By Angel Vargas
Elise Kochinski-Bonaminio was many things to many people.
She was the grown daughter of two long-divorced parents who both loved and cared for her in vastly different ways.
She was a singing guitarist in NYC struggling to find her place in the music scene. She’d enjoyed some success both as a founder and as a member of multiple bands throughout her seventeen-year journey.
Elise was a wife to a complicated, but loving man named Leonard Bonaminio who called her “Leesie,” even when he made love to her.
“Leesie” was also a mother to their cherubic 6-month-old daughter, Mona Elise Bonaminio, whom her husband lovingly nicknamed “Mona Leesie.”
Like all normal human beings, Elise reveled in and struggled with the many identities she assumed while moving through daily life. Today was no exception. Running her moist fingers through greasy blonde tresses, Elise sighed in pained resignation. She was having trouble with what was arguably the most necessary, yet least rewarding of her roles, her employment as a nonprofit marketing developer.
Most aspiring artists in New York City had to take on regular employment to pay the bills, and Elise learned early that she was no exception. Occasional gigs coupled with a slew of part time administrative work in nonprofits taught her valuable lessons regarding people’s intentions and her ability to own her own work. Rampant sexism and racism in the nonprofit world dulled any sort of passion Elise could ever bring to a 9-5 job, especially one that kept her from the soaring ecstasy of music. Wherever Elise worked, it seemed, the mediocre white man was king.
Her current employer, the World Medicine Distribution Center (WMD) was no exception to this awful rule.
The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests brought much-needed scrutiny to the direction in which modern society was headed. This was, for someone like Elise, a double-edged sword. While high-minded discussions were playing out all over social media, Elise was working from home as a senior corporate marketing officer until a different childcare solution could be reached. She’d had to force the issue with her human resources department to get that much.
Tim, WMD’s Director of Marketing, was the reason Elise drew first blood in that battle. Among his more troubling ideas, Tim thought Elise would be able to return to the office by The end of December without a true childcare plan. He didn’t seem to care that Elise’s husband worked full time day shifts outside the home, and was unavailable for regular, daytime “Mona care.”
During a zoom conversation with Elise, Tim once compared the vicissitudes of child rearing to his difficulties in handling a new Pugapoo puppy in his new Pennsylvania home. Elise, who’d been trying to calm a screaming Mona in her arms at that precise moment, would have been flabbergasted had she the time.
Thanksgiving had just come and gone. Neither she nor Leonard had the time or the energy to host this year. Neither could even bring themselves to cook. Elise’s father, who’d just recovered from an illness, had brought them Thanksgiving dinner.
Elise felt her cheeks burn at that thought. “I should have tried harder to convince him not to travel this year,” she muttered to herself.
Now Christmas loomed. Leonard hadn’t put up the tree yet per their post Thanksgiving tradition. The couple had an argument about it last night. The stress of being new parents was getting to them both.
Elise’s work laptop “pinged.” Tim was signaling for their next zoom meeting.
Elise rolled her eyes before checking her phone.
“Nothing from Leonard yet,” she whispered to herself. “Work must be keeping him busy.” She knew to look for something despite their fight. They didn’t go to bed mad at eachother. That was one of their initial agreements regarding their relationship.
Besides, if he couldn’t spare a moment, she’d text Leonard anyway just to check in.
At the sound of the second “ping,” Elise looked up from her living room/home office work desk. Her apartment’s open floor plan allowed her to see right into the long kitchen. Part of that kitchen was a gigantic island with a false marble countertop. To the left of that countertop was a short hallway with a south facing window opposite the kitchen island. Down that hallway and to the left was Mona’s nursery.
Mona was due to wake up soon.
Elise’s phone vibrated seconds later. She looked down and saw a red heart icon flashing on her screen. It was followed by the words “Putting up the tree tonight. Sorry about last night.”
She nodded slowly and grinned to herself.
“Love you too, Leonard. Time to talk to the boss.”
For six months, Elise and her husband dealt with every challenge, foreseen or otherwise, that their first child provided. Elise became the mistress of bathtime, learned to change poop strewn diapers on the fly, took Mona to multiple pediatric appointments solo, and even learned to tote Mona around in a special carrier so other things (in theory) could be accomplished at the same time.
Once Leonard returned to work, Elise became a solo act. Every sleep challenge, feeding difficulty and entertainment dilemma that affected Mona became a new chance for Elise to perform. Elise’s entire “work from home schedule” was affected by Mona’s ever-shifting needs. If Mona cried during work hours, Elise dropped everything else to care for her. Elise often had to abandon Zoom meetings to begin feedings, change diapers, or simply calm the baby down during a crying jag.
Elise was used to performing on stage, improvising, and making sure the show went on even when everything seemed to be falling apart. By Mona’s sixth month, Elise was tired, but used to the constant flux. In many ways, Mona was a lifeline for her mother, teaching Elise to reassess her priorities daily.
Seen through the scope of that lens, Elise’s job lost much of its luster.
WMD hired Elise when she was six months pregnant. Elise believed that this meant they knew what they were committing to, hiring a brand-new mother. Tim seemed more than ok with the situation, welcoming Elise with a large enough gift basket of goodies to make Leonard crack jokes about Tim’s intentions.
Working mothers, however, have often been harassed by employers demanding total devotion and self-sacrifice. Babies, it seemed, demanded the same things albeit for vastly different reasons.
Elise didn’t want to be forced into an impossible choice. Yet Tim turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and time was running out for childcare arrangements to come through.
“I just wish something good would happen for me at this job.” Elise caught herself saying as she was changing Mona’s diaper.
It was a bit of a shock to Elise when another large gift basket arrived that evening addressed to her.
The arrival also seemed to concern Leonard, who gave the heavy basket serious side-eye as he handed it to her.
“What gives?” Leonard asked with a nervous chuckle. “Tim begging for forgiveness?”
Elise frowned, inspecting the basket from behind her desk with a click of her tongue. “I’ve no idea.”
Leonard raised an eyebrow. “You do know there’s baking stuff inside this basket, right?”
Elise paused briefly, then began to rotate the basket in her arms. Cellophane crinkled and crackled. The light from her tall deskside lamp glinted off of multiple surfaces, including metal measuring scoops, a small baking tray, and what looked like a small sifter.
“What the hell?” Elise breathed.
