09 Jan Mara’s Free Cookies
“Mara’s Free Cookies”Written by Kitty “The Odd Cat Lady” Olsen Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
There are two kinds of people in my town- people who loved Mara’s Sweets and Such, and people who thought Mara was the worst person in existence and that anyone that bought her baked goods were the worst.
The bakery didn’t exist when I went off to college, but by the time I was back it had settled into an empty space on the main street, complete with a pink sign hanging above the door that said the name of the business and a large front window with cute cupcakes, cookies, and slices of cake and pie etched into the glass. I admit, I do have a sweet tooth, but I figured anything inside would be out of my price range. Like I said, I went off to college. That’s a lot of debt I’m looking forward to paying off.
Still, it was quite an interesting drama all over a simple little bakery, so one day when I was out running errands I decided to at least pop my head in.
Oh man, I had no regrets once I stepped through that front door. The smell alone was to die for. There was a record player in the corner softly playing some oldies, there were a few small tables decorated to look like various kinds of pies… and the array of goodies under the counter. Oh man. My mouth watered at the miniature pies, the cupcakes, and the cookies… every kind of cookie I’d heard of and more than I hadn’t. Chocolate chip. Peanut butter. Snickerdoodle. White Velvet. And from the back out came Mara, carrying a platter of sugar cookies. She was the image of a perfect baker, with a spotted bright red dress under her flour covered apron and her hair all bunned up, her cheeks all rosy from working back in the kitchens and a beautiful smile on her lips.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you enter!” The woman beamed. “I’m Mara, welcome to Sweets and Such! Anything catching your eye?”
I stammered for a moment before remembering my unfortunately empty wallet. “I’m uh… I’m sorry, I’m just looking,” I said, looking for any chance to slink out of this dessert heaven with my tail between my legs. It wasn’t like the shop was busy right now, but it didn’t feel right just to pop in and leave without buying anything.
But Mara just smiled and set the platter of sugar cookies on the top of the counter.
“These just came out of the oven. Have one or two, and we’ll just say you’ll owe me later.”
I shouldn’t have accepted… but damn, they looked so good. And I hadn’t had lunch yet, and I was starving.
I hesitantly took one, expecting her to say ‘psych’ at any second, but she continued to smile as I took a small bite.
I’d never had a better sugar cookie in my life. No, I’d never had a better cookie ever. Perfectly warm, with a dusting of sprinkles on the top, the right amount of sweet without being sickly and with a touch of crisp on the outside while still being soft in the middle.
I scarfed down the rest of that cookie, unable to hold myself back. I probably looked like a slob in front of the perfectly prim and perfect Mara, but I was like a shark during a feeding frenzy. Too quickly that first cookie was gone and I grabbed a second to enjoy more thoroughly. “These are amazing!” I blurted out, unfortunately spraying a few crumbs onto the counter top.
Mara quickly grabbed a cloth and wiped it off, clearly prepared for these kind of accidents. “Oh, you’re too sweet. It’s not too busy at the moment, let me grab a sampler platter and we can sit together. I’ve never seen you before, and I’d love to get to know you.”
I ended up spending the afternoon I was supposed to be job hunting chilling in Mara’s shop. Whenever customers came in, Mara would excuse herself to help them out, but she’d pop back over to hang with me. She told me she came from up north and that she always wanted to own her own bakery, even when she was just a young thing. She ran it all on her own during the school year and tended to hire high school students during the summer to help with the tourist rush. During all of this conversation, she let me sample nearly a dozen different kinds of cookies, and man. I thought the sugar cookies were good, but every one I tried was better than the last. The chocolate chips were perfectly gooey, the jam sandwich cookies were filled just to the right amount, even the oatmeal raisin cookies were good enough to have more than one.
By the time the platter was finished off I was stuffed to the brim, but I didn’t feel sick like I usually would if I’d just gone ham on a packet of Oreos. I apologized for having so many ‘free samples’, but Mara winked and jokingly said, “Who says they’re free?”
I was about to head out the door when the door slammed open. In walked a more than peeved woman I recognized as Mrs. Burns. Mara sighed, but to her credit she still went behind her counter and asked, “How can I help you today, ma’am?”
“Don’t ma’am me, whore,” Mrs. Burns snapped. “Leading on all the good God loving young men in this town, including my own son!”
“I did no such thing. He came to buy some thumbprint cookies, we had a brief chat, and he left,” Mara shrugged. “I don’t understand where you keep getting these ideas.”
