Forced to Bake a Cake
by Stephen Measure
Angelica sensed the couple as they approached her bakery. Paige had returned, and thankfully this time she wasn’t alone. There was a man with her. Angelica couldn’t see them yet, but she knew it must be Paige’s fiancé, Braxton.
It always surprised Angelica how often brides-to-be tried to order their wedding cake all by themselves, as if Angelica could make the perfect cake for the occasion without meeting the groom as well. The women thought they were saving their fiancé the hassle, that it was one less wedding arrangement he’d have to worry about. They’d show up with their mother, or with their friend, or, as in Paige’s case, they’d show up all alone. Perhaps that would be fine for a normal baker, someone who would show them a book of cakes and let them pick and then go on their way. But it didn’t work like that for Angelica. She had to meet them. She had to hear their names, their full names, from their own lips. She had to see the two together, to see the image their union displayed. How else could she make the perfect cake for their wedding?
Angelica stood behind her waist-high desk and eagerly waited as the couple walked up to her bakery and opened the door, a small silver bell attached to the doorframe chiming their arrival with an excitement that bounced off the dark wood paneled walls up, up, up until the merry tinkling of the bell echoed back from the vaulted ceiling of the three-story room.
When the young couple entered her bakery, Angelica could tell at first glance it was definitely Braxton who was with Paige. Angelica sensed the bond between them. Already strong, it would become even stronger tomorrow when they joined themselves as husband and wife. The thought brought a smile to Angelica’s lips as it so often did. Such a pleasure to meet couples like them. Such a pleasure to meet them as only Angelica could.
Both in their early to mid-twenties, Braxton and Paige were an interesting match. Paige was slim and petite, her body’s curves as subtle as a young teen yet her face full-grown woman. With her pale, caucasian skin, her freckles, and her light red hair, Paige gave Angelica the impression of a china doll, beautiful yet fragile, with a bruised soul plain for Angelica to see.
Braxton, on the other hand, had a strong, manly look to him. Seeing him walk in next to Paige, this lovely little china doll, brought an expression to Angelica’s mind: “bull in a china shop.” But the expression quickly faded at his first step. Yes, he was stocky and muscular, but he walked with precision and dexterity. A bull in appearance perhaps, but not in grace.
There was a hint of Asian features in his cheek bones, his eyes, his hair, and his skin tone. It was likely enough to confuse strangers about his genetic heritage, but for Angelica, who had seen countless faces in their countless varieties, there was no confusion: Braxton was half-Japanese, half-Caucasian. The Japanese blood was on his mother’s side, Angelica would wager, but that was only a guess. Genes were fickle things, and she wouldn’t know that for sure until later when she truly met him.
Braxton was athletic. Given his ancestry, it was inevitable that people joked about him being a karate master, but that was all wrong. His talent wasn’t karate. It was wrestling. Angelica was sure of it. His stocky, muscular build gave that impression, but it was his walk that made it obvious—arms free from his sides, feet wide apart, his whole stance signaling he was ready to drop at any time to one knee, scoop you over his shoulder, and slam you into the ground. Angelica could see a slight softening of the firmness to his neck and arms, which meant his wrestling years were behind him, but she would be willing to make a second wager that he had been a good one. The confidence in his eyes—like an unconscious challenge broadcast to everyone around him—had to have come from somewhere.
Angelica could immediately see he was well-suited for Paige, the beautiful little china doll with a bruised soul, whose long-buried pain rumbled deep within her, roiling her emotions and threatening to break her, the fragility to her looks not only physical but emotional as well. Angelica was pretty sure she knew what had caused that bruise, but that wasn’t a topic she would ever wager about. She loved meeting the couples for whom she baked her cakes, but that was the kind of thing she hated knowing for certain.
But Braxton seemed perfect for Paige. Angelica sensed it with his second step into her bakery. And their image starting shining through to her. Not a strong ex-wrestler walking next to his slender, fragile fiancée, but a knight in shining armor carrying his damsel in distress in his arms.
Angelica closed her eyes, letting this truth sink into her. Then she opened them again as the couple were halfway to her desk.
Paige had already been in Angelica's bakery earlier that day, but this was Braxton’s first time inside, so his reaction was no surprise. Eyes wide with wonder, he scanned the dark, polished wood that covered each wall, his head tilting up to follow it up one story, then a second, and then a third where it finally met the pyramid ceiling, which was bathed in multi-colored light. Braxton paused at this, as if trying to catch a glimpse of the stained-glass windows he knew must surely be the cause of the light but which were indented too far into the wall to be visible three stories below.
Then he looked at Angelica and not unexpectedly his mouth almost dropped open. Angelica couldn’t read his mind, not yet, but she had seen those same thoughts pass through the mind of groom after groom. She knew what men thought when they first saw her. She was tall and slender, with light-bronze skin, gray eyes, and a face that men were often incapable of assigning any word to other than perfect.
And then they noticed her hair.
It was white, pure white, which absolutely did not match the smoothness of her face or the tight curves of her body. Yet her white hair was vibrant, almost bright, like shiny, white silk. And the color of her hair, contrasted with her face and body, left men completely baffled about her age. Her nondescript clothes didn't help solve the puzzle. She wore black jeans and a white tank top, her shoulders covered by a simple blue cardigan, her feet bare.
And yet, despite her beauty, she was no threat. The brides sensed this instinctively. She wasn’t competition to them. She was a marble statue, each perfect line carved by a skilled master. A man might admire the beauty of such a statue, but he wouldn’t leave his woman for one. No, Angelica was no threat. She was here for one purpose and one purpose only: to bake the perfect cake for the occasion.
“Please tell me no one booked you after I left?” Paige said shyly after they reached her desk.
“Of course not,” Angelica replied. “If they had, I would have closed my bakery and gone to work.”
Paige let out a sigh of relief and leaned into Braxton, resting her head on his shoulder. She did this for just a moment, but it was long enough for Angelica to realize something about the two of them she hadn’t seen when they first walked in: They hadn't been sexually intimate with each other yet. How delightful! So rare for a couple to wait nowadays. That meant their marriage tomorrow would mark the true beginning of their union. This was the kind of wedding Angelica loved most of all.
“You must be Braxton,” Angelica said, turning to him. “Paige told me about you.”
“Only good things I hope,” Braxton said. He appeared to be a little intimidated, which amused Angelica. Men could be such funny things. Put a strong man in front of them and they’d puff up with bluster, but put a beautiful woman in front of them and suddenly they’re unsure how to act. It was a common reaction for men to feel in front of Angelica. Braxton looked at her empty desk. “I guess we need to pick out a cake or something?”
“Braxton!” Paige said, giving him a love tap on the arm. “I told you that isn't how she works. Didn't you listen to me?”
“But if I’m not here to help you pick out a cake,” he said to her, “then why am I here?”
“So I could meet you,” Angelica replied. “If I'm going to bake you a wedding cake, I need to meet you first, both of you.”
Braxton looked at her quizzically, as if trying to puzzle together what she had just said. “Okay,” he said with a shrug, then he stuck out his hand toward her. “Hello.”
“Braxton!” Paige pulled his hand back, placed it on the table in front of him, and then slapped it for good measure. Angelica chuckled. Paige was putting on a show of being a long-suffering girlfriend, but it was clearly just a show. She was head over heels for this man. Angelica was happy to see the banter between the two of them. It made Paige’s china-doll-like fragility seem a little less fragile.
Angelica took out a sheet of paper from a drawer and placed it on top of her desk. It only had five blanks to fill in, the questions written in large elaborate letters: Bride, Groom, Location, Time, and Contact Info. “I need your full name,” she said to Paige.
“Paige Mor— I mean Clemsen,” Paige said. Then she smiled up at Braxton.
“Is Clemsen your maiden name or your married name?” Angelica asked.
“It's my married name. I’m taking Braxton's last name.” Paige gave his hand a squeeze.
“That's wonderful,” Angelica said. “but I actually need your maiden name. Your full name, middle too.”
“Why? Are you going to try to steal her identity?” Braxton asked.
“Braxton!” Paige said, the long-suffering girlfriend once again. “It's not like she's asking for my social security number.” She turned to Angelica. “My full name is Paige Lilly Morton.”
“Lilly? How lovely,” Angelica said.
“Thank you,” Paige said, and her pale cheeks showed a slight blush at the compliment. God bless this sweet girl, Angelica thought, and whoever gave her soul that bruise, may he receive the damnation he so richly deserves. That wasn't a very charitable thought, Angelica said to herself, but I’m no angel.
“And your full name?” Angelica said to Braxton.
“Maiden or married?” he asked.
“Braxton!” Paige said. She punched his shoulder, harder this time.
A song began to play, catching the three of them off guard. They all looked to its source: Braxton’s jean pocket. He reached in and pulled out a cellphone. Angelica didn’t recognize the tune of his ring tone, but the words said something about teenage ninja turtles.
Paige grabbed Braxton’s arm. “You aren’t going to answer that.”
Braxton muted the ringing and put his phone back in his pocket. Then he wrapped an arm around Paige's waist and gave her a squeeze. “Of course not. You have my undivided attention.” He turned to Angelica. “My full name is Braxton Ammon Clemsen. And it doesn’t matter if you steal my identity because I’m absolutely broke!”
They all laughed at this, Paige leaning up to give Braxton a quick peck on the cheek. The two of them really were a delightful couple. Angelica was thrilled to play a role, even a small one, in their wedding. She recorded Braxton's name as the groom and gathered the remaining logistics (location, time, contact info) from Paige.
“So where's your kitchen?” Braxton asked, apparently noticing the lack of any doors other than the glass front door. He looked up at the cabinets that protruded slightly from the walls a story above the ground, that quizzical look returning to his face again.
“Why would I need a kitchen?” Angelica asked.
Braxton stared at her for a moment as if trying to decide if she were joking or not. “How else are you supposed to bake our cake?”
Angelica winked at Paige. “A baker never reveals her secrets.”
Braxton shrugged. “Must be magic, I guess. The way Paige talks about your cakes, you'd think they are. Of course, if I’d been invited to her college roommate’s wedding, then maybe I’d have already tasted one too.”
“Braxton, you were invited!” Paige said, exasperated. “You were out of town!”
“I know,” he said. “And they didn’t even have the courtesy to reschedule it so I could be there.”
Angelica set her pen down and smiled at the two of them. “Thank you both,” she said. “That's all I need.”
“That's it?” Braxton asked. “You're not even going to ask us what kind of cake we want? What if we're allergic or something?”
“I told you, Braxton,” Paige said. “That's not how she works. She just knows.”
Angelica kept on smiling. She saw this all the time. The confusion was understandable, but she certainly wasn’t going to explain herself.
“And you can have the cake ready by tomorrow?” Braxton asked. “I thought wedding cakes took multiple days to get ready? Do you start with preassembled layers or something like that?”
“No, I bake it just for you. It will be perfect for the occasion.”
“Thank you,” Paige said.
“My pleasure,” Angelica said. She walked them to the door. Then, holding the door open, she said, “And don't worry. My cakes are always perfect for the occasion.”
She waved as they walked away. Then she let the door close softly, the silver bell chiming goodbye, and flipped her sign from “Open” to “Closed.” She let the white curtains fall, covering the glass door and giving her the privacy she needed to do her work.
