A fog of flour dust settled around the backdoor, which was the main entrance to Judy's apartment. The empty pie pan that delivered the four cups of flour to the culprit's head clattered against the tile floor.
Judy marched over to the island with her broom in hand, ready to swing in case she was wrong about the thief's identity.
She raised her broom over her head. "Towanda!"
"Judy! Stop! Wait! Wait!" The voice from the fog shouted.
"Yes, it's me."
"What are you doing in my house?!"
Karen looked up at Judy from behind the kitchen island. Flour rested in a large mound on top of her head. Small bits of it clung to her tightly curled bangs.
"I'm not here," she closed her eyes and waved her hands in front of her face. Her purple latex gloves made rubbery, flapping sounds as she protested.
"Oh," Judy brought her broom down and held tightly to the handle. "Of course, you're not here. I'm a crazy person talking to myself."
"You're not crazy. You're just dreaming. None of this is real."
Karen pulled herself to standing. She looked at the backdoor and looked at Judy, whose hand was tightly locked around the broom handle.
"Well, I don't know what to say except," Karen threw a glove full of flour into the air and said, "Smoke," elongating the 'o' sound as she darted out the door.
A Few Hours Earlier
Judy loved this weather. Chilly autumn days, especially rainy ones, were perfect for housecoating around.
'Housecoating' was the word she created for wearing a housecoat to keep warm instead of a blanket. With a blanket, you can't do things like fold laundry, do a paint-by-number, or bake very well.
The blanket gets in the way, but blankets were designed for lots of sitting, which Judy did not do. With the housecoat, she had all the warmth of a blanket and sleeves for doing things.
Judy's apartment was the downstairs area of her son's house. Her place was usually tidy, albeit cluttered with crafts. Today, it looked like it had been raining pies. There was a chess pie on every flat surface.
Her daughter, Margaret, worked in a small office. When Margaret first started working there, it was around Thanksgiving. She brought one of Judy’s chess pies, and since then, the pie demand had gotten out of hand.
On this particular rainy autumn day, Judy was baking fourteen chess pies.
She was moments away from removing pies thirteen and fourteen from the oven when she heard the doorbell ring.
"Well, who do you think that is, Brando?"
Her son and his brood had gone to an adventure park for the day, so she and their two cats, Marlon and Brando, had the whole place to themselves. She walked upstairs, dodging Marlon's paw swipes.
She peeked at the window and didn't see a mail person of any kind. She unlocked the door and looked around. No one was there, and there were no packages at the door.
"The doorbell must be acting up," she said to the orange cat at her feet.
She left a sticky note on the door that said "Fix me." She sighed and walked back downstairs passed the other fat, orange cat who was waiting and ready to attack her feet again. Brando, who had joined Judy to answer the door, pounced on him.
Judy opened the oven and smiled. Her last two pies were baked to perfection. She rested them on the kitchen island.
"Two, four...nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Twelve. Twelve?" She could have sworn she had fourteen pies, including the two she just set out to cool.
"I must have miscounted, boys," The cats looked on blankly. "Let's make two more."
She rolled up her housecoat sleeves and whipped up another bowl of chess pie filling. With two more pies in the oven, she set her timer and popped into the garage to do a little laundry. She cued up A Very Elvis Christmas on her phone and slid it into her pocket. Christmas music was the best for folding towels or doing anything else, really.
Elvis sang the last note of _What Child Is this_when Judy heard the sound in the kitchen. It wasn't quite a bang, but maybe something had fallen.
Images of cats wallowing in two freshly cooked pies flooded her mind. She had always been able to trust the cats around baked goods. At least, she could trust them when the pans were still hot. The cats weren't stupid.
Another set of images flashed through her memory. Marlon was standing with one leg encased in a jar of marshmallow fluff, staring blankly into the distance while Brando lay on the floor, more than half his body tucked neatly into a puffed rice cereal box.
"Maybe they're a little stupid…"
She gathered the folded towels, and braced herself for the potential mess. To her pleasant surprise, no mess. At least, not one she could see immediately. There were no tables turned over or dishes on the floor. She was sure she heard a banging sound.
The cats were known to fight and run themselves into walls from time to time. She shrugged and tucked the towels away on their shelf in the bathroom.