Mrs. Burns scoffed and looked Mara up and down. “You know what you’re doing. You dress that way for a reason, and you make your brothers in Christ trip and falter because of your sinful desires,” she said.
I swear the cozy temperature of the bakery fell to below zero as Mara frowned. Now, I won’t lie, Mara is… a curvier woman, so the dress she wore was a bit form fitting, but even if you followed Mrs. Burns’ slut shaming logic she wasn’t exactly wearing daisy dukes.
“Mrs. Burns. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave my shop,” Mara replied, still calm but an icy tone in her voice.
Mrs. Burns scowled. “You can’t ask me to leave! This is not how you treat a customer!”
“Mrs. Burns. Have you bought anything?”
“Then you are not a customer, and I owe you nothing. Get out.”
“Get. Out. Of. My. Shop.”
For a second, I thought it might turn into a brawl, but Mrs. Burns finally huffed and stormed out, slamming the door so hard on her way out I thought it might crack.
I almost followed out after her, just to get away from the awkwardness I just witnessed, but instead I approached Mara. “Are you okay?” I asked.
Mara took a deep breath before she smiled, even though it didn’t quite reach her dark eyes. “Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time an interaction like this has happened. I rather like dressing the way I do, but because of my… well, shape,” she gestured to herself, “it gives people the wrong idea. I’m not looking for a romance in this town though, I’m here to-” she cut herself off.
There was a few seconds pause before Mara reached forward to brush a cookie crumb off my chin. “Well, never mind that. Feel free to come back whenever you like. You’ll pay me back for those cookies sooner or later, and I like having company that doesn’t have expectations.”
I promised myself that I would make sure to return with actual cash next time, but even though I did it didn’t matter. Mara refused to accept it. She never stopped saying I would owe her later, but she wouldn’t accept my money. Whenever I wasn’t job hunting or helping my mom get to her doctor’s appointments, I was pretty much always at the bakery. I was there after closing dozens of times, helping her sweep up while chatting about everything under the moon. Mara quickly became a friend, and I truly didn’t understand all the criticism from certain parts of town.
Sometimes it was like Mrs. Burns, assuming her friendliness was in fact not friendliness but flirting. But other times even people who would take Mara’s samples would have this look in their eyes whenever they looked at her… An angry look. Needless to say, I would stand up for her any time someone seemed unfriendly about her in front of me, but I’d just get a dirty look before the subject was changed.
Maybe they picked something up about her that I was too naive to see… Maybe. But it really came to a head when in the early morning, someone broke in and trashed Mara’s Sweets and Such.
I’d gotten up early to get to a job interview, and when I was heading back after what seemed like another fruitless endeavor to get a job I decided to stop by to chat with Mara.
I didn’t even get in the front door before I saw what had happened.
That beautiful, custom etched window in the front of her shop had been smashed in, covering the street and the inside of the window with slivers and shards of glass. The doorknob was completely gone, so the door hung open loosely as I shoved it open to hurry inside.
The inside was… a mess. The counter had also been smashed, the goodies inside thrown around the room and stomped into the floor. The cash register had been ripped open and emptied. A baseball bat or something of that nature had broken all the chairs, the tables shoved over and black sharpie taken to them, ruining the adorable pie design. In the center of it all stood Mara, her eyes wet with tears not shed as her bottom lip quivered.
She looked up at me and opened her mouth before closing it and bowing her head. No words were needed. I bolted across the room and wrapped my arms around her, pulling her close and letting her rest her head on my shoulder.
Mara slowly hugged me back before she began to cry. Tears landed on my shoulder as her tall frame was wracked with sobs. I did my best to hush her, rubbing her back and telling her it was going to be okay again and again.
After her crying died down, I just finally pulled away from her and asked, “Where’s the broom?”
Cleaning up the mess was going to take more than just a broom, but it was the best place to start. All the glass everywhere was a hazard. So I started sweeping the floor as Mara sat on the only unbroken chair in the place, her hands folded in her lap as she stared blankly forward.
I think I was sweeping for almost an hour before I chose to take a break. I leaned up against the wall and finally Mara broke the silence.
“I turned down Callen Burns when he asked me on a date.”
It took me a second to bring Callen to mind- he was a year younger than I was and he was a bit full of himself to say the least. “You think he did this?” I asked.
“I know he did.”
