Note: Written for edna_blackadder as part of the 2011 Yuletide fic exchange
Disclaimer: The canon source is not my IP, no profit or harm intended.
It was a strange morning. Summer. Hot, with the sun shining in. It made Karen Eiffel wish she owned thicker curtains, but the burning sun deterred her from going out to get any. By the time the weather was good enough to risk it, she'd probably have forgotten. Would you die from dehydration, the sunburn, or in some more insidious way later. Skin cancer? The warm life of the sun versus the slow rotting death of your body. Powerful. She pottered about, yawning, scratching, putting the kettle on, realising it had been half an hour, putting the kettle on again. There was a knock at the door. Kay felt too rotten to contemplate answering it, so she drank her vile, freeze-dried coffee and watched cars fart against each other in the morning traffic out the back window. Whoever it was, they went away, and things calmed down into a more or less normal pace.
Well, it would have been a normal pace, but life just wasn't what it used to be. She'd contemplated going into sappy, sweet, wish-fulfilment children's fiction, but that just wasn't her. She didn't have the complexity of mind to write children with their whimsy and their... gimmicky but unfathomably meaningful tastes. Karen Eiffel was all about contemporary literature; hints of magical realism, but nothing noticeable by the readers; death and the nature of human experience; condensed, honest meaning about the shitty depths of the human soul. If she tried her hand at children's fiction, she'd probably end up writing about an eight year old with a drug habit and dog with one eye. She would be the Charles Dickens of Modern American Fiction. (Captialised, because writers took themselves somewhat seriously, at least from her experiences with her agent.)
Which just wouldn't do, because Harold Crick had been enough, and no research in all the world would avoid that little niggling fear at the back of her head. That she wasn't writing about characters that were a part of her, but somehow controlling real lives and destinies. So it was a dilemma. She could write things that she was terrible at, or write her very best way and kill people, or not write at all. There was no solution, no meaning in anything.
Penny let herself in. Kay had expected the woman to up and go once the second and final manuscript was completed, but Penny apparently lived in the area, and cared enough to stay. Kay waved her empty mug – it sloshed, not quite so empty, then – and raised her eyebrows. 'I'm not going to write a story where you get a new Cadillac and a mansion to live in, you know. Bribes won't tempt me, whatever it is you're carrying.'
'What?' Penny looked down at the bag in her hands. 'This is yours. I found it in the doorway. Must be a very big fan of yours, or something.'
Penny patiently handed the bag over. When Kay took it in her hands, it let out a puff of air, and the smell of freshly baked cinnamon scrolls, and... something else. Kay scrabbled to open the bag. Inside was a collection of random baked goods. Or, it would have been random, if only Kay didn't remember each and every single pastry she had described in Death and Taxes. Well, not every one was in the bag, of course, but a lot of them were. These were the cinnamon scrolls and white chocolate macadamia clusters of one Ana Pascal. Kay reached a hand in, right to the bottom, and yes. There were even those cookies.
'They smell good. I never took you for a sweet-pastry kind of person. Makes sense, though.'
She'd forgotten Penny was even there. Kay scowled, clutched the bag to her chest. 'I'm as sweet as they come. You aren't getting any, by the way.'
Penny smiled, that smug, polite, friendly, infuriating smile she got whenever she thought Kay was being silly. She wore that smile a lot, actually, now Kay thought about it. Anyway, she smiled.
'Ana's good at her job, isn't she.'
Kay gaped. 'You! You went there, didn't you! To her bakery! To my Ana Pascal's bakery. That is disgraceful!'
Penny shrugged. 'You weren't going to go yourself, and you're not the only one who deserves explanations for things, you know.'
'I know that. Don't be defensive. I just... I never thought I could go. It feels like there should be some kind of barrier there, a boundary. In the same way that there's laws against some conflicting investment interests, and insider trading. It's breaking a rule.'
Penny said 'Ahuh. Right.' She watched as Kay jealously clutched her paper bag and took a bite of one of the cookies.
It was... just crunchy enough on the outside, just soft enough in the middle. Sweet without that chalky aftertaste you could sometimes get, from a little too much baking powder. Not warm, but not cold. Kay could imagine Ana getting up early to bake them, flour smeared on her arms, her forehead, her apron. Harold sitting for a coffee at the bench before he went to work, smiling, watching the way Ana moved and kneaded.
'Since when do you toe the line, anyway?'
Kay put the rest of the cookie back in the bag. It wouldn't do to get too lost in that intimacy. She'd felt very deeply for both Harold and Ana, when she'd written them. But they were people, with privacy rights and really it was voyeuristic. Inappropriate.
Screw it. How often did you get the chance to eat the food you'd written into existence? They tasted better than she'd ever imagined food could taste. She chewed long and thoughtfully, absorbing all of the texture, aroma, taste. She drank only water, so she didn't spoil the flavour.
'You'll make yourself sick. You can always get some more another day; you won't run out, you know.'
Kay shook her head. She swallowed. 'I can't. You know I can't.'
Penny clasped her hands together. 'Is this the same reason you can't write anything?'
'It's entirely different. Or maybe it's the same. I don't know. I feel like I only put the book out because if I didn't, Harold would feel insecure. I'm a writer. I can't live like this! What else can I do?'
'You could take up baking. You seem to be very good at matching flavours.'
Kay threw her free hand up in the air, said 'Oooooh, you devil woman!' and marched resolutely back to bed. She tugged the duvet until it covered her head, and considered getting crumbs all over the sheets, because fuck the world. Not your most rampant act of rebellious destruction, but it would probably exasperate Penny.
'I could pass on your thanks, without mentioning your name.'
Kay shook her head. The duvet wobbled around her.
