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Easily Diminished at the Edges

Amanda Hollander's short stories, "Madness Afoot" and "A Feast of Butterflies," appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This is her first publication in Daily Science Fiction. In addition to her prose writing, she also works as a professional opera librettist.

Fay had expected many different emotions in the wake of the aliens arriving, but she had not anticipated the ennui. Four months in and she wanted to don a black turtleneck, cram a beret on her head, and brood at an outdoor cafe with a glass of wine in one hand and a baguette in the other. Her boyfriend, who was French, found this equal parts amusing and offensive.
They had embraced the usual cliches in the wake of the arrival: fixated gazes on screens as the same five clips of the ships were shown on repeat; frantic lovemaking; panicked stocking of picked-over dried goods; and a bold acceptance of the end, reconfigured by Antoine as liberte, egalite, mortalite. Wine was drunk and toasts were given. Fay ate the last of their chocolate without sharing and Antoine refused to speak to her for three days, which she felt was fair.
Fortified by cabernet, they resolved that they would join any resistance formed if the world governments failed, which most felt sure they would. Antoine had quickly drawn the line at allying themselves with any screw-loose, self-appointed pyromaniacs with unjustified confidence in their bomb making skills whose detonated ends had gotten colorful news coverage. Neighbors whispered, chats chattered, and all seemed in agreement that humanity's time to unite and rise up had arrived.
And then: nothing happened.
Panic subsided, people returned to their lives. Demands for student loan repayment started to arrive again in the mail. Alien apocalypse or not, dust accumulated in corners and the vacuum resumed its routine. Messages from loved ones or old enemies were supplanted by special offers from corporations. After the arrival, many panic stricken citizens had pulled their money from the bank to slip under their mattresses. Now those financial institutions eschewed dignity to sashay out with shockingly favorable deposit rates in hopes of luring back those whose money now lined America's box springs.
Fay counted her own emergency stash of devalued dollars and euros in the aftermath. Soon, her boss sent a firm reminder that life and capitalism continued, even with aliens. She wanted to tell him that even if nothing had changed, everything had changed. But the pile of loan statements on her desk suggested that maybe her boss was right. She went back to work.
The day the alarm sounded, Fay felt exhilarated. She watched her phone until the announcement popped up. The alien annihilation! a breathless reporter said, as he checked nervously over his shoulder, had... not happened. The end had nearly been incited by a child's birthday party in Griffith Park. Apparently, the smell of a frosted cake was so inexplicably offensive to the aliens, they had nearly blown America's other half right off the map. Disaster, the reporter declared, had been averted and cake was now banned. Fay sighed and put her phone back down.
Overnight, bakeries across the world shuttered or restructured for this cakeless universe, which was humankind's obligation for survival. Cooking sites declared baklava the new global dessert. Gallows humor about the unlikelihood of a carb even being found in LA in the first place dominated tepid talk show banter. All this, while the hosts stood further back from the camera, self-conscious now that they could no longer maintain their botox schedules.
Fay often found herself wandering the city for hours. One religious group put up a table in the park and entreated passersby to repent before it was too late. Their sign claimed that cake was a homosexual pastry, hence why it had nearly brought about the end times for sinners. Fay wondered what their thoughts were on bagels. As she walked on, she passed a bench where a young man was stroking his waxed mustache, wondering aloud to his companion why the world cried over cake when anyone with sense knew that pie was a superior dessert and, surely, Hegel would have agreed with him. Fay rolled her eyes, but decided to pick up some groceries, especially staples in case this time the world did explode.
And then: nothing happened.
The same bills. The same dead-end job. Milk curdled. The aliens hovered innocuously. Antoine casually observed that Fay seemed to be suffering from existential despair. Sometimes he was so fucking French. Fay thought about his mother, Marie, who had told Fay that in a fit of immature irony she had named her son as a mocking bourgeois homage to herself and Marie Antoinette. Fay missed Marie. She sometimes wondered if she would have stayed with her boyfriend if she hadn't loved his mother so much. Her own mother had never shown much interest in any of her four children.
Now, Fay had thought a lot about her--France's ill-fated queen, not Antoine's mother--and the apocryphal claim of her declaring to the charge of France's hunger: Let them eat cake! Because even if she hadn't said it, why not? If the world had decided to take a rusty blade and hold it over your about-to-be-severed neck, why not tell those bloodthirsty peons to shove pastry in their faces? What did it matter at that point? Fay felt she was on the precipice of a brilliant philosophical revelation when the mail arrived. She looked at the familiar name of the student loan creditor in the upper corner.
And then? Something happened.
Fay shredded the bill. She went to the kitchen and climbed atop the stepstool. They sat on the back of the shelf, the dusty measuring cups and a possibly antique box of baking soda. Fay pulled them down and tied back her hair.
Getting around the guards, hiding, all those things had been less tricky than she would have thought. It took a while, but Fay had done it. One of the alien ships stood in front of her. Drunk and drugged, the team tasked with keeping people away from the aliens snored contentedly. Fay knocked on the ship's exterior. She had left a note for Antoine that did not contain specifics, but told him that she had solved her ennui, American-style.
The hatch opened. Fay grinned and extended her arms, plate balanced on her hands.
"I made a cake."
The End
This story was first published on Sunday, October 18th, 2020

Author Comments

In January, following news from China and South Korea, I told my friend I feared that we were in for a full-blown global pandemic. My friend kindly assured me that I was overreacting. By late February, as my initial concerns seemed less and less farfetched, I was on my way to meet a different friend for dinner and wondered what a full shut down of our lives would look like. I wrote this speculative story on that February subway ride into Manhattan while other maskless people crowded around me talking about their plans, watching late night show monologues on their phones, while others chatted and periodically burst into loud laughter that now feels like an impossibly distant memory. The title comes from a satiric line of Benjamin Franklin's in which he writes that "A great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges."

- Amanda Hollander
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