The bakery breathed deeply in expectation. There was a brief silence followed by a humming that grew louder with each step Angelica took toward the center of the room, the wood paneled walls vibrating. She raised up on her toes and spread her arms out wide, turning circles and jumping lightly into the air, the room her dancing partner, Angelica stretching her arms high over her head, turning circles, first this way, then that way, and then spinning, white hair flying wide behind her, her hands clasped together, her arms forming a circle in front of her. She stopped in the center of the room. The humming was overpowering now, the air thick with energy, the cabinets high above her head rattling, the heavy oak desk scooting slightly across the tile floor.
Angelica closed her eyes. She raised her hands to her shoulders and grasped the cardigan that hung lightly there. She paused, feeling the energy in the air, the humming so loud, the rattling, the vibration, the expectation—so intense, almost needful. With a flick of her wrists, she dropped her cardigan to the floor, revealing bare shoulders above her tank top. Immediately, a pair of white feathery wings surged out, each as long as she was tall. She stretched them, her wings almost reaching the sides of the room, and bent her knees, like drawing back the string of a bow. She looked up at the ceiling, her eyes full of anticipation. Then Angelica leaped off the ground, and her wings lifted her upward in a white burst, every movement a celebration of freedom. She shouted in exhilaration, her wings carrying her higher, higher, rising with the energy of the room, the humming all around her, and the joy of what she was about to be part of.
Up she rose, up, until she reached the ceiling, and there she hovered, eyes closed, wings spread to each side, arms up, legs down, stretching her body as far as it could go, her back arched, her hair trailing behind her as she spun slowly in the air.
Angelica opened her eyes, ready for the reminder of why she was doing this, the reminder of why she baked these cakes, of why she participated in these weddings. There, hovering near the ceiling on her beautiful, feathery wings, Angelica had a direct view of the four stained-glass windows that lay hidden three stories up, each window on a separate wall. All four windows contained depictions of Adam and Eve, highlighting their story together. The first, a depiction of their first meeting; the second, their time in the garden together; the third, partaking of the forbidden fruit; and the fourth, the pair being cast out of the garden.
Angelica flapped her wings, following the story from the first window, to the second, to the third. Finally, she faced the fourth window, where Adam and Eve were walking together out of the garden into a hostile world. They wore the tan animal skins that had been prepared for them, necessary now that they truly understood their nakedness. They walked in grass up to their knees. Boulders and bushes littered the scene, and in the distance, tall trees with shadows underneath promised challenges and the unknown.
To others, this might be a representation of loss and fear, a picture of failure and pain. But that is not how Angelica looked at it. Metal is shaped in fire, its impurities removed through the process, and humans are no different. When Angelica looked at the painting, she wasn’t looking at the rocks or the deep shadows beneath the trees. Her focus was on the center of the stained-glass painting, where Adam's right hand clasped Eve's left. They were together. That was what mattered. They were leaving the paradise of the garden, yes. They were entering a hostile world, yes. But they were doing it together—united, man and woman, the strength of the man compensating for the weakness of the woman, the strength of the woman compensating for the weakness of the man. Humanity had been split in two equal, complementary halves, and humans were meant to join those halves together, two by two, husband and wife, each becoming stronger than they could have alone, the married couple progressing together onward, forever onward, just as they were meant to do.
Each man and woman, each bride and groom that came into Angelica’s bakery, were just like Adam and Eve. Each were meant to find their complementary partner, each were meant to walk the path of life with that complementary partner. Humans, flesh and spirit—with marriage accomplishing the needs of both.
The needs of the flesh—the demands of Darwin, the union of man and woman, the foundation ensuring the survival of the human race. The only union that is actually necessary. The only union that can scale to include all of humanity. Counterfeit unions can be tolerated if kept as a tiny minority, but any society that allowed such counterfeits to grow into the majority would find themselves at the mercy of Darwin, and Darwin is never merciful.
The needs of the spirit—the expectations of God. Humans are meant for something more than just dust and sweat. They can reach partway there on their own, but the full measure of their creation is only achieved when they join together, man and woman, husband and wife, as they were meant to do.
Angelica stared at the image of Adam and Eve. She imagined the emotions they felt as they made that first lonely walk into the world. She imagined their fears, their pains. She imagining their hopes. She imagined the strength they drew from each other as they faced their coming trials. She imagined the comfort Adam felt to have Eve’s hand in his own, the comfort Eve felt to feel Adam’s hand enclosing hers. And as she did so, she could almost see their hands swaying, their legs moving. She could almost see them walking further from their paradise beginning, further toward their new reality—a reality they would face together.
Angelica closed her eyes and the humming stopped, silence settling upon the room. It was time to begin.
Ladies first was Angelica’s usual tradition. But the bruise inside Paige worried Angelica. She wasn’t ready to face it yet. First, she needed to know Braxton. She needed to feel his strength, to know if he was ready for that bruise, if he was ready to be a knight in shining armor, if he truly could carry his damsel in distress to safety. She would come to Paige. She would know her in all her beauty and her pain, but not yet. First, she would meet Adam.
“Braxton Ammon Clemsen,” she said in a voice far too deep for her thin frame. Her body spasmed, a thin thread of spirit shooting out from her chest. It zigzagged down to the ground gracefully and spun around the tile below, gathering its bearings. Then it raced out through the door onto the sun-drenched street. It turned, following the couple, called by name toward Braxton, speeding along, invisible to passersby—a woman pushing a stroller, a boy on a skateboard. It passed a jewelry store, the windows full of gleaming necklaces, rings, and earrings. A man stood in front of the counter, looking at a pair of diamond earrings in his hand. “These are genuine, aren’t they?” he asked the cashier. “Of course,” the cashier replied.
The spirit thread continued onward, drawn toward Braxton, until it found the two of them about to cross the street. It connected and Braxton gasped. “Are you alright?” Paige asked. And, with the spirit thread connected, Angelica was inside. An avalanche of memories tumbled over her, of happiness, of fear, of hope, of pain. Hovering there in her bakery, three stories above the ground, she began sorting through them, finding what mattered, the experiences that made Braxton who he was, the clues Angelica needed to be able to see who he was meant to become.
She had to be careful. Memories could be powerful things, especially ones soaked in emotion whether good or bad. It was easy for her to be drawn in, trapped, forced to watch the memory play out from beginning to end, forced to experience all of the emotions. She did her best to avoid that, to avoid being drawn in. Instead she would reach in gently to each memory as it flowed past, pulling out its core without being pulled in herself.
Everyone has a word, a single word that describes them to their core. Already, Angelica knew Braxton’s word. It was stamped on each memory, from childhood to manhood, every moment of his life marked with the same silver streak: Duty. That was Braxton’s word. That was Braxton.
He had never rebelled, never long been at odds with his parents, both of whom were wonderful people, Angelica could see, sacrificing of themselves to raise their small family, doing their duty with happiness, not knowing how their example had so completely been stamped upon their son, who bore the word “Duty” as if it were a birthmark.
He was as good of a wrestler as she had thought. His senior year of high school he had taken third in state, which is good in and of itself, yet even better when you understand what had really happened. He had been recovering from the flu, his body weak. He hadn’t had to lose weight for the weigh in. The flu had taken care of that for him. When he lost, it was because he had actually fainted for a few seconds. So, third place was quite an accomplishment, and Braxton didn’t view the loss as a failure. If he could take third in the weakened stated he was in, Braxton considered that a success.
Braxton was a loyal friend. He had a need to help. He also had a playful heart. This was obvious from her conversation with him. His mind always went in that direction, always seeking for a way to lighten the mood and to relieve any stress or anxiety that might be building.
Yet there was a weariness to him. Not a chip on the shoulder, but more a persistent annoyance. It was natural for people to look at him differently given that he did, in fact, look different from most others around him. But the questions bothered him. Why did people care where his mother was from? Why did it matter that she was Japanese? No one cared where his father was from. Braxton himself didn’t even know. Did his father’s ancestors come from England? From France? From Germany? No one cared. Yet they all were so curious about his mother’s side, his “different” side. What did that even mean, where his mother was from? She was from Tucson, the same as him! That was where they both had been born. She wasn’t Japanese. She was American. Braxton couldn’t stand hyphenated identities for they became truly silly at his level. Was he supposed to think of himself as Japanese-Caucasian-American? Why? He didn’t speak Japanese. He had never been to Japan. He didn’t know the customs. He didn’t know the culture. His Japanese heritage was purely genetic, not cultural. Braxton was as American as apple pie.
Angelica saw him arguing with his well-meaning home-room teacher in high school, who thought Braxton should have marked “Asian” on a form that had asked his race. Braxton had put a check mark next to “Other” and in the box had written in upper case letters “AMERICAN”. Angelica smiled. But then she felt herself being pulled toward the memory. His frustration was raw, almost anger, not at this teacher specifically, but at the whole situation. The memory pulled at her, like a magnet collecting a stray piece of metal. She pulled back, keeping herself out of the memory. She had seen enough from the outside. She didn’t need to be on the inside. That was always a taxing experience.
Braxton wasn’t thin skinned. He didn’t walk around life being perpetually offended. How people dealt with his racial heritage was a true annoyance to him, yet he didn’t let that get in the way of his friendships, and he understood that people weren’t ill-willed. They were simply curious. His friends joked that his children would all be ninjas, and he laughed along with them, not out of fear or shame but because he knew they were laughing with him, not at him. And he had fun at other’s expense when they asked where he was from, always telling them, “Tucson,” and enjoying the look of confusion on their face as they tried to figure out the politically correct way to ask what it was they actually wanted to know but what they didn’t bother asking anyone whose genetic heritage was purely European.
Yet despite the jokes and the smiles, there was a reservedness about him. He was a private man, only truly opening himself up when among his closest of friends. He had done missionary work for his church, but he hadn’t enjoyed it much. His private nature made it challenging to be so personal with strangers. But he had considered it his duty, and so he had done it. How very Braxton of him.
He was currently in his senior year at college, where he was studying accounting. Now that was interesting, Angelica thought, a wrestler accountant, one with a never-ending sense of humor. Angelica imagined he would be an ideal worker: intelligent, hardworking, driven by duty. She saw his love for numbers, his natural talent with math. It had begun young. He had been gifted, almost a prodigy. In college, his friends had encouraged him to go into the investment world. With his talents, the money was almost guaranteed. But that line of work didn’t appeal to Braxton. Not that it was wrong, just that it didn’t seem very … needed. To him it was like they were just shaving copper off pennies that passed through their hands, not truly doing anything necessary, not truly helping in anyway. He wanted a job where he would actually do something, where he would actually be needed, where his presence would add to the world around him. He would be a wonderful accountant. He would go far and would be able to provide for his family just as he hoped he would be able to. Single-earner families were becoming more and more rare, but Braxton would be able to pull it off. He was Braxton after all.
Angelica opened herself to Braxton, pulling in everything about him, her entire frame filled with the knowledge of who he was and who he was meant to be. Then she let go of the spirit thread. Disconnected, it faded quickly into nothing. Her connection was lost but that was fine because she had learned what she needed to learn. “Braxton Ammon Clemsen,” she said softly. “I know you.”
She paused then, her wings beating slowly, reveling in the experience of meeting another Adam. It was time to meet his Eve, but still she hesitated, her experience warning her of what she would find. Angelica hovered in the air and looked at the picture of Adam and Eve on their way into the hostile world together. She sighed. The shadows in the picture seemed so real to her. She had seen the contents of those shadows many times, in many lives. It was always a difficult experience. But she couldn’t delay it forever.