The timer dinged, and she pulled the last two pies from the oven. She sat them on the cooling rack behind her on the island, and-
"Where did the other two pies go?"
Brando was napping in a perfect loaf shape on the back of Judy's recliner, and Marlon had just discovered his tale for the hundredth time that day. They were no help.
She did a quick count again.
"Two, four, six, …. Twelve?!"
She dug her fists into her hips, and looked around her apartment. "I know I didn't miscount," Marlon looked on as if he agreed and went back to fighting the tail serpent he just discovered.
"Okay," she grabbed an empty Amazon box from the corner. "One," she placed a pie in the box. "Two," she put the second pie in. Ten, cooled, perfectly golden chess pies were nestled in the box, ready for the commute to downtown Nashville, and two were cooling on the island. "Twelve?" Her brows furrowed.
She added another round of eggs, sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla to her mixing bowl. She reached under the island to get her flour canister, and noticed her bells had fallen off the doorknob and onto her Wipe Your Feet, You Filthy Animal doormat.
Judy had slowly been adding Christmas decorations to her place since July. Her nativity scene was over the fireplace, a giant ornament made entirely of tinsel was hanging beside the bathroom door, and the jingle bells on gilded ropes were added to the backdoor just that morning.
She added the flour to the pie filling and once again placed two beautiful pies in the oven. She dusted her hands on her housecoat and put the jingle bells back in place.
Each set of pies took around an hour to bake - roughly two Grey's Anatomy episodes. She hit play, and Brando moved from the back of the recliner to her lap.
"Meow," Marlon rang.
Judy blinked. Somewhere between a life-saving operation and confession of love, she had fallen asleep. Marlon was sitting in the window watching the birdfeeder and telling the bird how tasty they all looked.
"Good timing," Judy said as she killed the oven timer at the three-second mark.
"Perfect," she said, placing the pies beside the kitchen sink and looking at the island. All pies were present and accounted for.
Her son hated it when she cleaned up after them, but she couldn't help herself. Dirty dishes had to be dealt with, and it wasn't like she was scrubbing them by hand. She loaded the cereal bowls into the dishwasher. She didn't even break a sweat.
A few minutes later, Judy returned from loading the dishwasher. Her plans for the rest of the day involved finishing a puzzle of the giant redwood trees in California, kickboxing class online, and knitting a few hats. But first, she needed to pack the remaining pies.
She moved toward the two pies that were cooling by the kitchen sink, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw it - the empty void on the island where two pies once were.
"Okay," she threw her hands in the air, "Who's stealing my pies?! Who's here?!"
The cats looked on as she stomped across the room and grabbed her phone.
"Hey, mom. What's-"
"Are you home," she interrupted her son.
"No," he shouted over the background noises, "We're still at the park."
"Hi, Nanny! I did a zipline!" Her granddaughter shouted into the phone.
"Somebody is taking my -," a mound of yellow-white hair bobbed up and down outside the kitchen window. Judy's eyes narrowed.
"Mom? Is somebody there? Do you need me to come home?"
"No. Never mind."
"I'll come home-"
"No, no. I just figured it out. See you this evening." She hung up the phone.
The door was still slightly ajar. The jingle bells had been placed on the side table this time.
"Oh, that's sneaky," she pointed to the bells. "Well, let's see if we can get our pie thief here one more time, shall we?"
The cats licked their paws in agreement, and Judy sprang into action.
First, she mixed another batch of pie filling. She poured the filling into the crusts, popped them into the oven, and set her timer.
Then, she just barely pressed the door, leaving it open a small crack. She then balanced an aluminum pie dish on the edges of the door. She sat down in her chair, and waited.
Which Leads Us Back To Karen Disappearing In A Cloud Of Flour
Judy watched Karen bound away with a trail of flour fog following behind her. "What on earth was she thinking, Brando?" Brando rolled in the flour and purred.
Judy swept up the mess, and put the remaining pies in the box.
"I'll be back, boys," she said to the cat as she traded her housecoat for a light grey sweater.
The walk to Karen's house was short. After their licorice adventure last year, she and Karen had exchanged licorice from time to time. Karen even made a Licorice Cage mask for Judy for her birthday. She thought they had started to become friends.
