by Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
Content warning: Brief mention of suicide.
I told my brother I would not build him a gingerbread house, not this year.
My brother screwed up his face, debating a tantrum. At twelve he was too old for such things, but always acted younger than his age.
“It’s the trauma,” his psychologists all said. “Give him time, he’ll get over it.”
But that was six years ago, and my brother was not better.
After it happened, we were swept up in a media circus. Reporters would ask my brother what he went through, what it was like. Tell us about the apartment, they begged. Tell us what you saw inside.
“Gumdrop doorknobs and spun sugar windows and a bed made of cake,” he’d always say. “And a beautiful lady with licorice eyes and candy corn teeth.” And they’d write that he was disturbed, poor boy, not right in the head after all that happened.
They never asked me anything. Which was strange, because I was there too, and I was older. But they didn’t ask me, so I didn’t see the point in telling them anything. I didn’t talk to reporters, and I didn’t talk to police. Instead, I let my brother tell them about our neighbor, and what happened to us inside her apartment. And all the adults would shake their heads and pat him on the back and say, I guess we’ll never know.
When our neighbor first moved in, I was eleven years old. Our father often worked late, and it was my responsibility to watch and feed my brother. Our mother was dead, or perhaps missing, or perhaps ran away. My father was never very clear on the matter. But she wasn’t here, so much of the housework fell to me. My father felt bad about it. He was a very kind man, and it wasn’t his fault what happened. He took it very hard though, and a month after everything happened we found him in the bathtub, wrists draining onto the floor.
“Like strawberry syrup,” my brother said.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
One afternoon I was washing the dishes when I heard a knock on our apartment door. I dragged a chair over to the door to look through the peephole, but there was no one there. I opened the door a crack, and found a small, handwritten card and Tupperware container on the welcome mat.
The card was the color of pink sherbet, with a looping gold script. “From your new neighbor in 5C,” it said. “Visit any time.” Inside the container was a stack of shortbread cookies. I popped one in my mouth, and it melted the instant it touched my tongue. I was just a little girl, and I was not used to decadent, beautiful things. That night, I showed my father the note, and begged him to let me visit our new neighbor. He shrugged, and said fine.
“Just take your brother along,” he said.
I did not want to share this slice of beauty with my brother. I had so little to myself. But I promised anyway.
The next day I put on my best dress, a cheap red velvet scrap I had worn to Christmas the year before. It was much too warm out for velvet, but it was the only lovely thing I owned. I forced my brother to wear his nicest shirt, and looped one of my father’s ties around his neck. At eleven, I could think of nothing more presentable than a tie and our holiday best.
At exactly noon, I took my brother’s hand and marched him across the hall. Standing in front of apartment 5C, I softly rapped once, twice on the door. It was so faint, I couldn’t imagine our neighbor would hear it. But the door flung open instantly, as though she had been standing there all morning, waiting. She smiled at us from the doorway.
“Are you my new little friends from across the hall?” she asked.
I don’t remember her being as pretty as my brother swore she was. She had very long, fair hair, and very dark eyes, and I remember blushing at the sight of her breasts, straining against the knit of the sweater she wore. I suppose those things are all considered very attractive to men, no matter how old they are. But she had the most terrible teeth, stained and jagged as fence posts in her mouth. She caught me looking, and casually covered her smile with her hand.
“Please,” she said, “won’t you come in?”
Our memories of the apartment are different, my brother’s and mine. He remembers the walls being the same creamy pink as her calling card, with velvet furniture the color of an eggplant and a big fireplace in the living room. Maybe it’s because he was young, or maybe it’s because that’s what she wanted him to see, but he remembers it like a cartoon house, all candy-coated colors and too-large details. He doesn’t remember the mildew on the top corners of the walls that made the paint look like it was dripping, or how the sofa was threadbare and ripped, the coils poking through if you sat in the wrong spot. He doesn’t remember the fire being too big and too hot, making the entire apartment feel like you were being boiled.
