by Joseph Rowland
With a resigned hiss, the can of coconut innards gives in to my spoon and the seal is broken. I work the utensil around the lip of the can until I can pry off the lid. This would be a lot easier with my can opener, but Tony took it with him. I’m getting very good at the spoon method anyway. I dump the contents of the can into my little bowl, careful not to let any splash out. I like this brand, since it combines the coconut milk and the flakes into one can. Lord knows coconut flakes are hard enough to find, especially now.
I find the box of powdered sugar in the lower bank of cabinets and measure out a half of a cup. I watch the mound of it darken and shrink as it sucks moisture from the innards. I keep on watching the bowl until the mound disappears under the surface. Then I use the handle of my spoon to evenly distribute the flakes and sugar, even though I don’t need to yet.
The next part of the recipe calls for 16 ounces of frozen cream. We don’t have that, or anything frozen, because there’s no refrigerator in the bunker, but I’ve found that vanilla pudding along with a few tablespoons of cornstarch does the trick. I prepare that and plop it in with the coconut innards and sugar. Now all I need to do is stir it.
I gather the bowl and all of the empty cans into my arms and walk back up to the kitchen.When I reach the top, I flick off the pantry light and turn to the little oven. My cake has another twenty two minutes before it is ready. All that I have to do now is finish the coconut frosting. I line up the used cans at the end of the table for later disposal.
I’m making a coconut cake. It’s Tony’s favorite. It’s my way of saying sorry for whatever I did to make him run away this time. I have a feeling that tonight he will come back, and when he does, I want him to share it with me, piece by piece, until there’s nothing left but crumbs.
I close my eyes and picture his homecoming. He opens the inner hatch, and the first thing he sees is me, smiling, hair combed, shirt pressed and tucked in, holding the most perfect coconut cake ever made. His eyes will widen in surprise. His hand will slip from the door knob and he’ll walk towards me like he’s dreaming. He’ll be wondering how I knew.
“Coconut cake! My favorite!” he’ll say. I’ll smile a little more and tilt my head like I’m taking in the sight of him.
“Welcome home, Tony,” I’ll tell him.
He’ll step as close to me as the cake plate will allow him, lean close, and finally say the words I’ve wanted to hear for so long: “I love you.”
It will be magic.
That is what will happen tonight. And if not tonight, then sometime soon. When he left, he took seven cans of baked beans with him. It has been twelve days since then. I’ve thought about him every one of those days. This has happened enough times that I’m not worried, though. He craves human interaction, and that’s one thing that he’ll never find in the deadlands, no matter how hard he may try. He’ll come back. He always does.
I begin to stir the frosting with the big spoon. It takes quite a bit of stirring to get it to the right consistency. I have a little cup of cornstarch on the counter beside me for thickening the mixture if I need to.
As I stir, I think about Tony. I make a list in my head of all the things I love about him. He’s so strong. Last Christmas, he brought the biggest artificial Christmas tree he could find among the rubble of the Wal-Mart across town all the way back to the bunker.
He’s crafty. He made a cute little radio out of wires and bits of metal he found while scavenging. He wasn’t able to contact anyone with it, but it makes a nice centerpiece for our dining room table.
He’s sensitive. When he realized that all of his family and friends were dead, he cried. What other man would do that? I didn’t.
He’s very smart. He knows about everything—astronomy, arithmetic, and even some philosophy. I could listen to him talk for years, but lately he’s been doing it less and less. Everyword that comes out of his square, clean mouth is a treasure to me, even when he’s saying things he doesn’t really mean. I hoard them in my brain like jewels.
I stir and stir as I think of this man of mine. Even the parts of Tony that he’s not proud of—his temper, his ego, his greed—I love in some ways too. Because when you tell someone you love them, you are talking about their entire being. Body, mind, soul, and everything else. The good and the bad. “I love you” is a commitment.
It’s just the two of us now. Nobody knows it more than him. And yet he leaves me anyway. Over and over again. This is the thing I love least about him. But you know what? When I wake up and see that his coat and respirator are missing from their hooks, I feel glad. Because I know that when he gives up and comes back to me, we will both have a chance to start over. He will learn his lesson, no matter how many times it takes. I can wait.
With all of these thoughts in mind, I lean over the bowl and spit these feelings, everything I love about him, into the frosting, because that’s the secret ingredient: love. A few more minutes of stirring, and the frosting is ready. The cake still has fourteen minutes on the clock, though, so I decide to make a trip to the Drop. I needed to clear the cake plate anyway. I slip on my respirator, pick up my crystalline cake plate and the empty cans, and make my way up the stairs to the hatch.
There’s a nice breeze blowing outside the bunker. It was raining earlier, but the clouds are clearing up now, and I can tell that there’s going to be an awfully pretty sunset later. Maybe we’ll watch it together. I pick my way through the broken streets, careful to step on solid ground. My crystal cake plate has already been smashed once before, and it was a miracle that I found another just like it. I reach the Drop and perch myself on a dented filing cabinet at the very edge. It’s a nasty gash in the earth, miles long and possibly miles deep. It was formed by the aftershocks of the last bomb. Tony and I have been using it as a garbage disposal since our incinerator broke. I drop the cans one by one into the hole. They make a satisfying clang whenever they hit the sides on the way down.
Once they’re all gone, I pull the plastic dome off of yesterday’s cake and set it on the cabinet beside me. It’s a perfectly good cake. The coconut flakes are evenly distributed, and the frosting hasn’t dried out. I hold my crystal cake plate out by the stem and flip it over. The cake slips loose from the plate and careens quietly into the Drop. As I scrape the remaining clumps of coconut from my plate, I try not to think about all of the other perfect cakes waiting for me down there. Instead I think of Tony. Strong, crafty, sensitive, smart Tony.
I head back to the bunker to check on my cake. Under my respirator, I practice my smile.
Author Biography: Joseph Rowland is a junior at Boston Latin School. He enjoys walking, writing, and reading. He dreams of going to college one day (to study what, only time will tell). He’s a boy scout too, but don’t ask him to do the taut-line hitch.