Damsels in Distress
Dark chocolate cupcakes with red peppermint mascarpone icing, edged with chocolate and crushed candy canes
In three years of baking for Hurley’s Homestyle Diner in Watonka, New York, I’ve never met a problem a proper cupcake couldn’t fix. And while I haven’t quite perfected the recipe to fix my father, I’m totally on the verge.
“Taste this.” I pass a warm cupcake across the prep counter to Dani and lick a gob of cherry-vanilla icing from my thumb. “I think it’s the one.”
My best friend sighs. “That’s what you said about the blueberry lemon batch. And the white mocha ones. Have you seen this thing walkin’ around behind me? It’s the Great Cupcake Booty of Watonka.” She turns and shakes it, a few corkscrew curls springing loose from the pile on her head.
“Last one. I promise.”
“Nice breakfast. You’re lucky I … mmmph … oh my God!” Her copper-brown eyes widen as she wolfs down a big bite.
“I used half the sugar this time and buttercream instead of cream cheese. Doesn’t compete with the cherry as much.”
“Whatever you did, it’s delish.” She wipes her hands on an apron and goes back to prepping for our open, topping off small glass pitchers of maple syrup. I love baking at the diner on Saturday mornings, especially when Dani’s on first shift. There’s something peaceful about it—just the two of us here in the stainless steel kitchen, radio on low, the hiss-pop-hiss of the big coffeemakers keeping us company while the winter sky goes from black to lavender to a cool, downy gray.
I rinse the mixing bowls and set them back on the counter, rummaging through my stash for the next batch: eggs, butter, raw cane sugar, cocoa powder, heavy cream, espresso, shaved dark chocolate, a handful of this, a sliver of that, no measuring required. Every cupcake starts out a blank canvas, ingredients unattached to any shared destiny until I turn on the mixer. Now Dani stands on her toes to see into the bowl and together we watch it swirl, streaks of white and pale yellow and black, electric beaters whirring everything into a perfect brown velvet.
“You really are an artist, Cupcake Queen.” Dani smiles, hefting the tray of syrups onto her shoulder and pushing through the double doors into the dining room.
Cupcake Queen. I owe the newspaper for that one. “Teen’s Talent Turns Struggling Diner into Local Hot Spot: Cupcake
Queen Wows Watonka with Zany Creations,” by Jack Marshall, staff reporter. The article’s preserved in a crooked glass frame on the wall behind the register, right next to an autographed black-and-white photo of Ani DiFranco and three one-dollar bills from Mom’s first sale as the new owner. You can see it clearly if you’re sitting at the front counter in the seat on the far left—the one with the torn leatherette that pokes the back of your thighs—if you lean over and squint. I don’t need to squint, though. I’ve read it so many times I can recite it backward. Creations zany with Watonka wows queen cupcake: spot hot local into diner struggling turns talent teen’s.
I never set out to wow Watonka with zany creations or join the royal court of confectioners. When I first started inventing my cupcakes, it was just something to keep me and Bug—that’s what I call Max—from going nuts after Dad moved to Nevada. Whenever we’d start to miss him, I’d lure Bug into the kitchen, and together we’d dig through the pantry for stuff to bake into funny little desserts with made-up names and frosting faces. We’d bring the best ones to the diner for Mom to share with the waitresses and Trick, her cook. Soon the regulars at the counter were sampling them, wanting to know when they’d be on the menu, when they could order a few dozen for their next bridge club party. Somewhere between my first batch of custom Bug-in-the-Mud Cakes and now, somewhere between leaving competitive skating and looking for a place to hide out, somewhere between Dad’s departure and Mom finding the strength to get out of bed again, baking
cupcakes became a part of me—both a saving grace and a real, moneymaking job.
Staff reporter Jack Marshall didn’t ask about any of that stuff, though.
My gaze drifts out the window to the snow falling beneath the lights in the back lot. It’s so gray and nondescript outside that I could be anywhere, anytime, and for a second the blankness is so complete that I lose track of the hour and forget where I am. Everything is flip-flopped, like the opposite of déjà vu.
