Katrin stood in her front room, biting her lip, frowning at her coffee table. In one hand she held a tablecloth, in the other the stack of doilies. When she’d been planning the day her mind had settled on doilies, and from the instant she’d seen them in the shop she’d been picturing. But now the time had come to put them out, she was having second thoughts. It wasn’t just that half her guests would mock her for them – after all the years she’d known them she was used to their gentle teasing. The problem bugging her was whether the skinny white paper would clash with her 4K, flat screen smart television.
The door bell rang, and her decision was made. With no time left to get all the doilies out, she shook the tablecloth over it, tucking the doilies away out of sight on the floor, and went to welcome her first guest.
Or guests, as it turned out to be. Should’ve guessed, I suppose.
“Hey guys!” Katrin beamed as she opened the door to June and Evan, but her gaze never reached Evan’s eyes. There was enough going on for it not to be noticed though.
“Hiya! Are we late?” June said. Her short arms were struggling with the pile of boxes and tins she was carrying, making her peer round to talk to her host, and Katrin plucked a few off the top.
“Of course not. You’re the first ones here.” Unfortunately. I don’t want to do it now–
“Only just!” came another cheery voice from behind the bulk of Evan. He shuffled aside under his stack of boxes and revealed Shivani, also loaded up, though not quite as much. “Did I bring enough?” she asked as she eyed June and Evan’s collection.
“More than enough,” Katrin said as she ushered them all in. “At this rate none of us will need to eat for a week!”
“I couldn’t decide what flavour to make,” June said. “So–”
“So she ended up making all of them,” Evan finished.
“Doesn’t that defeat the point of a cookie exchange?” Katrin asked.
Evan trailed behind the two women, and gave Katrin a quick grin as she closed the front door. Shit. Before she could open her mouth though Shivani was leaning back out the kitchen.
“Where are we putting these then?”
“Take them straight through to the main room. I’ll get plates.” There wasn’t time to talk just then, and Katrin was fine with that. There would be time later, after a day with her friends.
She was halfway through getting crockery from the kitchen when the doorbell went again.
“I’ll get it,” June called, and Katrin was glad no one was in the kitchen to see her take a deep breath and try to calm herself.
Through the walls there was no telling who it was, and Katrin was surprised when she came out and saw it was both Mark and Xavier. Mark was also carrying a plastic tub, but Xavier was empty-handed.
“Yeah,” he said when he caught Katrin’s raised eyebrow. “Had a bit of an accident. Burnt the whole lot.” Behind him, his best friend Mark just shrugged and held his free hand up. ‘What did you expect?’ his expression said, and Katrin couldn’t help herself from giggling and blushing.
Clearing her throat she busied herself setting out the plates. “Well, it’s lucky for you that June and Evan brought spares. We’ve still got enough for everyone.”
“You really should get your oven fixed though,” June said.
“I know, I know.” Xavier sighed. “Work’s been really busy though, and I just haven’t had time.”
“All the more reason to sit down now then and share in the cookie exchange.”
“Not that I was ever one to turn down cookies, but what’s the occasion, Katrin?” Mark asked.
“Does there need to be one? I thought it would be fun, a chance to just hang out for a day, without ‘doing’ something, like seeing a movie or some-such. Just a chance to talk and catch up.” And because I’m a coward and didn’t know how else to do this.
“Hey, that sounds an awesome enough reason to me,” Evan said. Though she was still avoiding his gaze, there was no missing the fact he kept looking from her to Mark. Hardly the time, dude.
The doorbell went again and Katrin was on her feet in a flash. “Late as ever, huh?” she said over her shoulder as she left the room.
“Be fair,” Xavier called, “if she wasn’t we’d think she’d been possessed.”
Out of sight in the hallway Katrin rubbed her temples and took two deep breaths. Louise was late anyway, she could wait another few seconds. When the tremors had subsided Katrin let the last guest in.
“Sorry!” Louise was already saying as the door opened.
“That’s fine. You’re not that late, come on in.”
“Hey, for you this is practically early,” Xavier teased as he came out the front room. “I thought you could do with a hand with the drinks?”
“Oh, god, sorry. Yes, I’ll get them now.”
“I can help,” Louise offered, but the other two shook their heads.
“Go and get settled, we can manage.” Probably.
As soon as they were in the kitchen Xavier stepped up close, his voice low, the smile gone. “You’ve not told the others?”
“Of course not.”
“You’re not going to tell them?”
“No, I wouldn’t. Why would you think that?”
There in the kitchen, without his shield, he looked so tired. Not for the first time Katrin’s heart broke, but she wouldn’t whisper a word if he didn’t want her to. “We’ve all sussed there’s a reason behind this party. I just thought…”
“That I’d let everyone else know you’d lost your job over milk and cookies? Seriously, Xavier, have a little more faith in me. And it’s not a party, it’s a cookie exchange. