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  • Writer's pictureJim Leonardo

The Cake

What mysteries does this small town tradition conceal?


Mrs. Olsen has been a fixture of the small community for as long as anyone can remember. No one ever uses her given name, it’s always just “Mrs. Olsen,” and no one can quite recollect there being a Mr. Olsen. After all, hasn’t Mrs. Olsen always been a widow? Or is Mr. Olsen a grump who stays at home and can’t be bothered with being social? Even Mrs. Olsen isn’t terribly social. When she does engage in conversation, she keeps to the smallest of small talk. The only time she’s seen about town is when she shows up at one of the the many potlucks, her plump hands bearing the familiar platter with the chocolate cake. She’s not a member of any of the churches, civic groups, and other organizations that are hosting the shared dinners, she just shows up with her cake. She is never early, and she is never late.

She always knows the size of the crowd. The cake is neither too large nor too small to serve the diners that day. Every last slice finds its spot on already crowded dessert plates, only a few stray crumbs are ever left to throw away. No one ever quite gets around to asking Mrs. Olsen for the recipe, no matter how much they promised their husbands they’d get it the next time they saw her. They always manage to forget, distracted by vapid conversation and Mrs. Olsen’s pleasant smile.

Over the years, that chocolate cake seems to remain the same, but it always fits the needs of the diners. If a diabetic is at the dinner, the little card displayed alongside the cake will reassure them the cake is low sugar, and what little sugar that there is comes only from the fruit added. For the dieters, the card promises it uses only low fat milk and little butter. Even when Sally Solberg arrived late to the Lutheran church’s potluck telling everyone she figured out the night before that she had celiac disease, the little placard was waiting for her, promising it was gluten free.

Sally Solberg was that girl. You know the type: the young person who seizes the story of the moment and turns it into the source of all the world’s problems — or at least her own problems — and won’t let you forget it. She loudly proclaimed her vegan-ness after discovering slaughterhouse videos online. This, years after the cake had started proclaiming itself “animal-free.” After all, hadn’t the Steens quietly been telling the story of their own vegan journey to any one willing to hear it? Likewise, the tiny slip of paper had announced the cake to be “fair trade” the morning of the volunteer fire department pancake breakfast where Mrs. Hamre started chatting about the exploitation of cacao workers. It took Sally Solberg another year to find her own version of the fair trade argument and start loudly hammering the point at the Catholic church’s fall rummage sale and potluck.

It is at the Rotary Club’s summer picnic, a fine Saturday afternoon in June, that Sally Solberg, just back from college, stands up to announce her latest great finding. The small town is used to her protests and proclamations, so no one pays her much mind when she takes her position at the dessert table, hands on hips, virtually standing on her tip toes to loudly proclaim the latest revelation.

“Listen up! LISTEN UP!” she shouts. Mr. Hamre nudges Mr. Steen as they make their way past the ranks of pasta salad, casseroles, and green salads with too much dressing, drawing Mr. Steen’s attention to the latest grand conspiracy. “Listen, this is important. You may think these potlucks and picnics are harmless. But let me tell you. LET ME TELL YOU! Let me tell you what is in Mrs. Olsen’s chocolate cake!”

The assembled crowed chuckles and turns back to their conversations, more concerned with keeping their napkins from blowing away in the growing breeze. The conversations, if they acknowledge her at all, restart with a statement like, “That Solberg girl, always going on about stuff people already know all about.”

That is, everyone turns back to their conversations except for two persons. Brenda Brown’s curiosity is piqued. For the last 20 years, she set out the morning of every potluck intending to finally corner Mrs. Olsen and get the recipe for the delectable confection so she could share it with her cousin in Cleveland, only for Mrs. Olsen to dodge and weave around the topic like a boxer dancing away from their opponent’s punches. The other person waiting for Sally Solberg’s description of the cake is none other than Mrs. Olsen. If any gentlefolk are paying attention to Mrs. Olsen, they will see her normally pleasant eyes are now quite focused and quite intense. Those same people may wonder about the emotion in those eyes: is it anger or intrigue or maybe even fear? They will also note Mrs. Olsen’s white, poofy hair rustling in the wind. Have they ever seen a hair of her head out of place before?

