The Cookie Girl and the Christmas Party

Katherine was the kind of girl who was terrifically unspecial.

In fact, it could be said—and had, in gossipy whispers by acquaintances, on many occasions—that the only thing truly special about Katherine was just how uninteresting she was. And she knew this, too.

As a child, she’d gone through the motions of trying to find out who she was and what she was good at. There had been dance lessons, acting classes; she’d tried painting and drawing, sculpting and writing; she had, over the course of a few years, given virtually every sport a try, including the sports that weren’t really sports. With each class, course, lesson or outing, another piece of hope and self-belief died in her—until, finally, she came to the conclusion that she had no talent to speak of, no brilliant personality to charm with, and no good looks to fall back on. Katherine was no one.

Except for one thing.

Katherine could bake.

Not just that—she could bake, italics and all. While she was mousy and stupid in school, dull and disliked on the playground, mocked and derided when she walked down the street, in a kitchen, Katherine could soar. With an apron and some basic ingredients, she could spend hours mixing and making, stirring and concocting. And what would she end up with? Pure, absolute heaven in pastry form.

Of course, her specialty were her cookies.

Chocolate chip. Peanut butter. Snickerdoodle. Thumbprint. Even poor, unappetizing oatmeal raisin gleamed with fresh-baked goodness when prepared by Katherine. (In truth, she always related to oatmeal raisin—it was her in cookie form: plain and non-special, dull and deserted, the friendless loser of the cookie world.)

She soon realized that, while she’d never be a rock star on the basis of musical talent or good looks, she could be a baking superstar—at least around her small, suburban town. When Becky Mitchell didn’t invite Katherine to her birthday slumber party, Katherine showed up to deliver a basket of cookies—and the next year, and every year after, Katherine (despite being frequent fodder for mockery among Becky and her friends) received an invitation. When Katherine’s parents went to Disney World without her, she set up an impromptu cookie stand that was so popular, and so profitable, she kept it up for the entire weekend—and made enough to buy her own ticket to Disney. When no one asked her to prom, she went instead to a baking competition for teens one town over—and won first place. It seemed that, no matter what Katherine was dealt, she could always smooth over her disappointment with some butter, and carve out a different way with a spatula.

As she grew older, the town began to recognize her for her singular talent. They came to her when hungry and pled for the stuff, desperation in their eyes, licking at their lips; they’d knock at her door and look in through her windows to try to catch a glimpse of the aproned girl and her latest creations, or they’d slip notes under her door—hastily-written messages like “would love some cookies, will pay,” or “my kingdom for a dozen snickerdoodles!” At first it was flattering to Katherine, a girl otherwise so forgettable that her own grandparents frequently stumbled over her name. Though, while she never showed any outward signs of fatigue, she soon grew weary of her hungry neighbors and their constant cookie demands.

It was late November when she saw the first poster. There, on a telephone pole, plastered beside an ad for a band called Fudge Sludge and a flyer for a lost cat, were the clear, unmistakable words: Door-to-Door Christmas Party. She walked closer, running her fingers along the word “party”—a word she had a long, difficult relationship with, from her early days of pining for an invite to her latter years of pity-invitations and being permitted to attend only if she brought her far more popular plus-one, the cookies.

(Sometimes she hated the cookies.)

Her eyes scanned the flyer. It encouraged local families to go door to door and wassail, an old-timey tradition (more or less trick-or-treating for the Christmas season) that Katherine had to Google the second she got home. They were also invited to carol, and the neighbors that received them were asked to give out treats or presents to all those that came by their house. Her mouth hung open as she read and reread the flyer, ideas flitting through her head; a dribble of spit made its way past the edge of her lower lip as she continued standing there, slack-jawed and mystified.

Then there was a voice behind her, soft and lilting: “Katherine? That you?”

She turned around. It was Mrs. Bolan, an old woman with puffy white hair. When she was in school, during the awkward break for lunch when Katherine had no one to sit with, she’d come by Mrs. Bolan’s stuffy house on the corner. Mrs. Bolan allowed it, though only on the condition that Katharine made her cookies.

“Hi,” Katherine breathed. Her breath was visible in the icy air; her voice was nasal and scratchy, but it was always like that and not weather-related. (Another reason no one could stand her.) She fixed her glasses and wiped the drool from the side of her mouth as Mrs. Bolan inspected her in that serious, judgmental way old ladies usually did.

“Been a long time,” the woman said.

Katherine nodded. Her scarf flapped around in the breeze.