Angelica closed her eyes and steadied herself in the air. “Paige Lilly Morton,” she said, and once again her body spasmed, a thin thread of spirit shooting out, flowing to the ground and out through the door. It followed the same twists and turns through the neighborhood as the original thread. Paige and Braxton had just gotten to their car, where Paige was waiting for Braxton to open her door for her. The spirit thread connected. Paige gave a little sigh, and Angelica was inside.
She saw Paige's childhood. Paige had never known her father, but her mother had always been there for her. Paige had always been loved. Angelica saw the two of them at a city park, Paige only a toddler, her mother so attentive, helping her down the slide, pushing her on the swings. Angelica saw the weariness in Paige’s mother’s eyes, the burden of a single mother.
She saw them in their small apartment. They had been dirt poor, but Paige had had no idea. There had always been food on the table, often at extreme sacrifice on her mother’s part. There Paige was singing along to the theme song of her favorite cartoon; now a young girl, she danced on their worn carpet in her bare feet, two red pigtails swinging wildly from side to side, her mother, exhausted, watching her beloved daughter with a smile.
Angelica saw them at church, where Paige’s mother often taught Paige’s class. She saw Paige at school. Visiting her grandfather. Climbing the peach trees in his backyard. So many good memories. So much happiness, so much love. With her mother, Paige had had everything she needed.
Then a man entered their life, becoming Paige's stepfather. Immediately the memories darkened. There was fear at first—it was a new experience for Paige—even a little jealousy. Always before she had had her mother to herself, and now her mother had given herself to this strange person, this man, who made Paige feel uncomfortable every time he looked at her.
The memories drifted past, like floating bubbles of water, each offering a window into Paige’s soul. Angelica placed her hand on each one as it passed, given her a little glimpse into Paige’s childhood.
They had more money now with her stepfather in the picture. Paige had opportunities she had never had before. Angelica saw her at singing lessons. She saw her first concert, Paige so nervous she squeaked out the words. Memory by memory, Angelica skirted the surface, gazing in and then moving on quickly.
She was looking in on Paige in middle school when she felt herself being pulled in another direction, Paige’s first crush, the memory full of excitement yet doubt. Angelica resisted, pulling away from the memory. Too late she realized it wasn’t the memory of Paige’s first crush that was pulling her. It was a memory that came later, a dark memory, full of unspeakable pain. The memory pulled at her. She resisted yet it overpowered her, sucking her into itself.
Angelica stood in the corner of Paige’s bedroom. It was a small room, but the carpet was no longer worn. Posters covered the walls, boy bands and movie stars, a cute picture of a kitten. Her dresser was littered with pictures of her with her mother, all ages.
Paige lay awake in bed beneath her pink covers, her hair in two red pigtails just as it had been when she was younger. She was twelve, and she was nervous. Her mother was gone overnight for the first time in her life. Her grandfather was sick and her mother had gone to care for him, leaving Paige home alone with her stepfather. He had been in her life for two years now. She should be used to him, and yet there was something that even her twelve-year-old mind sensed was wrong.
Darkness clouded the memory, the corners of the room hidden not in shadows but in pain. Angelica turned to the wall and pushed against it, willing to leave the memory, willing to not be part of this experience, to not see what she knew she was about to see. If she could stop it, she would, but she couldn’t. The past was the past. It was done. She didn’t want to have to experience it, not like this.
But the wall was firm. Angelica was trapped.
Paige’s bedroom door opened, her stepfather standing there, a dark shadow silhouetted by the hallway light behind.
Paige asked him what was wrong, her voice frightened. Already she could sense that something was not quite right with the situation. He didn’t see Angelica. Of course he didn’t. She wasn’t really there. He ignored Paige’s question. He entered the room and shut the door behind him. Walking to the bed, he ripped the sheets away from Paige’s body.
Angelica watched it all. She could do nothing to stop it. She could do nothing to remove the terror from Paige’s eyes or the pain from her voice as she asked her stepfather over and over again to stop. Through all of it, Angelica watched. Paige deserved that much. And then Paige was alone in the dark, tears rolling down her cheeks, her body sore, shaking in confusion and shame. Angelica walked to the bed and laid an unfelt hand on Paige’s cheek, wishing she could wipe the tears away but knowing that she couldn’t. She understood Paige’s bruise now, the one deep inside her soul. She had suspected this. She had seen similar things before, too many times. But now she knew. And the memory, finally, released her.
Angelica opened her eyes. She had drifted downward while inside Paige’s memory, and she hovered in front of the cabinets now, far below the windows. She was still connected to Paige. The spirit thread hung strong, leaving her in a sort of halfway state, the wood paneled walls of her bakery and the sea of Paige’s memories both open to her.
Why were humans so cruel? Why were they so selfish? How could someone take pleasure in the face of such fear and pain? She had seen such things play out in front of her time after time, and she was no closer to understanding it. She understood choice. She understood how crucial it was, how it was the only way for humans to understand who they truly were, the only way for them to become who they were meant to be. Yet why did so many use that choice to do such terrible things?
Angelica sighed. Perhaps she did not want to understand. She looked up at the ceiling and thrust downward with her wings, sending her back up, back looking at the picture of Adam and Eve walking into that hostile world, that world full of shadows, full of danger, of pain. Did Adam and Eve know what was coming for their children? Surely not. And yet it was necessary. Metal in fire, being shaped into the glorious beings they were meant to become. Angelica closed her eyes and returned to Paige’s memories.
The rape had only happened once. Just one time and then nothing, no excuse, no apology, no recognition from her stepfather that it had even happened, nothing but the way Paige felt his eyes upon her whenever her back was turned, nothing but the dismissive way in which he talked to her, nothing but the smile that said he had gotten what he wanted from her, that she was worth nothing else to him, and that he would never have to pay for what he did to her.
Paige didn't tell her mother. She should have. There was no reason not to. But she was twelve, and she was confused, and she was frightened, and he was her stepfather, and it was something she simply couldn’t do.
It was no surprise she turned to drugs in her teen years, constantly searching for some way to forget her pain. It's no wonder she was sexually active, going from one boyfriend to the next, always searching for the one who could convince her she wasn't the whore her stepfather made her feel like she was every time he looked at her, spoke to her, or smiled at her. But she found nothing good amongst the drugs and the boyfriends, nothing worthwhile or helpful. She was searching in a swamp for the hope of dry land, and year by year she came closer and closer to drowning. Her mother despaired as she saw her daughter pull away from her and from the church she had been raised in.
And then God intervened. Angelica couldn’t actually say that for certain. She wasn’t privy to all of His plans after all. Yet in the history of mankind, if God had ever inspired someone to drive drunk, then surely He had inspired that seventeen-year-old high school junior, fresh from a football victory party, who, with a blood alcohol level of .22, plowed into Paige’s stepfather’s car, slamming it into the side of an overpass and sending Paige’s stepfather out of her life forever.
Angelica saw the funeral. There was Paige, emotionless as a stone. Yet a weight had been lifted. Angelica could see it in Paige’s eyes. And she watched as the memories passed, the weeks and the months with Paige free of her stepfather’s corroding presence. And she saw the day when Paige finally opened up to her mother and told her what had happened. Her mother was horrified at the abuse Paige had endured, and she was horrified Paige had carried it so silently for so long.
From that conversation onward, their mother-daughter bond was restored. Paige left the swamp she had almost drowned in. She left the drugs. She left the sexual activity. She left the friends that went along with both. She left it all behind and she returned to the mother who loved her so much and the church she had been raised in, and her life had continued upward ever since that seventeen-year-old boy had decided to drive drunk, allowing Paige, freed from the oppression of her stepfather, to finally begin to heal.
Paige had graduated high school. She had earned her business degree. She had been promoted to manager over a mall-based chain grocery store, and she had met Braxton, with whom she was now preparing to take the rest of her journey.
The pain was still there. What was visible to Angelica as a bruise from the outside was a deep dark gash on the inside. Angelica had already seen Braxton’s thoughts. Braxton knew but he didn’t know, not really. He was strong, Angelica knew that. She hoped he would be strong enough to help Paige through it.
And that was Paige’s word, Angelica realized. “Hope”. A hope for the future. A hope that she could heal from the pain of the past. A hope that she could have a family, that she could have children who would never have to experience the horror she experienced. A hope that she would raise them well, that they would believe her teachings and accept her values. A hope that what she had could carry on. Hope—that was Paige’s word, that was Paige.
Angelica understood the connection between the two now. Braxton had a need to be needed, and that was exactly what Paige needed: someone who needed to be needed. No wonder they were already wound so tightly together even in the absence of sexual intimacy. And when that was added it would pull the two together into one. The image of the knight in shining armor carrying his damsel in distress returned to Angelica’s mind. Hope and Duty, Duty and Hope. Angelica smiled. This couple was unstoppable.
She opened herself to Paige, pulling in everything about her, her past, her present, her potential. She quivered in rapture at the glory of who Paige was and who she was meant to become. Then she let go of the spirit thread, her body pulling inward, her soul aching as the connection shut off. Flapping her wings gently, Angelica rested in the air, eyes closed, cheeks wet with tears of joy and pain. “Paige Lilly Morton,” she said, her voice quiet. “Paige Lilly Morton, I know you.”
Angelica opened her eyes. Her wings beat a steady rhythm as she rested a moment longer in the air. The connection was exhausting in the best of cases. The knowledge of a person’s full soul is an immense weight that is difficult to carry. But to be pulled into a memory such as Paige’s, to have to stand by and watch it experienced, to know the thoughts that went through twelve-year-old Paige’s mind, to feel the emotions she experienced—it was unbelievably taxing. Thankfully, the after-effect helped relieve the burden on Angelica: Seeing Paige’s recovery, her return to her mother and her church. But that bruise was still there. Angelica wondered if Braxton understood it. She wondered if Braxton knew how much he would be needed. Angelica thought and hoped he did.
But it was time to go on. She returned her gaze to the last of the four stained-glass images of Adam and Eve that hung hidden three-stories up, the image of Adam and Eve, hand in hand, leaving the garden together. She paused another moment, exhausted from the exhilaration of her connection with Braxton and Paige. Her wings beat a steady rhythm, keeping her position in the air, her face toward the final image of Adam and Eve as they left the garden. Now it was time for the best part.
Breathing in and out, slowly and deeply, Angelica gathered her strength. She closed her eyes and held the image of Paige and Braxton in her mind, her absolute knowledge of who they truly were: yesterday, today, and forever. With this image in her mind, she opened her eyes and looked at the picture of Adam and Eve once more, but then she replaced them, putting Braxton and Paige in their place, Paige’s petite, hopeful, left hand clasped in Braxton’s strong, dutiful, right one.
And the stained-glass window came alive, Braxton walking with his confident swagger, Paige stepping daintily beside him, the two walking together into a hostile world, a world full of trials and temptations, pain and hardships, a world they were entering together, hand in hand, man and woman, complementary partners, just as they had been designed to do from the beginning.
Angelica looked at the path in front of them. This is what she had been waiting to see. This is what made all the exhaustion, all the pain, all the burden worth it. For there in the distance she saw their future, she saw what they, if they followed along the path they were meant to follow, would become together—an infinite brightness, a combined glory so great the individuals paled in comparison. Ecstasy filled every cell in her body at the sight, her joy overflowing, pouring out of each finger and toe, each strand of hair and feather of her wings, light bursting out in all directions as she shouted in triumph and celebration, her voice echoing throughout the bakery, shaking its very walls. Her eyes were fire. Her face shone like the sun.