Shaking with laughter, Leonard leaned over and placed a hand, fingers splayed, on her desk. “You know, as strange as this is, it adds up, babe.”
“How so?” Elise retorted, staring at her husband.
“Think about it. That rat bastard boss of yours wants your forgiveness, but instead of sending you a pre-baked gingerbread house or whatever, he expects you to do the work yourself while he gets the credit!”
Leonard guffawed so loud, Elise stood and “shushed” him. “You wake Mona, you’re changing the diaper.”
“Better that than trying to bake the “present” I just got from my boss,” Leonard quipped.
“Hmm. Was there an envelope with this?” Elise asked before lifting the gift basket with both hands. She began to almost dead lift the thing when a small, green envelope with a golden seal fell toward her desk, landing with a surprisingly loud “thud.”
Leonard seemed to blanch. “There was nothing on the bottom of that basket when I handed it to you.”
“Are you sure?” Elise was taking her turn at laughter. Hers sounded much more forced.
Leonard nodded slowly before scratching his bearded chin. “I’m sure.”
Elise set the basket down, then reached for the mystery envelope. As soon as her skin touched the shockingly smooth, almost silky paper, an oddly comforting warmth seemed to ignite from her chest, radiating throughout her body. Elise sat down and smiled, aware that she could feel her husband’s burning curiosity emanating from what she knew to be his intense gaze.
“What, you think there’s money in that thing?” Leonard blurted with a disdainful chuckle.
Elise settled back into her chair for a moment before picking up the envelope. “From one working mother to another,” Elise said almost wistfully, reading the beautiful golden cursive.
Leonard “humphed” before adding, “So it wasn’t Tim.”
Elise shook her head almost absently, a smile sneaking onto her face.
“Who the heck was it, then? Leonard inquired.
“Don’t know,” Elise said.
Minutes passed. Leonard remained curiously still and quiet. Elise surmised why, but as she felt the unexpected warmth of a just-sipped hot tottie radiate throughout her chest, she knew his abundant caution wasn’t needed this time.
“Just how the hell do I know these things,” she thought to herself as she tore the envelope open with trembling fingers.
That night, Elise found herself in their kitchen, knee deep in what Leonard correctly guessed was a baking recipe. Before she began, she had Leonard make a mad dash to the corner food market for most of the key ingredients.
Leonard wasn’t thrilled, especially as this “so called gift” involved him spending his money to make it enjoyable. Leonard needed convincing.
“Mona’s first Christmas should be special even before the big day,” she’d heard herself say.
Elise then formulated a plan. While Leonard busied himself with the Christmas Tree, Elise would feed Mona. By the time Leonard was ready to decorate, he could deputize Mona to help him while she tried her hand at the recipe.
“Win win, right?” Elise remarked, her cheeks already hurting from the smile she had plastered to her face.
Though Leonard was still guarded, he relented. Elise knew Leonard would consider what the Holidays meant to her, and what they would soon mean to Mona.
And Leonard couldn’t resist Mona’s coy little smile.
“Strange that Leonard didn’t care that it isn’t even December yet,” Elise thought to herself as she rinsed the sifter. “Probably still feeling guilt over our last fight.”
And that had been a bad one. Lack of sleep never improved his mood. But the added stress of being a new father seemed to have awoken buried resentments.
To be fair, Elise had her share of baggage too, and Leonard was usually pretty good about helping with the load. This was the work of marriage.
Elise put the sifter down and watched briefly from the kitchen as Leonard held a smiling Mona in one arm while placing decorations on their false tree with his free hand. Christmas music rang out from Leonard’s iphone, and He babbled the words in baby talk while Mona giggled.
Moments like these reminded Elise why she’d married Leonard.
After tearing her watery gaze away from the scene, Elise stared at the recipe. The recipe, inscribed in a stunning gold calligraphy, seemed familiar. She needed eggs, molasses, brown sugar, cinnamon, even a separate recipe for a royal icing.
There was one odd thing. Though the recipe called for ground ginger, the gift basket came with a tightly sealed jar marked “ginger spice, NP.” While Leonard was at the store, Elise forced the jar open. The smell that wafted throughout the kitchen was a spectacular, mouthwatering blend of ginger with hints of citrus and something else wonderful Elise’s palate couldn’t quite identify, though it somehow reminded her of evergreen trees.
Even more exciting was the aroma’s effect on her. The same warmth Elise felt earlier just touching the envelope seemed to cocoon her. She immediately felt as though she were laying underneath a warm blanket snuggling with Leonard, Mona, and even their Bunny, Usagi.
Elise would have sworn that was exactly what was happening until the wonderful fragrance dissipated.
The ingredients were soon mixed and prepped; the oven preheated. With an eager giggle, Elise placed two baking trays in the oven, set the timer on her smartphone, then went to Leonard and Mona to help them finish decorating the tree.
The next morning certainly felt different for Elise. Leonard seemed to have a new spring in his step, and he laughed and chatted happily. That hadn’t happened in a very long time, especially as Leonard hated his job and had never been a morning person.
“I think I might really enjoy the holidays this year,” he said before kissing Elise goodbye and sauntering off to work.
Elise got out of bed minutes later, and she felt so refreshed, she actually had to check her mobile phone’s clock twice.
After confirming she wasn’t still dreaming, Elise brushed her teeth, washed her face, then almost sprinted to the kitchen to fix herself some tea before Mona could stir. The baby monitor in the nursery was connected to Elise’s smartphone. The app was up and running, and the very picture of a peacefully sleeping baby girl flashed on Elise’s screen, allowing the mother to breathe a sigh of relief as she brought a steaming mug of chai to the couch.
To the right of the long, blue sectional sat a long cage, set against the wall between the living room and the master bedroom. In that cage sat a perfectly quiet agouti rabbit named Usagi. Usagi stared out at Elise, his tiny nose twitching and sniffing the entire time.
Usagi abruptly turned and flopped over on his side.
Elise had to fight from squealing with delight. A flopping rabbit was a happy rabbit. A first-thing-in-the-morning flop seemed like a good omen for today
However, an impromptu phone call with a worried boss seemed an inauspicious contradiction to Usagi’s energy. Yet, for better or worse, Elise had to put off the convo with Tim. Mona needed breakfast
Once Mona was done feeding, Elise managed to put her down quickly for her morning nap.
“Thank God for small miracles,” Elise muttered to herself while trying to get dressed for the camera.
