feelings for Kalin. No, my stupid heart went right on wanting him. It was his feelings that changed.
Our universe, while I’m hiding out here, consists of three rooms. And somehow he still manages to avoid me. Even when we’re in the same space, mere feet away from each other, even when he’s close enough that I would only have to lift a hand to feel his warmth, he finds ways to close himself off from me.
Fatso stretches and peers into the bowl, then pulls a face.
“No, I don’t think baking him fresh bread will change that,” I say. “I just want to do something nice for him. Like… compensation for having to put up with me being here.”
Fatso hops off the counter as if he refuses to be party to this plan and retreats to a sun beam on the other side of the room.
I remove the potatoes from the heat and check my phone again for instructions. “Take one and a half cups of potato water, add a tablespoon of sugar… a cup of flour…” I almost spill out the whole bag trying to do this one-handed, “cover and… leave overnight. Wait, what?”
I read it again just to be sure. Then I check the time, just to be double sure. I don’t have a night. I have half an hour.
I Google “instant sourdough starter” and just get store links to buy yeast. Not helpful!
Okay, okay, all is not lost. I may not have time, but I do have magic. A lot of magic. More magic than any person should have, if Sukwini can be believed.
I chew on my lip as I eye the gooey mix. Magic is possibly cheating, but this exercise isn’t about showing Kalin that I can make bread, that I can be useful, that I’m an adult with adult skills. It’s about making something nice for him to come home to, so who cares how I do it as long as the result is good?
The last time I used magic, Kalin said I should picture what I want the magic to do and maybe even form my hands into a useful shape to guide it. So, I stick my hand out over the bowl. My sleeve very nearly flops into the dough. Not a good start. I yank it back and try again. I imagine bubbles forming in the batter and I wave my hand as if to encourage them to rise. I squeeze my eyes shut and think of bubbles, of rising. I picture exactly what the photo on the recipe page looks like.
I open one eye first. It can’t possibly be that easy. Nothing will have happened.
Except it has. The bowl is full of fizzy white starter just like in the picture. I whoop for joy and Fatso lifts his head.
“This is going to work. This is totally going to work.”
I quickly return to the bread recipe, but hit another snag almost immediately. “Let dough rest at least twelve hours, preferably about eighteen.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
I wiggle my fingers. I really don’t want to use magic again. Helping the dough along with magic is one thing, but when does it stop being me making bread and start being magical bread?
I should just quit while I’m ahead, dump the whole lot down the sink and go back to the study to do something I’m good at like drawing or reading. Let Kalin come home whenever he does and say his cool hello as usual and ignore me for the rest of the day. He won’t even know he missed out on warm bread slathered with butter. He won’t know I failed.
My chest goes tight. Is there really anything wrong with magical bread? It’s not like I’m out to prove anything right?
(Okay I’m out to prove the dough. With magic. That’s not what I mean.)
I’m clearly overthinking this. I stretch out my hands again, close my eyes and imagine the bread rising. I tell it to do whatever it was going to do, just, you know, quicker. I even make a gesture like a conductor encouraging an orchestra into a crescendo. Get bigger, get fluffier, please work, please work please…
Something slimy kisses my fingers and I jerk back, snapping my eyes open again.
The dough has risen right out of the bowl up towards my gesturing hands like a sticky pillar. I try to pull my hand away but the dough follows.
“Back in the bowl!” I tell it. It plops down with a wet noise and I breathe a sigh of satisfaction, before turning back to the recipe book.
“Okay next thing I need to… knead.” I reach for the bag of flour, but instead, my hand sinks into dough.
I shriek and scuttle away before I even comprehend what’s happened. The dough is still rising. It’s eaten the bowl and is working its way across the counter, devouring the flour, the rolling pin and Fatso’s food dish. I back away from it.
“You can stop rising now,” I instruct. But the dough doesn’t listen. Two tendrils reach down to the floor. Another presses against the window. “Stop!”
One of the tendrils is encroaching on Fatso’s sun beam. His tail flicks from side to side.
But my words are as ineffectual as they were when talking to the dough. He sticks his butt in the air and pounces. He attacks the dough with claws and teeth, but his paws and snout merely sink into the mixture. And then it rises up around him, trying to suffocate him. I don’t think, I just grab him and dash for the front door. He’s hissing and spitting and scratching at me, but I hold him all the tighter.
