Today was the annual holiday potluck. My office doesn’t really do parties, but every occasion gets a potluck; it’s business as usual except everyone brings food. We work while stuffing ourselves silly. Nothing like working through a stomach ache, right? It’s always a game of food poisoning roulette.
Since I was the first one in, I was expected to do the basic set-up. Dutifully, I cleared off the sorting table and got the coffee going. I expected to spend the first thirty minutes of my shift in peace, but it wasn’t to be. The phone started to ring.
It’s too early for this, I thought. I answered anyway, putting on my best customer-service voice. At this hour most customers hadn’t had their coffee yet so answering the phone was a crap-shoot. Fortunately, it was only Carol.
“Thank god you answered. Can you let me in? My arms are full!” She always brought enough baked goods for everyone to have seconds and thirds, it was one of the few things I looked forward to.
“I’ll be right over! Hold on.” I hung up and hurried over to the employee entrance. I yanked open the door and found Carol standing there with a heaping stack of tupperware in her arms. The scent of gingerbread hung around her like a warm Christmas perfume, sweet and inviting.
“Let me help you with that. You tried to get it all in one trip, huh?” I carefully grabbed a few of the containers, making sure not to tip them over and walking with her inside. Carol smiled appreciatively, relieved she could finally set everything down.
I took a peek at the goodies; as expected, gingerbread cookies! Gingerbread office workers, each one bigger than my hand and intricately detailed.
“What do you think?” she asked, puffing out her chest with pride. “I made one for everyone in the office! After I pass these out, I’m out of here though. I’m not working today but I wanted to make sure everyone got theirs.”
“Wow!” I admired her handiwork. It only took me a moment to realize that the gingerbread cookies were modeled after our co-workers. I looked eagerly for the one she’d made of me, but I didn’t see one. “These must have taken you forever to make, the details are perfect. No one can top these.” suddenly my crock-pot of meatballs seemed a lot less exciting. Oh well, it wasn’t a competition. As if I could beat Carol’s Christmas cookies!
By then, my phone started to ring so I hurried back to my desk. I watched Carol pass out her cookies with care, placing them on desks atop pretty poinsettia plates.
“Are you going to be open on Christmas?” the customer asked the second I picked up. No hello, only a shrill inquiry.
“No, but we will be open as usual on the 26th.” I answered.
“What do you mean you won’t be open on Christmas? What if I need help right away? I’ll have to wait?” I gave my scripted answer to the angry customer, distracted and deadpan. By the time the call was done, Carol came over with a smile, bringing the very last cookie over to me.
“I’d say it’s too pretty to eat, except he was never really a looker was he?” she said. I looked down at the gingerbread man. It wasn’t me, it was our boss, Dale.
“This one’s mine?” I asked tentatively, definitely confused. Maybe there was a mistake?
“Of course! How many opportunities do you get to bite your boss’s head off? I wanted to give you the honor.” if Carol sensed my disappointment, she didn’t let on. I looked down at the cookie again, a dense gingerbread man in a cheap suit. Even though the suit had been made with glaze and frosting , I had that impression; cheap, ill-fitting, and grey. A perfect replica of one of his two suits with a garish Christmas tie.
“As long as it doesn’t taste like Dale.” I laughed. To be honest, as perfectly made as the cookie was, I didn’t find it appetizing. Well, I did. It smelled amazing! But there was something off-putting about eating a cookie shaped like someone else, especially Dale. Then again, it would be just as weird to eat one that looked like me. Cookie cannibalism.
“You didn’t give him one that looks like me, right?” I shuddered. Now that would be creepy. Dale was a real piece of work, but I had to tolerate him if I wanted to keep my job.
“Of course not.” Carol assured me. “Could you do me a favor? Wait until everyone else gets in before you eat it. I want everyone to see. I wish I could see the looks on their faces. You’ll tell me, won’t you?”
“Sure.” I slid the gingerbread away from me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to eat it or not, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Maybe if I scraped off the decorations first? That seemed equally rude, though.
