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Mrs. Carmichael’s Best

by Shaun Hayes


“Y’might hafta speak up,” said a dull male voice that could only be Daryl’s.

A handful of barbed female giggling from several young throats spread over Mrs. Carmichael. She could practically see the ruddy faces of Tina’s young professional parents rolling their eyes at the laughable old fossil in the chair before them.

Then the unmistakable smug and drowsy voice of Tina drifted out, so softly Hattie could have thrown up right on the spot, “Hattieeee...wake up...”

It was effort, you can be sure of that, it was a mighty effort indeed but Hattie kept the smile on her face when she opened her eyes and saw Tina, Daryl and a half dozen of their little circle shifting from foot to foot in the shade. Mrs. Carmichael worked harder still when she said, “Oh, I’m awake, don’t you fuss about me. I’m just fine,” and not, “I ain’t deaf, you damned pissants, now get!

Holding her grin still and steady, Hattie pushed herself to standing — letting them see her wobble a bit, keeping everybody comfortable. She clapped her hands together and spoke through her steepled arthritic fingers. “Well. I got all these pies, I hope someone’s gonna help me eat ’em all. Ain’t got space for them at home.”

The smiles that followed were cringeworthy. “Oh Hattie, of course,” Tina said, stepping forward and bursting with oily condescension, “We were all just saying that the best part of this contest is you get tastes of the past, the present and the future. Here, let me serve—”

“No!” Hattie said, sharp enough that Tina drew back her hand, cradling it like she’d been burnt. “Sorry, no, tent policy. I made ’em, I serve ’em. Yep.”

From the corner of her eye, Mrs. Carmichael noticed a small commotion up at the pavilion. A light kind of rustling jabber, really, as a handful of picnickers wandered to the central building, where a small gathering of women were on tiptoe, peeking inside and jibbering at one another. She heard coughing.

Tina nodded, said “Well okay, then,” and as Hattie served up Mocha Cherry Surprise as fast as she could, jabbing forks in the tops, Tina distributed slices to her half-dozen friends. Unsurprisingly, she seized the opportunity to stretch and contort her young self every which way under Daryl’s hungry gaze.

When Tina finished her hussified maneuvering at last, Hattie presented plates to the glowing couple. When a fluttery, fat-armed bottle-blonde in their midst raised a forkful, Hattie said, “Ah-ah-ah!” and nodded at Tina. “Winner eats first. Them’s the rules.”

Voices broadened from grumbling into a higher-pitched chorus over at the judging area — the first signs of panic. Over at Hattie’s, however, people continued to congregate.

Tina frowned at the old woman’s empty hands, but before she could speak, Mrs. Carmichael said, “Go on. You eat up, and I wanna hear what you really think. Don’t you hold back, now.”

Nervous laughter from Daryl. Then, with all eyes upon her, rosy-cheeked Tina forked up a bite and into her mouth it went. Hattie held her breath. The reaction was immediate. Tina’s eyes flew wide. She braced herself against Daryl’s shoulder and chewed as if in a daze. Finally, shaking her head as she swallowed, she spoke around gooey remnants in her mouth, her teeth stained russet. “Oh my God... oh my God, it’s delicious... oh my...”

And with that the others plunged in to their platefuls with greedy abandon. Daryl dropped his fork, picked his slice up and took an impressive bite. The moans of pleasure rose above Tina’s, who now worked on her slice with ecstatic speed. The exclamations from the swelling group drew still more townsfolk to Hattie’s tent even as, behind them, others were sprinting to the center of the fairgrounds.

“Best I’ve ever tasted,” someone said, vowels gummy and indistinct.

“You have to try this!” squeaked another.

Something was plainly wrong at the pavilion, meanwhile. People were shouting as they hurried in the direction of the main enclosure, faces drawn in genuine fright. Some of Hattie’s new arrivals seemed torn between the tumult behind them and the ecstatic groans inside the tent.

Hattie beamed at the curious lookee-loos closing in and waved them right on in. She even allowed two of Tina’s leggy friends to step forward and plate up the remaining Mocha Cherry Surprise for the suddenly attentive crowd. “Come on in,” Hattie yelled, “Plenty for everybody!”

Tina helped herself to a second slice, Daryl sucked his fingers and newcomers were reaching through spaces between bodies, wiggling fingers, eagerly calling for a slice of whatever was causing such a stir. When all the pie was gone, Hattie laughed and held up a finger to the assorted townspeople — the mothers edging forward, strollers like battering rams affording them better positioning in the frenzy, children dodging around calves and between knees to get closer still, arms reached and grabbing — and, with effort, drew up a large bowl from under the table. She whipped the tin foil covering off and the scents of chocolate, of coffee, cherry and a subtle, earthier odor wafted up.

“There’s still some filling for whoever wants it,” she said, churning the dark mixture with a long wooden spoon. The bowl was lifted from the table, passed around the crowd as everyone took turns dipping in, slurping and humming excitedly.

The old woman sank back into her flimsy chair, forgotten already as the people huddled close together and devoured her creation. Happy. Ungrateful. Like she’d always known. Tina stepped away from the main group, leaned against a tent post and fanned herself, a wrinkled frown curling across her face. That was something, at least. A fine start.

It had taken so long to grind the beans down. To press the oil from the castor seeds, drool the stuff into the pie mixture, then slowly work in the crushed husks. And to have done the whole thing while wearing gloves and that damned surgical mask — flavoring the filling just by sense of smell until the mixture was perfect. The most ingenious, delicious and damned effective recipe the old woman had ever conceived.

Such a tricky ingredient, ricin. So very bitter. But so perfectly suited to her purpose. She’d discovered it on the Internet after just minutes of searching. For Hattie Carmichael could click and clack, herself, oh yes. When properly motivated. She’d sat herself down one afternoon next to some shabby fool-teens in goofy headphones and she’d done her homework, yes sir. Clickety clack, clickety clack.

She heard a siren from off in the direction of the main road. The shouts at the pavilion reached desperate levels and several younger men came rushing to the rear of the murmuring, orgiastic crowd at Hattie’s tent. A doctor, they said, they needed a doctor. People were sick. A few were unconscious. There was blood. Was anyone a doctor? Quick.

Paper plates and flatware clattered and spun as everyone dashed for the scene of terror at the center of the horseshoe of tents. Hattie’s table and the grass around the place bristled with chestnut-stained trash. And the mixing bowl had made its way out of the tent. Hattie caught sight of it passing between a few smirking teens standing off from the stricken crowd and she laughed harder than she had in years. Had to hold on to her knees just to catch her breath she laughed so hard.

The ambulance was just nosing its way across the field when she heard the screaming start in earnest. Daryl was shouting Tina’s name but Hattie couldn’t see him or the little tart through the staggering, lurching mess now largely occupied with grabbing at one another, emptying their stomachs onto the grass and, by turns, convulsing and collapsing in shuddering heaps. It was enough that she knew they were up there, though, enjoying what she’d made for them.

Mrs. Egan rushed past her tent, coughing violently, lurched into the woods and crashed around before falling silent. Humming to herself, Hattie watched the EMT crew jump clear of the ambulance, saw them swarmed with sick-slick festival-goers. The medics fell backwards, tripping over newly-fallen men, women and children who dropped like greedy flies behind them.

Mrs. Carmichael reached back and pulled down the faded red ribbon from her first Best Pie victory. She ran a wizened finger around the loops of fabric and traced the number one embroidered at the center. “I win,” she said, gently, musically. “I win.”

Copyright © 2013 by Shaun Hayes

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