Hannah the Ghost
The buttercream needed something. Raspberries? George stirred a spoonful of jam into the bowl and re-tasted. Much better, he thought. He took the sponge cake out of the fridge and set it on a rotating stand.
He began smoothing buttercream over the sides of the cake, turning the stand slowly as he worked. When he finished, the cake was pinkish and bumpy looking because of the seeds. He stepped back, admiring it.
“It looks like a tongue,” said a voice from the other side of the counter.
George jumped. “Can I help you?” he asked, turning around. The voice belonged to a small woman in a sweatshirt. Her black hair was pinned up in a banana clip.
“Like thith!” she said, sticking out her tongue.
He smiled dryly. “Probably tastes like one, too.”
“I’m picking up an order,” she said. “It’s under Lynette.”
George brought the box out from the back. It was a simple cake, lemon sponge with vanilla icing. He’d piped Lynette Barnes across the top in looping black cursive.
“Looks great,” the girl said. She paid for the cake and asked for a fork.
When he handed it to her, she plunged it into the middle of the cake, excavating a large bite. “Thanks a lot!”
She waved the fork at him on her way out.
The next week, George got another order for Lynette, but this time it was a vanilla chiffon cake with whipped lemon filling and passion fruit buttercream. This time, George made sure the cake was perfect. He dotted the top with passion fruit candies, and painted the orange buttercream ombre on the sides so that it faded to white at the bottom.
The girl grinned when she saw it. She wore the same sweatshirt as before, but now the hood was pulled up over her hair, and her cheeks were flushed as if she’d been running.
“Great choice,” George said, trying to think of something to say. “I love passion fruit.”
“Yeah?” She studied him for a moment. “Want to eat it with me?”
“Oh,” he said. “Um.”
“You close soon, right?”
He glanced at the clock above the door. “Yeah, we close at four.”
“I can wait,” she said. He’d already stacked the chairs on the tables, and she took one down and slouched in it.
George surveyed the store. There wasn’t much left to do except count the money in the till and take out the garbage. He did the tasks quietly, without looking at her. For some reason, she suddenly embarrassed him.
“Okay,” he said, once he’d finished.
She jumped up. “Let’s go to the park. You got forks?”
The park turned out to be a strip of dead grass next to the shipping canal. They sat on the only bench, which smelled like pee. She opened the cake box in her lap.
“It’s almost too pretty to eat,” she said, smiling at him. “You first.”
He stuck his fork into the middle of the cake. He’d never done that before, but he figured she wouldn’t mind. It was delicious. She popped her eyes wide open when she tasted it.
“Okay, so what’s the deal,” George said, his mouth full of cake. “Who is Lynette Barnes?”
“My mom,” the girl said simply. “She’s dead.”
George choked on the cake.
She giggled. “You probably think I’m a psycho.”
He looked at her. She’d shrugged off her hood; her black hair was wispy around her face and pinned up with the same clip as before. She had freckles on her cheeks and small, sharp teeth that flashed when she laughed.
“It’s not that crazy,” she said. “People get their parents’ names carved into gravestones all the time.”
“Okay,” he said. “I mean…they don’t eat the gravestones.”
“I know, but-”
“And the point is that people can visit the grave whenever they want.”
“I know,” she said, rolling her eyes. “If I want to ‘visit’ her again, I can just buy another cake. I get to enjoy myself this way. It’s for me, after all.”
“Um,” George said, “Okay.” His fork hung limply in his hand. “I thought graves were supposed to honor the dead.”
She rolled her eyes again. “People love to act like they’re doing the dead some big service by erecting a stone and bringing flowers.”
“I guess you don’t believe in ghosts, then,” George said.
“I believe in ghosts. But they’re in here.” She tapped her head, grinning. “You want to meet my mom, George?”
“You’re not about to get, like, possessed,” George said, eyeing her nervously. “Right? Please don’t do that.”
“My mom was a cat person,” the girl blurted. “Purple was her favorite color, and she never flossed. She was a drunk, but a fun drunk, and when she was in a good mood, she’d put her hair up in pigtails and do mine the same way and we’d listen to Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and dance around the kitchen eating mac and cheese out of a pot. She had the ugliest alligator purse in the world. When I was bad, she’d hit me with it, swinging it around her head like some kind of mace. She gave the best gifts, especially when we weren’t expecting it...and she was always reading some book. It didn’t matter what it was about—it could’ve been gardening or aircraft carriers or Mary Antoinette, but if you asked her to tell you about it, she’d just say, it’s a long story. I guess she never read short stories.”
“When she was in high school, she got bullied. People called her LoonyTunes. She grew up in Hawaii, which is why she liked passion fruit so much. Oh, and pickles.” The girl was speaking very quickly now, her black eyes shining. “Her laugh sounded like a bird dying, it was horrible. And she used these corny phrases like I don’t give a rat’s ass and geez-o-peets.Her birthday was her least favorite day of the year.”
George smiled. “She sounds cool.”
“She died two years ago,” the girl said. “It was cancer, if you’re wondering.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Soggy garbage floated slowly by on the surface of the canal. The water was oily, greyish—in the setting sun, it glinted like dull metal.
“Why don’t you make the cakes yourself?”
“Great question,” the girl said, looking at the water. “We can do that next time. I’m Hannah, by the way.” she stuck her hand out. It was small and dry, her nails bitten to nubs. George winced at how sweaty his palm was.
Hannah closed the cake box and stood to go. “Okay George,” she said. “Same time next week?”