“Are you looking forward to the Christmas party?”

Katherine squinted.

“I saw you looking at the flyer,” Mrs. Bolan explained, nodding toward the pole.

“Oh. That party.” She cocked her head to one side, her gaze wandering over Mrs. Bolan’s shoulder and up toward the rooftop of the house just behind her, where a plastic Santa grinned at her from his sleigh, his hand frozen mid-wave. “I don’t think I’m invited,” she said, and the words came slow, dripping like molasses as she hesitated on each syllable.

“Invited? It’s a community party. The whole neighborhood can participate.”

Katherine’s eyes snapped back to Mrs. Bolan in a hurry. “They can?” Her ideas from earlier sparked to life, now seeming feasible. She just wondered if she’d have the nerve . . .

“Mrs. Bolan!” Suze Mitchell’s voice—high-pitched and girly, almost cartoonish. She came trotting over from across the street, from the house festooned with multicolored lights and light-up reindeers crouched in the front yard. She was blond and skinny, a fan of Starbucks and yoga pants and not much else; most importantly, she was Becky’s mom, and even though Becky Mitchell was now nineteen and lived with her boyfriend a few blocks away, she would always be Becky Mitchell’s mom in Katherine’s mind.

“Hello, Suze,” Mrs. Bolan said, in a grim, tight-lipped voice that made it clear she was not pleased to see her. “I see you’re still fond of the yoga aesthetic.”

“What? Oh, yeah, my pants.” Suze grinned. “You couldn’t get me into a pair of jeans for a million dollars! Ha! So anyway, I just wanted to ask you—“ She broke off suddenly, noticing Katherine a few steps away for the first time. Her eyes went wide in that way they always did when she had to feign genuine interest. “Katherine! There you are! I’m so glad to catch you, I’ve been wanting to ask you about something for ages now, but we never cross paths these days, ever since you and Becky grew up and graduated, I guess.” (That was a lie. They’d crossed paths with one another fourteen times in the last week alone. Suze had just never noticed her. In fact, the two lived right across the street from one another, and Katherine—whose parents had both died six months prior—lived alone in the same house she had since childhood. It was only a matter of steps from Suze’s doorstep to Katherine’s, but, though Suze loved to count her steps, she couldn’t bother to walk across the street and simply knock at Katherine’s door.) “At any rate, do you know anything about the neighborhood Christmas party? There were a few town meetings about it, but I didn’t see you there.”

“Town meetings?” Katherine’s eyebrows scrunched together. “I would’ve gone—I didn’t know. No one invited me. No one told me.”

“They didn’t? Oh.” For a brief moment, Suze’s plastered-on, whitened smile faltered, like she’d just let out a secret she’d forgotten not to tell. But then it was back, bright as ever. “Well, anyway, it’s going to be great! Very retro. Carolers, wassailers, the whole thing. So much fun. Which brings me to what I wanted to ask—would you mind maybe making some cookies? We’re going to set up a table of baked goods and assorted other items, then sell them and donate all the proceeds to a great cause.” She beamed. She was one of those people who put a terrifically dramatic emphasis on certain words, almost shouting them while doing wild gesticulations and widening her already-wide doe eyes to frightening proportions.

“A great cause?” Mrs. Bolan asked, one eyebrow shooting way up on her head. “I’m not as young as I used to be, dear, you’ll have to remind me what that cause is. I believe I heard it was your daughter’s plastic surgery. Is that right?”

For the first time that day, Suze frowned. “No—it’s corrective surgery.” Turning to Katherine, she explained, “Her doctor completely butchered it the first time around—my poor Becky!”

“Poor Becky, indeed,” Mrs. Bolan mumbled.

Suze decided to ignore her. “So, the cookies?” She looked at Katherine with the same desperate eyes so many others had implored her with.

And, like each time before, Katherine answered with a smile. “Sure, Mrs. Mitchell. I’d be happy to.”

“You would? Oh good! Becky will be so glad. With your cookies for sale, there’s no chance we won’t be able to fund her surgery!”

“Just one question—can I give out cookies, too? I saw the flyer, about the carols and the wail-sah-lars coming door to door. I thought it’d be nice to give some away for free.”

Suze paused, pondering this. After a moment, she nodded, and now her smile was all business. “Sure, sweetie. Just don’t give away the same flavors you make for us—no one will buy the cow when the milk’s for free.”

“That’s fine. I’ll make several different kinds.”

“Wonderful! And only the best for our sale, right?”

