52 Week Short Story Challenge #8 – Turkey Surprise

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This week’s prompt is one of mine! It was Thanksgiving so I decided to make this story holiday-themed. I’m also a huge fan of horrible gelatin molds and this is actually from a recipe I saw online. It’s safe to say that at some point, some poor soul actually consumed turkey salad with a cranberry-orange gelatin ring. The 60s and 70s were super exciting.

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Turkey Surprise

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Elsbeth said, staring at the back of the gelatin box. “Everyone’s going to hate us. Is this stuff even any good anymore?”

“Sure it is,” Jesusa said. “Jell-O is eternal.”

“I thought that was Twinkies. How many packets do we need?” She opened the box, which was old enough to be a little soggy, and took out two of the little envelopes.

“Um, two. Wait, hang on,” Jesusa flipped through the pages of the cookbook. “I know it’s in here.” The pages of the cookbook were stuck together in places and she peeled them carefully apart. The last thing she wanted was to tear them.

“Why are we doing this?”

“Because I’m sick of coming to their Thanksgiving dinners every year, eating their dry turkey, and listening to them tell us that our relationship is unnatural and we’re going to Hell for it.” Jesusa continued to flip through the pages of the cookbook. “If they want unnatural, I’ll show them unnatural. I want to watch them either choke it down or refuse to get near it so I can give them a guilt trip for a change.”

“Maybe we should just stop going,” Elsbeth said. “Every year you get so stressed out about it that you end up with a migraine the next day. We could do a nice Thanksgiving dinner together, just the two of us, and watch 70’s movies for dessert.”

“Because I love my Abuelita. She’s the one who gave me this cookbook, you know. Said it might be of use to me one day. If anyone gives me shit about this meal, I’m going to say it came from Abuelita’s cookbook.” She smiled, and Elsbeth knew she couldn’t argue with this. Theresa Machado was Jesusa’s favorite relative and she would have done just about anything for her. She was in amazing health for 108 years old, liked to smoke cigars she claimed to have hoarded from the Cuban embargo days, and was the only person in Jesusa’s family that approved of her engagement to Elsbeth. “Oh, here it is. Okay, it’s two 3 ounce packages of strawberry or one 6 ounce. I guess we can use two of the unflavored and put in extra cranberry sauce.”

“Okay,” Elsbeth said, taking out the two packets and shaking them down. She tore the tops off and poured them into the bowl. A strange smell came up from the powder. It smelled dusty and almost herbal. “Is it supposed to smell like this?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never smelled unflavored gelatin before. But this is a vintage cookbook. It’s only fitting that we should use vintage gelatin.” She smoothed the pages out and laid the book on the counter. “Now we need to zest and cut up a couple of oranges.”

“When do we put in the turkey cubes?”

“We don’t. Just the oranges and nuts and cranberry sauce. The turkey gets made into salad and tossed in the center with the onions and celery.” Jesusa smiled and looked at Elsbeth, who was pouring hot water onto the gelatin. “This almost sounds like it could be good.”

“I’m withholding my judgment. Possibly forever.” Elsbeth stirred the gelatin while Jesusa stirred the cranberry sauce until it was smooth. “Seriously, this smells weird.”

“Probably just a little old. The orange zest will cover it up. Now I need to shred the turkey, not cube it. Or at least cut it up a little thinner.” Jesusa took the turkey they’d baked the day before out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter. “Hmm.”

“Let me do that. You’re terrible with a knife.”

“It’s fine.”

“Give me the knife,” Elsbeth said with a sigh. She held out a hand and Jesusa dropped the knife into it a little harder than she intended. “Ow! Oh, dammit,” Elsbeth dropped the knife and grabbed a paper towel, wrapping it around her finger but not before a few drops of blood fell into the bowl. “Aw, man, I got blood in the gelatin.”

“It’ll be fine,” Jesusa said. “I’m not going to eat it, but it’ll be fine.” She grinned. “No one will see it with the cranberry sauce anyway.” Elsbeth squeezed her finger and raised an eyebrow at Jesusa. “I’ll pour this into the mold while you clean that out, then you can show me how to cut the turkey properly.”

“Uh-huh.” Elsbeth leaned over and kissed her. “Don’t touch that turkey.”

“Yes ma’am,” Jesusa said, watching her head upstairs to the bathroom where the first aid kit was. She pulled the bowl of gelatin to her and stirred in the cranberry sauce and oranges. The slight threads of red in the gelatin disappeared into the cranberry and she smiled. No one would ever know.

