Firecrackers

The air was dry and hot, the kind of atmosphere that brushed past you; it didn’t linger or stick. Still, Cassandra Halen was grateful for the manufactured chill pumping through her little home. Standing in her kitchen she could see each end of the house; from doorway to bedroom, the floor spread out before her. Her mom kept telling her she lived in a cracker box. Her dad always tried to fix something when he stopped by. Cass just called it the nugget–sometimes lovingly, sometimes bitterly. She liked that it didn’t have any of the kitschy trappings of the standard Phoenix “adobe” home. It was tiny, and it was crappy, and it was hers.

Cass peered into the oven to check the progress of her lemon cupcakes. Satisfied they were rising properly she walked up to the barely-there countertop. She started to clear the miscellaneous kitchenware to make room for the frosting and the precious decorations. Her coworker, Leah, had insisted on everything green instead of the usual blue or pink (“Spring green; it’s fresh and we don’t want to stereotype in utero”). Well, Cass was giving her three-dozen green as grass cupcakes. It was a little excessive for an office baby shower, but she knew her bosses, Max and Martin Peters, both had an incurable sweet tooth. They would eat them all, if she let them.

On the tips of her toes, she reached over the sink to turn on the radio. She had never minded being alone, but she couldn’t stand silence. She always had music playing: either the twang of banjos from her favorite bluegrass station or the pounding bass of some rapper trying to spit his point. She felt for the On button and the music blared out, making her jump. Off balance she scratched at the cabinets as she fell forward. Her hands found nothing but the floor as Cass tumbled down.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

She rolled onto her back and spread her body on the stained, tiled floor. Resting there she briefly wondered when she had cleaned last. Deciding it was a night for alcohol she crawled over to the fridge and pulled out a beer.

“To clumsiness,” Cass cheered the guilty radio. She twisted off the cap and took a long drink.

She could see the cupcakes continue to bake through the spotted glass. They taunted her in their perfection. Breathing in the sweet, citrus scent she settled her back against the fridge’s olive-green paneling. Her mom had called earlier reminding her about their weekly dinner. She had been oddly interested in what Cass would wear, implying her usual uniform of denim and cotton was not appropriate for this evening. She seemed placated, though, when Cass told her she probably wouldn’t have time to change out of her work clothes. She loved her mother, but she was quirky as hell. Cass sipped her beer as she waited for the oven to ring.

The tick of the timer morphed into a shrill ding. Cass pulled the cupcakes out, let them cool, and decorated them. She took a shower, laid out her clothes for work, and read for a while. She checked the lock, walked down the hall and turned off the lights. She untangled her sheets from the comforter, laid herself down, and stared at her ceiling.

And thought about how she had done the same thing the day before.

*

Cass arranged the cupcakes on the foldout table. She carefully placed them around the various baby shower decorations, when she heard the conference room door open.

“Well those look delicious Cassandra.”

Martin Peters padded across the industrial carpeting stopping too close to Cass. He peered over her shoulder pretending to inspect the cupcakes. She knew he thought her baking was “domestic” and “cute”. Cass suspected he really just wanted an excuse to get closer to her.

“Thanks.” Cass inched away from him.

“Why are they green? It’s pink or blue, right?” He reached for the nearest cupcake.

Cass grabbed his wrist and held it suspended above the baked goods. She didn’t look at him, “Leah wanted green. Don’t touch my cupcakes.”

Cass let his hand fall doing her best to ignore him. He placed his hand on her blouse, his finger traced the pattern of her sleeve. Cass jerked her arm away.

“Cut it out Martin.”

He laughed. “How come you’re never nice to me?”

“Your Daddy doesn’t pay me to be nice to you.”

Cass started to walk to the other side of the table but her heel snagged on the carpet. She lost her balance her hand landing in the open container of frosting she had laid out earlier. Her fingers came up covered in the sugary paste. Cass could feel Martin’s eyes on her, but wisely he held his laughter. He still remembered the tiramisu incident of 2011. Martin still couldn’t look at the dessert without some lingering fear.

Cass widened her green fingers inspecting the damage. “Typical,” she muttered. She looked around for a way to clean herself up.

“I could help you with that.” Martin offered. “I don’t see any napkins, but I’m sure we can figure out a way.” He winked at her, in a way she supposed he thought was seductive. Well, it had worked on most of the women in the office. He began moving around the table separating them.