“When you eat gingerbread cookies, are you the kind of person to go for the head… or the arms and legs first? Or maybe you pull off the decorations one-by-one?” she asked suddenly; Carol wasn’t looking at me when she asked, she was looking towards Dale’s office.
What a weird question! Especially coming from her. When she saw the look on my face, Carol laughed and patted my shoulder. “Sorry, I was just having a funny thought. There’s a little sadist in everyone, isn’t there?”
Grabbing her empty Tupperware, Carol gave me a wink and wished me a Merry Christmas. She left, leaving me alone in the office. I kept eyeing the Gingerbread Dale, still feeling a bit weird about it. Weird, but also… hungry. The cookies smelled divine, which was odd considering I’d never been a huge fan of gingerbread.
About ten minutes later, the rest of my co-workers trickled in. They complained about how tired they were, morning traffic, and the holidays. Of course, the bellyaching became exclamations of delight when they discovered the cookies set neatly on their desks.
Everyone started showing one another their cookies and taking pictures, marveling at the perfect detail. Patti’s cookie had her trademark beehive up-do and pearls, Marc’s cookie was bearded with squared glasses, Bette’s had electric blue eye shadow and dimples… though the outfits weren’t an exact match, the resemblances were uncanny. Eventually, the clamor died down and everyone sat at their desks. All except Patti, who scurried over to my desk with a wide smile.
“I didn’t see yours.” she said, showing me hers for the second time. She carried her plate proudly in both hands, like she was presenting a piece of art. To be fair, Carol’s work really was exquisite… I just didn’t like Patti.
Patti’s eyes moved to the plate I’d set away from me. My cookie wasn’t like everyone else’s, which suddenly seemed like a problem. “Oh. It looks like Dale… Is it yours?” she scrunched her face at me, somehow managing to keep the smile. I didn’t like her insinuation.
“Yes, it’s mine.”
Did she really think I’d scarfed down my cookie and stole another one off my boss’s desk? Really?
“Why doesn’t it look like you, then?” Oh yes, the insinuation was still there. A bitter anger spread across my tongue, but I fought to keep my voice level and my face flat. It was weird that I was the only one with a cookie that looked like someone else, but I didn’t make them. It wasn’t up to me.
“Carol thought it would be funny, that’s all.”
“Carol? But… wasn’t she fired yesterday?” Patti’s expression scrunched up even more. Her hands moved up to her pearls, fidgeting with the long strand. Sometimes I wondered if she wore pearls just so she could clutch them.
“Uh, no? Wouldn’t a memo have gone out if she was?” I turned my attention back to my work. I hoped Patti would get the hint and go away but she just stood there for a long moment. Sucking in a deep, dramatic breath… she picked her plate off my desk, staring hard at the Gingerbread Patti.
“Didn’t you make these?” she asked slowly.
“No, I brought the meatballs. Why would you think I made them?” I answered, not looking up. I pretended to read an email. Patti was being nosy, as usual; I’d never liked that about her. She didn’t have anything better to do, I guess. Except for the work she let pile up, but if I said that she’d complain to Dale. Patti was his favorite for some reason, so I’d probably get written up for ‘not being a team player’. Like a lot of offices around the world, this one was toxic.
“I’m not sure if this is okay. I’ll be right back.” Patti said, unaware of my rude thoughts. I looked up when she said that, unable to help myself. She didn’t explain, pivoting towards Dale’s office. To tell on me? Or Carol? I honestly wasn’t sure. Either way, it was a headache for me.
She reappeared in the doorway with Dale a moment later. They both made a bee-line straight for my desk, their expressions a lot more serious than a cookie called for. Great. I pretended not to notice, busying myself with a stack of fresh paperwork.
Before they reached me, there was a loud cracking sound and a scream. Every head in the room whipped in the direction of the sound to find Robert tears running down his face. All I could see was his eyes poking up from his workstation, expression twisted and red. “My arm!” he screamed. “Oh my god! It won’t move!”
A couple co-workers ran over to see what happened. I reached for my phone instead, ready to call 911 if an ambulance was needed. Patti and Dale changed course, but everyone looked confused. How on earth had Robert hurt his arm while sitting at his desk? Carpal tunnel?
