Ten years of crafting her renowned brownies Remi knew the recipe by heart. As it was, her heart had been broken. In the past eight months her chocolate chips cookies had baked to the consistency of burnt jelly. Her banana bread, which had been given an additional 30 minutes in the oven, came out with a military grade exterior and a mushy, unstable center. Remi’s worst showing were her beloved brownies. An hour and forty minutes of baking time later, she made chocolaty chunk caramel goop. While spoon half baked brownie mix from a 9 x 13 pan in her pjs had its appeal, it was not a suitable gift.
Sitting on the bamboo floor of her kitchen, Remi dug through her collection of handwritten recipes. Ones that had been passed around from friends and family. Some of them were on fancy recipes cards, while the majority seemed to be on scraps of paper, napkins, and torn sheets of notebook paper. She could see both copies in her mind. The original, warped paper, stained by egg and mixing spoons. Creases tenting the paper into a abstract mountain range. Accidentally tossed into the meat-trimming packed bin after it had been rewritten on white card stock. Bright yellow lemons on a vibrant green vine lining the top corner; the left for ingredients, the right for directions. A small smudge of ink on the bottom right where she lifted the card to move it before it had fully dried. It had been her last card, she had already used the rest. Steven had gotten the whole set for her last year. She dropped the box she was holding. The crash bringing her back to the present.
Remi pushed the shoe boxes of recipes back toward their cubbyhole with her foot before standing up. Brushing off the backside of her fleece boxers, Remi walked through her kitchen, picked up her coffee, and continued into the rest of her house to her computer room. Booting up the machine, she curled up in her chair. An empty bottle of wine and a glass with nothing more than backwash sat to the left of her monitor. Remi tightened her fingers across her mug. The exchange was tomorrow. Remi sipped her coffee, starring blankly as her sign-in screen loaded.
Within minutes she was logging into her email. She knew she had sent the recipe to someone. So many people asked her for it, but she was selective with whom she shared. A dull ache in the back of her head kept the memory hidden. Remi typed in “brownies” into the search bar, and pressed enter. A dozen or so results populated. About halfway down the page was an email to her cousin in South Carolina. Lynn was in phase 3 of operation “Marry Me,” and wanted to prove to her boyfriend how versatile and domestic she was, regardless of whether or not it was true.
Remi pushed the bottle and glass further back on her desk. She put her coffee down on her appointment book, and picking up her scrap paper notebook began to write.
1 cup butter
3/4 cup peppermint flavored hot cocoa
2 cups of sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
Her eyes ran over the directions: grease, melt, add, add, add, add, stir, spread and bake. Nothing she couldn’t remember. Remi put the butt of her pen against her teeth, well, maybe nothing, she thought. Directions: Grease 9 X 13 X 2 pan… bake 25 minutes. Wait to cut
Remi heard the sound of the paper rip. The words “& eat” had been so thoroughly scratched out her pen was poking through to the next page. Out of everyone she could have randomly been assigned it just had to be Emily. Remi picked up her coffee and resting her chin on the lip of the mug. Not that Emily would ever really know, no one would. Maxine had created her own version of a gift exchange. Everyone was given a bag with the same wrapping paper, a pre-printed gift label with your person’s name, and an info sheet that captured silly things: favorite television show, celebrity crush, plus shoe and clothing sizes. Each participant was given a bag. Presents were to be returned wrapped, and in the same bag materials were handed out in. Upon entering the party Maxine would take everyone’s bag and place them in the laundry room. Her FIANCÉ would then shuffle the order around and line them up on the living room table when it was time for presents.
Maxine had given some long, melodramatic speech about women empowering women and the symbolism of honoring each other. Remi had found a deep fascination with a fleck of something swirling around in her wine glass. Somewhere between the end of the merlot and the beginning of the shiraz the mysterious fleck had appeared. Remi had placed her glass of red on the end table as Maxine clapped her hands requesting everyone face forward – the bags were ready to be handed out. As Maxine’s FIANCÉ walked in his tan dockers and brown loafers through the cream and white colored living room, now spotted with white and gold decorations for the holidays, Remi felt a small pang of excitement. The holidays always brought cheer, no matter what crisis was taking over Remi’s life.
Warmth had washed over Remi. Her face flushed with hope as well as the alcohol. The party quickly wrapped up, other than a few of the women, Emily included, stayed behind to help Maxine “clean up” as the rest grabbed their coats and made their way out. Sarah stood in front of the neighbors house with Remi. The two lit up cigarettes as they waited for their rides.
“Thanks again for the cigarette,” Remi said, handing Sarah’s lighter back to her.