“Hudson?” Dani’s voice over the whir of the mixer brings me back. Saturday morning. Twenty-ninth of November. Cupcake day.
“Sorry. I kinda spaced.”
“Yeah, I kinda noticed.” She pulls up a tall metal stool and sits next to me at the prep counter. “So, are we gonna talk about your dad’s e-mail, or—”
“Not.” I recited parts of his latest missive over the phone last night, but here in the Hurley’s kitchen, separated from the rest of the world by the double doors and a blanket of new snow on the roof, I’m not in the mood.
“It is pretty jackass of him, if you ask me … even though you’re not.” She picks up a batter-covered spoon and licks off all the chocolate. “Like you really want to hear about your father’s romantic escapades with—”
“Yeah, exactly, thanks.” I lift the bowl and scrape the batter into silicone cups, filling each one three-quarters precisely.
“I’m so done with his soul-mate-of-the-month crap.”
“Did he call her his soul mate?” she asks.
“Who moves to Vegas and falls in love with a female Elvis impersonator? Hello, walking cliché.”
I know I should ask him to squash the oversharing, but honestly? Hearing about his special lady friends is better than the alternative. First few months in Vegas? Total radio silence. Now? Let the e-mails flow. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the women in his life pushing him to be a better father. “Your children need to be part of your life. Reach out to them.” Ick. Like I really want Dad to “reach out” over our respective love lives. And by respective, I mean serial (his) and nonexistent (mine).
“Maybe she’s all right,” Dani says. “You don’t—”
“Anyone who goes by Shelvis is clearly not all right.”
“I thought it was Sherylynn or something.”
“Sherylanne. Shelvis is her stage name. She’s on tour this month,” I say, making air quotes around “tour.” “So instead of visiting us, Dad’s using his vacation time to follow her all over the southwest.” That’s the part I didn’t recite last night. I kept hoping it was a joke.
Dani crinkles her nose. “Gross.”
“Seriously gross. It’s the fourth Shelvis-related e-mail this week.”
“Any pictures?” she asks. He sent pictures of the last one—Honey or Candy or something like that—and Dani and I spent the entire weekend on Photoshop, giving her a handlebar mustache and snakes for hair.
I slide the baking cups into the oven and wipe my hands on a dish towel. “I think we can use our imaginations.”
“What about video? Now that I’d pay to see.” Dani clears her throat and breaks into a frightening version of “Love Me Tender.”
See, some people politely encourage their tone-deaf friends to sing. Some people even convince them to go on live television and audition for national competitions. But me? I am not that friend. Especially since Dani’s parents are, like, jazz virtuosos—mom sings, dad plays trumpet. You’d think she’d pick up on the fact that her voice lacks that certain something … called … being in tune.
“I thought we already established that your parents’ genes totally skipped you,” I say.
“They didn’t skip me. Mom says I’m just underdeveloped. I’m pretty sure Whitney Houston was the same way before she vocally matured.”
“Gotcha. Have another cupcake, Whit.” I slide the plate of experiments across the counter and load my spent bowls into the giant dishwasher.
I’ve got enough cupcakes in the oven, so I stick the remaining experiments in the front bakery case and help Dani with her sidework: wiping the menus, rolling silverware into napkins, and setting out metal trays of cut veggies for Trick. In an effort to feel slightly less guilty about our sugar-sweet breakfast, we take five at the prep counter and dine on some fruit salad. Dani recites saucy passages from a novel with a
half-naked pirate on the cover as I watch the snow swirl outside, and the entire restaurant fills with the warm, chocolaty scent of fresh-baked cupcakes.
“The calm before the storm,” Dani says, closing her book and glancing up at the clock. “Another hour, this place will be a hot mess.”
“Don’t act like you don’t love it. You’re a front-of-the-house whore and you know it.”
Dani wiggles her eyebrows. “You should try it. I could teach you all the tricks.”
“I’ll stick to baking. It relaxes me.” I pull my cupcakes out of the oven and arrange them on wire cooling racks. “How sad is it that the crack of dawn in the Hurley’s kitchen is the only time I can get any peace and—”
“Morning, girls!” Mom rushes in through the back door with my little brother and a blast of cold air. “I just heard the weather report—we’re expecting a storm later.”
