Critter sits hunched, her arms stuffed with nasty, dry, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. She’s eating them mechanically and staring at me without blinking.
“So,” she says between mouthfuls. “That was… wow.”
Munch-munch munch. “You wrote. That’s good, right?”
“I… well, ” I frown. Shrug.
“And you published it. Without making it a story. Without even making it legible. That was… a bold choice.”
I stare at the table.
“It seemed important.”
Critter raises an eyebrow and keeps munching, her tiny paws maintaining a slow, steady feed of styrofoamy biscuits into her dainty jaws. Crunch crunch crunch.
“That’s what my great uncle Hank said when he started smearing feces in public places.”
I raise my eyes to her but can’t smile.
“He said the shit had a very important message for us and he NEEDED to share it.”
I frown harder.
“He started sneaking little shit smears into unexpected places. A little dab under a waiting room chair. A nugget in someone’s potted plant.”
I try to blink the goop out of my eyes.
“At first, no one could figure it out. We just thought he’d lost control of his bowels, and was walking around with dingleberries matted around his butt 24/7. I mean, the dude was OUT THERE. Seemed inevitable. We came to expect the soiled-diaper smell whenever he came around. But then someone noticed the stench clung after Uncle Hank had gone.”
Crunch crunch crunch. Munch munch munch.
“Then he started baking. We all thought it was a good sign. At least he wasn’t eating the poop. We’d been speculating. He was so obsessed, right? But he was making actual food. And sharing it. He brought around little plates of cookies and brownies and stopped muttering about how the truth was IN THERE.”
“The whole community was relieved. It was so nice to see Hank coming and not get punched in the face with the smell of impending senility. Plus, the “shit speaks” routine had really got old, but no one could bring themselves to say anything about it. To his face. I mean, what do you say to someone who’s clearly off their tree stump?”
I sigh loudly through my nose.
“Uncle hank was happy again. And the smell of his baking drew people to him. Man, I can still remember what it was like when he’d poke his head into our den, and the cloud of warm vanilla and cocoa rolled in with him. His brownies were insane. You could SMELL how moist and fudgey they were. We kids went ape for those things. I bet I ate fifty pounds of butter, eggs, and chocolate that winter. Doubled my weight. Best quasi-hibernation ever.” Critter smiles into the distance.
Crunch crunch crunch.
“The adults clapped Uncle Hank on the back and encouraged him to start a bakery. Said it was just the thing to keep his mind occupied so the crazies didn’t come back. Uncle Hank just grinned. He got this weird sparkle in his eye.
“At Christmas, while we all patted our pastry-thickened middles, Uncle hank announced he was going into business. He wasn’t going to see us for a while, because he’d be busy testing recipes and preparing his storefront. We were all thrilled for him. And eager to sample his new wares.
“He chose a likely hollow trunk and disappeared inside it for seven weeks. We could hear all sorts of scratching and digging, and the smells that came out of that hole could make you high. It was like hot fudge, chocolate ganache, and steaming piles of the finest cacao nibs were having melty, gooey sex in there. All of us cubs would press our faces up against the cracks in the door, which Hank had boarded up to keep us out while he perfected his products.
“Finally, at the end of February, Uncle Hank emerged. He looked like shit. His skin hung off him like a toddler in his daddy’s suit, and his fur was missing clumps. But he looked triumphant. He announced the grand opening would be in April.
“We could scarcely breathe for anticipation. Mouths watered whenever we passed Uncle Hank’s soon-to-be bakeshop. Pillows were soaked in drool from many a lip-smacking dream. Everyone laughed and rubbed their paws together.
“The day before the grand opening, the city inspectors came by to approve Uncle Hank’s business licence.”
“The next day, the bakery tree was burned to the ground. And Uncle Hank had disappeared.”
I look up at her, then close my eyes and cringe.
“Yeah.” she says. “Fecal contamination.”
“I know. It was the health inspector who ordered the burn. She said it wasn’t even safe for a cleanup crew to go in there. So. Much. Caca. And he wasn’t even going to hide it. He’d named his chocolate croissants ‘boneless brown trout’. The brownies were ‘pinched loaf’ and the fudge sauce was ‘diaper gravy’. It was awful.
“The worst part was that as Uncle Hank’s insanity burned, the whole forest was blanketed in chocolatey smoke and ashes. We could feel it in our fur, taste it on our tongues. And even though we KNEW it was 37% turds, our mouths still watered.”
“What happened to your Uncle Hank?”
“No one knows. Some say he lost his brown biscuits when they declared the bakery would burn, and snuck past the guards to lay down and bake with his brownies.”
“That’s a terrible story, Critter.”
She reaches around on her belly shelf for another cookie, but they’re all gone. She sighs and gives the crumbs a few brushes with both hands. Then, she freezes. She slowly raises her paws to her eyes, then takes a sniff, staring at me over her little black fingers with horror.
“Those… weren’t… skid marks in the cookies. Were they?”
“Jesus fuck. No!”
“What the fuck, Critter?”
“Bite me!” She says. “I’m not getting fooled again.”
I close my eyes and shake my head.
“They’re store bought, idiot.” I say. “Everything is going to be store bought for a while.”
“Because you might put poop in things?”
I glare at her.
She raises her eyebrow.
“It’s because I can’t cook right now. I just need to survive and keep my kids fed until my brain comes back online.”
Critter nods. She seems satisfied and turns to go, but stops and asks over her shoulder.
“So, why did you publish that turd-sandwich post? Why was it important?”
My face crumples.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was like a high water mark, or something.”
Critter tilts her head.
“You gonna document the recovery, like ‘Come Hell or High Water, there WILL be a Stampede, So Help Me God, I’m the Mayor of this town and I say we are getting our shit together and we’ll look back on this and use it in our marketing later and brand ourselves all about resilience, kind of a thing?”
“Um. Kind of. Maybe just more like, ‘next time I’m back in the pit, I want to remember the way out.”
We both look at the table.
“You’re going to be okay, you know,” she says.
“Yep.” I say.
“Even if that was embarrassing.”
“And even if the recovery account turns into nothing, like a lot of your projects.”
“Just don’t start baking, okay? Chocolate hides a lot of evils.”
“Fuck off, Critter.”
“Love you, too.”