“No problem. I still can’t figure out how you only have the occasional one, but hey – whatever works,” Sarah said pocketing her lighter.
“Better than being inside prepping the clean up,” Remi shrugged.
“Her poor housekeeper. The one from last year quit.”
“Not from the pre-holiday get together, though right?”
“No,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “It was the dog’s first birthday party.”
Remi titled her head.
“It was right after,” her voice trailed off as she waved her hand, the cigarette smoke clouding in front of it. “Anyway, we have the cake. Maxine gives the dog his present and proceeds to sit everyone in the living room so her fiancé can hand out the favors. I left with the majority. Came out here to smoke and wait for Carl. We’re in the car five minutes when Sadie calls me. She’s hysterical, Rem. I calm her down enough where I can understand her, put her on speaker and have start from the beginning. While Maxine was directing Emily to just dump everything in the sink as she found it, Sadie had been following a trail of wrapping paper.”
“Emily’s first party?”
“Yup, she too came alone. If throwing chunks of cake on top of plates of half eaten filet bothered her she didn’t show it. She seemed to enjoy smooshing the glasses of champagne into the hunks of cake. Anyway,” Sarah said, shaking her head and lighting a second cigarette, “Sadie gets to the end of the trail and the dog is dead.”
“The dog, whose first birthday it was, was dead. A balloon string hanging out of his mouth.”
“Poor baby,” Remi said.
“Maxine walked in, covered her mouth with a flat extended hand – something out of the fucking 50s,” Sarah said, mocking the gesture before continuing “then she told them to leave him there. Put all the paper trash around him and the maid would have to do something about IT. She called him IT.”
Remi pushed her palm flat against her face. “What happened to her? Was she always this bad and we were just to drunk in college to notice?”
“Nah,” Sarah said, flicking her cigarette. “I mean, yes. She was always pretty pretentious and shallow. But once she got the ring on her finger, a fiancé in dockers and a suburban mansion she lost it.”
“I think after this exchange I’m out,” Remi said, her head slowly shaking back and forth.
“If you bail, I won’t be too far behind you.”
The two stood in a moment of silence until Carl’s car pulled up.
“See you soon, Darlink,” Sarah said, getting into the car. “KISSES,” she shouted through the opened window as they pulled away.
Remi laughed. She was dumbfounded by the dog story, not so much that Maxine had left him there for the maid, but that she had ever gotten the dog in the first place. Her bemusement lasted until she got home. All the way until she stood at her hallway table and reached into the bag. Secretly she hoped for Sarah. They had been friends so long, and Remi already had ideas of what she wanted to get her. Looking down at the name label Remi’s mood crashed, sinking further and further with each letter: E-M-I-L- “WHY,” Remi wailed to herself.
Three Fridays and seven bottles of wine later Remi still hadn’t figured out why. But at least she had figured out what. Steven, like most people, had loved her brownies. For weeks he had tried to get a copy of the recipe. Finally Remi had hid it, unfortunately it seemed she had hidden it too well. When he left her for Emily, his new girlfriend, it finally clicked into place. What would be a better gift than the brownies she would never be able to make?
Sitting at her computer, not fully shut down, Remi put down her coffee and ripped out the recipe tucking it into the band of her boxers. Taking her coffee back into the kitchen, Remi got out all of the ingredients for the brownies and for her walnut pecan pancakes. This kind of gesture definitely earned a reward or two.
Remi mixed the ingredients for her pancakes in a mixing bowl, and got to work on preparing the nuts. One cup of chopped walnuts for the pancakes themselves, and a cup of chopped pecans for her specialty goopy topping. Remi washed her hands and dried them on a wet paper towel. She picked up her large kitchen knife she had used on the nuts and went to wipe it off. Her cell phone rang, the ringtone blaring through the kitchen. Remi dropped the paper towel and the knife on the counter. Letting out a nervous laugh, she ran to grab her phone. A picture of her and Sarah from their college days popped up across her screen.
Answering the phone, Remi put it on speaker and walked over to the coffee pot.
“Hi,” Remi said.
“Hello, Darlink! Are you ready for the extravaganza tomorrow?”
“Almost,” Remi answered. “Feel like I left everything til the last minute, but it’ll be okay.”
“It will be fabulous,” Sarah said over exaggerating. “Besides, this is supposed to be about women appreciating each other in spite of years of opression.”
“And here I thought it was Christmas,” Remi laughed. Fixing her second cup of coffee, she grabbed her mug and her phone and went back to the stove top.
“Only for us mere peasants. To women like Maxine this is a function of the greatest proportions. What’re you up to?”
“Making pancakes,” Remi answered.
“Your pecan walnut pancakes?”
“The only kind of pancakes when one is preparing for a Maxine Function.”