Tim had somehow turned a “small phone call” into a formal Zoom meeting, which meant he thought there might be an emergency. Often, the “five alarm fire” turned out to be miscommunication, Tim’s disorganization catching up with him, or Tim’s lame attempt to cover up for a big mistake.
“Holding onto my butt,” Elise said with a nervous chuckle before settling in front of her open laptop.
Tim’s young, bearded face flashed onto Elise’s screen. He looked a bit drawn. Even the nervous, thin-lipped grin he usually wore was absent today.
“Good morning, Tim!” Elise said, a genuine smile coming to her face. Of course, that smile had much more to do with how happy she’d been last night in Leonard’s arms. It was everything to her to have calm moments with her husband at the end of a long day.
Sans preamble, Tim interrupted Elise’s method acting. “What happened to the money that came from Johnson and Johnson?”
“Come again?” Elise replied, her mouth going dry.
“Funds were supposed to come from Johnson and Johnson by the end of yesterday. Did their finance officer ever write to us?”
“I wasn’t aware that we’d missed any deadlines with them or anything, but I can always follow up.”
“Would you?” Tim replied in a clipped tone. He distractedly shuffled some papers before glancing up at Elise. “That’d be great.”
“Boy, if momentary glances could kill,” Elise pondered. “Still mad about my report to human resources, huh?”
“Say, Elise, you remember Brad?”
“The man you tried to give my job to? How could I forget!”
“Of course,” Elise said with a slight nod.
“One of his former government projects needs to be finished.”
“Come on!” Elise nearly snapped, before adding a frustrated laugh to the next words. “That was his job!”
Tim held up his hands in mock surrender.
Elise rolled her eyes.
“Brad was a brilliant guy,-“ Tim began.
“And a disrespectful chauvinist jerk.” Elise thought to herself.
“-who just wasn’t an ‘I’m okay, government development work’s okay kind of person,” Tim concluded, almost sheepishly.
“No shit! Because you gave him all my assignments without even telling me!”
“We’re still cleaning up his messes for him,” she replied, coolly.
“Well,” Tim uttered, an apologetic look ruined by the subtle sneer curling the left side of his upper lip. “We might have missed the Farberkind report deadline.”
Elise almost fell out of her chair. “Wasn’t that incorrectly named report on last week’s agenda?”
Tim continued speaking as though he hadn’t heard her. “There’s a couple things we need to add to the report.”
“Didn’t you tell me we had another month to work on this?”
“We need to show a logical progression in need for the recipients of Farberkind Scalpels”
“And I told you, that company name is wrong. Farberkind doesn’t make surgical scalpels.”
“The numbers don’t add up in the report. I’ll need you to parse those out and reorganize them. They may need to be assigned new categories.”
“They make kitchen knives, asshole!”
“Can you do that by the end of tomorrow?” Tim finished.
Elise slumped in her chair, arms folded, glaring at Tim. “You should have fired Brad when you had the chance.”
Tim coughed for what felt like a full ten seconds before clearing his throat. “What’s that?”
A sudden, piercing wail from the nursery broke the standoff that Elise was sure would occur. She almost wished Mona had waited… almost.
By the time her next workday started, Elise gathered that a WMD financial officer received the Johnson and Johnson funds over a week ago, and they’d sent a copy of the email to Tim to “check in.” By the time Elise learned this, of course, She’d already called “J&J” to politely inquire about the “missing check.”
Elise’s entire conversation with J&J was an avoidable embarrassment to WMD and their Marketing and Development team.
“If Tim had bothered to check with Financial,” Elise sighed while rocking Mona to sleep. “And does he even read his email?”
In response, Mona let out a high-pitched squeal of delight. Elise just laughed, enjoying the baby’s bubbly, irrepressible joy.
“Irrepressible joy” was usually harder for Leonard to process. A turbulent past coupled with a contemporary sort of machismo may have played into his normal discomfort with the concept.
But these last two days had been quite the exception. Leonard was calmer than Elise had seen him in almost a year. He seemed to take deeper breaths, and his already bassy voice seemed to get smoother as he let go of stress.
He also proceeded to decorate the entire apartment with ornaments, garlands, and even more twinkling lights. And he sang carols in silly voices at a laughing Mona while he did it!
The phenomenon was unexpected and curious. Just a week ago, things were so different. The pair of them were run down from the constant struggles of parenting.
“Then again,” Elise speculated. “These cookies are truly something else!”
Each bite of a gingerbread cookie seemed to transport Elise to a different, happy memory of Christmases spent with family. Sometimes, the memories were so strong, Elise could feel her childhood kitten purring in her lap, or she could smell a Christmas dinner that her mother used to make.
For some curious reason, whenever she tried to ask Leonard how the cookies made him feel, he would just shrug and smile at her, or hold her tighter if they were cuddling on the couch. If Leonard was having his own Christmas memories, he wasn’t ready to share. And that was just fine.
The tin of cookies was running low. Not wanting the magic of this peaceful holiday joy to end, Elise prepared herself to make more tonight.
To that end, while Mona was down for a quick nap, Elise walked over to the kitchen refrigerator and took another look at the recipe, now pinned to the stainless-steel door by decorative magnets. Tiny, nearly illegible golden cursive was scrawled beneath the list of ingredients. Elise had somehow missed this writing before, and needed to attain powerful, drugstore reading glasses to decipher it. So, she quickly texted Leonard, and had him pick up a pair on the way home from work.
Poor Leonard was so tired when she’d texted him about it, he didn’t even ask any of the questions Elise had prepared answers for. In fact, he didn’t ask questions at all.
So much for the magic of the cookies. Then again, Leonard hadn’t taken any to work with him yet.
“Elise, be careful,” she told herself forty-five minutes later while Leonard attended to a wakeful baby in the nursery.
The truth, as unbelievable as it might sound, was something inexplicable Elise smelled in the ginger spice mixture, tasted when she bit into what felt like eternal Yule, felt in her bones. There was much more to these cookies than met the eye. There had to be!
Elise needed to be sure, and perhaps this writing was crucial to the mystery. Yet when Elise finally put the reading glasses on and peered at the tiny scrawls, she read the following.
“Gingerbread people will come alive with the magic of this recipe. Trust us!”
