Marta carried pieces of scrap paper in her pockets when she walked down city streets. She said it was in case she thought of someone she loved; she’d write their name down and fold the paper and later she’d call them and say, stuttering and heartfelt, I thought of y-you. To say how much they meant to her. She tried to be sweet but she always ended up tripping over her own feet, making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, stuttery and slow. The cities she walked in were always tall and grim and dark. They were windswept and busy but always lonely somehow. It had to do with the darkness. The city lights blocked out the stars and the night, cloaked in chilly fluorescent light, grew darker. Stranger. Marta walked in the big cities because being lonely made her think of the people she loved.
Marta met Nico while walking down an alley in Berlin. She had pulled her coat tight over herself, for it was beginning to snow, and hunched over her elbows, crossed on her stomach. Her breath fogged in the air, and the alley was silent but for distant cars honking and someone’s crunching footsteps behind her. She let this happen for a few more minutes, but it was so cold and dark and lonely, and she didn’t have a single name written down on her papers, so she turned and yelled L-leave m-me alone! The man behind her put his hands up and replied in a tired German accent, I am sorry, madam. I am only trying to get home. And Marta said, S-so am I. They looked at each other and smiled and that was when Marta made her first friend. He wore leather jackets and smiled widely.
Marta met Julie walking past a shop window in Tokyo. She had leaned over a scrap of her paper, slowly writing out her uncle’s name. She was going to find a pay phone that evening and call him and say I thought of y-y-you today in T-tokyo. I love you. D-do you love m-me? Her words were always simple when she called her family -- why did they always slip out the wrong way, short and broken? Marta had brushed against a woman in a purple coat and shaken her coffee out of her hand. I’m t-terribly s-sorry, Marta said. She stopped writing and took the woman’s hands in her own. P-please forgive m-me. Julie looked confused, but smiled. Marta smiled back, and she had her second friend. She wore big scarves and smiled with her lips closed.
Nico, Julie. Two friends. Marta had people in her life who loved her now, people who weren’t even related to her. People who listened to her and smiled with her and walked along dark city streets with her. Who said Oh, really? How wonderful! when she told them she’d thought of them.
The three of them sat in a small diner in Cairo. Someone in the airport called me crazy today, Marta said. Am I c-crazy?
Nico and Julie looked at each other.
We love you, Marta, Nico said eventually.
Marta smiled. You d-didn’t answer m-my question. B-but that’s okay. Oh! She dug in her pockets and pulled out a piece of paper. L-linda. My c-cousin.
Nico sipped his black coffee and Julie squeezed a lemon into her ice water. Do you need a pen? Julie asked.
No, th-thank you.
Marta finished writing Linda’s name and pocketed the paper. I’m r-ready to leave. Are y-y-ou walking with m-me, Julie? N-nico?
Of course, they said, and as they walked out of the diner Nico took Marta’s hand and Julie put her arm through the crook of Marta’s. Nico walked with a limp, Marta walked slowly, and though Julie was a brisk person she walked at their pace when with them. Neither smiled but all knew they shared an inward smile. Marta’s eye caught on a flyer pinned to the diner’s door.
L-look, she said, and pulled it down. A b-baking contest. W-who can m-make the biggest c-cookie? A thousand Egyptian p-p-pounds prize money to the b-baker of the biggest c-cookie.
In Cairo? Nico asked.
Why not? Julie said, smiling slightly. Then she whispered to Nico, It could be good for her. She needs something to do.
I have s-something to d-do, Marta said loudly as they walked outside. I w-walk through cities and t-talk with you and N-nico.
Yes, we know, Julie said. But I mean that… that is to say you should… well, you know what I mean.
I d-do, Marta said. It’s h-hard to say exactly w-what you mean. I kn-know that too w-well.
They walked down Cairo’s hot, cluttered streets for a few minutes before Marta said something else. W-when can w-we enter that c-contest? she asked.
Again, Nico and Julie’s eyes met.
Tomorrow, Nico replied. He took the paper from Marta and looked over it. We have two days to make the biggest cookie we can and then we bring it to this location here. He tapped the page. Marta followed his finger with her eyes.
I w-want to win, Marta said simply, looking at her friends. Nico, Julie. I w-want to win for y-you guys. Y-you are such g-good f-friends. Help m-me win this, w-won’t you?
Of course we will, Marta.
Together they turned and walked up the hot Cairo streets toward the motel. It was a small, mildewy building, bent over at the eaves like Marta when writing. The owner was a thin Egyptian man with a thin smile, thin hands, thin wallet. He was tired in body and mind, honest for the most part, and Marta loved him. She found out his name and wrote it down at least once a day for the week they’d been staying in Cairo. His skin was leathery and his eyes bright from a long hard life, but when she told him each night that she’d thought of him, his eyes grew brighter and his thin smile wider.