Sally Solberg grabs a chair stenciled “Parks Department” and starts to stand on it to make sure she could be seen over the crowded dessert table. This requires her to move away from the table. All the food tables are shielded from the now cloud-hidden sun by simple pop-up canopies. The crowd pays less mind to Sally Solberg than she likes, the adults moving to make sure the canopies protecting the food tables don’t blow away in the developing tempest. The clouds grow darker and darker as Sally Solberg finds her footing on the chair and takes a deep breath.

“I SAID…”

Sally Solberg’s monologue is lost in the downburst of wind and rain. The deluge sends picnickers scrambling to cover under the now crowded canopies or bolting for their cars. The wind flips the canopy that stands over the bratwurst and hamburger table before Mr. Andersen can grab hold. Mr. Hamre and Mr. Steen barely hold on to the salad buffet, relying on a couple of boy scouts to keep the canopy over them from taking flight.

Like most June storms that visit the small town, it departs just as quickly as it arrived. The bratwurst is soaked, the hamburgers, sodden. Mr. Andersen drips both water and condiments. The battle for the salads has been hard fought. Mr. Hamre and Mr. Steen emerge victorious with the assistance of the boy scouts. The dessert table stands triumphant, shielded from the worst of the wind by the bouncy house that has managed to not blow away. Mrs. Olsen stands next to the dessert table unperturbed and as dry as the Mojave Desert, her white hair settled back into place.

As the gathered townsfolk set about cleaning up the mess of tossed chairs, scattered plates, and wind-blown blankets, most don’t think to take a head count or otherwise note whether anyone was missing. One upstanding townsperson does note the missing person. The quest of twenty years seemingly almost over, Brenda Brown had been watching Sally Solberg right up until she had to pull her toddlers into cover. Now, with one side of her brain working to calm down crying toddlers, another side of Brenda Brown’s brain begins to operate. That side of her brain is the one she uses when she is at work. Lieutenant Brenda Brown is the second in command of the small town’s police force.

Brenda Brown took the job in the small town twenty years prior, seeking a quieter job than the Cleveland Police could offer. Now, her investigative duties are limited to helping Mr. Simonsen find his lost sheep, again, or proving Mr. Thorsen has been saving a buck, again, by leaving his trash on the side of the road rather than taking it to the small town’s transfer station. Mostly, she worries about shepherding the husbands of the community home on a Friday night after they’ve again spent too much time drinking cheap beer at the American Legion Hall. The biggest offenders being Judge Jensen and Mayor Madsen, Chief Christensen prefers that the members of the department escort the inebriated home instead of using sterner measures.

On this once again fine June day, Lt. Brown eyes the empty chair that says “Parks Department” on it. It sits as undisturbed as the dessert table. Of Sally Solberg, there is no sign. Perhaps she simply scampered home after getting soaked. Lt. Brown watches Mrs. Olsen discreetly pick up the familiar cake platter. One slice of cake remains, and Mrs. Olsen seems a little unsure of what to do with the leftover. Mrs. Olsen’s chocolate cake never has a piece left over! Brenda Brown begins to walk towards her, but before she does, the boy scouts walk by carrying the remains of the bratwurst canopy. Lt. Brown loses sight of Mrs. Olsen for just a moment, but that moment is enough for the white-haired woman in a bright blue blouse and white pants to disappear in the crowd.

After attending the Lutheran service the next day and dropping her family off at home, Lt. Brown stops by the Solberg house. It is a modest, older home, typical of those built during the small town’s post-war development boom. Lt. Brown finds no one home. At first supposing the Solberg clan to merely be dining out on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps picnicking at the lake, Lt. Brown thinks to check in later. Then she notices the mail sticking out of a full mailbox and the newspapers piled up on the porch. Funny, even if Mr. and Mrs. Solberg are out of town, wouldn’t Sally Solberg at least clear the newspapers away from the door? Perhaps Sally Solberg is staying with friends while her parents are out of town.

Lt. Brenda Brown pauses, thinking. Puzzlement plays across her face as she returns to her car. It is her personal SUV, not her police car, but being a senior member of the police department, she has installed a department radio. Her husband routinely jokes about the radio in front and the the two child seats in the back. She picks up the hand piece. “Car two to base,” she says.

