By J.S. Mueller
Jake held his breath and placed the fourth layer of homemade chocolate sponge atop the soft, pink, raspberry mousse for his daughter’s birthday.
“I can do this…” he murmured to himself.
The mousse had been a pain in the ass, pureeing berries, pressing them through a sieve, folding them into the gelatin/whipped cream mix. He’d screwed that up the first time—mixed instead of folded—and had to run out for another ten bucks’ worth of raspberries and heavy cream. Sure, he was up to his neck in hospital and funeral bills, but it was Aisha’s thirteenth birthday, and her first without a mother.
“In you go,” he said to the cake, sliding it onto a shelf in the fridge. “Now, you and me are just gonna chill a few hours.” He took out a beer, maneuvering it around the cake carefully, as if trying to avoid waking a sleeping baby. He closed the door and sighed. The kitchen was a mess, and he still had presents to wrap, but he had a few hours before he’d have to make the chocolate ganache.
“I can do this,” he said. This had been his mantra for the last year.
I can do this, he’d told himself as he held Maya, sobbing into his chest, after getting her test results back from the oncologist. He’d be her advocate and champion, ask the doctors all the right questions, research everything he could on her cancer.
I can do this, he’d half-prayed, his wife’s dark hair falling out in his hands as he held it back for her, while she retched over the toilet, chemo-sick.
“I can do this,” he told Aisha with feigned confidence, his big fingers struggling to braid her hair as her mother lay curled up in bed, exhausted by a trip to the bathroom.
“I can do this,” he assured Maya, as she talked him through her end-of-life plans and his brain screamed this isn’t happening, my wife can’t die, she can’t leave me to raise our child alone…
“I can do this,” he mumbled, as he sat, sedative-numbed, with the funeral director, while Maya—a weightless husk of the woman who loved him, married him, bore his child—lay amid a tangle of wires and tubes like a fly caught in a web, every breath fed to her by machine.
Now, standing before the open fridge, Jake watched helplessly as the raspberry mousse oozed from between the chocolate layers and slid down its sides. Panic crept up his spine, wrapped around his ribs, and squeezed. He sucked air like a drowning man. He put the cake on the counter, his mind racing, grasping for salvation.
When Aisha came in, the collapsed cake was in the sink, and Jake was squeezing handfuls of sponge and mousse between his fingers.
He turned to look at her, hands full of gore and eyes brimming.
His daughter slipped her arms beneath his, pressed an ear to his pounding heart. “Daddy…It’s okay if you can’t do this.”