“Well, tell me you’ll have some extra batter.”
“I might,” Remi said. “Why?”
“Carl’s counterpart came down with something. They have a big presentation that is he now covering. It’s tomorrow and in order to make it he has to leave tonight.”
Remi measured out a cup of batter and waited.
“Annndddd,” Sarah continued, “since we only have the one car, I was hoping I could spend the night by you and then we could split a ride over to Maxine’s tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Remi said. “I have a few things to do. Would five o’clock be too late?”
“No,” Sarah shouted. “It’s perfect. We won’t be there before six. I’ll be bringing wine and take out. So don’t you dare think of making dinner. Thank you so much!”
“It’s really no problem,” Remi answered.
“Besides, it’ll be nice to have some company.”
“You are the best. Thanks an absolute million!”
Remi hung up the phone and sat down with her two pancakes. Regardless of Maxine’s bullshit with women empowerment was, Remi loved gift exchanges, especially when they were a surprise. She would have plenty of time to make and wrap the brownies before cleaning up her house in order for Sarah’s arrival. Polishing off the rest of her breakfast, Remi threw her plate and utensils in the sink and got to work on her brownies. Everything could be loaded into the dishwasher after.
Creaming the butter with her wooden spoon, Remi prepared for the next step, only then realizing she was out of peppermint cocoa. She had regular hot cocoa, and a whole bunch of mini-peppermint candy canes from her students. Letting her mix sit, Remi ran back to her office and grabbed as many as she could from the drawer. Back in the kitchen she threw them on the cutting board, still left out from pancakes and chopped the candy canes up with the knife. She added the hot cocoa to the butter and scrapped in the bits of candy cane. Turning around she added the knife and cutting board to the sink.
Remi cracked in the first egg, dropping the shell in the plastic bag next to her. She reached for her second egg and saw her notes. There was an asterisk next to the eggs. Each egg had to be added one at a time and properly mixed in before the next one could be added. Remi smiled. Things seemed to be going much better this time around.
A half hour later the brownies were cooling on the counter. Remi poured the pancake batter and the goop into separate , and loaded the dishwasher. She had just finished putting the final touches on gift wrapping on Emily’s present, when the doorbell rang. Remi ran downstairs to answer the door. Sarah was standing on her porch with a small overnight bag and her purse. Carl was barely visible behind her holding takeout, Sarah’s present for the exchange, and a brown bag with three caps sticking out of it.
The next morning Sarah slid onto the bar stool Remi had set up on the other side of the island.
“Did we finish all three bottles?”
“Those three yes. And then we grabbed another one from my collection,” Remi said.
“Thank God you’re making pancakes. I’ll make mimosas?”
“Carl is picking you up tomorrow or the day after?”
“Tomorrow” Sarah said.
“Definitely make the mimosas then,” Remi said.
The morning flew by, and at 2:35 pm their ride picked them up. The two women reminisced about their college days, specifically the ones involving Maxine. They arrived at 3 pm sharp. Not wanting to be lectured on the etiquette of time by Maxine of her fiancé, Dockers, as they had taken to calling him, they stood in front of the other neighbor’s house this time and smoked a cigarette.
Just as Maxine had described in great detail the last time they all had been over, she took their presents. After a fancy dinner that barely anyone except Sarah and Remi ate, they adjourned in the living room. Dockers handed out the presents to each woman. Before they could open them, Maxine made an announcement. Instead of opening up their treats and possibly ruining the mystery of the exchange, everyone should wait until they got home! A few women, the same who always stayed to help clean up, gave artificial golf claps. A round of champagne was handed out. Emily made a special toast to Maxine, and within thirty minutes Dockers was handing out the coats to the guests as they began to leave.
“Three hours to the minute, almost,” Sarah said taking her cigarettes from her purse.
“She is an efficient hostess,” Remi said rolling her eyes. “I’m glad we came though. Not sure if it was the peppermint patty shots Dockers was handing out or if it’s because it’s my last Maxine function, but I had fun.”
“Definitely the shots,” Sarah laughed. “But seriously, I’m glad too. Besides, we still have each other -”
“And another night as roommates,” Remi added.
“So we’ll enjoy it.”
The two women finished their cigarettes a minute before their ride pulled up. They laughed the whole way home doing dramatic impressions of Maxine and her followers. Neither mentioned Emily specifically, other than to reference her toast.
“If we weren’t so sure she was into dick, I would swear she was Maxine’s special friend,” Sarah said.
“Well, Steven could be a bit of a pussy sometimes,” Remi said.
Sarah turned slowly to Remi. Her eyebrow raised. Her face impartial. Remi’s mouth hung open in a crooked little “O” before she burst into laughter.