What do I do? My phone is in the other room and I can’t leave the property. We need to get away from this stuff, shelter somewhere until Kalin gets back and can fix this. The ancient tree growing out of the old well is not sturdy enough to support me. I run my gaze along it, over its branches. It won’t hold my weight for long, but it might get me up onto the roof. I hoist Fatso over my shoulder. He digs in his claws as I climb. The thickest branch creeks under me and I nearly lose my balance as I shimmy along it, holding on with one hand, until I reach the lip of the roof. I detach Fatso with some effort, hoping he won’t simply rush down to attack the bread monster again. He shoots off across the tiles and hops onto the chimney where he immediately starts licking sticky dough from his paws. I manage to clamber up and flop onto my back. The sun is warm on my cheeks as my rapid heartbeat calms.
Kalin will know how to defeat that thing. All I have to do is wait up here for him to get back.
He’ll be so angry. He’ll probably lecture me about magic and temptation and tell me how I’m well on my way to being addicted to power. Or, worse, he’ll be too angry to even speak to me. This will push him over the edge from cold indifference to actively disliking me. There’s a heavy knot in my stomach and my eyes prickle. Why did I think this was a good idea? Why couldn’t I make something easy, like biscuits?
Because Kalin doesn’t like biscuits. At least, he didn’t like the ones I made yesterday. I offered him some when they were warm and gooey in the centre, and he said, “I’ll have some later, thank you,” and went back to his book. He didn’t have any later. I counted. Of course I counted, because I’m that pathetic.
So maybe I wasn’t just making bread as a nice gesture. Maybe a part of me hoped to impress him. Maybe I’d pictured him coming home and it feeling like home. And him realising that I made it that way.
And now he’ll come home and find his home devoured by over-enthusiastic bread dough. By the time he gets back it will have covered the kitchen for sure – the fridge, the table, the floor. It will probably have seeped under the door of the bedroom. It’s going to be hell to get out of the rug. And…
“Oh no!” I sit up so fast that my head spins and Fatso eyes me warily. “The books!”
The study is full of ancient books that Kalin treasures. If I just leave the dough until he gets back, it’s going to completely swallow them. They’ll be ruined.
I climb down from the roof, careful not to slip, and barge through the kitchen door. Only to meet a white wall of goo.
“Let me pass!” I instruct it with as much confidence as I can muster. My voice wobbles and the dough does not acknowledge me.
How strong is it? Could I walk through it? Maybe. But what if I couldn’t? What if I got stuck? How would I breathe?
There has to be a way. I can’t let it destroy the books!
The study has a window.
I rush outside again and hoist myself up on the old sill. The peeling paint leaves white marks on my hands. I dig my nails along the window frame and pull. This window has always been stiff. It’s supposed to swing outwards towards me, but I can’t get it to budge. I can’t get a grip. Through it, I can see tendrils of dough already sliming into the study. I cast about me for a rock or something to break the glass. Instead, I spot a pair of sheers from when I was working in the garden a few days ago. Yes! I grab those and jam them under the window. I manage to lever it open. It’s tiny. At first I don’t expect my shoulders will fit through, but then I twist diagonally and manage to shove myself inside. My shirt snags and tears, and I knock over three boxes of beads, but I’m in.
I make for the study door and try to force it closed. I lean my whole weight against it. The tendril of dough snakes up my leg, wetting my jeans, but it doesn’t protest. I have the door nearly closed when I feel weight pressing against the other side of it.
“Stop! Go away!” I tell the dough. But it only presses harder. Sweat breaks out on my brow and my arms wobble with the effort of keeping the door closed. The dough is relentless. I can’t hold it back. The door creeks open. At first a crack, then the space widens and there is nothing I can do to prevent it from opening all the way. My shoes slide uselessly on the floor. I rush to the settee that has been Kalin’s bed and gather up the papers scattered around it. I grab as many books as I can from the teetering pile beside it and hug them to my chest as I back away from the dough. It’s as high as the ceiling, completely filling the doorway. Blood rushes in my ears and my breath is so very loud, but otherwise all is completely silent as the dough moves into the room and looms before me. It creeps along the counter, towards the open window, eating up Kalin’s work debris – jewellery stands, pendants, boxes. I consider making a desperate bid for freedom and escaping back through the window while there’s still time, but then there would be absolutely no way in again. I’d have to admit defeat, I’d have to leave the books – leave everything – to the monster.