Now she was ready to bake their cake.
Angelica shifted her wings, descending gradually until her bare feet floated inches above the cabinets. Above her, the stained-glass window was still alive, Adam and Eve, now Braxton and Paige, walking hand in hand toward their unimaginable, indescribable, glorious future. Angelica extended her arms, palms up, and the cabinets below her burst open.
Ingredients flew out of the cabinets: cake flour and baking soda, eggs, butter, and cream, sugar, white chocolate, dark chocolate, the ingredients whisked and mixed together by the air itself. All the while, Angelica had the image of Braxton and Paige in her mind, the two a couple, joining together just as the ingredients were forming together. Then Angelica brought her hands together and the batter responded, forming itself into three circles of increasing size, the three tiers of the wedding cake. She unclasped her hands and pushed them downward, the air around the cake tiers bursting with heat, baking the cake in an instant. Her right hand slashed to her side, and the cake tiers split into three layers. Slowly she extended her left hand outward, hand flat, chocolate ganache layering perfectly atop the bottom layer of each cake tier. She brought her left hand back in toward her chest, hand still flat, and this time the raspberry preserves responded, layering the middle layer in a thick, red pool. Angelica twirled her left finger, and a thick dam of frosting curled around the raspberry preserves and chocolate ganache, holding them in place.
She clapped her hands and the separated layers joined together, the cake in three tiers again, the delicious fillings hidden, only the white frosting and vanilla cake visible. Then she spread her hands out and turned them in a circular motion, white chocolate buttercream frosting spreading perfectly over each tier. She raised a finger and a glass platter flew out of a cabinet followed by thick wooden dowels. She lowered the finger and the dowels buried themselves into each cake tier, the tiers connecting together after she clapped her hands again, the three tiers resting upon the platter after she clapped a third time.
Angelica wanted to see the next step up close. Wings bent slightly, she descended until she faced the frosted, three-tier, white cake. She raised a finger and traced in the air, thick buttercream initials forming on the center tier, a “B” formed in elegant calligraphy, as beautiful as a medieval manuscript, and then she traced a “P”, entwined with the “B”, the two letters as tightly coupled as Braxton and Paige were destined to be. She raised a finger in her other hand as well and then turned both fingers in a slow circle, and the frosting responded, creating replicas of Braxton’s and Paige’s wedding rings on each side of their monogram.
Angelica extended her right hand out to her side, the hand twirling in the air, and white frosting flowers circled around the bottom tier, strong, dutiful, the perfect representation of Braxton. Then she extended her left hand to her other side, that hand also twirling in the air, and white flowers spread across the top cake tier as well, their petals reaching with hope toward the sun in honor of Paige.
The cake was almost done, the perfect representation not of Paige and Braxton separately, but of the two together, a couple, complementary partners joining together to be as one. The cake, the frosting, everything had been mixed, baked, and combined together perfectly. When the wedding guests took their first bite of cake tomorrow, each and every one would express their absolute delight.
But it wasn’t just the perfection of the baking and the icing that made Angelica’s cakes perfect. It was what she put inside of them. After each cake was made, after it was iced and decorated to perfection, Angelica would bestow a wish upon the cake. She would wish for what the couple needed, what would help them through the trials of their life, what would help them reach the glorious future they were destined to reach together if only they would stay together and follow the path before them. And it was that wish that made the cakes so perfect, not the actual ingredients, the invisible wish bringing happiness and joy with every bite.
Angelica lowered her head and began to make her wish. She thought of Braxton. She thought of Paige. She thought of their strengths and their weaknesses. She thought of how they joined together, of how these two individuals combined their strengths and weaknesses to make a couple—more strong and powerful than the two apart. She thought of what this couple needed, and she made her wish for them. She wished for loyalty and love, for commitment, endurance, patience and wisdom. She wished for understanding on the part of Braxton, for insight into how he could help Paige heal the bruise upon her soul. She wished for children. She wished for Braxton and Paige to have long, healthy, happy lives together.
And as she completed her wish, it descended upon the cake. This was the true magic in her baking. This was the reason why so many felt drawn to her bakery, why so many desperately wanted her to be a part of their wedding. Angelica’s cakes were always perfect because Angelica’s wishes always came true.
Tomorrow Braxton and Paige would be married, becoming one, choosing to walk the long path of life together. They were a wonderful couple with a glorious future, a future made infinitely brighter because they would meet it together. Tomorrow would be a celebration, a true celebration. And Angelica, like always, had baked the perfect cake for the occasion.
* * *
It had been raining all day, the wind howling down the street in front of the bakery. The gray clouds above felt heavy, like a weight upon the world, giving the day a feeling of gloom and oppression. The rain seemed fickle, one moment only a trickle, the next a downpour, as if the dreary clouds were unable to make up their mind. The wind, however, had been more constant, howling, almost shrieking, in front of the bakery, like a pack of wolves chasing their quarry.
No customers had stopped by the bakery today. Angelica, as yet, was still available to bake a cake. She stood behind her desk as she always did, but she was unsettled. It was a strange feeling, one she rarely felt. Something about the storm perhaps, the way the wind tugged and pulled, the way it seemed to want to rip her bakery down, to find all sources of stability, of strength, and to yank them off the ground and gloat while everything came crashing down.
But it wasn’t really wind she was thinking of right then. The storm, the wind, it made her think of human civilization, its rise followed by its descent. Like the waves of the sea, up then down, up then down. And toward the bottom of that motion—the wind. Destructive, vindictive, hateful, the wind tears at what had been built when the wave had been near its peak. Up and down. Up and down. That is how human civilization always was. That is how human civilization always had been. And where was human civilization today? Angelica wasn’t sheltered. She could see what was going on in the world around her. The majority of couples she baked for today—the vast majority—had already been sexually intimate with each other. This was troublesome to her, and yet she was part of their remedy. Their marriage was the change needed to turn wrong into right. As long as people still longed for that change—that correction—as long as society still valued it and recognized its importa—
An unimaginably powerful gust of wind struck the building, the walls groaning in a way Angelica had never heard them groan before. She looked up in alarm at the polished brown wood paneling that towered multiple stories above her head. Her bakery was strong, its foundation solid, yet now it groaned in protest. She wondered what it might mean.
The front door of her bakery opened. Caught by the fury of the wind, it slammed against the wall, hitting it so hard Angelica almost expected to hear glass shatter. Two women stood in the doorway, the wind hurling rain into the bakery from behind them.
The women hurried inside and struggled to push the door shut, the wind giving one last howl before the door fully closed.
“Oh my,” one of the women said, looking at the large puddles that were gathering on the tile by the door. “I’m so sorry about the mess. Do you have a mop? I can help clean it up.” She smiled across the room at Angelica, a bright, friendly smile. She was an attractive woman, thin, with tanned caucasian skin, short blonde hair, and a minimal layer of expertly applied makeup upon her face. She wore a bright red rain jacket and a long, brown, rough cotton skirt that trailed almost to the floor, hiding most of what Angelica assumed must be rain boots. Closing her rainbow-colored umbrella, the woman shook it onto the floor, which only added to the puddles below. “Oh, I just made it worse. Really, do you have a mop? I feel so bad. I’ll take care of this for you.”
“There you go again, always trying to fix everything, Samantha,” the other woman said. “It’s not our fault it was raining. Cleaning up the mess is just part of doing business.” She was a thick woman, with caucasian skin and shoulder-length, light-brown hair. Wearing a black leather jacket over blue jeans, she had a look that drew respect rather than attention. She carried a small, black umbrella, which screamed business and made Angelica think of cubicle farms full of soul-crushing monotony and boredom.
As the two women walked toward her desk, Angelica prepared to give her standard “I need to meet the groom” speech. It wasn’t unusual for two women to come into her bakery, a mother and her daughter, two sisters, two friends. Angelica always liked to guess which of the two was the bride-to-be. The guesses were often easy. She could see an excitement in the eyes, a bounce to the step, that gave it away. But other times she was surprised. Like when it was a mother being remarried, and the daughter was only accompanying her, happy to see her mother happy again.
This time Angelica guessed the bride-to-be was the blonde woman in the red jacket, but she had to admit she was only going on attractiveness and friendliness. The other woman looked unapproachable, which didn’t fit well with a bride. Yet there was something off about them, something Angelica couldn’t put her finger on, and her earlier unease returned. She looked at the rainbow umbrella the blonde woman carried. Angelica had seen that symbol before. What was it supposed to represent today? She couldn’t remember. Some passing fad, most likely. She had seen countless fads come and go over the years, and she often lost track of them, so fleeting in their staying power, so pointless in the grand scheme of things.
“I really am sorry about the mess,” the blonde woman said when they reached Angelica’s desk. She was wearing a sweet, flowery perfume. “My name is Samantha, and this is Rhonda.” Once again, she gave Angelica a perky smile, its genuine warmth brightening the gloom of the day.
“It’s a pleasure you meet you both,” Angelica said, returning her smile. “My name is Angelica. And don’t worry about the mess. You’d be surprised how easy cleaning can be for me.”
“Oh, good, because I really do feel terrible about it,” Samantha said. She studied Angelica from head to toe, one beautiful woman measuring up another. “I love your hair,” Samantha said. “Did you dye it?”
Angelica shook her head. “I am how I was made.”
“Amazing,” Samantha said, a hint of doubt in her voice as if she didn’t quite believe Angelica. Then Samantha shifted topics. “Are you still available?”
Angelica felt a small satisfaction. She had guessed right after all. “Yes, and it’s only early afternoon, so there is plenty of time for you to return with the groom. I have to meet you both, you see.”
The two women stared at Angelica for a moment, causing her unease to return once more. Something was off here. Something Angelica still couldn’t quite put her finger on. Samantha giggled. “There isn’t going to be a groom, silly,” she said.
Angelica looked from one woman to the other, confused. “No groom?” she asked. “But then why …”
Samantha wrapped her arms around Rhonda’s arm. “There’s no groom because there’s two brides,” she said.
“Two brides?” Angelica said, her tone flat. “You mean this is a same-sex … a same-sex …”
“A same-sex wedding,” Rhonda said, and her eyes narrowed. “Do you have a problem with that?”
The bakery’s walls groaned against the wind. Rain pounded the street outside. Angelica’s mind felt as if it were stuck in mud. She was not sheltered. She knew what was going on in the world around her. But somehow she thought … somehow she hoped …
Now she understood what was off about the two women. There was a bond there, a bond that shouldn’t be there. Like girlfriend and boyfriend, like bride and groom, yet different, very different. An image came to her mind then of two left shoes pretending to be a matching pair.
“I’m sorry,” Angelica said. “But I don’t think I’m the best baker for your cake. I highly recommend you consider a different baker. I can provide many recommendations.”
Samantha’s smile vanished. Rhonda placed her hands on the desk and leaned toward Angelica as a chill entered the room. “What exactly are you saying?” Rhonda asked.
Angelica shuffled her bare feet on the cold tile floor. She knew the law. She knew her rights. Or, better said, she knew what rights she no longer had. Up and down. Up and down. Like the waves of the sea. And near the bottom of the down—the wind. Angelica could hear it outside pushing against the bakery’s walls.
“I’m just saying I think you would be happier with a different baker in this case, and I could provide many references,” Angelica said. “There are a half-dozen bakers in the city who would do a wonderful job for you.”
Rhonda leaned closer, her voice cold as a barren tundra. “Are you telling me you are refusing to bake our cake because this is a same-sex wedding?”
