Icing on the Cake
Jun sat on a hard plastic chair, nervously wringing her hands. The waiting room was antiseptic and plain. Even the bright fluorescent lights only added a harsh glare to the scene.
A noise startled her, and her head jerked up to see Dr. Nambu approaching her.
"Now?" she asked, her throat feeling dry.
"Now." the Doctor confirmed. Jun pulled herself up and out of her chair. Her knees shook as she walked across the room. All she could do was hope that her foster father didn't notice.
Jun moved unsteadily down the hallway and over to the door of the small room that was her destination. Her palms were sweating, and she had to grip the doorknob tightly as she turned it. Gingerly, she stepped into the darkened room.
"Come here, Jun."
The creaky voice came from the large hospital bed in the corner, and Jun closed the door gently behind her before moving closer. Slowly, she sat down in a chair placed next to the bed.
"I'm so glad you came, Junie." Granny Nambu said. Her voice lacked the life and curiosity it usually contained: a pale imitation of its normal self. She sounded very sad and tired, and it was this, more than anything else, that brought home to Jun the seriousness of Granny's illness.
Granny Nambu's hand reached out, and Jun placed her fingers on the weathered palm. But the old woman brushed the girl's tentative touch aside. Instead, Granny fumbled with something on her night table, before managing to grasp it. Slowly, she passed the small object over toward Jun, and deposited it reverently into the girl's hand.
Jun looked down. She was holding a crumpled piece of paper. It was yellowed with age, deep creases clearly showing where it had been folded and unfolded many times over the years.
"Go on." Granny urged, her body frail, but her voice full of command. "Open it."
Carefully, Jun unfolded the paper, laying it on Granny's bed and smoothing it gently on the blanket. There was writing on the paper. One word leapt out and caught Jun's eye.
Jun's mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. Was this what she thought it was?
"It's my secret recipe for Christmas fruitcake." Granny confirmed Jun's worst fears. And then suddenly, Granny Nambu collapsed back onto her pillows, her body bereft of energy, as if the life had been drained out of her.
"But…" Jun desperately sought for something, anything to say in response, "it's only April. Why are you giving a Christmas recipe to me now?"
"Don't beat around the bush, Junie." Granny whispered, her wrinkled eyes closed, their lids trembling. "I'm going into surgery tomorrow morning. I'm ninety-five years old. I know there's a good chance that I might not pull through this procedure."
"But Hakase has assembled the best team of doctors…" Jun protested.
"Doctors can only fight old age for so long." Granny said firmly. "I might recover, but I might not. This illness has reminded me that I won't live forever. There's no guarantee that I'll see next Christmas, or ever make my fruitcake again."
Jun shook her head, but found herself unable to refute the truth in Granny Nambu's words.
"As my only granddaughter, I want you to have my secret recipe." Granny confided. "One day, I hope you will pass it on to your daughter, or granddaughter."
Jun choked, overcome with mixed emotions. Part of her was troubled to hear Granny Nambu speak of her own death so casually. Yet at the same time, Jun was horrified at the notion that she was expected to carry on the tradition of Granny Nambu's Christmas fruitcake. Granny's fruitcake was legendary… or more appropriately, infamous. This noxious concoction had been known to turn the Condor as green as a Galactor goon's uniform, cause the Owl to refuse dessert, burn the Swallow's skin, and induce hallucinations in the Eagle that were so vivid that they had nearly been life-threatening. On one memorable occasion, this toxic dessert had even given a Galactor mecha a fatal case of indigestion.
And Granny Nambu was passing down the dubious legacy of this recipe to her?
Granny patted Jun's hand soothingly, misinterpreting her granddaughter's reaction to this unexpected news.
"We all have to go sometime, dear." she said sanguinely.
Jun nodded her head silently, but felt guilty inside.
"Granny," she hesitantly confessed, "I'm not a very good cook."
"Nonsense!" Granny smiled. "You made that wonderful appetizer for our Christmas dinner last year. Or was it the year before? I can't recall… In any case, I'll bet you can make that fruitcake as well as I can. All of the instructions are written out right there."
Despite herself, Jun had to smile. She certainly couldn't do any worse than Granny at making fruitcake.
"To have you make this, and know that my dessert will be there next Christmas, even if I'm not, will be the icing on the cake." Granny sighed.
"Icing?" Jun's eyes began scanning over the yellowed paper in her hand. She had never been brave enough to actually eat Granny Nambu's Christmas fruitcake before, but she couldn't recall it having icing…
"It's an expression." Granny chuckled softly. "It will make me feel good to know that a part of me lives on. It will give me that much more joy."