Mara’s hands balled up into fists and her jaw clenched. She’d gone from grief to the quietest of rage. She got to her feet and eyed the dustpan filled with glass and garbage. After a moment’s hesitation she picked it up and walked into the back of her kitchen. I followed her, thankfully the trail of destruction stopped at the kitchen and only likely because the door had three different locks on it.
Mara didn’t stop me from following her, only pulling out a stool for me to sit on so I could watch her at work.
I’d never seen her make her cookies before. Everything she did by hand, not using her fancy mixer or beaters. It was to be chocolate chip cookies, each piece of chocolate carefully folded into the cookie dough until there was just the right ratio of chocolate to cookie.
Then she picked up the dustpan and proceeded to dump all of the contents into the cookie dough.
I didn’t know what to say. I just watched in silent shock as Mara mixed in the garbage and the glass. Somehow it just… disappeared into the mix. Like it was never there. I don’t know if I blinked and missed it, but one moment the glass was clearly visible, and the next the dough looked like normal cookie down.
Mara scooped each glass filled cookie onto baking sheets, still silent as she plopped equally sized balls of dough onto the pan. The first batch went into the oven and finally Mara turned around.
I swallowed. “Mara, what are you going to do with those?” I asked, figuring I knew damn well what she was going to do with those cookies.
“Me?” Mara gestured to herself, pretending innocence before a dark smile appeared on her face. “These cookies I’m going to give to you, packaged, wrapped in a bow. And you’re going to take it to the church potluck on Sunday, the church that Callen goes to, and you’re going to let the congregation each have one cookie.”
Okay, well, I didn’t expect that part of the plan. I sputtered for several moments before I shook my head. “Why me?” I asked.
“They won’t trust them from me. I should’ve known better, settling in a town with so many descended from fuckin’ Ireland,” Mara rolled her eyes as an Irish accent bled into her words, “but in my defense, I thought they’d all be down for the samples. Not all of them were though. Some of them still have instincts. They chalk it down to, you know, my looks, being a stranger, but there’s some truth in their fear.”
A chill ran up my spine, the hair on my neck standing straight up. “The… the samples?” I repeated, starting to eye the door out of the kitchen as a quick escape route.
“Oh, don’t worry, lovely- they were just cookies. It’s the transaction, you see,” Mara stretched out her hand, “since when did I ever call my samples free?”
I opened my mouth to respond that she had to have called them free at one point. But as I searched my memory, I realized that she hadn’t ever called them free. Not once.
“It’s the deals, you see,” Mara explained, walking over to sit across from me. There was something different about her now, her typically soft face sharp in ways I can’t describe, her pale blue eyes almost turning lavender in the lighting. She was still beautiful, but not in a human way. “Deals, contracts, they have power among my people.”
“Are you a demon?” I blurted out.
Mara laughed, tossing her head back. “Oh, no, those hotheads? No, love, they learned how to make deals from us. We mastered the art before they ever came into the picture. Granted, the only thing I really planned on collecting with those samples was customer loyalty… then you came into the picture.”
Mara’s fingers brushed against my cheek and I shivered at how cold her touch was. Like ice wrapped in velvet. “You… I knew I could get your help one day for something important. You have nothing to bargain with, no money, no children, all you have is that adorable gluttony for sweets. And don’t get me wrong, I adore your company… but I’ve been keeping track of those favors. Let’s show you what I can do with that. My dear, get up and walk to the stove.”
It wasn’t like I was a puppet, being jerked on strings. No, it truly felt like it was under my own power that I got up and walked over to the stove, except I know I didn’t make the conscious decision to do so.
“Good. Now open the oven, and place your hand on the rack inside.”
I knew it was hot. I could feel the heat from here. But I still did it. I opened the oven and at the last possible second I managed to flip my hand so it wasn’t my palm that was burnt. I still screamed as I laid my hand on the metal, the heat searing my skin and branding my skin.
“Take your hand out. I’ve made my point.”
I couldn’t have taken my hand out fast enough. I jerked my hand back and didn’t even bother closing the oven before I bolted to the sink, turning the water on as cold as it could get and placing my burn under the icy stream of water.
I heard the oven door close behind me and then that icy cold hand rested on my shoulder.
“You understand now? That was a single favor I just cashed in.”
I couldn’t have moved even if I wanted to, I just stared at the burn on my hand, which was bubbling and blistering already.
“Each cookie was a favor. Each and every one.”