George tried not to think about Hannah over the weekend, but he got excited anyways. By Wednesday morning, he was watching the clock. Ten hours until she comes. Six hours. Two. Eleven minutes. He kept himself busy until the hands finally pointed to four. Any minute, now. He finished counting the till and took out the garbage. It was four eighteen. Where was she?
George looked around the clean, silent store. I should’ve waited to start closing. Now there was nothing to do. He felt stupid for getting excited, and even stupider for waiting around—what if she never showed? She probably forgot, he thought, taking off his apron.
For some reason, he didn’t want to leave. He turned off the lights and locked the door, then sat on a stool behind the counter. Although he was angry, and waiting felt pathetic, he couldn’t believe that he wasn’t going to see her. Hope shrouded him like loose skin.
At five thirty-six, the door of the shop rattled. George looked up from his phone—there she was, grinning and waving at him through the glass.
He walked over to the door slowly. Unlocked it for her.
“Damn, you’re sitting here in the dark?”
“You’re two hours late,” he snapped.
She grinned. “You’re still here, aren’t you? Look, I have a cool idea—I was thinking we could bake a blueberry cake with vanilla frosting…without a recipe.”
“It’ll be gross.”
“It’ll be fun! Sorry I’m late.” She inspected his face with sudden intensity.
He sighed, then flipped the lights on and picked up his apron.
As she baked, she danced to his music and licked the spatula that she was stirring with. The sleeves of her hoodie were pushed up to her elbows—her hair frizzed in a black halo around her head, and her sneakers were filthy.
“You do this a lot?” George asked her, turning the music down. He sat on the stool behind the register.
“Only with people,” she said, vigorously stirring.
“Not by yourself?”
“Baking doesn’t matter to me.” She tasted the batter. “That’s GOOD! Try this.”
“It tastes like flour,” he said.
She frowned. “More sugar?”
“Why doesn’t baking matter to you?”
“I don’t know. This is what I care about,” she said, waving the spatula at him. Batter flicked onto his apron. “The way your face looks under these awful fluorescent lights, and the song, and the smell of vanilla. That’s what I’ll remember, I mean.”
“So you’re a romantic,” George said with a smile. He was greasing the cake tins with butter.
Hannah poured the batter into the tins and slid them in the oven. “I guess,” she said. “Don’t you think other people are more exciting than anything?”
Hannah’s vanilla buttercream came out a little grainy, and the cake tasted like flour. George was impressed with her piping, though—Lynette Barnes was loopy and centered across the top of the cake. He rated it a six out of ten. After he locked up, they faced each other awkwardly in front of the store. Hannah scratched her leg with the tip of her shoe.
“See you around,” she said.
He watched her walk away into the night, her banana clip grinning at him. The white cake box floated in her hand under the yellow globes of the streetlights.
Over the next few months, and only on nights when the store was empty and the hum of the refrigerator wrapped the hours after close, she came back to him. He’d be frosting a cake or boxing orders for the next day—that’s when he’d hear her knock. She never baked or helped him with anything. She just sat on a stool licking the used spoons and telling stories, her black eyes glittering. She told him enough about Lynette that he felt as though he’d known the woman for years—she told him about her hometown, her brothers, her friends, and her first love, a man she swore she would’ve died for.
Eventually, George couldn’t help but wonder, and what about me? Does she talk about me like this to other people? He certainly wasn’t going to ask her—that would be crass, insecure. Maybe she loved him, he thought. Or maybe she just loved talking about herself, and that’s why she kept coming. He teased her for being so tortured, told her she was being self-indulgent, pathological. Why wasn’t it enough that these things had happened to her in the past, what exactly had she lost?
“Enough,” she’d said dreamily, savoring the word.
When she asked him to tell her stories from his past, he’d scrambled, realizing that his memories were more or less static, uncomplicated scenes: fishing off the dock with his brothers, his childhood room, the strawberry tea towels that hung in the kitchen. He didn’t think of them often, and if he did, it wasn’t with any sense of loss, or desire to go back in time. If anything, it was a comfort to remember that he had lived well, but that wasn’t interesting to talk about. Usually, he just felt deflated and awkward, like a big, flopping fish—you’re boring, that detail was a mistake. No wonder she doesn’t talk about you.
He was embarrassed by how excited he was for Hannah’s visits, how many times a day her name popped into his head, but he couldn’t help it. It was uncontrollable. The worst part was that she made no promises to him, and wasn’t consistent enough for him to leave it alone—just when he’d convinced himself that she was never coming back, she’d reappear and melt him all over again. You’re haunting me, he wanted to tell her. You live inside me, do you know that
One night, Hannah suddenly stopped talking in the middle of one of her stories. George looked up from the cake he was decorating and saw that she was staring at it, a funny expression on her face. Then she began to laugh, her lips pulled back over her sharp little teeth. George looked down—Hannah was piped across the top of the cake.
“Now you have to eat it,” she murmured. Horrified, George heaved the whole cake in the garbage. He looked at it for a moment, the smear of it on the black plastic bag, with shame coursing through him. Then he grabbed his coat and ran out of the store.
For weeks afterwards, she burned inside him with an intensity that made him drop his eyes when helping his customers. If anyone sensed a change in him, they didn’t let on—he even tried calling his mom, but she didn’t seem to understand the problem. “What is it that you want, George?” He didn’t have an answer for that. He wanted her back? He wanted to forget about her?
More than anything, he wanted someone to order a Hannah Barnes cake. No one ever did, of course, and he wasn’t going to make one just for himself. He wished he’d had someone to share her with…before he sent out each cake, he double checked to make sure he’d written the wrong name across the top.