“Base, go ahead two,” comes the reply. It is Jorgensen on the other end.

“Can you give me Mrs. Olsen’s address?”

“Well, it’s… uh… Well shoot. I don’t know either, Brenda. Standby.” The pause stretches to minutes. “Base to two.”

“Two here. I’ve got a pen, go ahead, Jeff.”

“Um, yeah, we don’t have any Olsens listed in the phone book or tax rolls.”

“Come again?”

“Ell-Tee, I found nothing in the phone book or tax rolls for anyone named Olsen. I don’t even know her first name and certainly don’t know her maiden name in case she lived at family property that maybe never got the owner changed over.”

“This is Car One,” chimes in Chief Charlie Christensen. “What’s up, Brenda? Do we need to keep a look out?”

“I don’t think so Charlie. I was just thinking Sally Solberg bolted right out of the picnic after the storm yesterday. I thought I would stop by and check on her. She isn’t here, looks like no one has been here a couple of days at least. Last person I saw near her was Mrs. Olsen and I thought she might have seen if Sally was hurt.”

“Got it. Probably nothing, but let’s… are you still at the Solbergs’?”

“Yup.”

“Stay there, I’m only a couple of minutes away.”

Chief Christensen pulls his SUV into the driveway behind Lt. Brown’s car a few minutes later, a hardware store bag with toilet parts poking out sits in the passenger seat.

“Charlie, this probably nothing but me being mom. She’s a college student, not a tod—” Lt. Brown begins to say as he opens the car door.

“Horse hockey,” he interrupts. “Did you see her during that mess?”

“I was watching her right up until the storm started blowing stuff over and I had to find cover. I wanted to see what silliness she was up to this time.”

“Yeah, so you were watching her and maybe the back of your brain saw something the front of your brain didn’t see.”

“That’s a pretty far stretch, Charlie.”

“Why would Sally Solberg be here?”

“What do you mean? They live here.”

“Nope. Her parents moved out of town when she went to college last year. Why’d she come back for a silly picnic? Your question about who she might stay with? She doesn’t have any friends, never did.”

“She did seem intent on sharing the recipe for Mrs. Olsen’s cake,” recalls Lt. Brown. “You know her— Ms. Revelation.”

“Exactly.” Chief Christensen now looks wary, his eyes no longer on Lt. Brown. They flit around, looking to see who is looking. “Look, we all know what’s in Mrs. Olsen’s cake: a secret. Leave it that way. I’ll see you tomorrow. Leave it that way.”

He gets in his car and puts it in gear. He starts to back out of the driveway, then leans out the open window. “Just trust me, Brenda.”

He drives off.

Lt. Brown stands there a minute. She walks up to the porch and rummages through the newspapers and the mail poking out of the box. The newspapers are the local free paper. It is mostly just advertisements. The mail is all junk mail. The dates on the mail are all June, telling Lt. Brown the one year’s worth of free mail forwarding ended in late May.

Lt. Brown’s curiosity soars. She gets in her car and drives to the park instead of driving home. She starts thinking of how long she’s known Charlie Christensen. He’s been chief for as long as she’s been on the force, both of them stuck without promotion because the town is so small. She could at least move up to chief when he retires, but that’s a good long way off. After all, he’s only in his 40s. She’s not far behind.

That thought is still on her mind as she pulls into the park. She gets out and sits on the hood of the SUV instead of looking around. The park is tidy, only the trash poking out of the overstuffed dumpsters serves as a reminder of the picnic the day before.

“How can Charlie Christensen only be in his 40s?” she asks the empty park.

“How can I be 35?” she asks the back of her hands.

“Why are my kids still toddlers?” she asks, twisting to look at the car seats in the back of her SUV. “They were toddlers when we moved here.”

“How can Tom Thorsen be 75?” she asks the dumpsters. “He was 75 the first time I ticketed him for tossing his trash on the side of a road when I first joined the force.”

“And why do the Solbergs have mail piled up on their porch from every June for the last five years?”

“Oh, Lieutenant Brown, don’t sweat those things.” The pleasant voice pops up behind her and out of nowhere.

