Peppercorns by Jasmine Szabo

Rain pitter patters against my window in a soft, melancholy beat. The rhythm is familiar; the song is a crescendo that soothes even the faintest of heart. Dreary Sunday mornings like this, where it is never fully day or night, are rare. With both parents out of the house and no plans for the day, I laid on my bed watching the rain hit my window until it was nearly afternoon. Usually I spent Sundays working, but today I hadn’t been scheduled. There were no essays that needed writing, no engagements to be held. For now, there was only the rain, myself, and twelve hours thirty-seven minutes until tomorrow.

By noon, with twelve hours to go, I was contented with the level of physical rest I had reached. My body felt relaxed, as though the act of lying in bed awhile longer this morning had soothed the soreness out of my muscles. The last thirty-seven minutes had been spent deciding what to do with the other twelve hours of the day remaining.

The answer was cookies.

Rainy afternoons and homemade cookies seemed like the perfect combination to my tired mind. It would be the opportunity to destress from the chaotic workload that always seemed to come with the end of the semester and to eat more cookies than was likely wise if I wanted to fit into my jeans tomorrow. There was only one thing standing between me and my dreams of baked goods: my inadequate baking skills. Sure, I could have figured out how to make crunchy, chocolate chip cookies that tasted like flour, but I wanted good cookies. The soft, melty kind of cookie that could make the crabbiest of grandmothers smile.

Pulling on slippers and a hoodie that would shield me from the elements long enough to cross my neighborhood street, I considered my odds of convincing Acey to bake me some cookies. I figured they were high since Acey didn’t have any plans today either. We had been neighbors for thirteen years and friends for ten. There was no one I trusted more in the world, especially with baking.

I rang the doorbell three times just to be annoying. One would have done the trick of course. The bell set off a wave of barking that alerted the family inside of my arrival. Acey opened the door with a scowl; Ivan and Violet, Acey’s dogs, threw themselves enthusiastically against the door in greeting. I slowly made my way inside, greeting the yellow and black labs I loved more than my own, and my belligerent looking friend, who I knew was completely okay with the unexpected visit but was likely to give me hell for it anyway.

“So…why are you here?” Acey asked.

The questioning of my presence was a matter of form. “Are you in the mood to bake some cookies?” This wasn’t the first time we baked together, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last if I had any say in it. Acey was a genius in the baked goods department.

“Okay,” Acey shrugged, “What kind do you want to make?”

“Chocolate chip?” I asked hopefully.

“Don’t think we have any chocolate chips right now. Snickerdoodle?” Acey murmured, already poking through the kitchen cabinets to evaluate the available ingredients.

“Works for me!”

We went through our usual baking tap dance. I helped locate some ingredients, attempted to start measuring them, messed it up in some way, got assigned to cleaning duty and spent the remainder of the baking time trying to steal spoonfuls of cookie dough from the mixer. Every time I attempted, with some successes and some failures, I was scolded and reminded about how regretful I was going to feel when I was in crippling pain for a week with salmonella. Acey wasn’t wrong of course; I just chose to live life on the edge.

The prep work was rapidly ending for the cookies. The dry ingredients were mixed with the wet and the dough sat awaiting its final ingredient: cinnamon.

Apparently Acey had decided to give me a chance to redeem myself from the measuring mishap earlier. “Can you grab me the cinnamon out of the cabinet?” Acey asked, reading through the recipe one last time. I wandered over to the cabinet, poking through the different spices on the wooden shelves beneath the cabinet I should have been looking in. Where is it? I thought impatiently, looking for the familiar brown powder. After a minute or two I located a small glass jar that was labeled: Cinnamon Sticks. That’ll work, I decided, going over to Acey to hold up the discovery.

Acey glanced up, looking mildly confused. “What is that?”

“Cinnamon sticks!” I said proudly. “Though I think they are broken into pieces or something.”

“Jasmine,” Acey said with a disappointed sigh, “Those aren’t cinnamon sticks. They are perfect black spheres. Do you know what those are?”

I stared at the jar in defeat. “I’m guessing not cinnamon.”

Acey walked over to the cabinet above the rack, opened it and quickly pulled out a large plastic container of cinnamon. “Those are peppercorns,” Acey said with a grin, finishing up the dough.

I laughed, studying the peppercorns in a mixture of curiosity and embarrassment. “Oh.”

Awhile later, after the cookies were baked and the kitchen was cleaned, Acey and I sat, studying the little glass jar with its misleading contents.

“I wonder who put those in there,” Acey mused, lips twitching up again into a snarky smile

Dipping my second cookie in a glass of cold milk, I considered. “Maybe they didn’t have anything else to put them in and didn’t think to change the label.”

“Or they knew that if they put peppercorns in the cinnamon container some poor sucker like you would come along and eat one. I can’t believe you thought those were cinnamon sticks.”

The cookie slipped out of my fingers and I watched in humiliated defeat as the warm snickerdoodle crumbled to the bottom of the glass like a broken ship sinking into the dark, abyssal sea.

I wasn’t destined to be America’s next top baker, but at least I had cookies.

Or did.