Cass pressed her frosting covered fingers against a stack of napkins. “First, I’m scheduling another sexual harassment seminar. Second, if you get any closer I will smear this artificially colored goo all over your silk tie.”

Martin stroked his designer tie thoughtfully. He smirked, “I’ll behave, then.”

“Third, I’m leaving after the shower.”

“That’s two hours early, Cassandra.”

“I believe you offered to lick frosting off my fingers a few minutes ago.”

Martin nodded slowly, “Yes, that will be fine then.” He grabbed a cupcake on the way out.

Cass wiped her fingers off with the stork-stamped napkins. She turned her head to look at her boss, now flirting with the new secretary. How did this become routine?

She finished arranging the cupcakes and walked back to her desk, checked her email, and did some filing. She played silly baby games at the office shower, accepted the compliments from her coworkers on her baking, and headed home. She walked past Martin’s office to see a tower of cupcakes sitting on his desk. Cute, my ass. He hoarded her baking like a starved man.

She marched toward her car, relieved to be away from Martin’s advances and the generic interior of Peters & Peters. At least I have time to change before dinner. She hoped her mom wouldn’t mind.

*

            “Ah! There’s my beautiful, single daughter. Late as usual.”

“Thanks for that, Mom,” Cass said. She made her way to the kitchen, following the smell of fresh basil and stewed tomatoes. Cass placed the cupcake container on the kitchen table. “I brought you some cupcakes. Ignore the baby decorations.”

Eve Halen laid down the knife she was using to chop vegetables and wiped her hands on the already spaghetti-spotted towel. She hugged her daughter, but held her out with a frown.

“Oh Cassie, I thought you were going to wear your work clothes. Why did you change?”

Cass looked down at her threadbare jeans and t-shirt. “I got off work early. Why does it matter what I wear? It’s just you and Dad, right?”

Her mom resumed chopping mushrooms, she methodically sank the knife into the spongy vegetables. Her smile grew wide, almost mischievous. Cass repeated her question, not knowing if she wanted the answer.

“We have guests coming for dinner and I don’t want you to look like you just rolled out of bed,” her mother said. “Also, when I brag about you, I don’t want to look like one of those crazy moms who are proud of their kids no matter what.”

“Yes, cause those are the crazy moms.” Cass leaned against the counter, picking at the pile of produce. “So who’s coming over?”

Once again Cass saw that Cheshire grin work its way across her mom’s face.

“You didn’t…”

“Didn’t what, honey?” Eve asked feigning ignorance, she tried to distract Cass. “Can you start making the garlic bread?”

“Whose son are you trying to pimp me out to this time?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, no one is trying to pimp you out. That would imply I get paid for my services, which I don’t– ”

“Mother!”

“Oh hush. I simply introduce you to a few nice boys in the hope that you’ll be happy.

Cass stared at her mom in exasperation as the older woman defiantly walked to the stove. Why did they have to go through this argument every time she came over for dinner? With a sigh, she turned to the fridge.

“Mom, I get that you and Dad are ridiculously happy, blissfully in love, and everything is sunshine and rainbows because ‘I Got You Babe’ and all… but what if I don’t need that to be happy?” She reached her hand in and rummaged through the cold shelves. “What if finding a husband and a picket fence, popping out a couple of kids isn’t for me?”

She grabbed the bread-in-a-can and slammed the door closed on her words. Spinning around Cass faced her mom like the Old Westerns she loved.

Eve crossed her arms, splattering tomato sauce on her shirt. “Did you just describe my marriage using a Sonny and Cher song?”

Cass fought the urge to laugh. Her mom always wore a white shirt when she made spaghetti, and she always got sauce on it by the end of the night. With the sight of the red-spotted blouse her anger began to fade. She turned to the counter, guilt spreading across her face and coming out of her lips.

“I don’t believe that is a thing I would say,” Cass mumbled to the cheery doughboy.

“And everything is not sunshine and rainbows all the time.” Eve danced back to the stove and stirred. “I don’t know why you give me such a hard time about setting you up every now and then. I mean that’s what people do Cassie. They get married, have kids. Have grandkids.”

Cass absently tugged at the ends of her long curls thinking-not for the first time-that she should really learn how to tame her nest of hair.