Katherine nodded. She was already trying to figure out how to make these cookies the most delicious she’d ever baked, and as she thought of this, her eyes drifted back to the plastic Santa over Mrs. Bolan’s shoulder. She wiped at her mouth, a dreamy, foggy look on her face. Her eyes were full of ideas.

The party took place on the fifth of December.

That’s a good day for a party, Katherine thought as she ran through a practice run of her chocolate-orange dream cookies. She didn’t really need the practice—she’d made these cookies so many times she could practically bake them in her sleep—but she felt she ought to, anyway.

There were to be six kinds of cookies total.

For Suze’s sale, she’d make chocolate chip, chocolate-peanut butter lovebirds, and the chocolate-orange dream.

For the free cookies she’d give to wassailers and carolers, she’d make oatmeal raisin, sugar-butter puffs, and apple-cinnamon sinful delights.

As she worked on each, she dreamt of watching Becky Mitchell taking a bite and weeping at the taste, her mother looking on, envious that her own daughter couldn’t bake like Katherine. She dreamt of everyone in town complimenting her excessively, begging her forgiveness after years of ignoring her or using her for her cookies. She wouldn’t forgive them, but she’d pretend that she would. She’d say, “It’s all water under the bridge! Long forgotten.” Then they’d toast their cookies, raising them high and proud, like American flags blowing in the wind.

Of course, Katherine—stupid though she may’ve been—realized this wouldn’t happen. But it was nice to dream. Hell, she’d named her chocolate-orange cookies after just that: a dream.

She thought back on a conversation she’d had years ago with her dad. He was mad at her for being, what he called, “a doormat,” and he was sitting across from her in their living room with a sour look on his face.

“Why do you keep making cookies for these people?” he’d asked, gesturing around him to demonstrate “these people” meant their neighbors, their not-quite-friends. “Can’t you see they don’t like you? That they only care about what you can do for them?”

“Well, that’s kind of a mean thing to say.” Her (scratchy, nasal) voice remained flat, making it clear she was not particularly bothered by his words.

That seemed to annoy him the most. “Wake up already, Katherine! They don’t like you, no one likes you! I’ll be honest with you, if I could trade you in for a dog, I would. Even one of those shabby, timid, three-legged ones from those goddamn ASPCA commercials.”

To this, Katherine replied calmly, “You’re entitled to your opinion.”

“See? You see, Katherine? This is what’s wrong with you! If only you’d get a spine and stop saying yes all the time, and maybe realize when to be insulted, or outraged, or incompliant . . . then maybe, just maybe, you’d actually get a friend.”

“But probably not,” her mother said from the doorway, swigging a bottle of booze. She chuckled. Turning to Katherine, she said, “I for one probably wouldn’t trade you in for a three-legged dog.” (Though she remained suspiciously quiet on the matter of a four-legged one.)

“Thank you,” Katherine said. Her voice was small now, as mousy as the rest of her. She pictured herself curling into a ball, a ball made of butter and sugar and egg and whatever else was lying around their kitchen; an unfeeling, unflinching, unaware cookie. That would’ve been nice, wouldn’t it?

But she was not so fortunate. Never was. Luck, like everyone else in town, was not on Katherine’s side. And luck couldn’t be bribed by cookies.

The fifth arrived.

It was cold that day. Bitingly, shiveringly cold. Katherine wore a Santa hat and a Christmas sweater—not in an ironic, so-uncool-it’s-cool way, either. She just did.

She braided her longish, dull brown hair, and then she made her way over to Suze’s bearing cookies.

“Hi Katherine! Oh, look at those! Too bad I’m not eating fat or I’d totally try these!” She took the cookies from Katherine quickly, eager to get rid of the girl. “Thanks for making these! Have a great night, all right?” She shut the door.

Katherine remained on her porch. It was getting dark around her, the light fading to a dusky bluish-gray, and she was smiling.

She walked to the little grassy area that popped up suddenly as if it had been dropped there, in the middle of the street, between row after row of tidy-but-dull suburban houses. That, of course, was where Suze had set up shop, her table of baked goods calling out to passersby. She looked stylish as ever, in her yoga pants and skintight turtleneck, a pair of hot-pink earmuffs that matched her daughter’s. The key difference between the blond duo, however, was that Suze wore one of her usual smiles, and Becky wore her typical scowl.

Among them were groupies, an entourage of friends and family who were helping to sell the goods or keep everything from tipping over in the wind; from a distance, it looked like a private, happy party, a Hallmark moment.

