The smell of death isn’t death; it’s food.
The smell wafts from the kitchen, permeates the hallway, living room, and dining room of the old colonial. It travels up the stairs in whiffs of almost tangible threads into the two bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. It cannot penetrate the attic, where the air remains stale but unpolluted by the stench. So that is where nine-year-old Haley hides, away from death, away from the people gathered in Granny’s house following the funeral, away from their talk and their stories and their food. “Haley!” her mother calls as she climbs the attic stairs. “Please come down. Uncle Rob is asking for you.”
Haley looks up from the corner where she is covered in Granny’s brown fur coat. Her mother sniffles. Her eyes are red, and her face is gray. The spreading fingers of the smells reach for Haley from the attic stairs. Haley wants to inhale the sweet cinnamon in Granny’s morning rolls, the lemon in frosted cookies, the baking crust of her homemade pizza. Those smells are gone forever. She feels her chest tighten as sadness squeezes her heart. She is afraid that she will start crying and never stop.
The fingers reach for the fur coat; Haley pulls the coat over her head. She sniffs. Granny’s rosewater perfume tickles her nose. It’s a pleasant tickle. “I’ve always loved that coat,” her mother says. She lifts Haley off the floor, and Haley wraps her arms around her mother’s neck, and squeezes. She knows that her mother is sad, and will be for a long time, no matter how much food is brought into the house.
They enter the living room together where family held paper plates piled with stuff. Her mother sets Haley down on the couch next to Uncle Rob, and hurries to the kitchen where the food is being cooked, heated, boiled, microwaved, thawed, unwrapped.
Haley peaks out of the fur coat at the eaters in the room. In the corner by the TV, Aunt Teresa holds her plate under her chin as she bites a sausage in half. Dad leans against the wall by the fireplace talking to Cousin Tyler. Dad’s eating a sandwich. Cousin Tyler shoves a meatball into his mouth. Aunt Louisa sits in a dining chair; two chair legs in the living room, two in the dining room. Her black apron strains against her thighs. It’s stained with reds and greys and bits of green.
Uncle Rob’s plate is on his lap, piled with lasagna and salad, sauce sliding down his chin. He smiles at Haley. His teeth have bits of lettuce in them.
“How you doin’ Haley-love?” he asks.
“Okay, I guess.” Haley says. Her stomach churns as the smells invade her nose, dry out her mouth, and scratch her throat. “Excuse me, Uncle Rob. I don’t feel good.”
Fresh air. She has to go through the kitchen to get to the backyard. She enters the once beloved kitchen, the fur coat slowing her steps. Every inch of the kitchen table is covered with plates and platters and bowls and trays holding sandwiches, lasagna, pickles, lunch meats, and pies. The women blabber as they work, wrapping leftovers, washing dishes, shoving things into the fridge.
Haley escapes into the backyard without being stopped. Her tire swing beckons her. She rocks back and forth, the fur coat dragging in the dirt, dust puffing up just like the flour did when Granny made bread.
The back door squeaks. It’s Uncle Rob, carrying a covered plate. “I was worried about you, Haley-love. You disappeared. But here you are.”
Haley digs her heels into the dirt. “Here I am.”
“Look what I have.” He swoops the napkin off the plate. “Aunt Jay and I made them just for you.”
“I’m not hungry.” She looks down at her dusty Mary Jane’s rather than at the plate.
“When was the last time you ate anything, honey?”
“I don’t remember,” Haley says.
He puts the plate under her nose. “Try one. We used Granny’s recipe.”
She sniffs the air. Lemon goodness fill her nose, just like Granny’s cookies used to. She nibbles at one. “Granny used to make these for my birthday.” She crams it into her mouth. “Used to…” She looks down at the crumbs on the coat, bright dots on the rich brown fur. She can feel the tears coming. “I’m sorry. I got crumbs on Granny’s coat.”
Uncle Rob squats next to her and hugs her. “I’m sure Granny doesn’t mind.”
“I miss her.” She gives the plate to Uncle Rob so her tears won’t spoil the cookies.
Uncle Rob sighs. “I do, too. We all do.”
“If everyone misses her then why don’t they look sad? They’re all talking and eating.”
“People feel better when they eat together and tell stories about the person they miss. People bring food to show their love and respect. You should try it.” He offers her the plate. “Tell me a story about Granny.”
Haley wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. She reaches for a cookie and tells Uncle Rob the story of how Granny taught her how to make apple pancakes. She finishes the story and her stomach growls.
“I think I ate too many cookies,” she says. She gives Uncle Rob a tiny smile.
“Feel better?” he asks.
She thinks about it for a moment. “Can Aunt Jay teach me how to cook like Granny? That way whenever I miss her I can make her recipes.”
Uncle Rob grins. “Let’s start right now. I’ll get Aunt Jay and we’ll go to our house and make pizza.”
“You can make pizza? Like Granny?” Haley’s eyes light up.
“Yes we can. We have all her recipes, and we’ll give them all to you,” Uncle Rob says.
Haley grabs Uncle Robs hand and tugs him toward the house. She hands Uncle Rob Granny’s coat and cradles the cookie plate.
Susan Sabia is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction can be read in Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, Havok, and several other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her family including a sweet dog and an evil cat.