Elise took off the reading glasses and turned toward the nursery, laughing. Was that supposed to be a warning, a promise, or an invitation? There was no way to know. She pictured some nice old man in a Santa Suit scrawling the message carefully onto the piece of paper, a twinkle in his eye and an easy smile lifting the cheeks of his jolly, bearded face. The image made her giggle, particularly when her imaginary Santa put down his golden pen, sprang up from his easy chair and started bobbing up and down, rapping eloquently about the solar system.
“Time to find a new kid’s show to watch,” Elise called out to Leonard while reaching for the cookie tin on top of the fridge. “‘Story beats’ is melting my brain!”
“I hear that!” Leonard called back over the happy squeal of their infant daughter. “One, two three!” Leonard sang out in a familiar tone.
Elise walked into the nursery, smiling. “Check out my cookies!” She sang back before laughing and proffering a gingerbread treat.
Leonard, who was bent over Mona, making silly faces at her, turned his head toward Elise. “Not how the song goes,” he began before raising his eyebrows and taking the cookie with a free hand. “But I like your version better.”
“You know,” Elise replied before taking a nibble of her own cookie. “I was thinking of making a gingerbread man”
After a lighthearted debate over what the “gingerbread man” should look like, it was concluded, much to Elise’s amusement, that she should actually bake a gingerbread woman.
“And this gingerbread badass babe should play the guitar, just like you,” Leonard concluded with a wink.
“Jeez! She better not flirt with you if she comes to life,” Elise laughed.
Leonard furrowed his brow. “Comes to life?”
Elise froze, mid-smile, wondering why she’d uttered those words so carelessly.
Leonard kissed her forehead and laughed. “I like taller women,” he quipped. “That’s why I married you.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“The money. Can’t forget the money.”
“Hah hah! Once my band gets a real chance-“
“-You’ll regret not making me sign a prenup.”
Elise playfully slapped a laughing Leonard’s shoulder while he stuck his tongue out. “I’m going to get you for that one.”
“Speaking of,” Leonard said, still grinning. “Have you heard from the other band members, or did Covid derail your plans?”
Elise shrugged, then let her shoulders slump. “Covid sucks.”
“Gotcha,” Leonard replied, the smile fading from his face. “I’m sure something will pan out.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Elise said with a nod. “Tomorrow, it’s time to bake an empowered gingerbread female rocker.”
However, motherhood had other plans for Elise, and she was forced to wait three more days to cut and shape dough in the kitchen while a children’s christmas movie entertained an enthralled Mona in the living room.
The end result of Elise’s effort was a gingerbread woman with long, blond hair, big, dark eyes,and red lips wearing a dark tank top, pink leggings and black boots. The finishing touch was the pink, bat-shaped guitar Leonard helped design with the creative use of an old halloween cookie cutter. The cookie rocker held her guitar in her left “mitten,” as Leonard jokingly put it.
The rest of the evening, however, seemed less joyous. After finally getting a crankier-than-normal Mona to bed, Elise discovered she felt funny about eating the gingerbread rocker woman, and instead chose to keep her in another oversized green tin she’d saved from years ago.
Leonard also wasn’t quite himself. Though he was gentle and attentive to Mona, he seemed aloof, and barely spoke when Elise recounted her day to him. Things had been so busy with Mona at night lately, Leonard had even forsaken dessert in order to catch up on laundry or some other household chores. The stress was depleting his newfound holiday cheer.
Not wishing to push further, Elise took a moment off her feet and sat on the couch. In an exhausted sort of reverie, she absently played a game on her smartphone.
She could hear Leonard shuffling, in his favorite slippers, into the kitchen.
Her husband paused and heaved another frustrated sigh, and Elise spied him glaring at the pile of dishes in the sink with a sneer of contempt. “Did I tell you we’re getting a new boss at work?”
“You’re kidding!” Elise exclaimed, genuinely confused. “How many is this now?”
“Four,” he sighed. “Four in four fucking years, each of them worse than their predecessors.”
“Wow, that just-“ Elise shook her head.
Sucks,” Leonard said with a small flourish of his left hand. He turned on their fancy k-pod coffee maker, then stared, unfocused, at the machine while it made powerful, water jet noises. “Not one of our directors was ever worth a damn.”
Elise nodded, unsure what else to say. Leonard had seen bosses come and go at his city hospital job for years. The real problem, it seemed, was that each left a trail of destruction in their wake that further and further depleted morale from Leonard’s department. These days, neither he nor any of his coworkers trusted anyone in authority.
Too tired to say more words, Leonard swatted the entire conversation off like a bothersome mosquito. He then raised up a mug of black coffee, nodded at Elise and began to sip, forgoing his normal tablespoon or two of creamer.
“Definitely not himself.”
In another half an hour, Leonard was asleep on the couch. He never even got to do more than sniff the cookie she’d given him.
Left with the bunny and her own thoughts for company, Elise let Usagi out earlier than usual for his nightly free roaming period. After essentially petting and cuddling with him for an hour, she put him back in his cage, turned on her work computer, and opened a document she hadn’t looked at since September.
“Dear Human Resources,” Elise read in a whisper, scanning the letter. This letter was so important to her, she’d asked Leonard for help with it. Leonard was a writer forever striving to hone his craft while getting a professional arts career started. Like Elise, he knew the painful realities of having to work spiritually unfulfilling jobs while creating his art in what little spare time he possessed.
He’d expertly co written and edited this letter and watched as it came to a thousand dollar, out-of-court settlement with WMD’s Human Resources department. Meanwhile, the promotion, the living-wage increase, and all the other empty promises Tim made to Elise went unanswered.
The Brad issue was nearly unspeakable in their home. Tim had enabled and created the monster, then he simply couldn’t control him. When it came time to terminate Brad’s employment, Tim choked.
The words “punk-ass bitch” escaped Leonard’s lips the instant Elise told him that little tale.
And now Elise was here, staring at the letter that was supposed to bring down the hammer on the giant nightmare that working at WMD had become.
Instead, a corporate shake-up occurred, and the Executive Director who’d originally been apprised of the Tim and Brad situation was suddenly and unceremoniously ousted by WMD’s board of directors.
Eunice was the interim Executive Director of WMD. She was new to the situation, and there was just no telling what she understood about the unnecessary drama in Elise’s department. And with Mona needing so much time and energy, Elise felt she could spare neither bringing Eunice up to speed.
