by Brenda Anderson
In the corner of the bus station, the vending machine glowed iridescent blue. Mara punched a button, and the government holo flicked on. “Welcome, Mara! One whipping boy a day makes the blues go away, but you’ve nearly reached your quota.”
Mara hit ‘Pay.’ A pale, vac-packed pastry man slid into the tray.
“You’ve exceeded your quota!” sang the holo. “We’ll get you!”
In your dreams. Doughboy in hand, Mara sped home. The government never followed up on anything. In the garden, she ripped open the vac-pack, placed it on the lawn and turned on the hose. The other Doughboys gathered round. When the pastry man had inflated to full size, Mara took up her razor-tipped whip and flicked it, again and again. Five minutes later, she’d sliced open a heart-shaped hole in its chest.
A rush of pleasure hit her.
Her new life felt fine. Freakish skills with a whip plus an insurance payout had helped her survive after the nasty breakup. At least her cheating ex had left the bot behind. Mara used to enjoy cooking, but now the bot did everything.
On cue, it rolled outside, plucked out the Doughboy’s heart, rolled back into the house and set it to bake. The pastry turned golden brown. Mara sat down at the kitchen table and looked at her collection of baked hearts. By now they overflowed the large fruit bowl. Of course she never ate any: that would be gross. Everyone else discarded their used Doughboys but she let hers do odd jobs round the house, as long as they kept out of her way. She could have nailed them to the wall as trophies, but that would have been OTT.
The doorbell rang. Outside stood a male of indeterminate age, his ‘Ecce Homo’ T- shirt unearthly silver, as if it were plugged into some power source. “Hi, I’m Jesus. So, you’re not into hearts and roses?”
Mara tried to close the door but Jesus got his foot in first. “You misunderstand. I’m not, either.”
“You misunderstand.” Mara pulled out her phone and dialled. “Police? Someone’s forced his way in …”
Jesus snatched the phone from her. “I’m at the door. Outside.”
“You’re at Mara’s house? Jesus,” said the cop, with feeling, “you beat us to it. Her quota’s well and truly exceeded. Fine, we’ll update her status. ‘Takes the Jesus option.’ Good luck.”
“Wait …” The phone clicked off. Jesus turned to Mara. “Therapy’s compulsory, you know. Expensive, too. You could always invite me in.”
“You’ll have to take out a loan.”
Mara frowned. “I’ll manage.”
“You can’t, and we both know it. I can help.”
“How?” Her anger surged. “I despise you and everything you stand for.”
“Which is …?”
“Flagellation. Nails. Spears. Crosses. Death.”
A shadow crossed Jesus’s face. He nodded.
“Fine.” Mara stepped back, and Jesus followed her to the kitchen. Suddenly tired, she sat down.
“So, you moonlight as Madame Lash?”
Mara gave a start. “How did you …?”
Jesus shrugged. “Flagellation’s my turf, as you said. I’m here to help repair those wounds.”
Mara opened her mouth to speak. Twenty Doughboys filed in and bowed low to Jesus. “Don’t get excited,” she said, tartly. “He’s just passing through.”
But Jesus stayed, and every morning he and the Doughboys sat down together for a devotional. In the kitchen, Mara sharpened her knives. Weeks later, Jesus walked in and picked one up. “They’re very sharp.” He tested one. “Tell me, do you want to cut my heart out, too? Like the Doughboys?”
Mara shifted in her chair. Why did he always make her feel so uncomfortable? “They’re Doughboys. I simply excise the heart. Others do far worse things …”
“Does the whip help?” Jesus said. “Are you still angry, afterwards?”
The phone rang. Mara picked up, listened and finally put the phone down. Furious, she turned on Jesus. “That was the local soup kitchen. You did this. My Doughboys went there an hour ago to volunteer as … wait for it ….food. Apparently the kitchen ran out of bread. My Doughboys, volunteering to be eaten. You and your stupid devotionals! It’s obscene.” She paused for breath. Jesus said nothing, but his face reflected conflicting emotions. Hope? Sadness? Who knew?
By the time Mara got to the soup kitchen, one Doughboy had already been fed into the blender. She shouted and screamed. Ten minutes later, she collected the other nineteen and bused them home. Jesus was standing where she’d left him.
She burst into tears. The Doughboys crowded round her, solicitous. After a while, Jesus walked up and called Mara over. Together, they walked to the guest room.
Jesus looked thoughtful. “I found the Doughboys in your kitchen once, when your bot was away. They were baking light-as-air French pastry. Surely you’ve noticed that they can’t stay out of the kitchen?”
“Think about it. Oh, and I’ve told the police to close your file.”
Mara’s eyes widened. “Why?”
“You went after the Doughboys, to rescue them. As for that whip …”
Mara pursed her lips. “I’ve started doing some cooking,” she said. “Small stuff. Takeaway food. It’s fun.”
Jesus raised an eyebrow.
“Much more fun,” she added. Jesus nodded and clapped his hands. The Doughboys crowded into the guest room. He announced that he was leaving. The Doughboys placed their hands over the heart-shaped holes in their chests, and wept. Jesus held up a hand, and dematerialised.
Late into the night Mara sat, deep in thought. The next day, she started a conversation with the Doughboys, then a café, and finally a restaurant, where they fought to be sous-chefs and waiters.
When, eventually, she married one of the customers, they put on black tie and fought to be Best Man.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in various places, most recently in Flash Fiction Online and Every Day Fiction. She lives in Adelaide, SA, and tweets irregularly @CinnamonShops.
Photo image credit: Eden Hensley Silverstein via Flickr, All Creative Commons. Image is of heart shaped biscuit dough on a baking tray.