Samantha placed a hand on Rhonda’s arm, trying to calm her.
“No, I’m not saying that,” Angelica said. “The law doesn’t give me the right to say that.”
“You’d better believe it doesn’t!” Rhonda erupted. “It’s illegal to discriminate. And if you tried, if you even thought about trying, I’d sue you before you could blink. I would own this bakery, do you understand me?”
Samantha pulled on Rhonda’s arm. “Don’t be like that, Rhonda,” she pleaded. “Angelica said she wasn’t turning us down. She was just suggesting other bakers she thought we might like better. Isn’t that right, Angelica?”
Angelica tried to think of a response but couldn’t. The law didn’t give her the freedom to accurately express herself.
Rhonda half-turned toward the door. “Let’s go, Samantha. I wouldn’t want our cake baked by someone like her anyway.”
But Samantha kept a tight grip on Rhonda’s arm. She wasn’t going anywhere. “But she’s the best,” she said.
“With beliefs stuck in the dark ages,” Rhonda said.
Angelica watched them through centuries-old eyes. Up and down. Up and down. Why were humans so allergic to the up? Why did they rush so mindlessly into the down?
Rhonda scowled at Samantha but then turned back to Angelica. “Answer me this, baker. Do you oppose same-sex marriage?”
Like the waves of the sea. Up and down. Up and down. Angelica couldn’t remember the tile floor ever feeling so cold. “The law doesn’t give me the right to answer that question.”
“That means she opposes it,” Rhonda said. “Come on, Samantha, let’s go find someone less judgmental and prejudiced.”
“But she’s the best,” Samantha insisted. “Remember what I told you about Dana and Simon’s wedding cake? I haven’t seen or tasted anything like it. She’s the best!”
Rhonda glowered, but Samantha seemed accustomed to getting what she wanted. She turned her attention back to Angelica, and her warm smile returned, all hint of concern melted away behind a wall of perky brightness. The perkiness wasn’t fake, but now Angelica could detect a calculating look in Samantha’s eyes, an intelligence Samantha hid behind her beauty and cheerfulness. No wonder she was accustomed to getting what she wanted.
“Let me ask it this way, Angelica,” Samantha said. “Do you want to bake our cake?”
“The law doesn’t give me the right to answer that question,” Angelica said.
Rhonda grunted, but Samantha’s smile didn’t waver. She knew what she wanted, and she was going to get it. “But do you have a problem with us?”
Angelica was taken back by the question, surprised it would even be asked. This had nothing to do with them, not with them as individuals. “No, of course not.”
“Okay, but do you have a problem with same-sex marriage?” Samantha asked.
“The law doesn’t give me the right to answer that question.”
“Let’s get straight to the point,” Rhonda broke in. “If we hire you to bake our cake, are you going to ruin it on purpose?”
Angelica shook her head. “Your cake would be just as beautiful and delicious as anyone else's. It would be perfect for the occasion and each of you would think it was absolutely wonderful. But I still strongly advise you to consider a different baker. As I told you, I can refer you to quite a few who would do a masterful job.”
“But their cakes wouldn’t be perfect for the occasion,” Samantha said. “Not like yours.”
Angelica said nothing. Samantha was right. The others were wonderful bakers, but they were not like her. No one was.
Samantha looked from Angelica to Rhonda and back again, as if she was weighing something in her mind. Finally her gaze settled on Angelica. “I know you can’t tell us no,” she said. “And I know you can’t tell us if you really want to, but will you hate us if we make you bake our cake?”
“Hate you?” Angelica said. “Of course not. I might disa—” She stopped herself before she said what she didn’t have the legal right to say. “No, never mind. Of course I wouldn’t hate you. You both seem delightful in your own ways.”
Rhonda grunted again, but Samantha’s mind was made up. “Let’s do it then!” she said. She looked over at Rhonda. “You’ll see,” she said. “Angelica is the best, the very best. It’s going to be perfect.”
Rhonda sighed in resignation. “Fine,” she said. Her face had lost its hardness and anger, and when she addressed Angelica, there were almost hints of friendliness in her tone. “If it makes you feel better,” she told Angelica, “you’re not the only one who isn’t thrilled with the arrangement.”
“It won’t be so bad,” Samantha said to Angelica, sympathy and compassion radiating from her perfectly mascaraed eyes. “It’s just a cake. And we’ll give a great tip!”
But Angelica’s mind had already retreated from the conversation. All she saw were the waves of the sea, up and down, up and down. How often had she seen that motion. How often had she seen the great, majestic edifices raised by humanity. How often had she seen them crumble and fall.
Numbly, she took a pen and sheet out of her desk and set it before her. The words “Bride” and “Groom” shouted at her from the page. She wasn’t sure how to begin.
“Here, let me see that,” Samantha said, sliding the paper toward her and taking the pen out of Angelica’s hand. She crossed out “Groom” and wrote “Bride” beside it. “There, I fixed it for you,” she said.
“Is this really all you need?” Samantha asked, studying the form. “Just our name and the wedding’s logistics?”
“Your full name,” Angelica said dully.
“Well, my full name is Samantha Mara Ellsen, and this is ...” Samantha paused, suddenly looking confused.
“What?” Rhonda said. “Did you forget my name?”
“No, silly,” Samantha giggled. “But I just realized I don’t know your middle name.”
“Rhonda Drayen is my full name. I don’t have a middle name.”
“Really? Why not?” Samantha asked.
Angelica tuned out the rest of the conversation. She was there but she wasn’t there. Why did it matter if she was there anyway? The law prescribed what she could and couldn’t say. It dictated what she could and couldn’t choose. She was there but she wasn’t. Her freedom stripped, she was nothing but a shell, a shell of legally required motions. Samantha filled out the form. She smiled. She laughed. Even Rhonda was almost pleasant now that it was clear Angelica wouldn’t turn them down. Both Samantha and Rhonda wore a simple silver ring on their fingers, beautiful really. These two left shoes who insisted they were a matching pair. And Angelica just stood there, as if chained to the floor, the whole time thinking of the waves of the sea. Up and down. Up and down. She wondered if humanity had reached the bottom of this particular cycle yet. She didn’t think it had.
After walking Samantha and Rhonda out, Angelica stood at the door and looked at the storm outside, the dark, oppressive clouds feeling lighter than her mood. Rain pelted the glass door and the wind pushed against it, the storm trying to break in, to pillage and destroy.
Slowly, she flipped her “Open” sign to “Closed” and let the white curtains drop, hiding the gloom outside but doing nothing to improve the gloom that pressed down on the inside.
There was no humming this time, no dancing, no happy expectation. She lifted her cardigan off her shoulders and let it fall unceremoniously to the floor. Her wings burst out in an explosion of energy, but that energy was immediately lost, like warmth vanishing in the cold vacuum of space. Her wings dropped to the floor, white feathers dampened in the puddles that still lay by the door.
Angelica turned her back to the door and walked to the center of the room, her wings dragging on the floor behind her. She was no stranger to sin. She had seen it in all its ugly varieties through countless people’s eyes. And the sin of same-sex sexuality wasn’t particularly rare. She had seen it from time to time in the pasts of brides and grooms who had wisely chosen to leave it in their past. But this was different. This wasn’t a past mistake. This was something they were committing to for the future. They were legally committing themselves to sin. And she was supposed to help them celebrate that commitment?
She looked at the dark wood paneled walls that surrounded her, letting her gaze rise up to where the stained-glass windows of Adam and Eve hid.
“Did you imagine this, when you left the garden?” she asked. “The two of you, husband and wife, did you ever guess that your descendants could twist things so wrong?”
And that was what was so sad. It was a twisting. It was something that was intended to be good, twisted into something wrong. Angelica understood sex. She truly understood it. Its base consisted of simple biological truth—the critical need of humanity to propagate—as well as the blessing and trust placed in humans that allowed them to do that. Yet there were other intangible aspects to sex as well, and she saw those just as clearly.
As a woman, she could be a romantic, but she could be as practical as any man. The romantic in her understood emotion. She saw the connection provided by sex, the shared pleasure that brought the couple together, binding husband and wife into one. But the practical part of her understood utility as well. If one’s spouse is their only source of sexual pleasure, then that gives incentive to provide and protect, to nurture the relationship, to keep the family intact. Warm and cold working together, the warmth of romance, the cold of practicality, and the result: man and woman tied together, united into one, joined into a family by marriage.
And here were two women taking what was meant to tie them to a man and using it to tie them to each other instead. They had twisted it. It wasn’t some new thing created specifically to be destructive. It was a good thing twisted into a wrong thing.
The men and women who came to Angelica’s bakery were not perfect. It was unfortunately common in this generation for them to have had sex before marriage. That wasn’t good. That wasn’t good at all. But marriage was the resolution for it. It was the fix, the correction. It was the rejection of a wrong path and a return to the right one. And that was a reason to celebrate.
But same-sex marriage was very different. Two women should never be sexual together, and same-sex marriage provided no resolution for that. It only made things worse. Same-sex marriage would legally lock Samantha and Rhonda into a relationship they shouldn’t be in in the first place. They were already on the wrong path, a wrong path which led in a completely different direction from the right path, and now their same-sex marriage would erect a roadblock, a legal blockade making it even more difficult for them to return to the path they should be on. Same-sex marriage was a horrible idea, such a horrible, horrible idea. To trap yourself in sin. To legally commit yourself to it. And yet everyone at the celebration would be clapping. They would be cheering. They would be drinking champagne and dancing. Angelica thought of the celebrating crowd and shook her head.
“What fools. What poor, misguided fools.”
And Angelica was supposed to help them celebrate. She was supposed to bake a perfect cake for them, a perfect cake for the occasion. How could she do that? How could she help others celebrate such a horribly wrong decision?
Two left shoes pretending to be a matching pair. Angelica had seen hubris like this before. Humanity building a tower to the sky and shouting at the heavens, “We know better!” Up and down. Up and down. The waves of the sea. The up leading inevitably toward the down, leading to folly such as this. And she was supposed to help them cheer and clap and shout their hubris at the heavens.
No, she couldn’t. She couldn’t and she shouldn’t. No one should be compelled to help others celebrate something wrong. It wasn’t right for them to expect her to. It wasn’t right for her to meekly submit.
She hurried to her desk, the white feathers of her wings rising gently above the floor in her haste to do the right thing. She opened her drawer and took out her phone. She’d call them and tell them she can’t bake their cake. How could she? This relationship they were in, this path, it was the wrong one, and a same-sex marriage would lock them into it. It would wrap legal chains around them, and this cake they were asking her to bake would be used to celebrate that bondage. They would say their little vows. They would make their little toasts. They would dance their little dances. And then they’d pull out this cake, Angelica’s cake—made with her energy, her experience, her expertise. They’d pull out her cake to top off the celebration, to celebrate the event, to celebrate the cold, hard chains these two women were wrapping around each other. How could she bake a cake for that? How could she do that, knowing what it would be used for?
