The sins of the chef

Day 10: Delicious
No Novel November 2019

A decadent chocolate cake with a slice on the side and a cup of coffee - Chocolate torte by theresahelmer via Deviant Art

It’s not the worst cake I’ve ever eaten, but it’s damn close. The center is nearly liquid, drying to a sedimentary crust where alleged frosting smoothes the whole thing like adobe. The menu proclaims it “better than sex,” which knots my stomach worse than the leaden ball of pastry; what is this person doing in their private time?

And yet my fork keeps moving, bite after horrendous bite, until the entire slice is gone.

I sit back with the exhale of a triathlete crossing the finish line, then check my notes on the ordeal. This is going to be a hell of a review.


My eyebrows shoot up at what I’ve written. Brow furrowed, I look at the rest of the cake revolving in its case. It’s perfectly normal: moist, chocolatey, light. Nothing like the monstrous confection I just ate.

The sinking feeling that follows has everything and nothing to do with cake.

I peer through the counter window at the chef, her head drooped between bowed shoulders, face thick with tear-streaked makeup, jaw set hard.

My stomach churns and groans loudly. As if my gastrointestinal distress is a signal, the chef’s face brightens and her body unbends. She looks around questioningly, but I’m gone.

I toss a $20 at the waitress and duck out, crumpling my notes. I’ll find another joint to write up—right after this lady’s issues settle themselves in my gut. I should have known.

Food critic by trade. Sin eater by fate.

This story is part of No Novel November, a daily microfiction challenge. If you'd like to know more and/or join in, click here.


Day 5: Pickle
No Novel November 2019

Mason jars monochrome by rollingfishays via Deviant Art

I watch Gramma prep the glass jars by washing them with blue soap and clouds of hot water before roasting them in the oven as high as she dares set it. The massive pot—the one she used to bathe me in when I was little—hisses under its lid, fixed to boil.

She waves a thick, soft arm in my direction without looking. I scurry from my seat at the kitchen table to join her. It’s the first year I’ve been allowed to watch, and I don’t want to miss a single step.

We don’t speak as she pours plain white vinegar into the jars. Or as she measures coarse salt in the palm of her callused hand. Or as she pinches dill and cracks pepper and spoons coriander. I pass her the sugar; she likes them more sweet than sour. The contents of the jars cloud and swirl until I can’t make them out even by squinting.

We work in silence until she puts the lid back on the roiling pot and starts the timer.

“Why do you save up your memories like this, Gramma?” I whisper.

She pulls me into her side. The puff of air between us smells like yeasty dough, like brine, like home. “You just never know when you might need them,” she says.

This story is part of No Novel November, a daily microfiction challenge. If you'd like to know more and/or join in, click here.

Nothing to See Here

Day 4: Nothing
No Novel November 2019

Polymer clay sculpture of a sideshow carnival magician with cards, white dove, and white rabbit - The Magician 4 by wingdthing via DeviantArt

“Any volunteers?”

Several hands shot up from the crammed benches in front of the ramshackle stage. The carnival had arrived at its final stop, and the crowd had showed up with first-night enthusiasm. Everybody loves a big finish. And Mister Mysterio, Master of Magic and Mysticism, intended to give them one.

“Yes, you! The lady with the intriguing hat. Come right up. Don’t be shy.”

The volunteer tiptoed up to the platform where Mysterio took her hand with exaggerated chivalry and walked her to an oversized box festooned with patchy stars.

“And now, Miss…Sandra, thank you…Miss Sandra will enter the Shadow Box where I shall make her disappear!”

Sandra giggled nervously and stepped inside.

Mysterio rolled his shirtsleeves to the elbow. “Nothing up my sleeve.” He took off his worn bowler. “Nothing under my hat.” He stomped on the boards. “Nothing under the stage.” Then he bowed to the lady and closed the door with a click.

With a flourish of his wand, the magician tapped three times on each wall of the box. There was a sound like blowing a bubble in reverse, then he turned the knob and opened the door.

The only thing inside was an evaporating green mist.

The crowd erupted, and Mysterio luxuriated in the applause. But when he headed offstage rather than back to the box, the cheers turned to angry murmurs.

“Ah, ah,” he chided, wagging a white-gloved finger. “I promised to make her disappear. I never said anything about bringing her back.”