Just as she thought this, there was a bright flash that turned everything in the kitchen brilliant for a moment. Jesusa shielded her eyes, dropping the spoon on the counter. The kitchen was plunged into darkness and the floor felt like it was shifting. Footsteps thundered overhead, then down the stairs, and in the dark it was almost more disorienting than the flash of light.

“Jess! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Jesusa said. “Are you?” The lights flickered back on and Jesusa looked around. “Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?” Elsbeth picked up the spoon from the counter and tossed it in the sink. “Dammit, we’re going to have to set all the clocks again. I hate that.” She grabbed the gelatin mold from the dish rack and poured the mixture into it. “Shortest power outage ever.”

“Probably had something to do with that surge.” Jesusa picked up the knife and started carving the turkey. Elsbeth put the gelatin in the refrigerator and frowned.

“Power surge?” She looked genuinely confused and Jesusa shook her head.

“Never mind.”

 

***

Noon came and went at Jesusa and Elsbeth’s house, and no one arrived. The turkey salad and cranberry ring sat in the middle of the table surrounded by stuffing, sweet potato casserole, and roasted vegetables. They’d opened the wine half an hour earlier and were almost at the bottom of it when Elsbeth finally spoke up.

“I guess someone must have told them about the gelatin mold.” It was a feeble attempt to make her fiancée smile and Jesusa gave her the smallest of half-smiles before she drained her wine glass. “It’s okay, Jess. If they’re going to be petty enough to bail on a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner over a couple of lesbians then they don’t deserve it anyway.”

“They’re my family,” Jesusa said. She stood up from the table and went into the kitchen. There was a second bottle of wine on the counter and she picked it up, considering whether or not she should open it. It didn’t seem that there was anyone else coming to drink it so she popped the cork and took it into the dining room.

“I’ve got a great idea,” Elsbeth said. “Why don’t we—“ A knock at the door cut her off and Jesusa set down the bottle down and hurried toward the front door. Elsbeth finished her wine and joined her, slipping her hand into Jesusa’s as she opened the door.

An old woman was standing on the front steps with a cane. Her back was straight and she was wearing a red suit that looked brand new. Her silver hair was pulled into a bun but the smile on her face made it somehow less severe. Theresa Machado didn’t look a day over 85, and she held out an arm for her great-granddaughter to hug her.

Abuelita!” Jesusa hugged her tightly. “You came!”

“Of course I came,” Theresa said, her thickly accented voice as strong as the day she’d come to America. “Hello, Beth.”

“Hi, Abuelita,” Elsbeth said, hugging the old woman. “Please come in. No one else is here but I’d love to get you a glass of wine.”

“Thank you, mija,” she said, joining the two younger women. “No one else is coming.”

“I figured as much,” Jesusa said. “I guess there’s just some stuff they can’t get over.” She closed the door, and just as she did the phone in the kitchen began to ring. Jesusa and Elsbeth looked at each other. No one ever called the house phone. Something didn’t feel right but Theresa was the only person who seemed calm. She sat down at the head of the table and took out a cigar while Jesusa went into the kitchen to answer the phone. “Hello?”

She listened to the person on the other line, ice slowly spreading through her veins as they spoke. Her heart pumped it, sending goosebumps up and down her arms. Elsbeth stood in the doorway, her brown eyes questioning, and Jesusa heard herself saying something but even a second later couldn’t remember what it was. When she hung up, she missed the charger and the phone clattered to the countertop noisily. Elsbeth went to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re dead,” Jesusa said, feeling as though someone had hollowed out her chest. It was as if someone else was speaking with her mouth, and she looked at Elsbeth. “Dead.”

“Who’s dead?”

“All of them. Everyone.” There was a strange, staticky sound in Jesusa’s head and she closed her eyes. “They said it looks like heart attacks. All of them.” She leaned against the counter and took a shaky breath. “Some of them happened last night when people were around. They found the rest this morning.” She opened her eyes. “It looks like they all died at the same time.”

“They did,” a voice said, and both women looked up to see Theresa standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She was smiling serenely, and the smoke from her cigar smelled sweet and herbal. Jesusa opened her mouth to ask what she meant and the lights went out again. A soft blue light emanated from Theresa like a halo and she took a long drag of her cigar. “Come, mija. Let’s eat. I don’t think I’ve been this hungry in years.”