Authors: Kathryn Littlewood
And her family was going to need the money.
Maybe she could do a little bit of good and earn some money for her family. True, she'd made that wish that she could be done with baking, but maybe baking wasn't done with her.
“I can help you,” said Rose. Gus dug his claws into her leg, which made Rose yelp.
“I wasn't done!”
she muttered to the cat through her teeth. She turned to Mr. Butter. “I can only help if you
you let me call my parents and tell them where I am. They are probably insanely worried by now.”
“Of course you can call your parents,” Mr. Butter said. “After you bake.”
The hair on Rose's neck stood on end. “So you're holding me hostage!”
“Hostage!” Mr. Butter laughed. “I don't even know the meaning of the word. You're free to go at any time.” He examined the fingernails of his right hand. “After you've completed your duties, of course.”
“You can't keep me here against my will!” Rose cried.
“Against your will?” Mr. Butter fanned the idea away with his hand. “We are not holding you here. You may come and go as you wish.Â .Â .Â . once our five main recipes are perfected.”
Rose was getting nowhere with this man. She thought of her parents, how Ty and Sage would have returned from their deliveries by now. Albert and Purdy would ask where Rose was, and they would say that she'd wanted to make a few deliveries on her bike. It would be conceivable that Rose was still out and about. Maybe her family wouldn't start worrying until sundown. She could finish the baking here by then, or at least find a phone.
“Fine,” she said at last, gripping Gus so tightly that he knew not to scratch. “I'll bake first.”
“Come,” said Mr. Butter with a smile. “Let me show you where we work.”
Mr. Butter led Rose down a bright corridor, with Mr. Kerr taking up the rear. From within her backpack, Gus leaned forward, both his paws on her left shoulder, the sound of his constant low growl a comfort in her ear.
Mr. Butter opened a steel door and Rose was hit with the smell of sugar and chocolate and bleach, the heat of roaring ovens, and the sounds of industrial hissing and churning and buzzing and pounding.
Mr. Butter led them out onto a steel catwalkâwith railings, of courseâoverlooking a vast factory of gleaming stainless steel. Giant metal paddles churned enormous vats of chocolate. Dozens of hairnetted workers piped white dots onto hundreds of chocolate cupcakes that rode on a conveyor belt, like luggage at an airport. A monstrous mechanical press sealed snack cake after snack cake into plastic wrappers, then another conveyor belt dropped the packages into cartons.
Rose stared down at the scene in distaste. She was used to individually packing each precious cake in a white box and tying it off with baker's twine.
“Gorgeous, isn't it?” said Mr. Butter, inhaling deeply and spreading his arms majestically. “We produce eight thousand snacks of one sort or another every minute. Our facilities here are larger than the Pentagon, and we have more delivery trucks working for us than the U.S. Postal Service.”
When they reached the end of the catwalk, Mr. Butter led Rose and Gus into a tiny glass-walled room that was suspended precariously over the factory floor. She looked down at the tangled mess of conveyor belts and was reminded of the stomach-churning feeling she'd had when she looked over the railing at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
The suspended room was empty except for an illuminated glass pedestal, on top of which sat a glass dome. Inside the glass dome was a small hemisphere of chocolate cake, stuffed with white pastry cream. She recognized it instantly as a Dinky Cake.
“Why do you have an entire room devoted to a Dinky Cake?” she asked.
a Dinky Cake,” said Mr. Kerr, squinting his dark eyes.
“Beneath this hallowed dome,” Mr. Butter began, like he was delivering a sermon, “lies the very genesis of the Mostess Snack Cake Corporation. Our empire was built on the Dinky Cake. Each year, the average person in the United States devours upward of seven pounds of Dinkies.”
“Ugh,” said Rose, remembering the way some of the kids at school used to gobble up the cakes in two bites. “So, why is this one in a jar?”
“This,” Mr. Butter said, once again lifting his glasses and wiping his eyes, “is the first Dinky Cake we ever made. And it's every bit as fresh as it was the day it was manufactured by my grandfather back in 1927.”
Rose was horrified. The Dinky Cake was almost a century oldâit should already have rotted away. “That's vile.”