'They're good kids. They care about you, god help them. Be a nice lord and creator.'
Kay poked her head out to be indignant. 'I'm a lady, thank you very much.'
'Well, your Ladyship, would you deign to enter your regal carriage and accompany me to greet your peasantfolk?'
Kay bit her lip. She really wasn't up for it. She buried her biscuits under her pillow and came out anyway. She brushed past Penny, pulled a coat on over her pyjamas, and waited at the door. 'The inaccuracies in the way you addressed me... If I was a real lady, it would be enough to turn my stomach over. Only Americans would think that kind of language is proper formal English. I would have been intimately offended.'
Penny stared placidly at Kay. 'Well it's a good thing you're no lady now, then, isn't it.'
Kay smiled tightly. 'It is.'
The car ride was blissfully silent. Until, of course, Penny spoke.
'I looked into them all for you, you know. You should know, about...'
'Nononononono!' Kay stuck her fingers in her ears. 'No talking about that!'
'All right, all right. I surrender. I'd raise my hands but I don't want to kill both of us.'
If Penny did want to kill both of them, Kay almost commented, she'd have found a more elegant way than simply crashing the car. But she didn't, because getting into conversations about death with Penny was like getting stuck in an infinite loop of optimistic denial and honest human mortality. Kay curled her legs up and pressed her heels down into the seat cushion. She was running out of ways to annoy Penny, and it was getting a little tricky in the car, for one. 'I'd deserve it. Look at me. Look at all the people I've killed. Have you read my books? I'm a...'
'Serial killer, yeah, I know. You've mentioned. Only, Kay,' Penny paused to pay attention as they approached an intersection. 'Kay, everyone dies. Every day, people die. They die in ways that are sometimes just like your books anyway. You're not necessarily doing a bad thing, exploring deeper human meanings and quality of life through death. Maybe you're giving these people something they'd never have. Dignity, or at the very least, the preservation of their identity in fiction.'
It made sense, but only because it absolved Kay of a lot of self loathing and culpability. Writers weren't supposed to feel at ease with themselves. It made her distrustful of Penny. What did the woman know about writing, anyway?
'Or maybe, it's a probabilistic anomaly.'
Kay frowned. 'A what? No, I'm sorry, after all this and you think it's just a coincidence?'
Penny shrugged. 'Well, some people think they dream the future, but when you count how many dreams a person can have each night, how many in a week, a lifetime, and how many humans there are in the world, it makes sense that sometimes, completely randomly, someone might dream of something that happens, exactly as they've dreamed it, after the dream. Prediction through coincidence. There's a lot of writers, a lot of books, a lot of characters in this world.'
'You mean to say, you think that all of this could have been a fluke? Harold finding me, reading the manuscript, my changing it to match exactly what happened to him?'
'May be. Would you be so sure of yourself, if there had been a tiny discrepancy, or several?'
Kay didn't like it. It was disgusting. Repulsive. What if Harold and Ana weren't figments of her imagination? What if it was just some huge mistake, people seeing patterns because people always want meaning instead of randomness. Kay always wanted meaning, instead of meaninglessness.
'If you want to know about my research into your other characters, I could...'
'No! Not that again. And your other idea's preposterous. Of course they're my characters. They lived in my head for months. I know them inside out. They're my cookies.'
'Do you always regress when you get into a mood, or do you just do it for me specially?'
Before Kay could answer, Penny was pulling up at the curb in front of Ana's bakery. 'We're here. I'll pick you up later, all right? Call me. I'm in the phone book.'
'Yeah, right.' Kay slammed the passenger door harder than she needed to, stuck her tongue out at Penny, grinned, and walked straight up to the door. Inside, there were customers, but it was lunch time, so there was Harold at the counter. He was laughing and nodding, a bit of his hair sticking up because he'd lapsed in his rigorous grooming habits. Or maybe Ana had ruffled it when she'd put his plate down in front of him. Ana was pulling a tray out of the oven, glowing with the heat. One corner of her mouth tilted up at the sight of Harold as she turned to the cooling racks.
Kay knew every step that Ana took, every mark that Harold's teeth left in the sourdough of his sandwich. When she pushed the door, and it opened, she felt like she was tearing through the membrane of the world, and it was the slowest and hardest thing she'd ever done.
Then she was through, inside, in a different warmth to that of the sticky hot outside. Everything smelt fresh and good, and Harold smiled at her like her grumpy old scabby face was the nicest thing he'd seen all day. He hugged her, awkwardly, and Kay didn't stop him. Ana leaned over to grab them both, smushed flour into everyone's hair as she tried to get her arms around them.
'I've got something new.' Ana set a tray on the counter. 'Special customers only, Fenders.'
They were simple iced biscuits, cut in the shape of Fender Stratocasters. All different colours. The green one was Harolds, of course, so Kay picked a white one for herself. She swapped it for a yellow one after a moment to regret things. There was sugar and laughter.
Harold's eyes were warm and contained something secret and unreachable to Kay when she looked at them. He took one of her hands in his own, solemnly though they were all covered in crumbs, and said quietly 'I'm glad you came. I, we, wanted to give you something. To say thank-you.'
'T-there's nothing to be thankful for, really. Promise.' Kay felt very out of place. But Harold kept smiling, and Ana was nodding.
He reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled something small out. He pressed it into her hands.
He had drilled a hole in the twisted metal ring of his dearly departed watch's faceplate. He had removed the messy remains of its liquid crystal display, and threaded it on a chain. Kay felt tight and lighter than air. Like she was looking down from a slight distance, and at the same time stuck deep under everyone's skin. She felt, finally, maybe for the first time in her entire life, like a writer.