Now’s your chance, came an errant thought.
My eyes slid towards the Gingerbread Dale. It looked perfectly palatable on that pretty poinsettia plate.
Hurry! Before they confiscate it.
Now wasn’t the time to worry about cookies, but… my tongue tingled with anticipation and my teeth itched with the urge.
Just one small bite. The thought was strange, almost like it wasn’t mine… but very compelling. The gingerbread man was heavier than I expected. I lifted it to my lips and bit off one of the feet. It crunched in stereo, unusually loud as the foot snapped off and began to melt on my tongue. Delicious.
A rush of delight washed over me, brought on by a flood of flavor that drowned out Dale’s cursing screams. He’d fallen, rocking back and forth on the floor. He must have twisted his ankle in his haste to check on Robert. How unlucky. Two injuries in one day?
A chorus of oh-my-gods rang through the office, but I set down my phone so I could hold the Gingerbread Dale with both hands. Without even thinking, I took another bite– nibbling up the leg before switching to the other foot. The screaming kept getting louder, filling the room.
The gingerbread had such a rich and complex flavor; ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves… and something else. Was it earthy? Or maybe it was the texture? Soft and velvety, yet dense and crunchy. Wow, so much screaming. All over carpal tunnel and a sprained ankle?
Annoyed, I glanced around the room to find that almost everyone was screaming. The ones who weren’t screaming were chewing with blissed out looks on their bloody faces or slumped over their desks.
Confused, I touched my own wet mouth and looked down at my red fingers. I wasn’t in any pain. Had Carol put glass in the batter or something? Where was the blood coming from? Why was everyone still eating?
Because they can’t help themselves.
I couldn’t help myself either. Without realizing it, I’d eaten half of the Dale cookie and found myself going in for another bite. Horrified, I dropped the cookie– the gingerbread snapping in half as it hit the floor.
Dale, curled up on the carpet, was suddenly still and quiet. Patti was right next to him on the floor, but she didn’t seem to notice– chewing frantically with glazed eyes, gingerbread crumbs and blood running down her chin. Only when her mouth was empty did she resume screaming again. She rolled, and started eating her cookie off the carpet.
The spell the cookie cast on me had broken with my Boss’s spine. He was dead, and with each quieted scream… a co-worker joined him in death. I was the last one standing, the last one screaming. Soon, I was standing in perfect silence. No more screams. No more chewing.
Only then was I able to move. I grabbed my keys and ran out of the office. Maybe I should have called the police, but I didn’t know what I was going to tell them. That Carol’s Christmas cookies had killed everyone but me? That I’d chewed my boss to death with a voodoo gingerbread man? I couldn’t come up with a logical explanation in my state of pure panic. Even though my voice had broken, my thoughts kept screaming.
I ran through the snowy parking lot and found my car. I’m not sure why I ran, no one was chasing me. There was no one who could. Before I could jump into my car and drive away… I noticed the little red gift bag sitting on the hood of my car. Across the front, written in glitter, were the words ‘Merry Christmas from Carol!’
I was terrified but looked inside the bag anyway. As I feared, there was a cookie. My heart thudded in terror, but I felt compelled to examine it. In spite of my dread, I started to salivate, clenching my teeth together. Even after what I witnessed, I wanted to eat it.
The cookie wasn’t me. It was Carol. Carol, down to the outfit she’d worn that very morning– except for the ‘Sorry’ piped across her sweater in red. I swallowed the bloody spit in my mouth, reaching back into the gift bag. There was a Christmas card inside.
Still holding the Gingerbread Carol, I opened it up. A key was taped to the glitter card stock, along with a simple message:
There’s a Gingerbread Office in my apartment. If you smash it, everyone will think the roof collapsed. That should explain all the broken bones. Don’t worry, no one will find me.
You were always kind to me, that’s why I spared you. I hope you’ll do me one more kindness, and make it quick.
I closed the card, tucking it back in it’s envelope and sitting in my car. I looked down at the cookie still in my hand. My tongue tingled; my teeth itched. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. I bit off Carol’s Gingerbread head.
It tasted like gingerbread and death.