That night while Marta slept in an upstairs room, Julie and Nico spoke together in the small warm sitting room next to the kitchen. The house was almost silent; the owner and the other guests all sleeping deeply, the street outside damp with the beginnings of warm rain, but two people spoke quietly together about someone they loved.
We have to win this for her, Nico, Julie said. We have to. It means so much to her. Did you hear her telling us?
Of course I heard her. Nico rubbed his exhaustion-lined face with his hand. He hesitated, listening to the whispers of the house as it creaked in the gentle rain. And I didn’t miss the real emotion in her voice, either.
Julie looked out the dark window, watching the rain. Her short hair was unbrushed and wild, but comfortable. How can we do this? It’s expensive to enter, expensive to buy the ingredients, expensive to transport it when it’s done…
We’ll find a way, Nico said tiredly. We won’t let her down.
A thousand pounds, Nico…
All three of us could use that.
They looked at each other like two parents whose child has made a life-changing mistake. They weren’t in love; they were there for each other like they were there for Marta. Marta was their life now. She had that kind of charm.
Why do we care so much? Julie asked.
We love her, Nico said. He stood and stretched his arms. I’m going to bed. You’re sharing with Marta, right? When Julie nodded, he said, Okay. I’ll get the ingredients in the morning and we’ll find a way to bake the thing in the motel’s kitchen. And besides -- prize money of a thousand Egyptian pounds!
They parted, and the room was empty and the house was finally silent. Outside, the rain thickened and patterned down even faster, while everyone slept the sleep of familiar dreams. When the next morning dawned and the sun shone brightly into the hot little motel rooms, Marta awoke and walked downstairs slowly. Her feet were bare and her short hair unbrushed. Julie was drinking a second cup of coffee in the kitchen and told her Nico went to go get groceries for the cookie. The owner of the motel was washing mugs and plates from the breakfast Marta had missed, looking a little sour.
Oh, g-good! Marta said. I w-want it to be h-huge. A huge w-white sugar c-cookie.
I don’t know where we’ll find that much sugar, Julie said, smiling wanly. But okay.
Nico returned soon after that and dumped armfuls of ingredients onto the round kitchen table. The motel owner looked even more sour, but Julie gave him a smile and a 150-pound note, and he left the kitchen mumbling peevishly under his breath. W-we’ll clean i-it up, Marta called after him, and he waved a hand behind him, not looking back.
They baked all day but not very successfully. They tried at first to shove the whole mess into the oven, and when it curled down at the sides and burned on the edges, soft at the middle, they looked at each other and said, Let’s try again.
I’m s-sad, Marta told Julie. A genuine tear glistened in her eye. Like a child, she asked, W-will this ever w-work? C-can we even w-win?
Of course we will, Nico and Julie replied together.
Then Nico went out and bought more sugar, more flour, more eggs, more of everything. Julie had the idea, the second time around, to bake it in quarters. It’ll spread out when it bakes, Nico warned. And we won’t be able to make it one big cookie, just four medium-sized ones.
You are a pessimist, Julie said a little sharply. We’ll pull it out early, when it’s still hot and soft, and squash it together.
That would only work, Nico said just as sharply, if we had four ovens baking at the same time.
We’ll shape each one! Julie shouted. We’ll fit them together with the icing!
C-can we m-make them yet? Marta asked calmly, writing down her second cousin’s name on a yellow piece of scrap paper. Julie, h-how do you s-spell Caitlyn?
Is it with a C or a K?
I don’t think it matters, Nico said impatiently.
C-A-I-T-L-Y-N, Julie spelled impatiently.
Th-thank you, J-julie, Marta said.
Subdued, Julie and Nico stopped glowering at each other, sighed, and started working on the second batch together. Marta looked at them as a child looks at her parents when she has made peace between them; pleased and proud and a little adoring. Marta pulled out the first quarter of the cookie and it was fat and pallid and glistening with its mostly-raw sugar coating. Her eyes went wide when she pulled it out, almost greedy, but she didn’t try to pick little pieces off and eat them. She watched as Julie used a spatula and her hands to mold it into a more shapely, sharp-lined circle quarter. When all four quarters were out on the narrow counters, in varying degrees of warmth and sugary pallor, Marta helped Nico mix the icing and spread it over the top and around the sides like glue. She smiled hugely when it was all done, wrapped in a dozen sheets of newspaper taped together, adorned with a twine bow. All done and cooled and hardened, the sugar cookie was a meter and a half across, without the folds of the newspaper.