“Snowed in at the diner! Yes!” Bug pumps his fist, voice muffled by a thick red scarf. His tortoiseshell glasses are all fogged up, so I can’t see his eyes.
I kiss the top of his fuzzy blond head and tug off his backpack and jacket. “Winter in Watonka, Mom. Not a big mystery.”
“No, just a busy night ahead, and we’re already short-staffed.” Mom pulls off her hat, her gray-blond hair crackling with static. “Marianne’s out of town till tomorrow, Nat’s studying for finals, and I’m not sure Carly’s ready for more
than two tables at a time.” Her trademark sigh is laced through every word, and I sag when it lands on my shoulders. That blue-and-white sign with the picture of the fork and knife on the I-190, just before the Watonka exit? Well, that’s us—first fork and knife off the highway. Bad weather hits, and all the just-passing-through folks in the world end up in our dining room. There goes my Saturday night.
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Dani says. “We’ll just—”
“Mom, can I inspect the mail?” Bug asks. He fingers the envelopes sticking out of Mom’s overstuffed purse. “I brought my lab gear.”
“Sure, baby. Use my office.” She hands over her purse and hangs their coats in the staff closet as Bug skips into the windowless room at the back of the kitchen. “Where’s the omelet setup?”
“Already done.” Dani hops up from the counter and shows mom the veggies, right where we always put them.
“Ma, chill. We’re fine,” I say. “It’s not even time to open.”
Dani and I follow her to the dining room. In flawless, unbroken succession, she pours herself a coffee, starts a fresh pot, checks all the sugar dispensers, and gives the counter an unnecessary wipe-down with a wet paper towel.
You can take the waitress out of the diner … but then she comes back and buys the joint.
“Know what you need?” I ask.
“A winning lotto ticket and a vacation? Preferably someplace tropical, no kids allowed?” She sits on a maroon leatherette
stool next to Dani, rests her elbows on the counter, and sips her coffee.
“We’re fresh out of lotto tickets.” I take one of my experimental cupcakes from the case and put it on a pink-trimmed plate. “New recipe. As the owner, you’re obligated to try it.”
“They’re amazing,” Dani says. “She’s on a roll lately.”
“Don’t have to convince me, darlin’.” Mom smiles and carves out a piece with a fork. After the first bite, she loses the cutlery and dives in with her fingers, just the way you’re supposed to.
“They’re called Cherry Bombs,” I tell her after she inhales the last of it.
“Baby, you’re some kinda genius. Love them. And you.” She pecks my cheek and drops her dishes in the bus bin underneath the counter.
“I have a bunch more cooling,” I say, untying my apron. “I’ll be back later to frost.”
“You’re going on break? But the snow, and—”
“Ma, I’ve been in the kitchen all morning. I’m just going for a walk. I’ll be back before the rush, then I can help wherever you guys need me. Okay?” I grab the bus bin with her dishes and bump open the kitchen doors with my hip.
“Okay,” she calls after me. “Say bye to Bug first. Mrs. Ferris is picking him up in an hour.”
“Hudson!” Bug flashes a gap-toothed grin from behind his makeshift crime lab in Mom’s office, a pair of sandwich bags zipped over both hands. In one, he’s holding a white envelope;
in the other, a half-eaten candy cane with a cotton ball rubber-banded to the end of it.
To my early morning eyes, it appears he’s dusting our mail for fingerprints, but you can’t always tell with Bug.
I set my backpack on the floor and plop down in the chair across from him. “Looking for evidence?”
“Nope.” He slides the glasses up his nose with the back of his wrist and rubs the envelope with the candy cane. “Anthrax. I’m at a critical juncture.”
Critical juncture? Sure. What eight-year-old isn’t?
“Find anything interesting?” I ask.
“No powdery residue. But definitely suspicious. Smell.” He slides a makeup catalog from beneath a microscope made out of a plate, a toilet paper roll, and an intricate arrangement of pipe cleaners. “Any ideas?”
I take a scientific whiff. “Gardenia. Looks like those Mary Kay terrorists are at it again.”