Lt. Brown swings around, sliding off the hood of the car and taking cover behind it in one motion. Her hand goes to the bulge in the small of her back. Instinct and reflex haven’t been dulled in this small town. Mrs. Olsen is near the the rear of the car.

“The Solbergs were a bad fit. We had to send them away. We do what we can for them.”

“Speak plainly. Now,” orders Lt. Brown. Her voice is curt, sharp. It is the voice she hasn’t had to use since Cleveland. “What do you mean ‘bad fit,’ who is ‘we,’ and what do you mean ‘what you can?’”

“Tell us, when you last saw Sally Solberg before yesterday, how old was she?” Mrs. Olsen’s voice seemed to be multiplying, like several people talking in unison.

Lt. Brown eased the concealed handgun out from the holster, still keeping it out of Mrs. Olsen’s view. “I don’t know. Fifteen maybe.”

“Right. How old would you say she was yesterday?”

“Twenty or so. So, they moved away five years ago, not last year. Charlie’s memory was a little muddy?”

“Yes and no. It’s complicated,” replied the elderly woman. “Your family has been a poster child for the program. The Solberg’s weren’t.”

“Program? Am I some kind of computer program?”

Mrs. Olsen chuckles. Her tone is warm and patient. Like a parent’s but not patronizing. “It’s a medical research program. Please relax, there is no harm here. We want to alleviate your mistrust.”

“Relaxing isn’t in the cards,” promises Lt. Brown, ice in her voice and in her veins. She hasn’t felt this focus since that night in Cleveland. That memory suddenly goes foggy, some other memory tries to push through. “That night in Cleveland, I remember being in a shooting.”

“You weren’t. That is a replacement memory,” Mrs. Olsen’s voice continues to multiply but grows no louder. It is richer, more pleasant than ever before, a bevy of grandmothers talking to their distraught daughter.

“It was something to do with Briana and Benjamin.” Her toddlers. Pain and hurt try to push through the fog in her mind. The gun comes up, leveled at Mrs. Olsen. She is standing in the open, less than 10 strides away. Lt. Brown wins the pistol shooting competition at the rifle club picnic every year. “Did you put this memory in place?”

“Yes and no. It’s complicated.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Back then, you knew the program’s side effects. You knew the side effects included dissociation and false memories.” She holds her hands at her waist, fingers interwoven, palms up. “Please put the gun back in its holster, it will only disturb the neighborhood if you pull the trigger.”

“I’ll make that decision when you start speaking plainly.” Lt. Brown turns the ice in her voice to steel. “Where is Sally Solberg? I know you know. And how did you conjure up that storm?”

“She’s back in Franklin.” Mrs. Olsen’s eyes are locked with Lt. Brown’s. “She bolted for her car as soon as the wind started knocking things over.”

“The Storm. How?” demands Lt. Brown, now shaking as she remembers the storm.

Mrs. Olsen opens her mouth to speak just as Lt. Brown stands straight up and holsters her gun. Lt. Brown speaks first, trembling.

“Right. I’m sorry.” A shaky hand goes to her forehead, memories surging forward along with the migraine. Her other hand reaches out to steady herself against the car “I guess the storm was too much and I got jumbled up again.”

“It’s OK. You really are doing great in the program. This program is tough. You and your husband are making a great sacrifice. Greater than everyone else.”

“Sacrifice?” wonders Brenda Brown. “We say we do it for Briana and Benjamin, but do we really need to be here? Aren’t we just here for our own selfishness? They’re young enough to forget us, you could foster them to someone with HS and not need to accommodate Ben and I too. We don’t have HS.”

“Selfish? We call it selfless,” says the researchers through Mrs. Olsen. “You gave up your life so they can have both a chance at a cure and keep their parents. At least what we’ve learned from everyone here lets us treat fetuses in the womb so no one is borne with Haavik’s Syndrome again.”

“I knew this. I’m just going to forget it again, aren’t I?”

“We’re so sorry.”

“Could you at least let me know the recipe of the cake?” asks Brenda. “That is where you hide the treatment, isn’t it? I should know this, shouldn’t I?”

Mrs. Olsen nods, then starts laughing. “Look in the cookbook you wrote, we got it from you.”

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