by Mary Wroten
“David’s Cookies” placed first in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2018 Fall Fiction Contest.
David was a fastidious man. He wore starched white linen shirts with his crisply pressed khakis, creases running down the front of each leg. His snowy white beard was neatly trimmed and his steel gray hair, what little he had left, was slicked back with copious amounts of Brylcreem. He kept time as meticulously as he kept his appearance. He arrived at the bakery at 2 pm sharp every Tuesday afternoon. His order never varied: a dozen sugar cookies with pink sprinkles.
“It’s for my wife,” he’d say. “She’s ill.”
He didn’t seem to want sympathy; he was just stating his facts. He was never one to dawdle or have lengthy conversations. If we tried to make small talk, he’d just look down and say, “I have to get these home. She’ll be hungry.” He would then drop a few quarters into the tip jar and hurry out the door.
David had become such a fixture that we often labeled Tuesday orders “B.D.” or “A.D.”—Before David or After David. Some of us had been at the bakery for a decade or more, and not one of us could remember a week without him. That was why, on that bitterly cold January day, we knew something was off. We had filled half of the A.D. orders, but David’s was yet to be picked up.
“Well,” we reasoned to one another, “it’s icy, and he’s elderly.” Surely he simply thought it unsafe to walk in such weather. We knew that he lived in the neighborhood; on slow days, we’d watch him inch his way up the hill to a little yellow house near the top. As closing time drew closer, someone suggested that perhaps one of us should deliver his desserts. After all, he was a regular customer and a kind, albeit odd, old man. We all agreed. I was the one that lived in the neighborhood, so I would do the honors.
At 6 pm, I put David’s order in a bag and started up the hill. The wind was picking up, and it was starting to sleet. Though the days were getting longer, it was already full dark. I was irritable about having to make a stop when the weather was so bad, but it only took me a few minutes to reach his driveway. There was a glow in the front window that was only faintly visible. I was relieved. He just didn’t want to walk in such bad weather, and would appreciate the surprise delivery.
“Or, he’ll expect me to deliver them every week now,” I grumbled to myself, then immediately felt ashamed. I had no reason to feel so uncharitable towards an elderly man who’d never been anything but kind to me.
I knocked. Tentatively at first, then a little louder when there was no sound of movement inside. When there was still no response, I peeked into the living room window. There wasn’t much I could see through the sheer curtains, as the lamp cast more shadows than it provided light. A flickering glow came from a far corner.
“Maybe he’s watching tv,” I thought to myself, “and can’t hear me.”
I could see what looked like a dark, perhaps brown, leather wingback club chair with its back to me, and across from it was the chair’s twin. Within the latter, I could just barely make out a form. I chuckled to myself and shook my head in disbelief at the early hour. It wasn’t yet seven o’clock and this old codger was asleep.
I decided to wake him up. If I didn’t, his cookies would be ruined and I didn’t want him to be disappointed. I could also save him from the nasty kink he’d get in his neck by sleeping like that. I knocked on the window, but not too hard because I didn’t want to frighten him. There was no response. I knocked louder, but he slept on.
I started to feel a crawling sensation along my skin, an uneasiness that wouldn’t go away. The sharp, biting wind picked up, and howled around the corner of the house, pushing sleet like needles into my skin. I shivered, and pulled my coat tighter. I eased back to the door, wondering what I should do. After some internal debate, I tried the doorknob. Surprisingly, it was unlocked.
I pushed the door open and called out, “David?”
As I stepped into the doorway, I felt a knot form in the pit of my stomach. It was unnaturally still. Too quiet. Too….something. The air was dry and fetid; it smelled of that malodorous blend so common to the elderly: dust, Ben-gay, and stale urine. There was no discernible warmth coming from inside. Was his boiler off?
“David, can you hear me?…. David?”
I took a few tentative steps forward, letting my eyes slowly adjust to the dim after the bright street lamps. As I got closer, I noticed the unnatural droop and paleness of his skin.
This poor old man had died sitting in his chair, his remote control still under his hand, as if he had just put on his favorite show. Sadness washed over me at the ending of a life and a familiar face, yet I also felt relief that I was able to find him before too much time had passed. Morbidly, I was thankful that the heating had failed. It smelled bad enough in here without adding in the putrid scent of decay.
It was when I looked away so that I could get out my phone that I noticed them. Last week’s cookies sat on the coffee table, on a plate of chipped bone china. Beside them was another plate of cookies, and still yet another, each looking progressively drier and more crumbly than the last. I looked up. As my eyes further adjusted to the dimness, I saw that there were plates of cookies covering almost every available surface. I could scarcely breathe. Despite the bitter cold, a trickle of sweat rolled down my face. A sense of foreboding spread over me as the hairs on the back of my neck slowly rose. I would have sworn that someone was watching me. I slowly turned, afraid of who or what I might see. I opened my mouth, but the scream wouldn’t come. I stood staring, paralyzed.
There sat David’s wife. She must have gone much the same way as David, only several years before. Her tiny, desiccated frame was held delicately together with dry, leathery bits of skin and sinew. She still had wisps of white hair that reached the dusty, crocheted gray shawl pulled around her shoulders. She wore a dress that had yellowed with age, and on her lap was a folded brown quilt, and one last plate of David’s cookies.
Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student