By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Write about someone hosting a cookie exchange as a cover to hide the true reason for inviting one of their guests.
Maureen’s stomach fluttered as she grabbed two oversized plates of Christmas cookies from the kitchen counter and carried them to the dining table in her townhome. Why did this latest assignment make her nervous? What could possibly go wrong at a cookie exchange of all places?
She turned back toward the kitchen and caught sight of herself in the decorative mirror on the wall behind the table. The straight hair still made her pause. When Mrs. C. had suggested a subtle change in her looks for her new role, she was worried the older woman wanted to remake her wardrobe.
“No, nothing as drastic as that,” Mrs. C. replied, a twinkle in her eye. “I was thinking something less drastic. Don’t they have some marvelous tools for changing hair these days? You know…making it not quite so obvious?”
Truth be told, Maureen had a love-hate relationship with her mass of curls. On humid days, the needle in that relationship definitely wavered more in the hot zone of hate. The number of compliments she’d gotten on her hair didn’t solve the problem of frizz. “The curse of the curly hair,” her mother used to call it. So she’d welcomed the idea of a change.
Now, though…maybe it was just the fact that she’d spent the afternoon baking her mother’s famous gingerbread cookies. Or maybe it was that she knew who was coming to the exchange. Had, in fact, arranged for the person to be there. Made sure of it, as only she could.
In any case, the absence of the curls made her feel like she was missing a part of herself today. She’d overseen so many assignments, had traveled and stayed in all sorts of places around the world with her billowing hair marking her out. She understood the need for discretion this time around, but…
Just then the bell rang. She ran a hand over her a few locks that threatened to go a little wavy, squared her shoulders, and practiced a smile. The bell rang again, and she went to the door.
For the next 15 or 20 minutes, the bell rang several times and Maureen found herself navigating the pleasantries of a new social circle between trips to the spare bedroom to drop off coats. Some of the people attending knew one another. She didn’t know any of them. Well, except one, and that person hadn’t arrived yet.
The bell rang again. One of the new arrivals called over the increasing noise of conversation that she’d get it. Maureen waved a hand in response and went back to the kitchen to check on the apple cider, keeping one ear trained on the chatter.
“Maggie, hi,” the door greeter said. “Come on in. I think jackets go…”
The trail was lost to Maureen as the sound of her heart pounding made everything else go quiet. She was here. Maggie. Her sister. She was here.
Swallowing hard, she placed one last glass of warm apple cider on the tray and made a careful turn toward the doorway of the kitchen.
“I have apple cider,” she called to everyone. Conversation became a little quieter as people came to grab glasses from her. She spent a few moments answering a series of “thank yous.” When the tray was empty, she clapped a couple of times for everyone’s attention.
“Hi, everybody,” she said, projecting her voice. “I just want to thank you for coming to the cookie exchange. I can see all the yummy choices we’ve got going on here. I have to warn you, I might be willing to fight for the gingersnaps.”
A few chuckles went around the room. On the far side, the door to the spare room swung open. Maggie took three steps toward the group and stopped short.
“Maureen?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
Maureen smiled with as much fake bravery as she could muster. “Hi, Maggie.”
Curious looks from the other guests went between the two. Maureen knew everyone could see the suspicion on her sister’s face. She smiled a little wider.
“Well, we’re here to exchange cookies, right? So let’s get to it. You’ll all find plastic bags here on this end of the table…”
She launched into a quick, and no doubt unnecessary, explanation of how the exchange worked. Minutes later, her new neighbors milled around the table picking favorites and stuffing bags. Maggie stayed by the far wall, and Maureen crossed the room to her.
“So this explains why the invitation didn’t have a host’s name,” Maggie said without bothering with a greeting. “What do you want this time, Maureen?”
She flinched but fought to keep her face smooth. “I’m here because I got a new job. This townhome is closest to it.”
“Really? What do you do?”
“I’m a project manager,” Maureen said, smoothing her skirt.
Maggie scoffed. “How is that even possible when you couldn’t even manage your own life? Who’s going to trust you to manage any sort of project? Tell me the truth, what are you really doing here?”
She turned and watched as the neighbors sampled cookies and tried to ignore them. “I told you. I’m a project manager. I moved to town and don’t know anyone here, and it’s the almost the holidays so I thought it would be nice to meet people in the complex.”
Her sister crossed her arms with an eyeroll. “And you had no idea I lived here, right? Or did you cyberstalk me and pick this place on purpose? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re just here for—”
“I’m here,” Maureen broke in, fighting to keep her voice level, “for a job. That’s all. It’s nice to see you, but if you don’t feel comfortable being here, I’m not going to force you to stay.”
Maggie stared hard at her, boring her eyes into Maureen’s as if she could search for the truth that way. Maureen kept her face calm, but her stomach fluttered harder this time. She clenched her fists to keep from fidgeting.
“Fine,” Maggie said, “I’m leaving. Don’t bother to invite me to anything again, please. I’m not going to come.”
“Okay,” she said in a near-whisper. “Thanks for coming anyway.”
With another hard stare, Maggie turned on her heel to the bedroom. Moments later, she stomped back out struggling with her coat. Maureen’s hand floated up as if to help, but Maggie grabbed the doorknob and was out before they could say anything else.
Her head throbbed, but she knew the first part of her assignment had gone as well as it could. Not great, no, but it could have been much worse. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a few deep breaths, then turned back to her other guests to play hostess.
To be continued…