Suze was speaking into a megaphone: “We have cookies, everyone! Katherine’s cookies! Katherine, in case you don’t know or forgot, is that girl who makes the amazing cookies. And we have them! All proceeds go to a great cause!”

Wassailers and carolers—some holding pillowcases like actual trick-or-treaters—started to flock to the table, unaware that a few blocks down, Katherine would soon be giving out cookies free of charge. Not right then, though. Right then, she was busy weaving through the throngs of people and making her way to the table, to Suze and Becky and their group of hangers-on (she wondered what that must be like, having actual friends) and customers.

When she pushed her way through and managed to arrive at the front, Suze and her friends were hastily making change for one customer while throwing cookies in a bag for another; Becky, contently doing nothing but staring at her phone, looked up and squinted at Katherine. “What? What do you want?”

“Becky, sweetums, be nice to the customers,” Suze coached, her voice warm with affection. She hadn’t yet noticed who this particular customer was.

“It’s me,” Katherine said, and her voice was so painful that Becky winced. “You know—Katherine. We went to school together. We were always in the same class. I was at your birthday every year.”

“Oh right,” Becky said. “You’re the cookie girl.”

The cookie girl.

Suze turned at that point, shooting a smile in Katherine’s direction. “Hi Katherine! Mind stepping out of the way? There are customers behind you.”

“Oh, uh, okay.” Katherine started to move, but before she did, she decided to say a few parting words to Becky: “I liked your parties, even though you didn’t really want me there. I hope you get enough money to get your boobies fixed.”

Then she turned and walked away. She was smiling.

Becky was not.

Back at home, the wassailers and carolers came and went; cookies were dispensed, one by one and tray by tray. “I made these special,” Katherine would say. “With lots of care and attention, and lots of love.” She was half-tempted to kiss each cookie before giving it away, but she didn’t.

From her window, she’d watch them take their first bite. She’d smile, relishing the moment from a respectful distance.

It seemed everyone in town came by her house at least once—people she went to school with, people her parents knew, people she recognized from Becky’s slumber parties, people she recognized from the lessons and classes she’d once taken before quickly, and decidedly, quitting. None of them recognized her—at least, not as anything other than “that cookie girl.” Some didn’t even know of her reputation, and were pleasantly surprised to discover their own little cookie chef living right under their nose.

To each, along with the treat, she handed off a smile. And hers, unlike Suze’s, was genuine.

She watched Christmas movies that night, and, as the evening wore on and the visitors to her door became fewer and further between, she eventually fell asleep to the sounds of hokey Christmas magic playing onscreen. When she woke up hours later, it was after midnight; her eyes lit up with an eager fervor, like—forgive the analogy—a child on Christmas morning, and she raced to her door.

She stood there, her hand poised above the knob, for a few seconds. She wanted to savor this moment. She wanted to remember every detail—the distant sound of the TV she’d forgotten to turn off, the hazy smell of fresh-baked cookies left over from earlier and dripping out of the kitchen, the feeling of the door handle in her hand, chilly and refreshing.

When she felt she had committed it all to memory, then, and only then, did she open the door.

It was dark out but lit by lamps, and it was silent. Completely, perfectly silent.

And laying there, on the sidewalk, in the street, were the perfectly still corpses of everyone in town.

Some were still holding part of a cookie in their hand; some had crumbs around their mouth. All were dead. Dead, dead, dead. Wonderfully dead, just as they should’ve been. Her cookies had indeed been flawless. She was indeed the cookie girl.

She saw Suze right away, her body splayed out in her front yard, beside one of her jolly, light-up reindeer. It looked like she’d been crawling to her front door, or trying to, and just hadn’t quite made it. Poor thing. It was hard to sympathize with someone like Suze, at least for Katherine, but someone else may’ve been able to at least muster up some pity at the pathetic image.

The funny thing, to Katherine, was that Suze had said she wasn’t eating fat. She said she wouldn’t eat the cookies. But Katherine hadn’t been worried; Katherine had known. No one could resist her cookies. Not even the most popular blond denizens of Yoga Pants Land, or suburbia, as it was more commonly referred.

And Katherine, glib and gleeful as any young murderer could be, skipped blithely down the steps and through the maze of dead bodies. She kicked a few and spat on others; she hopped over some with the agility of a track star. (Perhaps she had a talent besides cookie-making after all!) She whistled and hummed along to a Christmas song she didn’t know the name of, all the while looking out to the field of bodies before her.

Sometimes she hated her gift for baking. But other times? Other times, it made life worth living.