The man scurried around the marble island centered within the quaint kitchen. The floral walls that surrounded him were tinted yellow from smoke. The grey island was covered in a variety of spices and knives. The man had been preparing for dinner and was causing a ruckus in the process. Although he had only begun the meal and was simply heating a pan, an intense aroma filled the air. He had attempted to dispose of the scent with the air-vent, but it was only circulating the smell further. Regardless, he didn’t seem bothered by it; he was focused on the meal’s preparation and nothing else. He had brought out his grandmother’s cookbook to ensure success with his meal. An old, hand stitched book made of some material and crafted together some sixty years ago. Its weathered pages hid all sorts of secret recipes created through trial and error, as well as the occasional flecks of seasoning when grandmother got too excited with her experiments. She had been his teacher, and he only wished that she were alive now to help with tonight. He had never attempted to surpass her work, but the time seemed fitting. After all, he had made a promise he would craft the perfect meal for his future bride. What better way to do that than by using a family recipe that had been handed down for generations?
He was following the recipe to the letter, but he knew it would be more difficult than the instructions suggested. That being said, he had already gotten what he deemed as the hardest part out of the way. The meat was already filleted and seasoned, all he had left was to cook it. He opened the reflective refrigerator doors that resided behind him and pulled out the crimson slab of meat and laid it across the island. Its blood began to quickly escape from the paper wrapping that covered it. He begrudged messes and dashed across the kitchen in an attempt to find an absorbent of some form. He flung open every mahogany cabinet, but to no avail. His unfamiliarity towards his environment was frustrating to say the least, and he hastily decided to wipe the countertops with the sleeve of his white button-up. An action he would regret later. Now that his slight detour had been resolved, he eagerly went back to his craft. He unfolded the wrapping and held the warm substance in his hands, squeezing it between his fingers till it slipped through the creases. A grin appeared across his face as he was reminded of the Play-Doh his family had bought him as a small child. He felt a similar excitement at the ability to create art, although instead of Play-Doh he’d be using baking ingredients and a skillet.
The man slowly turned on the faucet attached to the sink that was adjacent to him. He soaked his hand in the cool liquid and splashed it onto the pan he had been preheating. The oil jumped, slightly attacking his limbs and he instinctively withdrew his hand. The man quickly recovered and lifted the meat he had been meticulously preparing from the countertop. He slowly and carefully placed it in the pan, as he did not want to be assaulted by the burning grease again. The meat greedily absorbed the oil and began to release a smoky fragrance. The man’s mouth began to water as he watched the meat begin to sizzle. He was somewhat surprised at how much it resembled ground beef. But it was cooking faster than ground beef, and he knew he had to flip the meat, lest it burn. He reached towards the drawer that was attached to the sink expecting to find a spatula. Instead, it was filled with variety of utensils. The man slightly cursed at himself for his incompetence and mentally reprimanded himself for making assumptions. Why would they have their cooking tools in the same place as his? The sizzling from the stovetop began to intensify and the man could still not find the proper tools to flip his burgers.
Thinking on his feet, he picked up the knife he had used to fillet the meat and used it as a substitute. Now flipped, the meat was cooking even faster and the man lowered the flame. He knew his future bride would be home in exactly four and a half minutes, but he still did not want her food to be even the slightest bit cold. Coming to the realization how much little time he had left, the man began to clean up the kitchen as best as he could before her arrival.
After placing all the used appliances into the sink, he used one of the shiny metal pans hanging above the stove to check his teeth and complexion. His eyes wandered to his abhorrent bloodstained shirt. He mentally reprimanded himself yet again as he refused the notion that he could let her see him as anything less than his best. The man turned off the stove’s flame completely as he was aware their meal would continue to cook even with the lack of heat. He glanced at the clock. Two minutes until her arrival and he still had to change his shirt. He wandered out of the kitchen onto the carpeted hallway. He began opening every door in his path in hopes to find the bedroom. He passed the pantry, bathroom, guest room, and nursery. At the sight of the nursery, his legs stiffened and his face turned white. The room was an off-white color and was cluttered with various baby items. In the center was a wooden crib that had been poorly painted white. Next to it was a matching rocking chair with a faded yellow blanket hanging on the back. He began to imagine his future bride humming “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, presumably off-key to a child that was not his. Did she have a baby she neglected to tell him about? No. He had never seen her lug a stroller around or complain of backache. Hell, he had never even noted a weight fluctuation occur in all his observations. Could she really have a child he was unaware of? The man shook his head profusely and tried to calm his budding nerves and anger. She would never have Andrew’s child. Convincing himself, he departed from the room.