Besides, Elise needed certain reassurances. All she’d seen and known of Eunice was tinged with a hard formality. Eunice wasn’t necessarily unfriendly, but her opinions about an employee’s work had proven to be, at times, cutting and very direct.
Elise was well versed in the mechanisms of a corporate machine. Interim Executive Directors were almost always tasked with “cleaning house” until a permanent new director was found. As a function of “cleaning house,” interim directors often fired people who they felt weren’t up to scratch. Eunice possessed an impressive resume. She definitely had some bodies under her belt.
Elise’s hand hovered over her keyboard, a rising heat expanding like a balloon in her stomach. “What if I do it? What if I send this to Eunice directly? Why shouldn’t she know what Tim’s really like?!”
“What are you waiting for?” called a small, unfamiliar voice.
Immediately, Elise shot a mocking smile at her husband, but the smile faded as she realized he was still fast asleep on the couch, his head turned away from her.
“Are you talking in your sleep?” Elise whispered more to herself than to Leonard. She waited, circling the couch to view his slack-jawed countenance.
“Awe man,” called the same, small voice from before. The voice seemed to be coming from somewhere else nearby. Leonard, who had a talent for voice impressions, was no ventriloquist. His lips hadn’t even quivered.
Elise placed the palm of her hand on her forehead. “Fuck my life,” she whispered. “Is that a neighbor?”
But Elise knew that was impossible. This was coming from somewhere in the living room.
“Mona, you’re not some sort of secret genius, are you?” she whispered.
Elise waited a few minutes in tense silence. The mystery speaker went mute. Suddenly, the entire apartment was quiet. The silence was deafening. Elise’s heart began to race.
Like a gunshot, Mona’s piercing cry shattered the silence. Leonard sprang up from the couch like an olympic runner.
Without looking back, Leonard bolted for the nursery, waving a hand behind him. “I got this.”
Too stunned to respond, Elise fought to slow her heart rate. She scanned the living room for anything out of the ordinary. The only object that seemed out of place was the gingerbread woman’s green cookie tin, which sat at the corner of Elise’s desk. She didn’t recall placing the tin there.
“Jesus,” Elise moaned. “How tired am I? Now I’m hearing voices?”’
With a heavy sigh, Elise trudged to the nursery to follow up with her husband and child. When all was well, the depleted couple shut things down and went to bed for the night.
An alarming series of pre-dawn events marked the beginning of a turning point for Elise’s life.
Elise was woken by a set of loud, rhythmic “thumps” issuing from the living room. Without checking to see if Leonard was awake, she leaped out of bed and hurried out the room, already sure she knew what was up.
With her mobile phone’s flashlight function engaged, Elise discovered Usagi thumping like mad in his cage, his glittering eyes wide with fear. The rabbit’s head was turned up toward Elise’s work desk. Elise traced a path from the tip of his twitching nose directly to where the gingerbread woman’s cookie tin sat.
Suddenly perturbed, Elise immediately moved toward her desk lamp, switched it on, and scanned the top of her desk for evidence of mice or bugs. Usagi could neither chase pests nor run away if he was frightened. His best bet, in that case, was to wake one of his rent-paying stewards.
Elise found nothing she could have anticipated; no bugs , no sheddings, no droppings. Her work laptop was closed, sitting exactly where she’d left it.
With Usagi still thumping away, Elise walked closer to Usagi’s cage and knelt in front of the small entrance. “What’s gotten into you, baby bunny?” she cooed, opening his cage and scratching the top of his nose. After a tense minute, Usagi eased into her hand, pressing his cheek into her palm. Elise smiled, relieved that he was okay at last.
She glanced at the master bedroom door. Leonard wasn’t coming out.
After she closed Usagi’s cage, Elise stood, turned on every nearby light and scanned the entire living room. Nothing was out of place. The couch looked undisturbed. The windows were closed, their shades still drawn. Neither the windowsills nor the living room floor bore evidence of pests.
“Guess the place is haunted, then, buddy,” she sighed, remembering the odd voice from last night. Elise turned toward the rabbit’s cage. Usagi peered at her in silence, his ears standing in a “v” on top of his head.
Next, Elise checked on her daughter, who remained fast asleep in her nursery.
Relieved but still unsettled, Elise shook her head and trudged back to the master bedroom. “Thanks for sounding the alarm, bunny face.”
By nine in the morning, Elise would find out just how perceptive Usagi had been. With Mona still asleep and Leonard at work, she sat at her desk with her morning cup of tea, opened her laptop and stared down in confusion.
Dark cookie crumbs were scattered, here and there, on top of or between the computer keys.
Her confusion turned to alarm when she noticed one of the crumbs had pink frosting on it.
“Damnit, Leonard,” Elise groaned, exasperated. “You didn’t eat my cookie, did you?”
Elise nearly fell out of her chair at the somewhat muffled, yet familiar voice.
“Nuh uh!” Elise insisted, shaking her head at the new reality. “I heard you last night because I was tired!”
Without waiting for a response, Elise lunged for the green tin, wrenched it open, and peered inside.
A perfectly whole (and quiet) gingerbread rocker woman with a pink “bat-axe” lay at the bottom, face up. The large, dark eyes stared ahead, blankly. All seemed normal at first glance.
Yet something was off. Elise could feel it, like a knuckle that refused to crack, or an errant and irritating grain of sand in her bikini top after a visit to the beach.
“Holy shit!” She exclaimed. “Your guitar. It’s in your right hand!”
“Doh!” the same voice replied, except the words escaped the tiny, moving, candy red lips of the gingerbread guitarist.
To Elise’s utter shock, the gingerbread woman’s eyes scrunched, and she hitched her shoulders upward as though she’d been caught doing something wrong. “I knew I messed up somewhere.”
Elise felt the room begin to spin. Without stopping for further discussion with a fucking Christmas cookie, she practically tripped, hurling herself toward the kitchen sink. She turned on the cold water, cupped her hands beneath the fountain, felt the cold stab the webbing between her fingers with ice daggers, then splashed mini puddle after mini puddle on her face until she stopped gasping in shock.
Elise blinked, wishing she hadn’t had to give up coffee to breastfeed Mona.
Still standing at the kitchen sink, she turned slowly toward her desk. From this distance, a small shadowy object seemed to jut out from the open cookie tin.