This story is part of No Novel November, a daily microfiction challenge. If you'd like to know more and/or join in, click here.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Day 2: Hidden
No Novel November 2019

A dark forest with a bright light at the center leading out - first light by sprocket2cog via deviant art

He emerges from the jungle overlooking a sudden valley and frowns. This isn’t what he wanted to see after three weeks of hacking through vines, subsisting on MREs and a LifeStraw.

The valley below is empty. Lush, green, vibrant with life—but empty.

It takes him an hour to skitter to the bottom where he sits on a boulder to soak in unoccluded sunlight. He’s so tired of being wet. He’s decided to move to Arizona when this is over. Which is going to be sooner than expected, given the utter lack of an ancient temple of chaos where there should be one.

After a few minutes, he sighs and glares at the valley. Might as well look around. Even if the expedition is a bust, he’s still a scientist, dammit.

He starts at the edge of the clearing and works in tightening circles, examining stones and plants. None of it is interesting, but he keeps going, mind wandering. What will he tell the department? The investors? His wife?

He falls down hard halfway to the center.

Rubbing his head, he looks around frantically, but there’s nothing. He can clearly see the rise of the jungle in front of him.

He can also see his own shadow looming over him, cast against a wall that isn’t there.

“What the—“

Before he can finish the sentence, his shadow’s black hands shoot out, clutch his shoulders, and yank him through the invisible wall.

And the valley is empty once again.

This story is part of No Novel November, a daily microfiction challenge. If you'd like to know more and/or join in, click here.

Fiction: Just a Jump to the Left

It happened like magic, like lightning. First she was there, then she wasn’t. It happened so fast I thought I’d imagined her.

Until it happened again.

And again.

And again.

A guy in line for coffee, gone as if he’d never been standing two feet in front of me, glued to his phone. The barista didn’t miss a beat.

The elderly couple who got on the A-train but never got off.

My boss.

I stopped looking to other bystanders for help after a dozen or so. All I ever got in return for my panicked asking if they’d seen what I’d seen was incredulous glares and a breathalyser test. I’d trawl social media and every news outlet worth reading after each one, but there was nothing to find. No missing persons alerts. No investigations. It was like nothing ever happened. The fabric of the universe puckered briefly around the hole created by a person’s disappearance, then tightened to create a seamless swathe of new reality. Erased. Forgotten. Unmade.

No one noticed and no one was interested—not even conspiracy theorist message boards.

Except me.

For a little while.

It’s amazing what you get used to. The first year was hard—a series of barf-inducing shocks—but after that, I only noticed because I felt obligated to.

After that first girl blinked out of existence, I wrote down as much as I could remember about her, hoping I’d see her again and confirm my suspicion that it was a mirage, a side effect of overindulging the night before. But I didn’t. When the second one happened, I was sure I was nuts. I scrawled pages and pages in my journal trying to connect the dots of my past to reveal what my parents had done to me that would lead to such insanity. Three makes a pattern, though, and I eventually realized that I wasn’t suffering from sudden-onset prosopagnosia (thanks, WebMD). I was compiling evidence. With each successive event, I dutifully logged the abductee’s physical description, location, activity, and other pertinent details in a notebook I carried everywhere. If this was real, the world needed a record of whatever it turned out to be—proof that these humans once existed, even if it was flimsy at best.

But aside from that? Not much changed. I got up, went to work, had lunch, messed around online, went home, ate dinner, binged Netflix, went to bed too late, got up in the morning and did it all again. Just like before.

Don’t judge me. What else was I supposed to do? I’m not a quantum physicist or an investigative journalist. I don’t even believe in aliens. I’m an accountant. A normal guy who tried to warn people about the disappearances but got laughed out of offices, chat rooms, and bars. A guy whose best friend ghosted him because his apartment was covered in blurry photos and increasingly illegible sticky notes.

I’m not a hero.

Five years in is when things started getting bad. The city had lost over half its population, and it showed. Restaurants closed with linens and cutlery laid out for evening service. Students showed up to classes with no teachers. Trash pickup stopped. Power outages started. But despite the inconvenience and the growing stink, those that remained continued as if nothing had changed. Each person that disappeared was smoothed over by time and space leaving not even a memory behind. The barista still smiled and asked about my tropical fish, and I still grinned back and told her they were a pain in the ass but too expensive to flush down the toilet. At night, I went back to my rent-free apartment (thanks, disappeared landlord) and pored through my journals by candlelight, speculating about what had happened to these missing people—now numbering in the millions, maybe billions.