I swallowed. I finally turned my head to look at Mara, who was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. “You want to know how many favors you owe me?” she asked.
I managed to shake my head no.
“It’s okay. I wouldn’t either. Here. Let me put some aloe on that, it looks like it hurts.”
Mara shut the flow of water off and handed me a towel to pat my hand dry. I took a deep, shuddering breath before I asked, “Will the aloe count as a favor?”
“Your sense of humor is without a doubt one of your most attractive features,” Mara winked, “but smart of you to ask. No. The aloe is for free. Go and sit.”
The few minutes I had alone gave me enough time to think about my situation. About what to do next. About how to handle Mara. About how she’d been treated in this town, and how her rejection sent some bastard into a spiral of destruction. How it might’ve been if Mara happened to arrive early, as she sometimes did, and caught him in the act.
Mara returned with the aloe and I quietly thanked her before slathering it over the back of my hand. The coolness was immediately soothing and settled me on my plan.
“I have a request.”
“Make it, but I might not accept it,” Mara shrugged and sat down.
“I’ll do the cookie delivery… but don’t count it as one of my returned favors.”
I think Mara nearly fell off her chair in her shock. She was struck speechless for a few minutes, looking me up and down before her eyes narrowed. “Now I know you’re up to something. Humans can lie. I can’t. What the hell are you planning?” she said.
“Nothing.” I shook my head. “This one, I’m doing for free. Cash in a favor at a later time. The only thing I need to know- is anyone innocent going to get hurt by this?”
Mara chewed her bottom lip for a moment, clearly still suspicious of me before she shook her head. “No. And no one will die either way… at least, not if they get to the hospital fast enough. Why don’t you want this to count?”
I stayed quiet for a moment before Mara smirked.
“You know, we’re more alike than I thought.”
Call me a sucker, call me sick in the head, but after witnessing the months and months of abuse being hurled at Mara… I guess you could say I sympathized with her, even after she showed me the power she had over me. Either way, I did it.
It wasn’t hard either. I’d gone to that church as a kid, didn’t so much as an adult, but all I had to do was ditch the cookies in with the rest of the potluck food and before I knew it everyone had a cookie or two on their plate. Callen had four, the greedy dumbass. In between the small talk about the sermon and how their weeks had gone, people raved about the chocolate chips cookies. Talked about how sweet they were, and asked who brought them. I kept my mouth shut.
That night is when things went all to hell.
Most people who experienced only had stomachaches and nausea. The people that may have not like Mara, but they didn’t hate her. The people that hated Mara? They got the worst of it. From what I heard, Mrs. Burns had to be rushed to the ER and when they cut her open, her stomach was filled with shards of glass. It was touch and go, but she managed to survive the operation, although she couldn’t explain how or why she’d clearly eaten glass.
Callen wasn’t so lucky. The next morning his roommate came into his room to find Callen in bed, dead, blood pooling around his body. He’d apparently had ‘quite’ the stomach ache the night before, but put off going and doing anything about it. By the time he realized something had to be wrong, I imagine it was too late. So he just slowly bled out, all on his own. I wonder if Mara expected that result.
Either way, no one ever pointed a finger at me. After all, the chunks of glass were too big to be actually hidden inside those cookies. And I didn’t claim to bring them anyway. Rumors spread about attempted suicide or even attempted murder, but in the end, no one was ever charged with anything. Mrs. Burns left town shortly after, quietly, which was much unlike her. One day her house was up for sale and she was gone.
As for those that were only affected a little bit, it turns out there was a cure for their stomach pains.
It became clear to me what it was when I was helping Mara set up her shop for business again. She’d made new tables, ordered new chairs, and had a new window put in that was even more ornate and lovely than the last one. We were just about done when someone came into the shop. I recognized him off the bat, it was Derek, another classmate of mine that I’d lost track of when I went off to college and he stayed at home to work at his dad’s mechanic shop.
“Hello! Need anything?” Mara asked.
Derek stood there for a moment, looking unsure as to why he came in. “Ummm… I don’t know, I’m not feeling too hot, I don’t think sweets are the best thing for me now. Are you even open?” he said.
Mara smiled in a way that seemed kind but made a chill run down my spine.
“You’re in luck, I just finished a new batch of thumbprint cookies. How about you have one? It might help you feel better. You’ll just owe me for it later.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableKitty “The Odd Cat Lady” Olsen Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A