I l-love this, she said. It m-makes me think of P-patricia.
Who’s Patricia? Nico asked.
Oh, I didn’t know you -- I mean -- Julie stuttered, and then stopped, red-faced.
She w-went to school w-with m-me, Marta said, smiling a little at the twine bow. She stood and went with Nico and Julie when they expertly lifted the cookie and, straining, put it in the motel owner’s little lorry truck. We were f-friends in f-fifth g-grade and I write to her s-sometimes.
Oh, they say in return, exchanging looks. Marta had told them that she spent fifth grade in a school in England, and then mid-year she was taken to a sanatorium to examine her underdeveloped brain.
She’s v-very n-nice, Marta said, smiling in remembrance.
The afternoon was hot and sweaty, like the sugar crystals on the pallid cookie, and passed by cleaning the motel’s kitchen. Marta went to bed early, exhausted, and Nico and Julie spoke shortly in the sitting room before following her.
The next day was the coolest of that week; if not crisp, it was at least refreshing after days of warm rain and beating, shimmering sun. Nico paid the motel owner thirty Egyptian pounds to take his truck to the contest location. Marta sat in the truck bed with it, folding cloths around it to minimize bouncing. When they arrived there, at a small bakery surrounded by an uncrowded market, Marta began to shake with excitement unlike any Nico and Julie had ever seen. W-we are going to w-win this, she said confidently. Her voice echoed through the bakery, and the owner, a fat Palestinian woman with a scar on her lip, looked up and smiled.
Here, she said in heavily accented English. She saw Marta looking impishly around and wrapped an arm around Marta’s shoulder protectively, instinctively. Put the cookie over here. It is big!
Marta smiled happily. I kn-know!
The shop filled quickly. The price to enter was 50 pounds, more than many had on hand, so most had come to watch, and to see if the cookies would be given away at the end of the judging. Faces with dark eyebrows, mostly children present, crowded around as the Palestinian owner and her small husband unwrapped the huge cookies, measured them, and tasted the center and the rim. There were six cookies total, and immediately Julie did the math. She saw one that was two meters across, much larger than Marta’s, but she knew the judging was also done on taste. One could not enter a cookie made of sawdust and water. But she also knew that unless that two-meter cookie was completely inedible, they had already lost the contest. The woman moved to Marta’s cookie and cut into it. An ecstatic smile crossed her face. Marta blinked happily and whispered to Julie, I kn-knew it w-would be good. That w-was Mama’s r-recipe.
She gasped and pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. I’ll c-call Mama after th-this. She’ll be p-proud to know her c-c-cookie won.
Julie and Nico watched with wolfish, desperate expressions on their faces. They’d seen Marta depressed. They knew the fits, the inertia, the overdosing. They knew the consequences of losing something Marta wanted to win because of her friends. Marta placed nothing higher in her life than her friends. Nico, Julie.
Julie pressed her fingers against her mouth. Nico’s fingernails were down to the quicks already. The woman moved to the two-meter cookie. She cut it open, slipped a chunk into her mouth, closed her eyes. Julie leaned forward, cropped hair swinging with her. Marta leaned forward. The woman wrinkled her nose and mumbled in Arabic to her husband, Not as good as the other, but good enough.
Nico leaned into Julie and translated.
Julie closed her eyes and muttered a curse.
Marta looked at them and, slowly, the smile began to fade from her face.
The contest was over. A thousand pounds changed hands and a frail Egyptian woman went out with a wide gum-toothed smile. The watching crowd was well-rewarded; after checking with the bakers, the Palestinian woman allowed them to take pieces of the six contestant cookies. Marta, Nico, and Julie walked outside. Nico and Julie watched Marta’s face worriedly. It was pale, sort of wan, blank in a frightening way.
Hey, Marta, are you okay?
It’s going to be okay, Marta. It’s okay that you didn’t win.
I w-wanted to win for my f-friends, Marta said. Her voice was expressionless, hopeless.
Nico and Julie exchanged frightened looks.
How do we…? Nico asked helplessly.
Julie shook her head, eyes wide.
Marta, we’re still your friends, even though we didn’t win.
I wanted t-t-to show you how much you m-mean to me, Marta said slowly. I think of you every day. Y-you mean so much to m-me.
We already know how much you love us, Nico said, his deep, slow voice careful, like he was trying not to break anything.
Marta, it’s okay. Say it after me, Julie said.
Marta paused, pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote down Nico’s and Julie’s names.
It’s okay, Marta said and did not stutter once. She smiled and handed the paper to them.