We do both remember that the apartment was far too large. Our own was only three rooms, a living and cooking area, our father’s room, and the tiny bedroom we shared. This apartment had rooms and staircases and hallways. It seemed bigger than our entire building. My brother told the police this, but when they looked in the apartment they swore it was just a studio. Just one small, dirty room with a mattress on the floor and a sagging couch.
And the oven, of course.
“You have good timing,” she said. “My cake just finished baking. Go sit down, I’ll bring some over.”
My brother and I sat on the couch. We were still holding hands, as though we had forgotten we were still joined. We didn’t release each other until our neighbor brought over slices of cake as large as my face, piled high with buttercream and candied flowers. My brother dug in happily, his mouth already sticky with frosting.
“Who were you baking this cake for?” I asked. “Are you expecting company?” I did not take a bite.
My neighbor smiled. “It’s always good to be prepared for guests. You’ll learn that when you’re a grown woman with your own house someday.”
My brother finished his cake, and yawned. He nestled into my shoulder, and fell asleep. My neighbor laughed.
“Men are all like that,” she said knowingly. She smiled at me with her lips closed. “Once they have something in their bellies, they’re out like a light. Doesn’t matter if they’re six or sixty-six.”
She gently pried my brother’s hand off of his plate and stood up. “Let’s let him nap,” she said to me. “Why don’t you come help me in the kitchen.”
I moved my brother’s head from my shoulder and laid him down across the couch. He didn’t even notice; he was sleeping so soundly he started to snore. I followed my neighbor into her kitchen. She was at the sink, washing dishes. Like the rest of the apartment, the kitchen was massive, with countertops that seemed to be longer than the entirety of my home. She had dozens of cabinets and drawers, and pots and pans hung from every inch of the ceiling. At the center of it all was a gleaming, wood-burning oven that looked large enough to fit a grown man inside.
“Your apartment is so big,” I said to her. “I didn’t know any of the apartments in this building were this big.”
“I have a lot of things,” my neighbor said. Her arms were soapy up to the elbows. “I’ve always been a bit of a packrat. I just can’t bear to throw anything out. So, I need to live somewhere that accommodate all my treasures. And I just can’t abide by a small kitchen. How would I ever get any of my work done?”
“Are you a chef?” I asked her.
“Something like that,” she said.
My neighbor finished washing the last dish and dried her hands.
“Would you like a tour?” she asked.
There was a decadence to her apartment that was sensual and vulgar, a decaying fairytale. She showed me her bedroom, almost completely filled by a massive bed with a gilded bedframe, piled high with velvet pillows and blankets that looked like they were made of freshly sheered sheep. I peaked in her closet, packed to the brim with silks and tulle and furs. I saw a room full of books that was bigger than the public library, and a room that just displayed her jewelry, rubies and diamonds and emeralds fit for a queen. There was a film of dust on everything, dents in the bedpost and stains on her gowns, as though she were careless with her things. This somehow made it all the more glamorous to me. Imagine, having so many precious things that you could damage them and not care.
She watched me devour her home with hungry eyes. She took me to room after room, all packed with treasures. I became dizzy from looking at so many beautiful things. Finally, she took me back to the kitchen and sat me down at the table. She made us both mugs of tea, milky and sweet from the great globs of honey she spooned into them.
She took a sip, watching me over the rim of her cup. “You could be like this, if you wanted,” she said. “You could have a home like this and all the gowns and jewels and treasures your heart desired.”
I laughed, a small, sad sound. I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew enough to know that the riches she described would play no part in it.
“You could,” my neighbor insisted. “I could help you, teach you. Would you like that?” She asked the question so casually, as though she didn’t care. But her grip on her cup tightened until I was sure it would crack.
“What could you teach me?” I asked.
Her face split into a smile, and this time she did not bother to hide her cracked and crooked teeth.
“Everything,” she said. “I will teach you everything. How to kill a man with a biscuit, or bind another to you with a caramel. How to destroy your enemies with cake, or gain wealth with chocolates. Would you like to learn to bake your future, little one?”
I looked at her, and I was not afraid. But I also wasn’t a fool.
“What would it cost,” I asked, “for you to teach me all this?”
My neighbor smiled wider. She liked that I was smart enough to ask the right question.
“Is there any price you would not pay?” she asked.
