I cradle the phone to my ear, my lip trembling. There’s a long silence, then my mother says, “You’d better come over. We can bake some cookies.” Her voice sounds far away and dense, like a massive body hurtling through space.
I put on my coat, pick up my keys. The codeine leaves a bitter, chalky streak on the back of my tongue. After I swallow, I notice a little warning on the package: do not drive whilst taking this medication.
It’s still November, but already my mother’s house looks aggressively festive with its massive wreaths and strings of holly berry fairy lights. They blink on and off in the daylight like little red eyes. She is waiting at the door, opens it before I knock. Neither of us know what to say. For a moment, I think she’s going to cry, but instead she helps me shuffle off my anorak and attempts to hang it on the wobbly coat tree guarding the door. I give her three tries before I take over; I know how to balance things so that nothing falls over, a trick she has yet to learn. “You’re looking well, considering,” she says. “So are you,” I want to reply, but don’t.
My mother bustles me into the kitchen and I lift up my hair so she can tie an apron around me. I know the drill. Normally I get “Kiss the Cook” or “Number One Mum”, but today it’s “King of the Grill”. She ties the strings around my waist so loosely, the apron hangs like a shroud. When she’s not looking, I knot it tight around the curve of my still-round belly.
“Sit down,” she says and pulls out one of the heavy Mennonite chairs for me, curling her fingers through the the heart-shaped hole tooled at the back. She brings me a mixing bowl, and a box of tissues. “So,” she says as she turns back toward the fridge. I hold my breath, waiting for my mother to speak or the sun to supernova. I’m not sure which I want to happen first. “Cherry bon-bons, it is then.”
I’m watching cubes of butter bob in lukewarm water – my mother’s trick to warm it to just the right temperature to cream with sugar. She is wiping imaginary crumbs from the crimson formica countertops and is saying something about some Good Housekeeping article that she wants to lend to me if she can ever find it again. It’s about decluttering. I am thinking about how in a closed system, disorder always increases with time, how everything tends toward chaos.
“How’s the butter?” my mother asks when I fail to respond with the appropriate nod and hum.
“I think we’ve reached thermoequilibrium,” I say because I’m too tired to catch myself.
My mother wrings her dishrag into her sink, dries her hands on a tea towel festooned with dancing Santas, smiles her put-upon smile. “How a child of mine ever ended up in science is beyond me, she says, then looks away before adding, “You sound just like your father.”
We decide to put on the radio. No one can argue about Christmas music. Not in our family, at least.
The dough has been mixed and chilled. My mother shapes it into little balls and hands them to me. It’s my job to crush them. I take each perfect sphere and press a candied cherry into the centre until the dough around it puckers and flattens: dense red planets warping cookie space time. When I’ve distorted a sufficient number to fill a baking tray, my mother puts them in the oven and sets the timer for the heat death of the universe. When the oven is full, I excuse myself to go to the loo.
I get goosebumps as soon as I walk into the hall. The thermostat is in the kitchen and, since the oven is always on, it never senses a temperature cold enough to kick the radiators on in the rest of the house.
I exhale as I enter the bathroom, twist the lock. My mother means well, but for a few minutes, it’s nice to have a door between us.
My watch reports that enough time has passed that I can take more codeine, so I do. Then, I look at the toilet. It must be at least forty years old and there are hairline cracks in the ceramic, but it’s still pristine clean. There is a bowl of homemade cranberry potpourri on the cistern. The lid is down, and I pause and close my eyes before opening it.
For a moment, I feel six years old again. Six years old, hiding in the bathroom because my mother is crying and can’t stop. Hiding because I don’t understand why she’s now saying I won’t have a sister after all, that the baby has gone somewhere else instead. Hiding because I don’t know how to ask the right questions.
I still don’t know the right questions, but I make myself take a deep breath, open my eyes, sit down. I think I’ve gathered myself, but when I see the extra rolls of toilet paper that my mother has lined up along the side of the bath, my eyes sting and fill.
Of all the colours in the visible spectrum, red has the longest wavelength. When a star moves away from us, the light it emits stretches out: to us observers, its light appears to have a longer wavelength – to be redder – than it actually is. We call this red shift.
Of all human experiences, loss has the most intense redness. When a hope is expelled from our bodies, grief expands within us: to us observers, everything appears to be the colour of blood.
When I get back to the kitchen, the first batch of cookies is done.
My mother and I sit at the table, watching the last batch of cherry bon-bons cool. I am trying to formulate a question, but my mind feels hazy and dull.
“Mum,” I say, and my mother must sense something coming because she lowers her eyes.
“There’s a lot of washing up to do,” she says. “I’ll wash. You dry.”
It’s getting late and I want to get home to my own bathroom, my own bed. My mother wraps up a plate of cookies in rose-tinted cling film for me. “It’s not necessary,” I say as she finishes it off with a matching satin bow. “I know,” she says, “but there are some things I just can’t help.”
I gather my things and she walks me out to the front porch. “Take care of yourself, okay?” she says. The fake holly berries blink on and off, bathing our faces in crimson. When my mother finally hugs me goodbye, the plate of cookies wedges between us.
I sit in my car. I am so, so tired. Now that there’s something that links us, now that there’s something fundamental my mother and I both share, I thought we’d be able to talk. Really talk. But even when we were in the same room, sitting at the same table, the distance between us seemed astronomical.
The farther away a star is from an observer, the more its light is red-shifted. From this, we can infer that distant galaxies are moving away from us. The farther away the galaxy, the faster it is moving. This suggests the whole universe is expanding, that everything is moving away from everything else.
I lean my head on the steering wheel and close my eyes. The smell of warm, sugared cherries fills the car as everything, everything floats farther and farther away.
Ingrid Jendrzejewski grew up in Vincennes, Indiana, studied creative writing at the University of Evansville, then physics at the University of Cambridge. She has been published in places like Passages North, The Los Angeles Review, The Conium Review, Jellyfish Review, and Rattle, and is editor-in-chief at FlashBack Fiction and a flash fiction editor at JMWW. When not writing, she enjoys cryptic crosswords, puzzle hunts and the game of go. Links to Ingrid’s work can be found at www.ingridj.com and she tweets @LunchOnTuesday.