Ignoring her daughter Eve continued her speech, “Can’t you just be happy, like I am with your father? I just want you to settle down, share your life with someone.”

“That’s the problem Mom. I’ve already settled.” Cass held the bread-in-a-can out to her mother.

“Really, Cassie? Still?” Eve raised her eyebrow at the blue cylinder. A smile crept through her serious demeanor. Cass hoped her mom’s amusement at her irrational fear would distract her from their conversation.

“You know I can’t handle the pop it makes. It freaks me out. I never know when it’s coming.”

Her mom laughed, but refused to help. Cass bit her lip, picking at the glossy blue paper. This is ridiculous.

             She was thirty, paid her own bills and everything. Yet, she still couldn’t open a can of premade bread. Cass began to nervously peel back the first layer, exposing the cardboard underneath. Humming to distract herself from the pop of the culinary Jack-in-a-box, she quickly unraveled the terrifying cylinder. Nothing happened. The tin was bare, but unopened in her hands.

Cass hated surprises-loud interruptions to the calm in her life-but she couldn’t deny the overwhelming disappointment she felt when no sound was produced. Her mom was wrong when she said Cass should settle down.

Frustrated Cass banged the can on the counter. She pulled it back up to see the lines had opened to reveal the white dough.

Eve looked at her daughter, as she continued to stir the fragrant sauce.  “Cassie, are you happy?”

“Honestly, Mom?

Eve waited for Cass to speak again.

“I’m bored. I hate the routine way I move through life, but I’m too afraid or too lazy to do anything about it. I don’t know what I want.” She let out a bitter laugh, “I think I want everything.”

Eve stopped stirring and looked at her daughter, who was fidgeting with a clove of garlic. “I was like that before I started dating your dad. You just need someone to concentrate on. You need your person, like I have mine.”

Cass rolled her eyes. “This has nothing to do with my pathetic love life.”

Her mom continued, “And you can’t blame this rut on lack of interest. What about Martin, from work?”

“Mom he’s my boss and he’s a complete creep. He’s been trying to get in my pants for the past three years and you think this is husband material? He’s not even one-night stand material, since I’m pretty sure he’s slept with the entire office.”

Eve wrinkled her nose. “That seems unsanitary. I just thought since you talk about him a lot he might be an option.” She waved her hand dismissively. “The Wilsons are coming over soon and their boy, Tommy, is a real sweetie. He could be the person to lift you out of this rut.”

She watched Cass brush olive oil across the dough canvas with an odd concentration. Cass knew her mom loved her. They were just two different people. Eve had found everything she wanted in her husband. Tommy Wilson wasn’t what Cass needed, but her mom wouldn’t understand that.

“Yeah, maybe he will.”

Eve kissed her daughter’s cheek as she moved out into the dining room. Surrounded by her mother’s anxious hopes, Cass thought about her pathetic love life, which primarily consisted of keeping Martin at arms length. His only redeeming quality was his complete and utter understanding of the word “no”. He was harmless, but he made work a nightmare.

The familiar heat of an oven lapped at her face as she put the garlic bread in to bake. She kicked the door closed with her foot and turned to see her father standing in the doorway.

“Daddy.”

Cass ran over to hug her father. He circled his arms around her shoulders and placed his cheek on the crown of her head. She buried her face in the plaid pattern of his shirt, breathing in the smell of sawdust and paint.

Chuck Halen owned a hardware store in town. It always amused Cass to see her dad lumbering around the small aisles. He was a large man, who existed exclusively in flannel and work boots. If reincarnation were a possibility Chuck would have been Paul Bunyan in his previous life.

“Hey, firecracker. How’s it going?”

“Just the usual, Mom’s trying to set me up with some random guy, work sucks, blah, blah, blah.”

“Is your boss still giving you problems? I told you Cass, just let me take care of it.”

“Dad I’m not sixteen anymore. You can’t scare off all the boys.”

“Who said anything about scaring him off. I’m just gonna show him my shotgun. Nothing wrong with that,” he said with a wink.

Cass stepped back and raised her eyebrow. Ever since she was eight her dad had offered to greet her dates on the porch with a shotgun. They didn’t have a porch, or a shotgun. She pointed this fact out to her dad.

“Honey, this is America. You think I can’t get a gun real quick?”