“Oh thank God,” Sarah said. Laughter took over the backseat.
“I surprised myself, but I guess it’s okay to laugh,” Remi said.
“Breakups are shitty. Especially when the person you’re with starts a new relationship before ending the one they’re in with you. But hey – you laugh, you cry. Eventually you heal.”
Remi leaned over and gave her friend a hug.
“Thank you,” she said, returning to her seat. “I think you’re right… it was definitely the shots.”
The next afternoon Sarah and Remi woke up to a loud banging on the door. They had passed out on the couch watching classic 80s movies each drinking their own bottle of wine.
Remi got up and shuffled to the door. Sarah lagged behind her. A very tall and very muscular officer was standing at the door, next to him was a man in a suit. Remi opened the door. The man in the suit introduced himself and Officer Mathews. As Remi straightened out her pajamas, the detective asked if they could come in.
“Of course,” Remi said. “Sarah, can you put on the coffee?”
Sarah gave a thumbs up and walked toward the kitchen.
“Have a party last night,” the detective asked?
“We went to a Christmas party yesterday. Sarah stayed over. She’s going home tonight. Is this about Carl?”
“Sarah’s partner,” Remi supplied. “He’s traveling for work, and -”
“No, nothing like that. Both of you were at a Christmas party yesterday, you said?”
“Yes,” Sarah said, joining Remi’s side.
“Maxine Stryker’s Christmas party?”
“Yes,” Remi answered.
“What’s this all about,” Sarah asked.
“I’m going to ask you both a few questions about the people who were there, what you saw, that kind of thing. It’s an informal conversation, but I’d like to record it if you don’t mind.”
Sarah and Remi looked at each other.
“Not a problem.” “Of course,” they said at the same time.
“Sarah, Office Mathews will speak to you in the living room. Remi, I’ll talk to you in the kitchen. If that’s okay,” the detective continued.
Both women nodded.
“Coffee,” Remi offered, holding up the pot.
“Yes please,” the detective said. “With a splash of cream please.”
Remi poured two cups and brought them to the island along with the half and half.
“Walk me through the events of yesterday if you would.”
Remi told the detective everything she could remember. From her pecan walnut pancakes with Sarah in the morning to who left how much of what on their plate at the part. She included Docker’s following Maxine’s plan to a tee, plus Emily’s and Maxine’s speeches. She took a breath, and the recalled the driver over to Maxine’s and the drive home. When she was done, she waited for the detective to say something.
“Sounds a little more sophisticated than something I would be invited to,” he smiled softly. “And what can you tell me about your relationships with Maxine and Emily?”
“Sarah and I were roommates in college. All four years. Junior year we wanted to rent a house off campus and we picked up Maxine,” Remi said. “Emily, well,” Remi took a deep breath, “Emily is dating Steven. They’ve been dating ten months. I know because Steve dumped me eight months ago.”
Remi picked up her mug and held it against her lips.
“Ah,” the detective said. “That must have been hard for you.”
“It was, but I’ve been dealing with it. Having her as my Secret Santa wasn’t easy. I don’t know much about her, other than what was on her information sheet. And, you know, Steven…” Remi’s voice trailed off.
“Do you still have it,” the detective asked. “The information sheet?”
“I do, it’s in my office. Do you need it?”
“Yes, and do you have your brownie recipe?”
“Mhmm,” Remi said nodding. “Actually, here.” Remi turned around and opened the microwave, pulling out the hand written recipe. Her face flushed as she handed it to the detective. “Sarah has been teasing me about that recipe for years. It’s a game we used to play in college. I would write it out and hide it. If she found it before we were done drinking she could keep it. I had rewritten the day before the party and had hidden it before she got here. As a throwback to old times.”
The detective let out a small laugh. “My wife has a recipe that her sister has been trying for years to steal. I understand. If you could go get her information sheet, I think we’re just about done here.”
Remi smiled and dashed up the stairs to her office. In the pile of wrapping trimmings in the garbage was Emily’s info sheet. She brought it back down to the detective. “Here you go,” she said. “Sorry it’s crumbled, I had chucked it in the bin with the scraps of wrapping paper.”
“Not a problem,” the detective said.
Remi followed him to the front door. A few moments later Sarah and Officer Mathews joined them. As the two men were about to leave, Sarah cleared her throat, “before you go, can either of you tell us what this is about now?”
The detective nodded at Officer Mathews who said, “unfortunately Emily has an extreme allergic reaction to nuts. It appears that she was exposed to some last night after most of the guests left. She was found this morning in the mudroom at Ms. Stryker’s residents. She had been dead eight hours when the maid found her this morning.”