,” Mr. Butter spat, pressing his spindly arms close to his sides. “It's the power of preservativesâsomething your homespun cookies lack. Two days after you bake a cake, it dries out and winds up in the garbage. But with preservatives, each Dinky is guaranteed to be as delicious as the day you bought it, no matter when you eat it. The cakes are, in a way, immortal.”
Gus, who was staring at the Dinky, began to heave.
“Oops! My cat has a hairball!” Rose cried as she whisked Gus out of the room and placed him gently on the catwalk, where he continued to dry heave. “I would like to leave now,” he said quietly so that only Rose could hear him.
“I want to go home, too,” said Rose, equally quiet. “But we have to find a way out of here.”
“We want you to go home as well!” said Mr. Butter, who had stepped out of the glass Dinky shrine just in time to hear Rose. “But there is work to do first, so now we are going to bring you to our main test kitchen. It's the happiest place on Earth.”
“I thought that was Disneyland,” Gus whispered.
Mr. Butter put his thin arm around Rose's shoulder. “Your mission, which you've already accepted, will be to perfect the recipes for our five key products. After that, you will be absolutely free to go. With our thanks, of course.”
“Of course,” Rose said with a gulp. “Perfecting a few recipes should be easy.” She looked at Gus.
But the cat only shook his head and sighed.
utside the main factory building, Mr. Butter and Mr. Kerr ushered Rose and Gus into the back seat of a golf cart.
“Now we are off!” Mr. Butter shouted. “To the place where the magic happens!”
“Magic?” Rose repeated.
Were there kitchen magicians here? No, that couldn't be .Â .Â . could it?
“A figure of speech,” Mr. Butter said. “I'm speaking, of course, of the magic of industry!”
“Oh,” Rose said, breathing a sigh of relief.
From her backpack, the cat whispered, “Spare me, please.”
Mr. Kerr drove the cart past dozens of box-shaped warehouses, all painted a lifeless gray. Rose looked up the alleyways between the warehouses and all she could see were other warehouses, as if she'd entered a labyrinth of gray blocks from which there was no escape. The buildings were so tall and so close together that even the late-afternoon sun failed to penetrate to the ground below, and the streets of the Mostess Snack Cake Corporation were dark as night.
The sun would be setting in an hour or so, and she knew that her parents would have officially started worrying that she hadn't returned. She considered hopping off the cart and making a run for it, but in which direction? The buildings seemed to go on forever.
“How many buildings are there?” Rose asked, trying to seem casual.
“More than one hundred seventy-five units in this compound alone,” Mr. Butter answered proudly. “Then there's our other production facility in Canada. That one has only one hundred twenty-five buildings.”
After what seemed like a long drive, Mr. Kerr stopped the cart in front of a gray warehouse with a giant 67 painted on the side. He pulled a walkie-talkie from his suit jacket pocket and spoke softly into it. “Marge, FLCPC landing, over.”
Suddenly, a part of the warehouse wall lifted into the roof, like an automated garage door, and Mr. Kerr drove the cart through the opening. The door closed behind them, locking the golf cart into a pitch-black, air-conditioned box.
When the floor underneath started rumbling, Rose realized they were in an elevator. After a minute, the car emerged on the floor of a giant kitchen with rust-colored linoleum tiles on the floor, stainless steel prep tables, and a row of top-of-the-line ovens.
The perimeter of the room was lined with every conceivable kitchen appliance: restaurant-sized stand mixers, deep fryers, toasters and blenders, salamanders and broilers, stainless steel pots and pans, and a rack containing twenty spatulas of various sizes and colors.
Rose gasped. She didn't like being brought here against her will, but she certainly didn't mind the kitchen itself. It was almost perfectâthe only thing missing was a secret pantry of magical blue mason jars like they had back home.
“Quite something, isn't it?” Mr. Butter asked. “This is our test kitchen.”
He snapped his fingers, and a row of men and women in white lab coats, aprons, and chef's toques marched in from a small door at the far corner of the room labeled
. In perfect unison, the six bakers filed in behind the row of metal prep tables and stood at attention.
The six bakers were all nearly the same heightâthat is, on the shorter side, just about as tall as Rose herself. And they were all round. You might not notice it if you were just looking at one of the bakers, but seeing them all together in a row, it was clear they all were alike in one way: they were all overweight.