I thought of my brother, asleep in the living room. I pictured his small body frail and lifeless. “I can only think of one thing,” I said.
She nodded. “I wouldn’t have asked for that.”
My neighbor stood up and walked over to her counter, where she began pulling ingredients down from the shelves. Butter and sugar, molasses, spices, eggs. I watched her mix everything together in a bowl the size of a bathtub, until she had a ball of dough as large and dense as a small boulder. With a gasp, she heaved the dough on to the table, and began to roll it out until it was about as long as I was tall.
Panting a little, my neighbor looked at me, and then looked back down at the dough. Slowly, she began slicing it with a sharp knife. Bit by bit, she carved me into the dough. She used icing to draw my dress, gum drops for my eyes, candy corn for my teeth, licorice twists for my hair. By the time she was done, a gingerbread me laid on the table, ready to be baked. Wiping the flour from her hands, my neighbor looked at me.
“If this is what you want, we’ll bake this together,” she said. “And then you’ll be like me, and I will teach you everything I know. But once you bake this, you’ll belong to me. And when I die, everything I have will be yours, and you will teach a new girl. Do you understand?”
“I won’t get to see my father, or my brother anymore,” I said.
My neighbor looked sad. “No, you won’t. It will be a different kind of life. Better in some ways, worse in others. That’s life.”
I thought about my small life, my cramped home and my chores. I thought about what I was being offered, and what I was giving up. And I made my decision.
“Bake it,” I told her.
My neighbor smiled, and opened the oven door. She lit a match, and leaned into the oven to start the fire. Suddenly my brother appeared, a determined look on his face. Using all his strength, he shoved my neighbor. She was off-balance and unprepared. She fell into the oven, and my brother slammed the door.
My neighbor banged on the door, begging to be released.
“Help me!” she screamed.
My brother looked at me, tears in his eyes.
“She was going to hurt you. She was going to take you from me,” he said. “I saved you.”
I looked at my brother, and then at the oven. My neighbor was still pleading to be released.
“Save me,” she cried, “and I will teach you everything!”
My brother tugged at my hand, tears streaming down his face.
“Please,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
I looked again at the oven, and then walked out of the apartment with my brother.
The fire department arrived later, when the smoke was so thick it began seeping into other apartments. It smelled, many of my neighbors said, like barbequed meat. The firemen knocked on our door to make sure we were okay. They asked if we knew who lived in 5C.
“She was a bad lady,” my brother said. “She tried to hurt us.”
When the cops arrived, my brother told them his version of the story, the one he believed. That our neighbor invited us over, and tried to harm us. That she fed him a cake that made him fall asleep, and tried to bake me alive. That it was self-defense, what he did. I don’t think the cops believed his story, but they did believe something terrible had happened to us. After all, what could drive a sweet little kid to do something like that, if something horrible hadn’t happened to him first? They told my brother he was a hero.
Like I said, they never asked me.
I take care of my brother now, for the most part. We live with our grandmother, but she’s old, and I’m responsible for most of the housework. I make sure the house is clean, and that my brother gets to school on time. I cook our meals. It’s not so different from how it used to be, when we were younger and lived in the apartment with our father.
Every year, my brother asks me to make him a gingerbread house, and he decorates it to look like our neighbor’s apartment. His psychologist said it’s a good thing, that it helps him work through his trauma. The psychologist doesn’t say this, but I know he thinks it’s the least I can do. My brother saved me, after all.
I wonder sometimes, though.
When I am doing the laundry, or washing the dishes, or making sure my brother finishes his homework, I think about what I almost did. What I would be doing now, if the gingerbread had gone into the oven instead of my neighbor. She promised jewels and silks and more power than I could possibly imagine. And my brother took that from me.
Sometimes, when he is decorating his gingerbread house, I feel him watching me. When I meet his eyes, he smiles, and there is something in it that I do not trust. He made a choice that day, and I made one, too. But I don’t know if he saved me, and I don’t know if he actually meant to. That’s an awful thought for a sister to have. But when I look at my life, and when I look at my brother, I think, if I could do it again, I would trade you for the gingerbread.