Granted, Karen is a little...strange, but who wasn't! Judy had always said that everyone deserves friends. Even people who aren't especially warm and are a little weird.
Judy gently tapped on the screen door. The mauve curtain covering the door's window moved a bit.
"Jameson," Karen's whisper scream was not as quiet as she thought.
"Karen. It's Judy."
Two clawed paws clung to the edge of the window. The imprint of the cat's face showed through the curtain.
"I'm not here."
Judy raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah...Yeah, I know what I just did…"
Reluctantly, she opened the door a bit.
"So, how are you?" Judy rocked on her heels.
"Oh, you know…"
Judy looked passed Karen and saw a small herd of cats sniffing around a pile of pillows. A lanky, black cat was attacking a tiny piece of plastic wrap.
"Looks like your cats have found something on your couch." Judy pointed.
Karen gasped, "Treddles! No!"
Judy walked inside and tugged at the corner of a large, teal pillow revealing a small cache of pies.
"So, do you want to talk about this, or...."
"There's nothing to talk about. I keep my pies on the couch. What's it to you?" Karen walked to the kitchen, and Judy followed, taking a seat at the pink dining table.
Karen pointed to her coffee pot, and looked at Judy. Judy nodded. Karen flipped the switch on her coffee pot. It growled to life. They were silent as Karen collected two mugs of coffee and took her place at the table.
Judy had four children. She was going to wait in that awkward silence as long as she had to.
"Remember last year when I bought your chess pie at the neighborhood bake sale?"
"Well," Karen took a sip of her heavily creamed coffee, "I took that pie to my book club."
"You have a book club?" This confused Judy. She'd never known Karen to read anything other than tabloids.
"It's more of a gossip circle. Norma picks out books, she talks about it for a few minutes, and then we all just talk about what we want."
"Anyway, I took the pie to my book club, and they ate it up! I mean, they oohed and ahhed over it! They'd never done anything like that for my brownies or blondies, for that matter."
"You told them it was yours?"
"I told them it was mine," Karen nodded. "Just yesterday, they started asking for the recipe. I told them it was a secret. Well, then they all started asking how much I'd charge for one or two. Thanksgiving is coming up, so I said I would take ten dollars for a pie."
Judy almost spit her coffee. "Ten dollars?!"
Karen laughed, "Yeah. They're really good pies, Judy."
They sat in silence for a little while.
"You should probably start locking your backdoor, you know." Karen chuckled.
"Already have." Judy sipped her coffee. "Why didn't you just ask me for the recipe or to make you some pies for that matter?"
"I don't know. I just thought you wouldn't notice if I took a few since you were making so many."
Judy paused. "How did you know I was baking so many pies?"
"Facebook." They said in unison.
Karen stirred her coffee with a tiny spoon shaped like a cat paw. She tapped it lightly on the edge.
"I'm sorry, Judy. I don't know why I do the things I do sometimes. It just seemed easier than asking for some reason."
Judy nodded, took a sip, and said, "Ten dollars a pie, huh?"
They spent the rest of the evening and night baking pies at Judy's place. Judy, having only two cats to contend with, had the better workspace.
Karen made a post on Facebook saying that she was taking orders until midnight for her famous chess pie. The orders came pouring in!
They baked in shifts. Karen napped on the couch while Judy baked, and then Judy slept in her recliner while Karen made a few pies. They even started using her son's oven to get more pie for the bake time.
By sunrise, they had made thirty-two extra pies. They loaded the pies in the back of Karen's station wagon for delivery. At noon, they delivered their last pie and had four hundred dollars in hand. They stopped at Mitchell's for a celebratory cup of coffee.
"Woo hoo!" Karen fanned the cash above her head. "Look at that, Judy! What do you say? Fifty, fifty?"
Judy raised an eyebrow.
"That will do," Judy smiled as Karen handed over her money.
"We should do this every year, you know? Maybe every holiday!" Karen clutched her earnings to her chest.
"I'm in for Thanksgiving, but you're on your own for the other holidays."
"I'll give you ten percent on the other holidays for teaching me how to make these." Karen raised her cup to Judy. “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how to make these pies now.”
"Here," Judy pulled a handwritten recipe card from her purse and slid it over to Karen. "Just in case."