Also, they were smiling. Not like genuinely happy men and women, but more like people whose mouths were being stretched up at the sides by invisible fish hooks.
“Why are they so round?” Gus whispered, cradled in Rose's arms. “They look as though they might roll away with just one push.”
“Shh,” she replied. “I don't know.”
Mr. Butter sauntered over to the prep tables and leaned in close. “A spot.” He smiled, pointing at the perfectly clean stainless steel surface. “Someone missed a spot.”
Then he snapped his fingers.
One of the bakers gasped, ran to the back wall, and grabbed a fresh towel and some spray. He hurried back to the table and scrubbed vigorously at the spot.
Mr. Butter pulled a magnifying glass out of his pocket and peered at the tabletop. “Better,” he said. Then he stood straight again, cleared his throat theatrically, and addressed Rose. “These are our very best bakers, specialists in every facet of the creation of our great line of products. They now all answer to you, Rosemary Bliss.”
“Um, okay,” Rose said. The bakers' eyes swiveled from Mr. Butter to Rose. One on the end farthest away from her audibly gulped.
“And this is our Head Baker, Marge.”
The woman standing closest to Rose had round pink cheeks and short brown hair that peeked out from beneath her chef's toque. Her lips were as plump as maraschino cherries, and her nose was as round as a tiny cupcake. The pockets of her apron bulged with paper and recipe cards.
“I'm Marge, and I'm in charge,” she said. “Let me introduce you to our specialists. This is Ning, he's our Icing Tech.”
Ning, a gentleman with a black crew cut, pointy eyebrows, and a large mole above his lip, gave Rose a salute.
“This is Jasmine, our CTMâCake Texture Modifier,” Marge said, moving down the line. Jasmine, a woman with two long black braids, nodded, and the wide grin plastered across her face grew even wider. “The texture of a cake is, as I'm certain you know, the most important thing.”
“Next we have Gene, our VP of Fillings, both marshmallowy and fruity.” Gene had a brown mustache and long, curly hair that he wore tied back in a hairnet.
“And down at the end there,” said Marge, “we've got the twins, Melanie and Felanie. Nut Chunk and Sprinkle Maestros, respectively.”
At the end of the line stood two young women with short blonde hair and freckles. They waved to Rose and smiled so widely that Rose could see their gums.
These people are smiling,
out of fear
. They were all terrified of Mr. Butter, she realized.
“That's it,” said Marge. “That's the gang.”
“And this,” announced Mr. Butter with a flourish of his bony, fishy-white hand, “is Miss Rosemary Bliss, your new FLCP Director.”
“She's a lot younger than the last one,” said Marge, then rushed to add, “but worthy of our respect all the same!”
Rose furrowed her brow. “FLCP? What's that? It sounds like the noise Gus makes when he gets a hairball.”
The bakers began to titter good-naturedly.
“FLCPs,” said Mr. Butter, “are the things we bake. The products. Dinkies, King Things, all of themâthey are all different types of FLCPs: Food-Like Consumer Products.”
?” Rose repeated.
“Because of the mix of preservatives and chemicals we use in our delicious treats, the government has classified them as Not Food, but Food-Like.” Mr. Butter shrugged as though he were talking about a minor embarrassment. He winked at Rose. “But you and I both know that the government makes mistakes all the time, don't we?”
Rose thought about the wrongheaded law that had closed down the Follow Your Bliss Bakery and nodded. “We sure do.”
Marge came around behind her and spotted the gray furball nestled in Rose's arms. “Wow! A cat!” she cooed, lifting Gus out and cradling him like an infant. “There is nothing I love more on this sweet, sad dumpling of a planet than a funny-looking, alien-eyed, fat cat with crinkled ears.”
Gus wore a look of sheer contempt as he gazed into the eyes of the round-headed baker.
“No cats in the kitchen,” said Mr. Kerr, pulling Gus from Marge's arms and dropping him back inside Rose's backpack. She heard the Scottish Fold sigh deeply over the ratchet of the zipper.
“Do I start baking now?” Rose asked, eager to get this whole charade over with so she could return to her family. They'd be worrying, she knew.
“That's the spirit!” said Mr. Butter. “But no. It's too late today. You'll start in the morning.”
“You expect me to
here?” Rose asked, outraged. “That wasn't part of the deal.”
