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Sugar, Butter, Vanilla

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The first cake she ever baked failed to rise.

 

She’d been a little too conservative in measuring out the baking powder, and folded the beaten egg whites one turn too many, causing all of that wonderful air to deflate. The batter was still a little raw and wet when they’d pulled it out of the oven, all jiggly in its pan and a pale, anemic yellow, rather than the golden brown she was so used to seeing with her father’s cakes.

 

When the tears had started to gather in her eyes, her father merely tapped her nose and followed it up with a kiss right on the tip, telling her he must have forgotten to set the temperature right on the oven. She knew better, of course. But she went along with it anyway, because her father hadn’t wanted her to get discouraged.

 

And she loved him all the more for it.

 

Eventually, she did master the finer techniques of baking. By the age of ten, she had learned to pipe those delicate macarons onto the baking sheet, learned how to keep them in the oven just long enough until they puffed up and still remained tender and chewy on the inside and delightfully crisp on the outside. That was what impressed her father especially. Despite years of churning these out, he still struggled with each batch, holding his breath each time they went into the oven and praying that they would come out as he’d intended.

 

“I think these may have replaced cheese buns as your mother’s favorite,” he confided in her once, his eyes twinkling with a smile that he reserved only for his children.

 

After that, she baked them every year on her mother’s birthday, and sometimes when there wasn’t any particular occasion—on those mornings when her mother lingered in bed, with the curtains drawn and the sheets pulled up all the way to her chin and her small body tucked in a compact ball. She could always be coaxed out with the macarons, though.

 

There were bad days for her father too, on occasion. He was much better at hiding them than her mother was, but she could always tell it in the sparseness of his words, the stretches of silence between them as they worked side by side in the small kitchen of their family bakery, or the extra pauses he would take until the shaking in his hands subsided, clenching and unclenching his fists before wrapping his fingers around the pastry bag once more.

 

Her brother wasn’t as good at picking up on the signs, but then again, he was younger and less observant about these things, and she’d learned over the years to shield him from them so he wouldn’t get the full impact. On those days, she’d send him into the forest with their mother, to hunt game while she kept her father company and let him work through the tense moments without the added burden of self-consciousness.

 

Sometimes Uncle Haymitch came by to visit. On the really bad days—which were rare enough, thankfully—when neither of her parents could bring themselves to leave their room, she’d open the bakery by herself, and her brother would join her in mid-morning, after he’d come back from setting traps. Uncle Haymitch would stop by, ostensibly to pick up a dozen of the chocolate croissants that had become her specialty, but really, she suspected, to check up on the two of them and make sure they were doing all right by themselves.

 

By dinnertime, when there was fresh meat on the table and macarons for dessert, they’d assemble as a family, her parents looking a bit pale and worn, but always happy to see them. The aroma of sugar and butter and vanilla would hang in the air, filling their warm kitchen with the smell of everything good that their family held close.

 

And when her parents finally dove into the macarons, she’d exchange smiles with her brother. He’d give her a nod that only she would detect, barely a fraction of a tilt of his chin, and he’d mouth, We’re going to be ok.

 

They would. Because the Mellarks were survivors.