In a reel of memory that not even a three hundred-pound blacksmith god could pause, three miraculous years passed. Jake and Rachel found their house. Jake made friends with the brownie that lived behind the refrigerator and placed tiny pyramids and charms out of sight in every room, and most of the worst creatures left him alone. There was a hag hiding in his carburetor for awhile, but Jake hit her with a broom and she left.
Rachel lived oblivious to it all, and Jake thought with pride that he had managed to give his wife a normal life. Peanut mowed their lawn once every two weeks until he moved with his parents to Oregon. Rachel planted daffodils and strategically placed shade trees, and they spent a hundred evenings on the front porch, drinking cocoa on cool nights and lemonade or frozen margaritas on warm ones. Everything was just fine.
Then, there were cake batter footprints.
But before that, Rachel's mother called for the last time.
Jake had come home from work to find Rachel at the kitchen table leaning with her forehead against one of her golden yellow placemats, her hair falling forward in a wavy, sunny blonde ocean. The only sound was a distant babbling, from which he caught the words, "stupid" and "not surprising."
"What's going on?" Jake asked.
Rachel lifted her head, and Jake could see the phone held to her ear and the shininess of her cheeks.
He went to sit next to her. He kissed her salty face and leaned close to the phone, so he could hear her mother's voice clearly.
"—can't believe that's all they're paying you. I'm sure you're not working very hard though. That must be nice. Your father worked so hard all those years, and we live very nicely off his retirement checks, but kids your age never can manage money or plan for the future. And that husband of yours is just a teacher. When do you think he'll grow out of that and get a real job? Teachers get paid next to nothing. It's a glorified babysitting job these days. God knows you didn't learn a thing the whole time you were going to school. He gets paid pesos for doing nothing then goes and spends it all on whores, no doubt. I don't have a grandchild yet, so you can't be doing it right, or at least not very often. You'd think you would've figured it out by now, but—wait, hah!—I just realized who I was talking to. You're not bright enough to figure it out on your own, are you? I'm sure that husband of yours could find a book for you at least. Of course—"
Jake took the phone from her hand and turned it off. A small sound of protest came from Rachel, but she was crippled now, as she always was after those calls.
Then Jake led his wife upstairs to the bedroom and held her close and whispered truths to her to replace the lies until she fell asleep. The phone rang seven times that evening, but neither of them got out of bed to answer it. And when Jake woke up the next morning, he erased the messages without listening to them and unplugged the phone before he left for work.
Rachel calmed herself after those calls and after stressful days at work by making chocolate cake from scratch. She said it cleared her mind, the measuring of ingredients, the stirring, the careful decoration. Jake suspected the eating was a big part of it too, though he never said so. She had five different chocolate cake recipes and seven vanilla icing recipes. Their third anniversary had recently passed, and Rachel wanted to try out the new cake decorating tip set and stencils that she'd helped Jake pick out as her anniversary present. She'd been so absorbed with the process of arranging her supplies that she'd forgotten to preheat the oven, so she left the batter on the counter while she made room for it in the refrigerator.
"It only took a minute, maybe two," she told him when he got back from the barber's late that afternoon. Her voice was shaking like a muscle forced to its limit. "I turned back around and…." She shook her head, grabbed his hand, and pulled him into the kitchen. The batter was still on the counter, and trailing away from the bowl toward the gap between the counter and the oven were the little batter footprints.
"A mouse, maybe?" Jake asked. He didn't know why he said it. He knew it wasn't a mouse.
Rachel shook her head and pointed to the next to the last footprint. Most of the batter had worn off, so the image left was a perfect human foot, in miniature. Jake could count the five tiny toes.
"I want to know," she said, her whole body quivering now, "what the hell is going on here."
"It's okay, Rach. I told you about it, remember? The creatures that show up from time to time. Nymphs to manticores?" Her wide, startled eyes and nasal breathing frightened him. He expected her eyes to turn yellow and her back arch as she morphed into a werewolf. He shuddered.
Her voice was calm, but growing louder. "I thought…I thought you were joking."
"You're creative, you know? I even thought it was something dirty at first. Then I thought maybe, maybe, there was a little mental illness problem, but you didn't say anything else that was more weird than what you usually say, so I, damnit! I just forgot about it. Now tell me what the hell that thing is."
"It's a brownie."
"Like an elf?"
Rachel thought for a second. "Can you kill it?"
"What? No. No, and if you tried you'd piss it off and you'd have to deal with a humphrey, and instead of silly little cake batter footprints, you'd wake up to find that something had shoved cake batter in your every orifice and was dressing in your clothes."
"Can you get rid of it?"
"No, but listen. Brownies are mostly harmless. They're good, even. If you're considerate of them—"
"I don't want to be considerate of pests in my house. Get it out of here, Jake." She slammed the bowl of batter into the sink—it shattered—and left the room.
Fred's little hat appeared over the edge of the counter.
Jake whispered, "I'm sorry, Fred. I know this was your house first, and I'm not going to try to force you out of it. Please forgive her. She doesn't understand."
Fred's hat nodded and disappeared.
Fred wasn't stupid. Despite Jake's assurances, Fred stayed out of sight and out of mischief for a time, regardless of whether he thought Jake had the power to evict him. Jake was equally not stupid. Attempting to get rid of Fred would lead to the scariest encounter with the immortal world that Lime Street had ever seen.
Jake hung out in the kitchen for half an hour, and when he came out, he smiled at his wife, saying nothing. Rachel, of course, believed Jake had taken care of the problem. She seemed nervous in the kitchen for a while but seemed to find it easier to pretend that nothing had happened.
So Fred continued to live almost invisibly behind the refrigerator, and Jake thought of him often. Other pests came and went, but Fred had a home here. Jake had been able to put it out of his mind in the past. He had been able to ignore Fred's permanent presence, and he admitted that one reason he had been so tolerant was that brownies had a tendency to be more useful than otherwise, so long as you knew what you were doing. But now, Jake couldn't walk into the kitchen without seeing again those cake batter footprints and his wife's awful expression.
Now, Fred was a constant reminder of their abnormal life.
Jake even tried just to think of him as a rat or as a pet hamster that had escaped, because it's not good to show resentment or displeasure to brownies. They will be your honored guests or they will be the thieves that break in while you're sleeping and break everything they don't steal.
The pests of the immortal world that seemed to seek haven, or at least understanding, from Jake, whom they sensed as one of their own, had always irritated him. But seeing his wife that way, scared and confused and forced into a world she knew nothing about and seemed unable to accept, Jake first began to wonder if there was a way to sever himself permanently from that world. For weeks, until the first time Rachel suspected she was pregnant, he thought of nothing else.
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