And when it would be my turn.

It’s weird to have FOMO about what amounts to an extinction-level event. I had no idea what had happened to everyone, but my theories ran the gamut from “actually abducted by aliens and getting a serious probing” to “slow-motion rapture” and everywhere in between. None of them were something I wanted to participate in.

And yet….

One day, I walked into the corner café to find it empty. The barista had vanished. I stood among the dusty tables blinking at where she had been for the past five years in defiance of the cosmic weirdness happening around her. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much of a fixture she’d become in my life. While everyone else phased out of existence, she was always right there.

I turned in a slow circle, scanning the street outside through the huge windows. Trash was piled so high it leaned on parked cars covered in tickets. Storefronts were long since gated. Nothing moved except a newspaper caught in the breeze. Time spooled out in a long, unbroken thread as I strained my eyes for any sign of human life. But there was none.

Panic rising, I fished my phone from my pocket and opened my contacts list. It had taken me a while to notice the entries being erased, but it had started happening faster and faster, whittling five hundred names down to dozens in a rapid purge of non-existent people.

That morning, I’d had ten contacts left. Now, there were none.

That’s when I broke.

You’d think it would have happened earlier. When I realized I wasn’t insane and this was really happening, for instance, or when my brother disappeared in the middle of a family dinner and everyone kept eating. There were thousands of reasons to utterly lose it practically every day. But I never did. Because I knew—absolutely knew—that there would be an answer. That the disappearing would stop or somebody smarter than me would fix it. That one day every missing person would pop back into existence and we could laugh about it (after a while). I’d held on to the unwavering belief that this too, would pass.

But as I sank to the floor of the abandoned coffee shop, the tears finally flowed, pooling around my face as laid my head on the ground.

All gone. All of them. Gone. Everyone. Except me.

It was dark when I woke up. My eyes were gritty from crying, and my legs were numb from passing out in child’s pose. I rolled over, blinking away the blur and willing my feet to move. I lifted a heavy arm to check the time on my phone, but the battery had died. I wondered how long it would be until the world’s power went out permanently. How long until I lost my grip on sanity, alone without the Internet?

A rattle from the door behind me startled a yelp from my throat. I cursed the pins and needles in my legs as I wrestled my body underneath a table to hide. I balled up and held my breath, eyes straining against the darkness to see who—or what—was coming. I tried not to imagine how many tentacles, arms, and eyes they would have.

Old-fashioned bells jangled as the door opened. “Hello?” said a round shadow. “Is someone in here?”

The shadow reached out and flicked a switch. The overhead lighting snapped on, flooding the room and blinding me. It was only for a second, but when I could see again, a pair of legs stood inches from my hiding spot.

Human legs.

“Matt? Is that you? Why are you on the floor?”

The voice was human, too, I realized. And familiar.

Curiosity overrode self-preservation. I risked peeking out from the safety of the table and looked up into the concerned face of Amy, the barista.

My barista.

I shot up on wobbly legs to throw my arms around her in an embrace usually reserved for life preservers. She laughed awkwardly, “Hey! Okay! Good to see you, too,” and patted my back.

I let her go, then stood back to marvel at her existence. “You didn’t disappear,” I observed. I knew it was stupid—I’d had this same conversation with her a hundred times over the years with no result—but I said it anyway.

Instead of her usual eye roll, though, this time she smiled and said, “I did.” Then she gestured at the early-morning customers trickling into the café. “We all did.”

Within minutes, I was surrounded by people. Real human beings with purses and Bluetooth and hangovers and BO. People that had slipped out of my life one by one without a trace. They were all staring at me. I stared right back.

I tried to ask all my pent-up questions at once—what happened, where are we, did we die, is this a dream or an alternate dimension or the darkest timeline—but nothing came out. Tears of relief choked off the words.

I had made it. After years of wondering and worrying, I was finally here. I didn’t know where “here” was, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I wasn’t the last person on Earth anymore. That I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life going slowly insane asking why not me. I was with people again, and that meant I was home.

Amy touched my arm lightly, her eyes sparkling with an excitement I didn’t understand.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “Now we can get started.”

Story content: © Ellie Di Julio 2019
Art: “Fade Away” by TheFoxAndTheRaven