“Don’t laugh. Your stuff is on the ‘highly suspicious’ list, too.” He pulls a bright yellow, junk mail–looking envelope from the stack and busts out his game show face. “Hudson Avery, You’re Future Is Closer Than You Think.”
“My future? Hmm. Working at Hurley’s is pretty dangerous.”
Bug sighs. “Don’t be so literal. They spelled ‘your’ wrong. It’s one of the signs.”
“Of stupidity?” I’ve asked Mrs. Ferris—our downstairs neighbor, landlady, and chief Bug-sitter—not to let him watch the news. Ever since they busted that terror cell a few blocks over,
it’s like CSI Watonka in our house. Last month he told me he was installing metal detectors for the bathroom and that starting this summer, I’d need a government-issued ID just to pee. “Hey, I’m sure Mom appreciates your vigilant counterterrorism efforts, but try not to waste the Ziplocs. They’re expensive.”
“It’s cool. I recycle.” He flings the anthrax-detecting candy cane into the trash along with a red envelope from the gas company. Miraculously, my grammatically incorrect letter and Mom’s makeup catalog get a pass.
“I need this.” I dig the bill from the trash and slit open the envelope, even though I already know what it says: THIS IS YOUR FINAL NOTICE BEFORE SHUTOFF
. Mom made a partial payment last month, but technically the gas bill’s mine—trade-off for keeping the cupcake profits—and there’s still a balance due. I’ll have to stop by the service center again this week. They probably have my picture on the wall, like those people in department stores who write bad checks. Beware of Hudson Avery, master groveler and avoider of late fees great and small!
“What are you doing now?” Bug asks as I slip the bill into my backpack. “Wanna play Special Victims Unit? You can be the victim this time.” He’s out of the chair before I can answer.
“Sorry, bud. I have to run out for a while.”
He frowns, tiny glasses slipping back down his nose.
“Don’t be sad.” I kneel in front of him so we’re the same height and squeeze his shoulders. Beneath my hands, his bones feel small and hollow like a bird’s; I resist the urge to zip him up in my jacket.
“How about we hang out tonight—just you and me. I’ll bring home some extra cupcakes.” I push his glasses back up and lower my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll let you stay up late, too. Sound like a date?”
“Hmm.” He considers my bribe. “Four cupcakes, and I stay up until midnight.”
“I was thinking two and ten thirty.”
He hefts my backpack off the floor and hands it over. “I was thinking three and eleven, and I won’t tell Mom you’re ice-skating again.”
“What? I’m not—”
“I saw you cleaning the skates in your room last night, Hud. I’m not stupid.”
Like I needed the reminder.
I swing the bag over my shoulder, skates kicking me hard in the back. “Three and eleven it is, Detective Avery. Just remember the number one rule of good police work: Never rat out your sources.”
His eyes go wide. “Don’t say ‘rat’! You’ll give Mr. Napkins a complex!”
I grab his arms. “Please tell me you didn’t bring your hamster to the diner.”
“He’s at home, but that’s not the point. Just don’t say the R-word. It offends me.”
“Sorry. Don’t narc on your sources.”
“No narcing. Got it.” He pulls a pen and a spiral notepad from the piles on the desk and makes a note. “Hey, don’t
forget your letter.” He stretches to reach the yellow envelope and gives it a closer look. “What’s a foundation, anyway?”
“Oh, like a charity. Some gajillionaire sets them up to help a good cause. Why? Rich old uncle Mom forgot to mention?”
He inspects the return address. “Not unless his name is Uncle Lola.”
“Uncle who?” My throat goes dry, and I cough to clear the knot from it.
Bug scrunches up his face and checks again. “Lola Cap … Cap-something.”
“Capriani?” I whisper. It can’t be her.
“Whoa—you know a gajillionaire?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I used to … I knew her before. A long time ago.” I take the envelope from my brother, ignoring the tremor in my fingers. My stomach twists when I see her name, all fancy black script on canary-colored paper.
“Who is it?” Bug asks.
I crush the letter in my hand. “Lola Capriani was my skating coach.”