"Oh." Jun replied, taken aback by the degree of emotion Granny had tied up in this fruitcake.
"Please, try the recipe." Granny urged, her weakened hands now fluttering at her throat. "It would ease my mind, knowing that my fruitcake will be passed on. Promise me, Jun."
Jun wanted desperately to refuse. She had the refuse. There was no way she could honestly fulfill this request. But when she looked at Granny Nambu's frail body lying in the hospital bed, her tongue would not obey her mind.
Jun opened the door to the Snack J. Her body sagged, her exhaustion as deep as if she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. But it wasn't the world she was carrying, only a recipe written in a spidery hand, on a piece of paper buried deep in her pocket.
Granny Nambu had been so desperate to pass on this piece of her family history, and yet as she had accepted it, Jun had also accepted a burden of guilt. She wasn't a cook. Oh, she had tried. She had even taken a cooking class more than a year ago, and had managed to produce some good results at the time. But when her Christmas turkey had suddenly turned into a Galactor mecha, Jun's confidence had been sorely shaken. It hadn't helped that her cooking teacher had run screaming off into the night, terrorized by his student's creation. Jun hadn't been able to make anything edible since that time.
By accepting this 'gift' from Granny, Jun was now obligated to put it to use. Certainly she could try, but her heart just wasn't in it. Sighing heavily, she sat down in an empty booth and pulled out the piece of paper, spreading it out on the table with her hands so she could read it. Her green eyes scanned the list of ingredients.
Allspice berries… what were those? Hard apple cider… did that mean frozen, or crystallized… or alcoholic? 4 cups of bourbon! What was this, a recipe for a drunkard? And at the bottom of the list, additional notes for black molasses, rum and… condensed tomato soup? No, that couldn't be right…
When she began reading the cooking instructions, Jun grew even more confused. Soaking candied fruit in spices and alcohol for days? Storing the fully baked concoction for a month, spritzing it daily with brandy? This wasn't a cake recipe, it was a time-consuming project that would take weeks!
Jun finally began to understand why Granny had always been so proud of the fruitcakes she had given to her family at Christmastime. The amount of effort involved in creating this dessert was phenomenal, and Granny had performed all of these tasks, every year, for the people she loved. The fact that Granny's fruitcake was the most toxic substance any of them had ever encountered was beside the point. It was a dish truly made with love.
Well, Jun had love. She loved her family more than anything else in the world. If she really put her effort into this, she could do it. And after all, whatever fruitcake she made couldn't be any worse than Granny's fruitcake.
Jun stared grimly at the recipe, holding the paper tightly in her hand. She was determined to get this right.
The door to the Snack opened and Jinpei walked in, accompanied by Ryu. The pair approached the booth where Jun was sitting.
"What's up, Onechan?" Jinpei asked, moving closer.
"Nothing." Jun said, casually folding the recipe and moving to shove it into her pocket. But she wasn't fast enough.
"What's that, Junie?" Ryu asked, even as Jinpei's hand shot out to grab the yellowing paper.
"That's not yours!" Jun shouted. But it was too late. The Swallow already had the recipe in his hand. The boy danced around, laughing as he read snatches from the paper.
"Cinnamon… sugar… nutmeg…" he smirked. "Oh, Onechan, don't tell me that you're actually thinking about cooking!"
"Come on, Jun knows better than that!" Ryu replied complacently. "She wouldn't ever try to cook again. Not after the disaster last time."
"It wasn't a total disaster!" Jun defended herself hotly.
"So, you'd call your dinner turning into a Galactor mecha only a minor disaster?" Jinpei mocked. Jun stood up angrily, yanking the recipe from Jinpei's hand. The paper tore slightly, the sound seeming to echo through the empty bar.
"Look what you've done!" she cried, clutching the recipe to her chest.
"It's just as well." Jinpei laughed. "If you don't have all the instructions, it might turn out better."
"Aw, let her cook, Jinpei." Ryu smiled condescendingly. "Just as long as we don't have to eat it."
"Just get out!" Jun shouted, her arm outstretched as she pointed to the door.
"Whatever you say, Onechan!" Jinpei grinned widely as he ran to the door, Ryu close behind. The pair left the Snack, but Jinpei popped his head back inside for the last word.
"Just remember to clean the burn marks off the counter when you're done!" he needled.
Jun fumed, her empty hand clenching into a fist. It was just as well that Jinpei and Ryu were gone, as she was too angry to speak. She would show them! She couldn't cook, huh? Well she would make Granny Nambu's fruitcake recipe, better than it had ever been made before!
She wouldn't be cooking with love. She would be cooking with revenge.