Cass laughed. She knew he would never buy a gun, but his empty proposal was still comforting. Chuck wrapped one enormous arm around his daughter and pulled her to his side.

“Why so glum, chum? Is this about that kid Mom’s bringing over? You know I wouldn’t let her sell you off to the first family who offers us a goat. Nah, we’d wait for a cow or some land. We’re not heathens.” Chuck peeked down at his daughter waiting for her crooked smile. It was slow and bitter when it did appear. Her mind wasn’t on his humor.

“Cassie normally your Mom doesn’t get you down with these set ups. You’ve always been a pretty easygoing girl-you get that from me by the way. Why is she bothering you today?”

“It’s not Mom. You know I don’t mind it when she does this. I’ve just-I feel like a wind up toy.”

Her dad looked down at his shirt, picking at ancient bits of paint that had become part of the faded pattern. She knew he wouldn’t talk until she explained herself. Cass pushed her fingers through her tangled brown locks and closed her eyes.

“It’s like something wound me up a while ago and I’ve just been going through the motions ever since. The same repetitive steps day after day. Mom thinks all I have to do is find a man and my life will be complete. But Dad how am I supposed to be with someone, the way you are with Mom, if I don’t even know who I am?”

Cass heard the doorbell ring out and her mother’s frantic “They’re here!” She rubbed her palms back and forth across her face. She hoped the action would dislodge this feeling. The familiar numbness was slowly circling, creeping back up her spine, and oozing over her features. She pushed herself off the counter and began to shuffle to the living room to greet the Wilsons and her “date”.

Her dad’s voice pulled her back, “You know why I call you firecracker?”

“Cause I was a devil child?”

Chuck’s surprised laugh filled the kitchen. “No honey. Although you were.”

Cass stared down at her flip-flopped feet, wondering where her dad was going with this conversation.

“Firecrackers have a hard shell, but when you set them on fire they go off with a bang. They’re colorful and loud and they go wherever they want. But honey, these sparkly things, they need a fire or they’re just a tube of cardboard. You’ve always been so full of life and spirit, my reckless, impulsive little girl. Don’t forget about that.”

Her mother’s voice drifted out, “– Oh, and this must be Tommy. Well, aren’t you handsome?”

Her father pushed her towards the hall, “Go get ‘em firecracker.”

Cass kissed her dad’s cheek and walked out of the kitchen.

“Oh here she is! Cassie, come meet the Wilsons.” Her mother gestured to her wildly. “Cassie, this is Leon and Karen Wilson and this is Tommy.”

Cass shook their hands politely. For a brief moment the night played itself in her mind. It would be pleasant enough, she and Tommy would laugh, perhaps he would ask her out. It would be nice.

“It’s nice to meet you all. Mom, I’m quitting my job.”

Eve looked at her daughter with a frozen smile.

“What?”

“I am going to quit, because I’m not happy.”

Her mom looked at Tommy pointedly. Offering him up as an alternative to Cass’s proposal. The silence spread out coating the embarrassed group.

Tommy broke in, “Hey, that’s exciting,” he said with a smile. “What are you planning to do instead?”

“You know, Tommy, I don’t know.”

Her mom’s fingers desperately grabbed a bunch of Cass’s shirt, pulling her backward. “Cassie I think I hear the timer, you should check on the bread. Chuck! I’ll just go get that wine we were talking about. Chuck!”

Her dad walked into the hall, an amused look on his face. “You needed me?”

“Honey, Cassie and I need to get some things done in the kitchen.”

Chuck unfurled his wife’s fingers from Cass’s shirt as he placed the wine on the coffee table. “Don’t worry about that. Everything’s doing just fine.”

Eve stood still as Chuck ushered their guests towards the various couches and chairs.

“Mom?” Cass said. “I’ll be alright.”

“Oh, yes of course.” Her mother stared vaguely at her. She curled her hand around her mother’s and squeezed. Cass smiled.

Eve’s shoulders dropped. She pushed her hair behind her ear and looked at her daughter.

“You’re crazy.”

“Most likely.”

“Somehow, this is your father’s fault.”

Cass laughed as they joined the Wilson’s.

*

            Cass went home after a pleasantly awkward dinner. She made red velvet cupcakes, she took a shower, laid out her work clothes, emailed in her two weeks notice, and turned off the lights.

Today, she thought, was a little different.

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