I position myself in front of the rarest of Kalin’s collection. There must be something I can do. I have magic. I have so much magic. Why can’t I use it? Why won’t the dough listen to me?
My head snaps towards the voice. Through the tiny gap of the window not covered by dough, I see Kalin running down the garden path. He drops his messenger bag and stops with his hands in his hair. The dough must be leaking out the front door.
“Kalin! Kalin! In here!”
He follows the sound of my voice and then rushes to the window.
“What happened?” I can only see his nose and one eye, so I can’t tell how angry he is.
“It’s my fault. I–”
“What is it?”
The one eye blinks. “Bread. Dough.”
“I wanted to make it rise quickly.”
“And you used magic.” It isn’t a question.
“Yes, but I can’t get it to stop rising with magic. I tried.”
“Of course you can’t. Yeast is alive. Wait there.”
Kalin disappears. I sink down against the bookshelf. The dough continues to draw nearer. It’s close enough now that I can hear it squelching. At least if I die here, everyone will think I was drowned in a lake. They won’t know I was eaten by bread. “Eaten by bread” would be a pretty badass headstone though. It would be one of those confusing ones that made it into gift books and Buzzfeed articles.
Oh god. Am I really going to be eaten by a dough monster of my own making? It takes up my whole vision now. I am in a tiny cocoon of air and books. Real fear grips me, like talons digging into my belly. I drop the books and papers I’m holding as my limbs turn to jelly. I’ve been here before, I’ve suffocated before. I can’t do this again. I can’t go through this again.
There’s a whoosh sound, like a shower being turned on. The dough stops encroaching. It slides back, and then it… dissolves. I’m hit in the face by a stream of water.
“Sorry!” Kalin shouts. The water stops and there’s Kalin, in the doorway, brandishing a hosepipe. He doesn’t pause for long. He strides toward me and hauls me up to my feet.
“Are you hurt?”
His warm fingers move to my shoulder where my shirt tore. He turns over my hands, which are lightly grazed from climbing. The floor is soaked. We’re ankle deep in murky water for the second time in as many weeks.
“I’m fine.” It comes out a humiliating sob. “Kalin I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have… I didn’t…” I gulp in air.
He waits for me to control myself. Then asks gently, “What happened?”
“I wanted to make bread for you. I didn’t have yeast. Or time. I wanted it to be fresh when you got home. Why couldn’t I make it stop?”
He’s still holding my hands, but I don’t think he realises. “You could have if you’d understood what you were asking.”
“That thing seemed like it had a mind of its own.”
“Technically it had many. Yeast is made of microorganisms. Bread rises because they convert carbs to carbon dioxide.” He looks down, sees he’s holding my hands and drops them. “Magic is about intention. You were probably instructing it to stop moving, when all it was doing was multiplying and eating.”
“But it had these tendrils. It tried to eat Fatso!”
Kalin’s eyes go large and I assure him that Fatso’s safe up on the roof.
“I don’t understand,” Kalin’s brow furrows. “Why didn’t you stay up there until I got back?”
I gesture behind me and to the papers now floating in the water.
His jaw clenches. Now I see the rage I was expecting. “Trust you to worry about books over your own safety.”
“Not just books! Your collection. Your work.”
“My work? Do you honestly think that matters to me now?”
“They’re first editions!”
“They’re books. You’re a human being.”
I’m about to retort but he drops his gaze, retreating. He grumbles something and I’m not quite sure I catch it, but I think he might have said, “If you think I care about anything more than I care about you, you don’t know me very well.”
In the kitchen, he picks up the hosepipe and says, “You should probably clean this up before it turns into overzealous beer.” Then he heads out into the garden.
Later, after I’ve siphoned the flood into the sink the way Kalin showed me and cleaned dough off everything else, Kalin comes back in and leans against the doorpost with his arms folded.
I think he’s just inspecting my work, then he says, “I can show you how to make bread, if you like?”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
He comes closer. The corner of his mouth quirks upwards. “You’re going to need to be a little more patient though. The process generally takes a few days.”
I’m about to say I’ve got time to kill, but that would be insensitive for reasons I don’t want to think about.
So instead, I nod again. “I’d really like that.”
“Set the potatoes on boil. I’ll get some more flour from the store.”
I hope you enjoyed this Keyflame short. A big thank you to the wonderful Laurie Janey who edited this story at extremely short notice so I could get it out today.
Keyflame is only $2.99 on Amazon and free to read on Kindle Unlimited.