“You’re not dreaming,” came the sing-song reply to an unasked question, one of about a million, now swimming in Elise’s dizzy head.
“But you’re a gingerbread lady!”
“And you’re a human woman with a husband, a full time job and a child. Does that sound less crazy to you?”
Elise nodded, smirking. “You’re a comedian.”
“Only if my Fire Mistress wishes it.”
“Ugh,” came the frustrated response. “You modern people don’t know anything!” The Gingerbread woman tossed the green tin lid aside and hopped out, landing in a kneeling position, her gaze toward her tiny, booted foot. At her side, her guitar stood straight up, and she held the neck in her outstretched… mitt; It was a bold Rockstar pose.
Elise smiled, remembering her bandmates. The band had once played together as the opening act of a Freddie Mercury tribute. That was a crazy night!
The Gingerbread woman raised her head and winked at Elise. “The Fire Mistress assembles the magical Yule confections from ingredients which come all the way from NP headquarters.”
“NP headquarters,” Elise breathed, her eyes suddenly wide. “Is that far North of here?”
“Way, way North!” The animated cookie pointed her guitar up and North as though holding out a massive microphone to an audience.
More memories came flooding back into Elise’s mind. Her fingers began to tingle and twitch a bit. She remembered suddenly which closet her electric cutaway was in.
“So, who created you?” Elise asked.
The tiny rocker shook her head. “I’ll tell you later. There isn’t much time left.”
“Well, the baby should be asleep for a little while if all goes well.” Elise suddenly froze, her mouth going dry. “You don’t eat babies, right, ginger-broad?”
“No.” Elise would have sworn “ginger-broad” rolled her eyes. “Anyway, as Fire Mistress, you used flame to complete the cycle that gave me a vessel to inhabit. Because of that, you’re entitled to-“
“-Hang on,” Elise cut across her. “Leonard clearly left you alone. So why were there crumbs on my work com-“
But at a sudden, electric “beep” from her mobile device, Elise stopped her question and looked at her phone screen. “Ugh. Another Zoom meeting?” Elise almost growled. “When the hell does this jerk expect me to get my other work done, anyway?”
“What’s a Zoom meeting? Do people fly there in rocket packs?”
“I wish!” Elise half laughed. “No, we all meet by turning on our work laptop computers and using software called ‘Zoom’ to create an online…”
Elise could tell her new companion was losing this conversation thread. She changed tack. “We all see and talk to each other through machines like the one you’re standing near.”
“Oh,” replied the gingerbread woman, sounding unsure. “It’s been a while since I’ve been outside NP headquarters. I remember AOL.”
“Wow, that’s old-school. Think that but much more advanced. I’ll show you.”
Elise looked at her mobile phone again. Tim was still typing. The “…” symbol on Elise’s phone made her clench her teeth.
Tim’s next text made Elise want to hurl her phone. “He doesn’t even want me to speak during the meeting. What is the point of me even being there?”
“Tim, my boss.”
“Well, that guy’s a punk ass bitch,” came the sudden, almost calm reply.
Elise nearly dropped her phone as she tore her eyes from the screen. “How the hell do you.. you’ve been talking to my hus- oh no!”
Elise connected the dots while glaring at the tiny being on her desk. “The letter!” She jabbed her index finger toward her computer with every word. “What. Did. You. Do?”
“As my Fire Mistress, you’re supposed to gimme a name!”
“Oh… kaay,” Elise replied, brought up short. She raised her eyebrows. “Why?”.
“So I can make things better. I’m here to make things better for-“
“-your Fire Mistress. Yeah. Got that. Um…” Elise cleared her throat. “How?”
“Gimme a name and I’ll show you.”
At the sound of another “beep” from her smartphone, Elise huffed. “Okay, my name’s Elise. Please stop calling me ‘Fire Mistress.”
“So long as you don’t name me “ginger-broad.”
Elise chuckled. “You’re a walking, talking gingerbread woman with definite opinions.” The thirty-something mother shook her head. “I don’t know how I get myself into these messes, but here’s what I think.”
The gingerbread guitarist raised her instrument and beckoned with her free hand.
‘Ginger’’ is too on the nose,” Elise remarked casually, stepping forward. “How about Lita?”
Without warning, the would-be Lita took a wide, Metalhead horse-stance, planted her booted feet, and jammed her guitar into play position. She rotated her free arm like a tiny windmill, strumming a power chord on the downswing that somehow filled the room.
Elise was torn the instant the powerful electric harmony reached her ears. The performer in her wanted to slap her leather half jacket on, grab her ax, and leap onto a stage with her bandmates. She felt the familiar itch of her ever-ready flying fingers, and she could already sense the healing that strumming a set of power chords could provide for her stiff body and aching soul.
Yet the mother in her, the woman in her late thirties who’d gone through a challenging pregnancy and a terrifying labor, had a baby girl, and couldn’t yet fit back into her favorite stage jacket, was beside herself. She shot toward the nursery, expecting her slumbering daughter to scream in protest at the unfamiliar, potentially terrifying electronic racket.
Elise almost wrenched the nursery door off its frame and tore into the room, only to find a happy baby girl giggling and cooing at her from her crib.
“Guess that means you’re cool with it.”
“You talkin’ to me or to your itty bit?” Lita called from the open door.
At 9:30 am on a Friday, a simple “yes” was all it took to get Tim’s bullshit zoom meeting pushed back by an hour. Tim offered the compromise, of course, after Elise texted him the following:
-need an hour. baby awake. Must feed.
In what seemed like no time, it was “go time,” as Tim would have it. However, the meeting would not be “baby-free.” Mona had just been fed, burped, and changed, and she showed no signs of slowing down. There was nothing else Elise could do but settle the baby on her lap while she attended the zoom conference.
Tim was the only person who seemed out of sorts with Mona’s presence. A variety of “Hi, Baby” or “Isn’t she precious?” came from the meeting’s other attendees. Tim, surrounded by a small box on Elise’s monitor could only offer a small, tepid chuckle and a half-hearted wave.
“I’m sorry. Is my baby daughter cramping your style?” Elise thought, her smile becoming bigger at the notion.
As an added distraction from her utter contempt for the meeting’s host, Elise had Lita standing to the right of her laptop, back just far enough so nobody would be distracted by a walking, talking gingerbread lady on camera.
At the sound of a final “Hello, sweet girl” from another woman to Tim’s “left,” Mona giggled.