Angelica turned the contact sheet toward herself and dialed the first three numbers. The wind howled outside, battering the walls of her bakery as the rain poured down. Angelica hung up the phone and set it back on her desk. What was she doing? She couldn’t tell them no. The law didn’t give her the freedom to do that. The law didn’t care how she felt. The law didn’t care what she believed. The law didn’t care about her at all. The law only cared that she help Samantha and Rhonda celebrate the legal chains they were about to wrap around each other. She didn’t have the legal right to tell them no. They would sue her if she did. Angelica had seen the heat in Rhonda’s eyes. Oh, sure, Rhonda had become friendly at the end, but that was only because she was satisfied Angelica would submit. When power changes hands, too often those who were once powerless take the opportunity to become cruel tyrants. Oh, yes, Rhonda would sue, and because of the law, Angelica would lose. She would lose everything. No more bakery. No more cakes. No more celebrations of weddings—of real weddings, not these damning chains being thrown around a couple who weren’t meant to be a couple celebrated by a cake she didn’t want to bake.
She would love to bake a wedding cake for Rhonda. She would love to bake a wedding cake for Samantha. Had either of them arrived with a groom, she wouldn’t have this dilemma. She would be flying in the air now, learning all there was to know about them, exulting in the steps they were taking with their groom to become the people they were meant to be. She had nothing against Samantha. She had nothing against Rhonda. It was their choice she was against, their choice to lock themselves on a path they shouldn’t be on, their choice to legally damn themselves. That was what Angelica was opposed to: their choice. But the law had taken away her freedom to oppose that choice. If she opposed it, if she refused to bake their same-sex wedding cake, she would be sued, and she would lose. She would lose everything.
Her thoughts returned to the waves of the sea, to the rise and fall of human civilization. A society that permits such a corruption of marriage is surely far into its descent. A society that demands everyone participate in that corruption, that forbids them from recognizing the corruption and reacting appropriately to it, how far from the bottom could such a society be?
Perhaps it was time for her to just let go. She could walk away. She could abandon her bakery, abandon this society. She could go and hide in a cave and wait for the natural consequences to sweep through and clean out the hubris and foolishness from society just as it had happened so many, many times before.
Yet such corrections could take generations. If she were to turn her back, think of all those people she would be abandoning. Like small candles, their light is minuscule in comparison to the gathering darkness, but some light is better than no light, and if she could help, shouldn’t she do so?
Angelica picked up the phone again. Perhaps if she just explained herself? If she just told them she thought they were making a terrible mistake and she couldn’t be a part of it? Perhaps they would respect her? Perhaps they would have compassion on her?
Then she thought of the fire she had seen in Rhonda’s eyes. And she thought of the insidious trap that had been laid for this generation. The world had been twisted on its head. It was no longer capable of separating the person from the sin, not for this sin. That was the trap. That was the trick. And everyone who rejects the sin? Everyone who calls it a sin and encourages others to reject it as well? Monsters, all of them monsters. Monsters because they had to be monsters. Monsters because if they weren’t monsters, then they might be listened to, and if they were listened to, then they might lead others out of the trap that had been so skillfully laid for the world.
No, Rhonda and Samantha would have no mercy for her because no one has mercy for monsters, and stuck so firmly in the trap, they would be unable to see Angelica as anything other than that. They would have no mercy. They would sue her, and they would win. Her bakery would close. And all the candles she might have lit, what would happen to them?
Angelica lifted her wings off the floor. They were heavy. She didn’t think she could even get off the ground. Magic was an extension of joy, excitement, and expectation. But she felt no joy now and no excitement either. And expectation? Expectation only made it worse because she knew what they were going to do and she knew what effect it would have on them. It was a horrible thing they wanted to do to themselves, a horrible, horrible thing. Expectation kept her rooted to the ground.
Then Angelica had a crazy thought, an idea that had never occurred to her in all the years she had baked wedding cakes. What if she baked it normally? Other bakers did it. Why couldn’t she? She walked to the wall and reached up toward one of the cabinets, but the cabinet door was out of her reach. Angelica looked around the room. If she dragged her desk over to the wall and stood on it, then she might be able to reach the cabinets and get out the ingredients.
Angelica laughed. “And bake it in what oven?” She dropped her face into her hands. She had to bake a same-sex wedding cake. If she didn’t, she would lose her bakery and lose the chance to light the candles that might provide a small bit of light in the midst of the overwhelming gathering darkness. But she couldn’t use magic, and she couldn’t bake it like other bakers did. What was she going to do?
She ran a hand over the wood paneling. It was cool to the touch. Outside, the wind howled and the rain pelted the walls of the bakery. Angelica began to walk around the room, hand tracing along the wood paneling as she paced inside the walls of the room.
Samantha and Rhonda. Samantha and Rhonda. Two left shoes pretending to be a matching pair. Angelica continue around the room, bare feet on cold tiles, wings trailing behind her on the floor. She couldn’t lose her bakery. She just couldn’t. She wanted to help people, to serve them. The world might fall, but there was still good to be done, still things for her to do. She couldn’t lose her bakery. But she couldn’t bake a same-sex wedding cake with magic. And she couldn’t bake it normally either. What was she going to do?
Around and around the room she went. Samantha and Rhonda. Samantha and Rhonda. The wind roared a challenge outside and the rain continued to batter the bakery’s walls. Angelica paced around the room, one hand tracing along the wood paneling. Samantha and Rhonda. Samantha and Rhonda.
And as she paced, a humming began. Not as loud as it normally was, nor as powerful. It came through the tiles, up into her bare feet, and then it went out from her finger tips into the walls, as if Angelica were conducting electricity through herself.
Samantha and Rhonda. Samantha and Rhonda. She had to bake them a same-sex wedding cake. She had to help celebrate these two left shoes who pretended to be a matching pair. Their guests would be cheering. And they would be dancing. A celebration of the newly forged legal chains being placed around Samantha and Rhonda. This wasn’t a wedding, not a real one. This was a celebration of the roadblock they were creating, a celebration of the blockade that would keep them on the wrong path and prevent their return to the right one. And she had to bake a cake for it. She had to bake a cake for their same-sex wedding.
Angelica stopped. She had to bake a cake for their same-sex wedding. The humming was louder now, the energy flowing from the tiles to the walls, with Angelica as a conduit. She had to bake a cake for their same-sex wedding.
“Samantha,” Angelica said. “Rhonda.” “Samantha. Rhonda.” She turned toward the wall and placed both hands flat against the wood paneling. Looking up at the stained-glass images of Adam and Eve hidden high above, she said, “If I’m forced to bake a wedding cake for a wedding that isn’t a wedding, then I guess I’ll have to bake a wedding cake that isn’t a wedding cake.”
She pushed herself away from the wall and slowly stepped backwards into the center of the room. The humming had grown powerful, the familiar feeling of anticipation entering the air; and suddenly Angelica felt she might be able to dance after all.
She bent slightly at her knees, raising her wings high above her head. Then she leaped off the ground, thrusting her wings downward and sending herself up, up, up. This was not her normal flying. She had to fight for every inch, pushing with her wings like she had never done before. Yet somehow she made it up the three stories to the ceiling. She stopped a few feet below the stained-glass windows of Adam and Eve. Those pictures wouldn’t be necessary this time, and looking at them would only break her concentration. This was going to be hard enough as it was, and she wasn’t even sure if she could do it. A wedding cake that isn’t a wedding cake. Treating them as individuals, not as a couple. It might work. It really might work.
“It has to work,” Angelica said to herself. Then she closed her eyes and focused her concentration for the process. “Samantha Mara Ellsen.”
She gasped as the spirit thread shot out of her. It spiraled downward quickly to the ground and then burst through the door and into the gloom of the storm. The sidewalks were almost empty except for a few people here and there braving the pounding rain as they huddled beneath umbrellas. Cars filled the street, their headlights a pale glow against the oppressive darkness. It made Angelica think of the small candles she sought to light against the gathering darkness, but she banished that thought. She wasn’t serving those candles today, and she couldn’t let that thought break her concentration. The spirit thread continued up the street, passing a shop window where two women examined a leather purse in the warmth of the store.
“You know this is a knockoff, right?”
“Of course it is. Don’t you know how much an original costs? I could never afford that.”
And there on the sidewalk ahead, the colorful rainbow umbrella next to the business-like black one. The spirit thread shot forward. It connected to Samantha, and Angelica was inside.
Angelica lurched to one side, her wing brushing a wall before she was able to recenter herself. “Just Samantha,” she said, forcing herself to ignore the woman walking beside Samantha. Angelica jumped into Samantha’s memories, skimming them hurriedly, the whole time fighting against her habit of thinking of a couple. “Just a single left shoe,” she said to herself. “No fake pair here. Just a single left shoe.”
Samantha’s childhood had been full of smiles and happiness. Everything so bright. She was an only child, and her father had doted on her. He had always been there for her. Angelica saw him bouncing Samantha on his knee. She saw him riding carousels with her and playing boardgames.
Her mother was there as well, yet for young Samantha, her father was the focus. She was the light of his life and she knew it, making her become brighter and brighter.
Then Angelica arrived at Samantha’s teenage years. Samantha went on a lot of dates—with boys—a lot of boys. And Samantha had fun. She truly did. The idea of dating women never once entered her mind. Not that she was opposed to it—her parents provided little guidance in the way of morals, a fact that many of her dates took much pleasure in—but the idea of dating women simply never occurred to her. It was a door that had not yet been opened to her, an alternate path not yet exposed. The only door that was open in her life at that time—dating boys—suited her just fine.
Samantha was very sexually active in her teens, and she had quite enjoyed it, which wasn’t a surprise. Sex is an action that brings both physical and emotional pleasure. It is supposed to be that way because it is supposed to bind husband and wife together through an experience they only share with each other. But like anything else in this life, people can choose to misuse it, which is why there are so many men and women now having sex outside marriage, diminishing the strength, the uniqueness, of the bond they will be able to form with their spouse. Or worse, men with men and women with women—but that time for Samantha hadn’t arrived yet, not in her teen years.
Angelica sensed a growing sadness within Samantha’s teen memories. The smiles were there but more and more they were becoming a wall hiding a grief inside. Angelica wondered at this but then she noticed the absence of Samantha’s father in her late teens. He was there but he wasn’t there. Angelica studied the memories more intently, searching for the answer, and then she found it. Notes left all over the house. Samantha embarrassed when her father was around her friends. He couldn’t even remember their names.
The focus of her life, her everything, her father had early-onset Alzheimer’s. But she was the light of his life, and if only she could be just a little bit brighter …
And Samantha tried. The world had come full circle. Now it was her doting on her father, smiling and laughing, always cheerful and perky, just as he had loved her being. But there was no magic in this, and dementia has no mercy. By her high school graduation he could no longer speak her name. Shortly after, he was gone.
That summer was the hardest of Samantha’s life. It was the only time in her life she had ever gone a full day without smiling. There were weeks empty of laughter, of cheer or excitement. A deathly gloom settled over her. Tears, so many tears.
But humans heal, despite how impossible it seems in the first pangs of grief. Samantha’s smile returned, and her laugh did eventually as well. Her cheer, her perkiness and friendliness, had become part of her. And being her usual perky self made her feel a connection to her father. She had been the light of his life, always shining—so bright. And that was her word, Angelica realized: “Bright”. Samantha was bright.
Samantha went to college and pursued a communications degree, and it was at this time in her life that boys were replaced by girls. It was gradual at first, tentative, but then full speed ahead. Samantha “realized” at college. That’s what she always told people. “Of course I’ve always been this way,” she would say, “I just didn’t realize it until later.”
But of course she would say that. Given the trap the world had fallen into, of course she would think that about herself. Except teenage Samantha wouldn’t have agreed. She would have thought no such thing about herself. There was a Samantha-before, and there was a Samantha-after, and which of the two Samanthas should you believe?