He took a sharp left. He had finally found their bedroom and he bolted toward the closet. He was not in the mood to find any more surprises and did not overstay his welcome in their quarters. He grabbed a simple button-up off a red velvet hanger. He was in the room for only a few seconds, but he noted how immaculate it was. The bed was made and a sprinkle of dust could not be found, it did not feel lived in. It felt pristine and perfect, like every inch of his future bride. He quickly pulled the strained clothing over his head and swapped it for the bright-blue piece. He threw his worn attire into the plastic hamper located in the closet and returned to the now familiar kitchen. He glanced at his reflection once more and a small smirk appeared across his face. The new shirt may not have perfectly fitted his form, but it was at least pressed and clean.
The man heard the door slightly jingle; he could hear her struggling with her key and he chuckled slightly to himself. She had lived here for five years and yet she still could not figure out the key had to be turned to the left and not the right. He used the knife to gently pick up the burgers from their pan and placed them on a plate which he had found earlier while rummaging through her cabinets. She finally unlocked the door and her heels tapped across the floor. The man heard her release a sigh of relief as each shoe plopped to the ground, signifying the release of pressure off her feet.
“Andrew? Are you home yet?” his future bride called out from the corridor. His stomach turned at the mention of his rival, but he did his best to ignore it. He was far too pleased to see his future bride, and that mitigated any discomfort.
The man remained quiet, careful not to ruin the surprise. He could hear her footsteps louden as she approached the kitchen.
“…Are you cooking? You never co– “ she stopped mid-sentence as she was made aware of the man’s presence.
“James?” She stated in a surprised and confused tone.
James smiled and replied, “Good to see you, Bianca. Andrew said you’d be home about this time.” He lied, because he already knew her schedule like clockwork. She came home at 5:45 every day, save exceptions when she got stuck at her elementary school swamped in papers lined with terrible practice cursive. Life as a third grade teacher was hardly glamorous, but he loved her anyway.
“What are you doing here?” She asked, her surprise showing and quickly being replaced with curiosity. He felt her gaze on his body, and savored the attention, though he recognized the furrow forming on her brow. “Your clothes…”
He smiled again, trying to keep his face as placid as possible despite a sudden surge of giddiness as he spoke his next words. “I’m returning the axe Andrew lent me last October. Handy little thing. Perfect for chopping wood. I sharpened it for him too.” He said, hoping she’d appreciate the kind gesture. It went ignored, much to his dismay. Her eyes were still on the shirt. Andrew’s shirt.
He had half a mind to rip it off right there, and he felt a twinge of jealousy that her mind went somewhere else. To him. Andrew hadn’t a clue how lucky he was, to have a prized pearl such as Bianca in his trove. How James only wished she would be his…
He smiled as warmly as possible, even though it felt hollow. He could only pretend for so long. He could only watch for so long. How long had it been? He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t remember when Bianca hadn’t caught his eye from across the lane, draped in her sunflower dress or perhaps a pair of dress pants and a blue blouse, grading papers on her veranda after a long day of work.
He looked at her now. Her face was still red, coming in from the cold, her hair disheveled and flecked with bits of snow. Her visage held a look of examination about her. She was studying him, clearly trying to piece together what exactly her neighbor of the past odd years was doing in her house, at her stove, in his clothes. Well, he could study too. He already had. He had spent past years building up to this moment, and he walked over to the plates he prepared, sitting on the counter on matching cutlery, still warm but quickly cooling.
He maneuvered them over to the table, placing one plate at his seat and one where she was expected to sit. Where she always sat. Except this time she wouldn’t be sitting across from Andrew. She was with him, finally with him.
But she didn’t move, even as he opened out the chair for his beloved. Her gaze flew to the meal he had prepared next, but she didn’t think anything of it. She had no reason to.
She didn’t question the meal, didn’t notice how the meat wasn’t quite pork or wasn’t quite chicken or beef. She didn’t question any of it, but instead had her own question.
And when James didn’t reply, instead stabbing the meal which he had so tenderly and lovingly had prepared for her, she asked again, concern rising in her voice.
Credit: Samantha Sheets