Mr. Butter gritted his teeth, but said cheerfully, “If you are to perfect the five recipes in the five days we've allotted youâ”
“Five days?!” Rose repeated, shocked. She had expected to spend a few hours here at the mostânot
“It's not enough time for an average baker, I know,” Mr. Butter said, stroking his lip, “but are you not the great”âhe coughed into his handâ“Rosemary Bliss? The youngest baker to win the Gala blah blah blah?”
“It was the Gala des GÃ¢teauxâ”
“Yes, I know what it was called. I said âblah blah blah' to show you that I am not impressed. As I was saying, to make the most of the five days until .Â .Â . well, the five days we have allotted you, you will live here. Your bedroom is up those stairs there, in the office that overlooks the FLCP Development Kitchens. Tomorrow you'll get started, and Marge and the team will execute your marvelous ideas. The team is always here. If you have an inspirational dream and come up with something brilliant at three in the morning, just wake Marge, and the team will rally behind you.”
live here?” Rose asked, looking around uneasily.
“Of course,” said Mr. Butter. “They sleep right back there, in the Bakers' Quarters. Where else would they live?”
“In town, maybe? With their families?” Rose offered.
“Oh,” said Mr. Butter, laughing as though Rose had told a funny joke. “Goodness, no. We are in recipe crisis here, Rose, and recipe crisis requires round-the-clock attention. What are families and homes when there are snack cakes to perfect? Nothing! The only thing that mattersâto me, the Mostess Corporation, and to youâis that these recipes be perfected.” He dropped one of his bony hands on her shoulder; it was like having a bag of hangers draped across her back. “The bakers won't be going anywhere until our little problem is solved. And neither, for that matter, will you. Good night, Rose. We'll see you in the morning.”
Rose climbed the spiral stainless steel staircase in the corner of the test kitchen, which led to a room suspended from the corner of the ceiling. She could hear Gus snoring from inside of her backpack, so she knew he was okay.
The room had glass walls and looked out over the test kitchen like a fishbowl on a shelf, with Rose the fish. Marge had turned off the lights and the bakers had returned to their quarters at the back of the kitchens. Rose's room had a single, tiny window to the outside world, just one foot square, above the bed. Through it, June twilight filtered in and glinted on the prep tables in the darkened kitchen below.
The room was filled by a twin bed with a white duvet, a metal desk and desk lamp, and a little wooden dresser. Past a door on the back wall was a white-tiled bathroom, complete with little monogrammed towels.
spelled the red thread. Sitting on top of the desk was a glass of milk and a few dry-looking biscuits.
Rose breathed deeplyâthe room had an oddly familiar smell, though she couldn't place her finger on it. Was it the faintest whiff of old perfume? A faintly flowery hint of .Â .Â . she couldn't recall where she knew the scent from. Maybe it was just the trusty old smell of a bakery?
White curtains were tied in bunches in the corners of the room; Rose untied them, covering the glass walls for privacy. Then she unzipped her backpack and Gus tumbled out onto the bed.
“Ah!” he said, waking up from his nap. “Are we home yet?” He glanced from side to side, then sat back and curled his tail round his feet. “I was hoping this place was all a bad dream.”
“I'm afraid not,” Rose said. She took a biscuit and broke it in half, popping one of the pieces into her mouth and giving the other to Gus. Then she took a swig of milk.
“It's okay, Rosie,” the cat said between bites. “We will triumph! Are we not cats? Are we not the slyest, smartest, most surprising foes in all of creation? Are we notâ”
“You're a cat,” Rose said, frowning. “I'm a girl.”
“A technicality,” Gus said. “My point, though, was simple. We shall get through this. We have each other.” He yawned.
Rose cracked open the window above the bed and stuck her head out. The room was pretty high up. All she could see were the tops of other warehouses. They seemed to go on forever. On the very edge of the horizon was a barbed-wire fence. There'd be no escaping through this window.
The sky was a dark purple, the color of a summer plum, with little rivulets of bright orange winding their way through the deep clouds. Her parents would definitely be panicking by now. They would notify the police, they would search Calamity Falls, they would find her bike outside Stetson's on Sparrow Hill, and Devin Stetson would tell them she had made her final delivery at around three that afternoon. They would know she'd been missing ever since.