Samantha had had a when. Not everyone did, but Samantha had. She had been one way before, and she was a different way after, and in between there had been a when, a time that caused her to change or at least to change the way she looked at herself. And Angelica couldn’t help but wonder, what if that when had never happened? What if Samantha had gone to a different school? What if she had had different teachers? What if she had had different friends? How different might her life have been than it was today? Angelica didn’t know. She didn’t know because Samantha had had a when, and because of that when, Samantha had changed.
Oh, Samantha would claim she hadn’t changed. She would say she had just “realized”. But that was the Samantha-after talking, and the Samantha-after only existed because the when had happened. But what if that when had never happened?
What a silly generation humans were in today. They think the door being open means something. They don’t realize that everyone has that same door. It’s usually closed in this generation, thankfully, but anyone can turn the knob and open it. All it takes is one when.
And a human life can change course so easily. Angelica had seen it many times as she scanned through someone’s memories. Just a trivial change of direction at first, almost unnoticeable, yet the further and further you go, the more dramatic a difference it makes, what was once just a slight detour now becoming their permanent path in life.
Samantha got her degree and jumped cheerfully into the workforce. She dated many women, some relationships going further than others. Samantha thought of being with men sometimes. She would never admit it to any of her sexual partners, but the thought did cross her mind from time to time. Angelica saw it there in her memories. But it had been so long, and the path Samantha was now on had become so familiar, so she rejected the thoughts just as quickly as they came. This is who I am, she told herself, banishing all other possibilities.
Time marched on and Samantha met Rhonda through an online dating service; things became serious, and then the day arrived when they showed up at Angelica’s bakery and threatened to tear her world apart.
That last thought almost made Angelica lose her concentration. She cut the spirit thread off abruptly, the sudden disconnection sending her flying back into the wall. She slid a few feet down but then caught herself, kicking back against the wall and giving a mighty push downward with her wings until she returned to where she had hovered before. “Samantha Mara Ellsen,” she said, struggling to focus on just the single woman, “I know you.”
Angelica was weary. Habit and purpose drove her to think of a couple, but she couldn’t let herself do that. This was going to be a wedding cake that wasn’t actually a wedding cake; otherwise she wouldn’t have the ability to bake it. She had no time to catch her breath or to gather her thoughts. She had to get this over with.
“Rhonda Drayen,” Angelica said, and her body shuddered as the spirit thread departed and followed along the same path as before toward its destination. They were getting in their car now, Rhonda opening the driver’s side door when the spirit thread reached her. It connected and Angelica was inside.
There was no happy childhood here. No bright connection to a doting father. The earliest clear memory Angelica found was Rhonda standing in front of a casket, Rhonda too short to see the man inside and too angry at her mother to let her pick her up. Even at her young age, Rhonda knew her father’s death wasn’t her mother’s fault. Everyone kept saying the words “lung cancer” in whispered tones. But she also heard them refer to her father’s smoking, and her mother had always nagged her father about his smoking, so Rhonda’s young mind blamed his death on her mother.
“Here, let me pick you up, stubborn one, before they close the casket,” her sister, Elaine, said. Elaine was in her teens and had matured too fast. She wore a tight black dress that made all the funeral home workers stare. Rhonda reached up stubby arms toward Elaine, who leaned over and picked her up with a grunt. Elaine wobbled as she carried Rhonda toward the casket. Rhonda looked down and got her last look at her father. Why had they put makeup on him? Men don’t wear makeup. Rhonda thought he looked silly, like a clown wearing a cheap thrift store suit.
She was tall enough to see over the casket a few years later when it was her mother they were burying. Breast cancer this time. There was no one to blame, no one to be angry at except for the world. Elaine was there with her, Rhonda’s guardian now, tipsy from the wine she had drunk to give her the strength to make it through the funeral.
That was the last day of Rhonda’s childhood. Elaine was the guardian, Elaine was the one working as a waitress at job after job, but it was Rhonda who shopped and cooked, and it was Rhonda who, after weeks of hiding in the school bathroom every day at lunch embarrassed she had nothing to eat, discovered she qualified for free lunch. It was Rhonda who so often called Elaine’s jobs and told them she was sick. It was Rhonda so often standing behind Elaine, holding Elaine’s hair out of the toilet as Elaine threw up what she shouldn’t have drunk the night before.
Rhonda played football in high school, not very well but with a determination that intimidated all the boys on the team. She did it to prove to them she could. She called them misogynists. They didn’t even know what the word meant. They were just stupid, immature boys.
She only lasted two games. Then Elaine got a DUI, and it was Rhonda driving their old clunker every day to take Elaine to work. And soon it was Rhonda working in place of Elaine, bussing tables at first, then becoming a waitress. Her tips were never as good as Elaine’s had been. Rhonda’s attitude was surly, her service rough. But her employment was constant, and for the first time since their mother died, Rhonda felt some stability beneath her feet. Overdue bills were a thing of the past. Empty refrigerator and cupboards were no more.
Rhonda never gave Elaine a dime for alcohol. She had no idea how Elaine got it, and she didn’t want to know. Eventually, Elaine discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, and she began to collect 24-hour sobriety chips. Rhonda had no time for it. She had to raise herself as it was. She couldn’t raise her older sister as well. Through it all, she kept her grades up. She graduated with honors from high school. She got a scholarship to the local university, part merit-based, part need-based.
Rhonda never dated in high school. There had been no when for Rhonda. Ever since she understood what attraction was, she had always been attracted to women and had never been particularly interested in men. It had always been her default path, her easiest one. But she lived in a small town at a time when such things weren’t accepted, and she had no time for relationships anyway. Her high school years were nothing but work, disappointment, and anger.
Angelica paused in the stream of memories. There was something coming. She could sense it. Something dark. Something soaked with emotion that weighed on Rhonda to this day. Angelica could feel the guilt already. It emanated from a memory still months in the future from the memory she had last viewed.
She was tired, exhausted from focusing on just a single person, from the concentration required to not think of them as a couple, and exhausted from the emotional weight of Rhonda’s early years. There had been so little happiness, so little fun. Rhonda had been forced to grow up far too fast. It was no surprise she was rough around the edges now, no surprise she had so little patience for others, no surprise she had so little concern at the struggles or concerns they might have.
But that thought led naturally to the predicament Angelica was currently in, and thinking of her predicament threatened to break her concentration, so she dove back into Rhonda’s memories, skimming through Rhonda’s first year of college, where all of Rhonda’s time had been devoted to work, studying, and caring for her sister. Their kitchen drawer was filling with 24-hour sobriety chips. Elaine would be strong for one day, maybe two, but then something would happen, like something always happened, something that Elaine simply couldn’t bear without the strength she could only find in a bottle.
Finally, Rhonda had had enough. She badgered her sister, almost physically threatening her, until Elaine finally agreed to check into a rehab. It was only thirty days, but Elaine had never gone thirty days without drinking, not for years. Paying for the rehab had been a huge sacrifice for Rhonda. Thankfully they were kind and gave her a need-based discount, but even then she had to spend two semesters’ worth of book money, which meant she would be forced to study the next two semesters without books.
But Rhonda had to do something. This was her sister, and her sister was all she had left. Rhonda thought thirty days of sobriety would be enough. Elaine just needed to get it out of her system. Her head was messed up and that was why she kept going back to it. If she just got it out of her system, if she just cleared her head, then it would be better. There was strength there. Rhonda knew it. There was determination. If only Elaine could get the alcohol out of her system. If only she could clear her mind. Just a few weeks. That would be enough. Rhonda was sure.
Hovering there in the air, going through Rhonda’s memories, Angelica should have been more cautious. She knew the depth of emotion that was coming. She knew the pain, heartache, and guilt. But she was tired, so very tired, and she had to keep herself so focused. She was making a wedding cake that wasn’t a wedding cake. She had never done that before. Every moment her mind threatened to return to its normal paths, to think of this as a wedding cake, to think of these two as a couple. But she couldn’t think that way. If she did, she wouldn’t be able to bake this cake, and if she didn’t bake this cake, she wouldn’t be able to keep her bakery. That’s why, focused on not losing her concentration, Angelica strayed too close to Rhonda’s dark memory and got pulled in, finding herself in a small convenience store.
Angelica was too tired to even try to escape. She leaned against a dusty shelf and looked around the run-down store. Everything about it appeared old and dingy. The floor was stained, the glass windows of the refrigerated aisles dirty. A window-mounted air-conditioner struggled noisily to blow cool air, filling the store with a slight hint of mildew.
Rhonda stood in front of the refrigerated aisle, staring in disbelief at her sister. Rhonda had picked up Elaine after thirty days of rehab, and they were on their way home. This was their first stop. Elaine had told Rhonda she needed to go to the bathroom, but now, standing in front of the refrigerated beer, Elaine begged Rhonda to buy her a drink. Just one drink. It had been so long. She just needed one. Just a sip, and Rhonda could have the rest.
The cashier ignored them, watching a football game on a small TV hidden beneath the counter. There were no other customers in the convenience store. Angelica walked around the aisle to stand beside Rhonda and listened as Elaine continued to beg. Elaine’s face was slack, her eyes empty of emotion, the only thing visible was her need, her undeniable need.
Rhonda said nothing. She just shook her head. She couldn’t believe it. She had sacrificed to send Elaine to rehab. All her book money was gone. And now Elaine wanted to throw it all away. Rhonda wanted to scream. She wanted to tear her hair out. She wanted to grab Elaine by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. But all she could do was stand there dumbly and shake her head in disbelief, refusing again and again to buy Elaine a drink.
Finally Elaine gave up. Angry at Rhonda’s refusal, she stormed away, and Rhonda let her go. She didn’t stop her. She just let her go. Rhonda watched as Elaine walked out the convenience store doors.
Angelica put an unfelt hand on Rhonda’s shoulder. Rhonda trembled. That was the last time she would ever see her sister alive. Three days later, Elaine’s body was found in an unkept field behind a vacant warehouse.
Released from Rhonda’s memory, wings beating softly to keep her hovering in the air, Angelica paused a moment to collect herself. Some people seem so rough, so hard on the outside. But then you get into the inside, you get into them, who they really are, and you understand. It doesn’t justify the roughness. It doesn’t justify anything. But now you understand them. And when you understand someone, when you truly understand them, how can you not love them? How can you not shout in joy at their successes? How can you not weep and mourn at their failures, their disappointments, their pains? Angelica had experienced this many times. She had experienced it so many times she had come to expect it. Rhonda was a beautiful woman, a truly beautiful, wonderful woman. Angelica wished Rhonda hadn’t had to go through this. She wished Rhonda had had a happier life. But those were not the kind of wishes Angelica could make come true. She couldn’t change the past. She could only help people with their future.
But that thought led Angelica back to what she was doing now. This wasn’t her usual cake-baking process. Rhonda was a single left shoe, not part of an actual pair. Angelica couldn’t let herself forget that. She needed to finish this and finish this fast. She returned to Rhonda’s memories, scanning through them lightly as if she had placed her hand into a stream of clear, cold water.
It’s hard to fully understand the profound effect her sister’s death had on Rhonda’s life. Rhonda was alone now, truly alone. Oh, she probably had cousins somewhere, aunts and uncles, maybe even a grandparent or two. But they were across the country and she didn’t know them. It had only been her sister and her, and now it was only her. And the guilt, the crushing guilt. She could have stopped Elaine. She could have grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her back into the car. She could have taken her home. She could have taken her back to rehab. She could have done so many things. Could have, could have, could have.
