First Responders – A Flash Fiction by Faye Brinsmead w/ a Digital Painting by Robert Frede Kenter

First Responders

I won’t know how I feel until I’ve baked them. Until, snapping off their arms and legs, I hear words tumble out between warm, scented mouthfuls. In the beginning, when Mum sent them in foil-wrapped batches to every new place, that was my favourite game of make-believe. That they cared about me, even though I ate them. That, until I licked the last crumb from my fingers, scrunched the buttery foil into a ball and hid it among my underwear, they listened to every word I said. 

Now, I have to believe it. Otherwise. Otherwise I don’t know what.     

Mum’s recipe card is propped on the window sill, for company rather than guidance. I know each frilled cursive by heart. Place the butter, brown sugar and golden syrup in a bowl and beat until light and creamy… add the eggs…mix in the spices…knead until smooth…until smooth… 

I could bake them in my sleep. Sometimes, I do. I’m crossing a street in a dream or catching a bus or buying groceries, and I look down and my hands are all scabby with gingerbread dough. I’m sorry, I say to no one in particular, trying to wipe it off. It’s so sticky my skin comes off too, and bone and tissue and blood, until I’m nothing but a swarm of molecules and I wake up in white, sweaty light and lie still, waiting for everything to grow back. 

As the country mourns, first responders are being praised for their heroism. But words are not enough, the head of the National Paramedics Association says.  

I leave the radio on, even when I’m using the mixer. I like knowing the voices keep talking below the bubbling puddle in the bowl. 

Not those voices. Those voices hide under leaf-litter near the back fence. Bruise-purple pulp after last night’s rain. I want to clean it up, but I daren’t go down there. Toadstools will push through the mush, flash their soft-tooth grins, egg them on. Go back up to the house, she’s alone. She’s let her guard down, thinks it’s safe.  

What came first, gingerbread or voices? They’re stuck together with golden syrup. Surely Mum fed me little people as soon as I could chew? But she was fighting voices herself then. 

Who you shouting at, Cheryl? You’re not fit to look after her. Take your meds or I’ll call the welfare. 

The day they buried her, we didn’t cry. Say goodbye to your Gran. Shoving dirt into my fists. We opened our hands, watched thin brown rain, how pebbles bounced off the fake rosewood at crazy angles.

I put my arms around Mum’s neck and decided I would be an emergency worker when I grew up. Her first responder.

I shroud that dead hope in cling-wrap, shove it in the fridge with the biscuit dough. Take the radio out to the porch while it cools. Mum’s ghost slips out of her chair, makes way. We still can’t share a house.

Dr William Ward, MD, FRACP, saved her before I had a chance. I hated his secretary for staring at our clothes. I can pay, Mum said. My mother left me something. And a house. The secretary shouldn’t have made her say that. But Dr Ward was worse. His fat smile feasted on our shabbiness. Phoney solicitude crinkled his cheeks. They told me to play in the corner. Suddenly, they were a they. 

You’re sure she won’t? 

Oh, she’s fine. Lives in her own world.

Under the play table, between chair legs, I see them. From this angle, he’s about to eat her head. Already, he licks her ginger curls. And she – likes it. She wants to swim through his bloated arteries, caress his ka-thumping heart. Tracing the Santa stencil in blunt red crayon, I wonder, how can she be so daft? 

Dr Ward never pushed beyond transference, as far as I know. But Santa clones began invading our house. When the umpteenth one moved in on my 16 th birthday, the cracking started. Maybe it would have happened anyway. Solidity thinned into eggshell. The fractures grew mouths, started to talk. 

You’re worthless. Nothing. Less than nothing

Drugs, all the colours of the rainbow. None of them worked. A severe case. She may grow out of the worst of it. Otherwise…

Only gingerbread stifles the voices. In my memory, foil parcels arrive every day, still warm. Even at night. Left on my pillow by the gingerfairy. 

All I know is, Mum felt she couldn’t look after me. You might pull me back in, the sharp cloves of her eyes said.  

Cold to the touch. Time to roll the dough. Finger-shaping is the best bit. They all turn out space-suited, lately. Disposable coveralls, face shields, goggles. Onward Covid soldiers, marching as to war. 

I hope they were women. The responders who took Mum. I’d been in a good place for a while, in a group home. She was starting to hint we could – maybe – someday –. When the hospital called, me and my flat mates were washing up, horsing around. 

Your mother…pulmonary embolism…organ failure…no funeral…

Squatting down, I watch their bodies puff, turn golden. The vroom of the oven comforting as cat’s purr. I start rehearsing what to say to them.

She wasn’t there for me. I wasn’t there for her. Can you tell her it’s not all about first responders? Crumbly, melt-away love still counts. Tell her that.

Faye Brinsmead lives in Canberra, Australia. Her flash fiction appears in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, MoonPark Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Spelk, Reflex Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, FlashFlood 2020, (mac)ro(mic), and others. She won first prize in Reflex Fiction’s Spring 2020 flash competition, judged by Kathy Fish. Among my molecules, her poetry e-chapbook, is published by proletaria. She’s currently working on a novella. Find her on Twitter @ContesdeFaye.

Banner Art: Sedimentation, a Digital Painting/Collage by Robert Frede Kenter Tweets: frede_kenter

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