Elise smiled and gently squeezed her daughter to her.
Lita winked at the pair.
Mona extended a chubby hand toward Lita.
Tim emitted another insipid, deep-throated chuckle that sounded even more irritating through a tinny laptop speaker. He held up what Elise saw as a forestalling hand. “Now that we’ve all said ‘hi’ to little Mona, I think we can begin.”
Elise nodded, turning off the mic on her laptop camera and tugging Mona’s hand from a smiling Lita. “More pompous than normal, I see.”
“Jeez, he’s always like that?”
Elise gave the tiniest of nods while Tim began to break down the meeting’s agenda. Elise wasn’t taking in a single word.
“This is stupid,” Elise blurted out. “Tim was supposed to call all these other people earlier this week while I took care of the other projects he gave me.”
“Sounds like he struck the wrong chord with you.”
“Lita, we’re all sitting here because he never bothered to make those calls. He names these ridiculous meetings ‘info gathering sessions’ to cover his lazy ass. We shouldn’t even be here.” “Correct,” Tim said, either as the end to a sentence, or as the answer to a question Elise never heard.
Elise snorted contemptuously.
Tim droned on for what felt like half an hour. Even Mona seemed to be drifting off in Elise’s left arm.
A “tap-tap” resounded on the right side of Elise’s computer. Elise quickly glanced at Lita, who opened her candy-red mouth wide, stuck the very tip of her hand into it and made gagging noises.
Elise, who couldn’t believe what was happening at this very moment, tried to suppress a huge laugh.
“What a gasbag!” Lita exclaimed.
Elise lowered her gaze and covered her mouth with her free hand, stifling her reaction.
“Hey Elise. Remember what I said about making things better?”
Elise nodded slowly. Her eyes watered while she attempted to tamp down a yawn.
“You should eat this now.”
While glancing toward Lita, Elise saw a tiny gingerbread rockstar proffering her guitar to her. In that instant, Elise thought of an ancient samurai handing over their sword.
“I’m honored, Lita.” Elise frowned. “But don’t you need your ax?”
Lita shook her head. “You need this right now. Trust me.”
The working mother looked from Lita, to a now snoozing Mona, then back to a babbling boss on her computer screen. The whole situation felt so unreal, Elise wondered if she’d fallen asleep at her desk.
Lita sighed, her red lips becoming a firm line. “As you eat, think about what you wish would happen.”
Elise raised the cookie guitar at Lita, winked, and took a nibble. The cookie’s flavor, as incredible as ever, was somehow like edible silk as it spread over Elise’s tongue.
“Wow, Leonard was right about you, Tim.” Elise whispered, her head suddenly feeling too heavy for her neck. “You do talk too much.”
“Then, say it out loud, sister,” Lita’s voice seemed to echo through a long tunnel.
“I wish Tim would shut up for a minute.”
“And so,” continued Tim on screen, “what we have here are diametrically opposed pippy pappy thidstuckoo pedeepepeeh pbbth.”
Suddenly, Tim seemed to get tongue tied, losing the thread of his speech.
Taken aback, Elise sat straight up. She’d never seen Tim do that even when he was tired.
Mona stirred but fell back asleep almost at once.
Tim laughed, almost good-naturedly and apologized. He absently stacked papers before he looked toward Elise and stared, his expression inscrutable and unnerving.
Elise flushed. “Did my boss just have a stroke? Why isn’t anyone else concerned about this?”
“No worries, I’m fine!” Tim declared, clearing his throat. “It was a… hiccup.”
“A hiccup?” Elise almost shouted before remembering Mona was with her. “Porky Pig would have made more sense ordering a BLT.”
The uncomfortable moment somehow passed. Tim regained his composure and pressed on with the meeting.
“What an idiot! If he isn’t drunk or something, Tim should be closing this meeting and going to a hospital.” Elise threw up her hands. “You know, I wish our new Executive Director could see what a fool this guy is!”
Elise bit the head off the pink bat guitar this time.
Before Elise could even chew on her latest wish, the tinny music of bad jazz rang out. Tim looked down at his lap, then looked up quickly in wide-eyed alarm. He composed himself rapidly, clearing his throat and nodding, but Elise had already seen his fear.
“Who is on the phone?” Elise wondered aloud.
Tim sniffed and held up his hands as though surrendering to someone off camera. “Uh, guys? That was Eunice. It seems our own Executive Director wants to join us for this meeting after all.”
“After all what?” Elise gasped; her eyes flared.
An older, hawk-eyed woman soon joined the zoom meeting, wearing her white hair in a severe bun. What was visible of her light blouse even looked intimidatingly cleaned and pressed. Her “hello” was friendly but strained.
Beyond the shock of her sudden appearance, Elise registered the Executive Director’s tension, and found herself wanting to coil up in her chair like a snake.
Tim only managed a small, silent wave in response to his boss’s greeting.
“This is like watching a damn soap opera!” Elise almost squealed.
Lita chortled. “Keep watching.”
However, the meeting dragged on, killing the dramatic vibe. Even after Elise was called upon to remind everyone about the status of several Marketing projects, she still found herself inwardly cringing at her department’s lack of focus. Tim’s constant “um” and “uh” noises in response to intelligent questions further eroded her confidence.
Something else suddenly drew Elise’s attention. Eunice’s attitude seemed to shift negatively whenever Tim spoke. She’d been surprisingly friendly and candid with Elise and the others, yet she began to assume a stone-faced rigidity at Tim’s long-winded explanations. One of his answers even drew a raptor like glare from the Executive Director that almost made Elise wince in sympathy.
Instead, Elise planted her free elbow on her desk, and assumed the “concerned employee” pose, covering her sudden smirk with her hand.
The meeting drew to a close. The others chose to banter with one another or talk of their personal lives, but Elise was having none of it. Now, more than ever, she needed to focus. Aside from the multitude of new tasks and deadlines created for her in this meeting, she had to change Mona’s diaper, put her to bed, then find out what the hell just happened to her boss.
Elise was about to stand up and leave with Mona when Tim rolled backwards from his desk and called out to everyone. “Hey guys? You all want to meet my pugapoo pup? He just walked into the room.”
Elise watched, nonplussed, as Tim made his screen bigger than everyone else’s through Zoom’s “share mode.” She gathered herself and fought not to roll her eyes. “Why the hell do you think we want to do that?”