Rhonda took a semester off from school. She worked, she came home, and she remembered, that experience at the convenience store playing over and over again in her mind. If only she had stopped Elaine. If only she hadn’t let her walk away. Regret, awful, inescapable regret. If only.
But paralysis was not Rhonda’s way. It was not Rhonda. The pain was there and the guilt. But she had things to do: a degree to earn, a life to live. She pushed the emotion aside and forced herself back into life again, forcing her way through the pain through raw strength. And Angelica knew Rhonda’s word, the word that described Rhonda in her core: “Strong”.
Eventually Rhonda started dating. She graduated. She got a good job. She met Samantha and then …
Angelica severed the spirit thread. It was enough. “Rhonda Drayen,” she said. “I know you.”
And she did. She understood the woman completely. She had seen many women like her before, many women with the same strengths, some even with the same weaknesses. She could guess at what her future might be, could almost see a glimmer of the light shining in the distance, but that future was not to be because Rhonda had selected an alternate path. The alternate path she had selected was her default path, her easiest path, but what is easiest is often not what is best. Life is not meant to be a journey of the easiest routes. It is meant to challenge us, to cause us to stretch. The attraction Rhonda felt was not new to Angelica. She had seen it in countless people before, but Rhonda’s choice to center her life around it, to legally commit herself to it, that was new, and that was unfortunate, very unfortunate.
Yet that train of thought threatened Angelica’s ability to do what she had to do. She had never done this before, a wedding cake that wasn’t a wedding cake for a wedding that wasn’t a wedding. But she always made the perfect cake for the occasion, and she would do so now. She had to do so now. The law gave her no other choice.
Angelica closed her eyes and held the image of Rhonda in her mind, who Rhonda truly was, yesterday, today, and forever. Now came the tricky part. Would it even work? Yes, it would work. It had to work. Angelica refused to let her bakery be taken away from her. She shifted Rhonda to one side of her concentration and then pulled Samantha into the other side, everything about Samantha, her yesterday, her today, her forever. And holding these two women separately in her mind, Angelica quivered with delight. Did these women know—did they truly know—who they each were? Did they comprehend the glory that was within each of them, the wonder, the power?
Angelica’s breathing grew heavy and her pulse quickened. Did they realize the potential they had, the tremendous possibility? Then habit took over, and just as she had done countless times before, and just as her better judgment warned her not to do now, Angelica opened her eyes and looked at the fourth stained-glass window, where Adam and Eve, hand in hand, walked out of the garden together.
And before Angelica knew what she was doing, she had replaced Adam and Eve in the scene with Rhonda and Samantha. But they weren’t walking forward as Adam and Eve had been, because as soon as Rhonda and Samantha took their place in the picture, as soon as the complementary pair of man and woman was replaced by two women, the silver wedding rings each woman wore burst into metal chains that spiraled up their arms, wrapped around their bodies, and burrowed into the ground, trapping the two women in place, preventing them from walking forward.
The stained-glass window groaned, protesting at the wrongness that had been forced upon it. It bulged into the room, the image of the two trapped women becoming distorted, and then the window shattered, glass fragments flying toward Angelica. She closed her eyes an instant before she was showered in glass, the shards cutting deep across her cheeks, the skin healing immediately but leaving behind streaks of blood like warpaint.
Angelica opened her eyes, and there in the space where the stained-glass window had been she saw two wondrous lights: two infinite brightnesses, one for each woman. Two separate, glorious futures they were going to legally damn themselves from ever reaching.
Angelica screamed in anguish, and she fell, spiraling over and over in the air until her body hit the tile floor with a bone-cracking crunch. She lay there motionless on the ground, wings limply covering her, her whole body still and silent and burning with pain. How could she breathe? Knowing their potential. Knowing they were choosing to throw it all away. It was too much. The brightness, the glorious, infinite brightness, was already fading from her mind. A different path had been chosen. Chains of darkness. A legal roadblock. Trapped. And the guests would clap, and they would cheer, and they would smile, smile, smile. The infinite brightness, the glorious, wonderful, unimaginable potential forever out of reach. And everyone would cheer.
Up and down. Up and down. Like the waves of the sea. But this down felt like it had almost reached the sea floor. And what if there was no up that followed it? What if the ocean’s water fled from the hubris and incredible foolishness of this generation, leaving nothing but a barren, alien landscape behind?
Angelica knew the end. She did not know the time of the end, but she knew the end, and part of her suspected this downward movement, this generation’s descent, wouldn’t stop until that end had been reached.
So why did she care? If the descent was inevitable, why did she bother? If there was no return to the wave’s heights to hope for, what was the point? The tile beneath her was cold, and she thought once again of retreating to a cave, of leaving the world to its hubris and foolishness and the natural consequences such things inevitably set loose.
But then she thought of those unlit candles, hundreds of them, thousands, their light minuscule against the gathering darkness, but a light nonetheless. Even if the descent was irreversible, even if there would be no return to the wave’s heights, did that mean that every step must be in the downward direction? Might not some steps turn upward, even if only briefly, an oasis of wisdom and right in an age of error and confusion? And wasn’t it her place to stand and to help those whom she could, to light those candles that were willing to be lit despite the odds stacked so obscenely against her and despite the fact that those she wanted to help were often so eager to vilify her?
Angelica breathed, her wing feathers rustling against the floor. She breathed again. Then she sighed and sat up, gathering her wings behind her. Red blood pooled on the tiles where she had lain. She looked down at her right leg and noticed a bone sticking out below the knee, blood trickling from the gash the broken bone had punctured through her skin.
Grasping her leg in one hand and the broken bone in the other, she pushed the bone back into place with a grunt, a slight tremor running through her body as the bone fused back in place and the skin healed over. Then she licked her fingers and cleaned the blood from her leg, the red smear giving way to her normal light bronze.
So eager to vilify her. That was the truth. If she said no, she would be sued, and she would lose. Two left shoes pretending to be a matching pair. A roadblock preventing them from returning to the right path. Legal damnation. And the crowd would clap, and they would cheer, and they would smile, smile, smile, smile. And she had to support their celebration. She had to bake a cake for it. The law forced her to. It gave her no other choice. She had to bake them a cake, a cake that was perfect for the occasion.
Rhonda and Samantha were meant for so much more. They were meant for so much different. Angelica wished she could show them. She wished she could make them understand. But she knew that she couldn’t. There was nothing she could say, nothing she could do, nothing that would reach them. They had wrapped themselves tightly in an impenetrable cocoon of identity, completely cutting themselves off from the possibility of any other path. There was nothing she could do, nothing at all. And even if there was, the law forbid her from even trying.
Angelica sighed. She had a cake to bake. She stood. There would be no flying anymore. She didn’t have the heart for it. There was no joy in this, no excitement, nothing but compulsion. Glass shards from the shattered stained-glass window littered the floor around her. Rain splattered down through the hole in the wall high above, drops carried in all directions by the wind that howled triumphantly through the broken window. She had built these walls and had hoped to keep it out. Up and down. Up and down. And near the bottom of the down—the wind.
It was time for Angelica to do what she had never done before. It was time for her to bake a wedding cake that wasn’t a wedding cake for a wedding that wasn’t a wedding. Her white feathery wings limp and dragging on the floor behind her, Angelica raised her hands above her head, and the cabinets obeyed timidly, slowly opening, the ingredients moving sluggishly in the air, mixing together amidst the falling drops of rain and the circling wind.
Angelica thought of Rhonda and of Samantha, these two women, these two separate individuals, and she formed two separate halves of a cake in the air. A double tier of rectangles, one set forming in the air above her on the left, the other forming in the air above her on the right. Rhonda’s side was vanilla. Samantha’s side was lemon.
The two sets of cake tiers baked in the air and then she joined the tiers of each set, a small rectangle resting atop a larger one, one vanilla set on her left, one lemon set on her right. She added a crumb layer of buttercream frosting, covering both sets of cake tiers except for the sides that faced the middle. Then she surrounded the crumb layer with a pristine layer of fondant.
Angelica focused on Rhonda’s side of the cake, layering decorations of delicious frosting around both tiers, perfectly illustrating Rhonda’s strength and determination, the decorations all centered around the ornate “R” she placed on top of the cake.
Then she turned her attention to Samantha’s side of the cake, adding decorations to signify her brightness, to show how she lit up every room she was in. Angelica crowned it with an ornate “S” in the same style as Rhonda’s “R”.
Angelica paused, wind howling, rain drops splattering all around her, and she stared at these two halves of a cake. If only they would let me deliver it like this, she thought. It would be so much easier. But that was not to be. The law compelled her. She had no choice but to submit. If she didn’t, she would lose her bakery. Sighing, Angelica closed her eyes and clapped her hands, the two sides of the cake coming together, two tiers of rectangles lining up side by side to create the illusion of a single cake with two square tiers.
Angelica opened her eyes and looked at the cake floating in the air above her. It looked wonderful. Samantha and Rhonda would love it. They would think it was perfect, and it really did look perfect, just like Angelica’s cakes always did. But then Angelica thought of what Samantha and Rhonda would be celebrating tomorrow. She thought of what they were choosing to do, of the legal roadblock they were erecting, a blockade that would keep them from the glorious futures that might otherwise be theirs. Tears poured out of her eyes and ran down her cheeks, and streaks of blue frosting spilled over the side of the cake, running diagonally from top to bottom, connecting the two halves of the cake together.
But the cake wasn’t done, not yet. Angelica still had to make her wish. Bowing her head, she began the process. She thought of Rhonda, of her great strength. She thought of Samantha, of her uncommon brightness. She thought of these two women, these two beautiful, wonderful women. She thought of their potential. She thought of what they were meant to become, of those two infinitely glorious futures she had seen.
And then, with a pain in her chest, she thought of the wrong path they had chosen to walk on. She thought of the roadblock they would celebrate tomorrow. They were choosing to entangle themselves, to trap themselves on the wrong path. And they would be held there, prevented from returning to the right path, trapped by their same-sex marriage.
Angelica wished it would end as soon as possible.
* * *
The celebration the next afternoon went off exactly as planned, Samantha in her elegant green and white dress, Rhonda in her black pant suit. The female pastor, her rainbow clergy stole declaring her primary allegiance to Progressivism, delivered a rousing sermon. There were cheers and clapping. There were speeches. A band played, and there was much dancing. Guests were smiling, congratulating, laughing. Champagne overflowed from everyone’s glasses, everyone’s except Rhonda’s, who drank only sparkling cider in honor of her sister. Everything went just as Samantha and Rhonda had planned, the afternoon and evening proceeding as choreographed, everything happening in the midst of a perfectly assembled facade of elegant celebration.
A roar of approval spread through the crowd when the cake was revealed. No one had seen anything like it, so perfectly matching Samantha and Rhonda, each in their own individual way, the two sides of the cake connected by irregular blue streaks of icing, representing a deep and powerful emotion beyond the ability of the guests to comprehend. The first bite left them speechless. The second had them shouting loud exclamations of praise. Never before had they tasted such a cake. The flavors, the presentation, everything delivered in a way they couldn’t believe possible.
Samantha was absolutely delighted. Gliding from one guest to another, cake plate in hand, she gushed with them about the cake. Even Rhonda was enthusiastic, her misgivings about the baker completely forgotten. Both Samantha and Rhonda agreed the cake was perfect, absolutely perfect for the occasion.
They divorced two weeks later.