Under her hands, the dough felt like flesh. Smooth, pliant flesh. It made a wet sound—a thunk—as she slapped it against the worn wooden benchtop.
It was soothing, this rhythmic shaping, kneading, pulling, coaxing.
The way her frothy starter ate the flour, she fed it daily, asking so little of her yet delivering so much in return.
Cecily Sehar’s loaves had made her into a small-town celebrity since she’d started entering the annual Baking Contest. High on a kitchen shelf, seven shiny trophies sat. 1st Place, 1st Place, 1st Place—all bar one. The fourth one, slightly smaller than the rest, had taunted her for months, until she finally turned it around.
She remembered that year. It had been difficult to source her ingredients. For some strange reason, the townfolk had been unusually healthy. There were too few accidents, too few casualties. She didn’t dare risk too many trips for fear of attracting attention.
For Cecily, the key was taking just enough to keep her bread loaves dense and delicious. But not for people to notice what was missing.
As she pommeled today’s ball of dough, it occurred to her she was running low. She needed to make another trip, and soon. She couldn’t risk running out. Oh, no… The secret ingredient made her bread loaves so extraordinary.
Why bother? Said a voice inside her head. All this baking, so pointless.
Just like you.
Cecily’s hands slipped, mashing the dough sideways. She leaned forward, breathing hard, her heartbeat building to a crushing crescendo.
She didn’t understand! She never normally entertained such thoughts. Those words were reminiscent of her now-dead husband. Little barbs, designed to land, to sting, to fester in wounds so hidden they settled deep into her bones.
She couldn’t escape him. Even now.
Someone knocked at her door, and she jumped. Sighing, she brushed aside an errant curl of hair with a floury arm. Who could call this early? She knew the humidity of her baker’s kitchen would have drawn tiny dewdrops of sweat along her brow. The red cotton headscarf she’d knotted so carelessly barely contained her black hair. She hadn’t expected a visitor.