It was then Elise realized she’d never finished the cookie in her hand.
“You know, Lita, I wish we didn’t have to worship Tim’s dog like he’d given birth to him or something.”
With Mona dozing in her left arm, and Lita donning a red lipped smirk, Elise shrugged and took a massive bite, leaving half a pink wing.
Tim, who was rotating on his swiveling desk chair until his back faced the camera, suddenly lost his balance, and toppled backward.
“Fuck,” Tim shouted.
Elise watched in stunned fascination as the top of Tim’s bald pate dipped below the bottom of her screen like a slowly setting sun. Soon, one of Tim’s skinny, slipper-clad legs seemed to spring up from the ground like one of those inflatable, gas station tube men. The resounding crash rattled Tim’s camera, the shaking screen adding to the intensity of the moment. A small, frightened “bark” erupted from the ground before the obvious sounds of frightened, four-legged scrambling on a wood floor filled the room. The animal’s noises quickly faded.
“Oh my God,” Elise exclaimed, fighting the laughter that threatened to escape from her at any second. “Are you okay?”
She winced then, remembering that she’d turned off her mic. After quickly re-engaging her device, Elise noted the deafening silence from the rest of the meeting’s participants.
“Are you okay, Tim?” she asked once more.
Tim righted himself and raised his head again. Staring, wide eyed at his camera, a dumbfounded Tim lifted a hand up in front of his face. Pressed between his thumb and index finger was a small, flat piece of “something” with a pink surface.
The cold shock of recognition flooded through Elise’s body as she stared, open mouthed at her empty, right hand. She hadn’t taken that final bite of her-
“Damn pink cookie,” was all Tim could muster before he turned left, then right. “Nevermind. I scared my dog away. Goodbye!”
Before Tim turned off his camera and ended the meeting, Elise could have sworn she saw Eunice shaking with unrestrained laughter.
There are few who can say they’ve been visited by a walking, talking, laughing, music making embodiment of the spirit of Christmas. Even fewer souls can boast that their visitors came to provide much needed Christmas cheer in the form of wish-granting.
For Leesie, Lita did so much more than that. Whether this was personal for Lita or “strictly business,” Lita seemed to have fun with it all. Even as she explained the surprisingly streamlined and specific focus of the kinds of wishes she could grant, and how long she could grant them (until the very end of the year), she was also quick to point out any loopholes, quid pro quos and energy exchanges that could be used or should be avoided to navigate what she called “the wish maker’s universe paradox.”
I was quickly introduced to Lita. After an awkward introduction via my wife, Lita asked for another wildly creative “ax” to replace her pink bat. I was more than happy to oblige once I too was done splashing cold water on my face and dumping my not-so-secret stash of rum down the toilet.
The spirit inhabiting the “Lita cookie” was also a mother, and quickly took to Mona better than most potential babysitters. Though unable to do much for Mona physically, Lita was more than happy to share her gift of music with my daughter, turning Christmas carols, old Metal ballads, even television jingles into hauntingly beautiful electric lullabies or celebration songs.
Leesie’s professional life changed drastically once Tim “resigned.” Eunice somehow received a fresh email detailing all of Tim’s lies, manipulations and insults to my wife, and Brad’s involvement in the sordid drama. Coincidentally, this email arrived in Eunice’s personal inbox the day several of WMD’s board members began, for reasons unknown, to push for Brad’s reinstatement. Eunice drew her own conclusions once she spoke with Leesie. However, Brad’s name never came up again for reconsideration.
With a leadership vacuum in her department, it was finally my wife’s time to shine. Eunice simply needed to see the real talent and dedication Leesie brought to everything she did. As she stepped up, Eunice quickly took a liking to her, and when the time was right, Leesie was able to negotiate a promotion into a director’s position. That meant much more money, which meant the childcare issue would become far less dire.
A Director’s position also allowed Leesie to delegate more tasks to others. A surprising amount of her time was now open. Limitless potential never seemed so close.
Strangely, Lita never confessed to sending that email. She also hadn’t been named yet when it was sent.
It doesn’t take magic to click a button.
Still, Elise’s overwhelming concern for her family seemed to overshadow her own desires. Mona’s college fund was assured. Mona’s health would be overseen by the world’s best. Elise cleared her own financial debt to better help the family, as she was now the true breadwinner. To assure everyone’s happiness, Elise even tried to give me some of her wishes.
I would have none of it.
On Christmas Eve, as a thank you for all the light Lita brought to my family, I baked a dark, miniature “leather half jacket” just so Lita could wear something stylish when it got a little colder in the apartment. Lita never asked me for it. It just felt like the right thing to do.
As a token of gratitude, Lita gave me one wish. Just one. A precious gift.
I wracked my brain trying to figure out what I wanted until I came home from work one day
to hear a tune being belted on the electric guitar that I hadn’t heard in the longest time. The song, originally performed by a favorite Metal band of mine, was a song I’d spent much of high school attempting to learn to play. Yet I never got beyond the Pentatonic Blues Scale in my training.
Leesie was the only other guitarist I knew with the grit and the skill to play the hell out of that song.
And she was the only singing guitarist I knew who made her own electric melodies that were even sweeter. Her voice could soar with her melodies, or her expert finger picking, thrashing, or sheer improvisational genius spoke for itself many times over with cheering audiences.
She was born to make music, it seemed, until the Pandemic changed the world as we knew it.
By the time I found Leesie that day, Lita and Mona were both watching and listening, spellbound. Leesie had her amp at just the right volume to send waves of healing energy throughout the apartment. Hers was “the gift of a musical shaman.”
Leesie’s playing helped me discover the obvious truth. Lita was Leesie. Pure musical healing was her greatest gift because the essence of Lita was forged by the spirit of her Fire Mistress. That was the lesson; It had to be.
And on New Year’s Eve all those years ago, I finally made my wish.
As I write this, Leesie and her band are literally minutes away from a huge interview with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show. Next week, she hits Seth Meyers to talk about her band’s new album, MIT (Momma, I’m Teething). After her international tour, she comes back, plays some of her old songs and one new one on SNL.
We’re still married. Nobody signed a prenup.
Mona’s doing well in school. We told her she could go on tour with mommy when she’s older.
For those of you wondering what I wished, I’m not telling, but I bet you can venture a decent guess.
Find out more about Angel on his Facebook page.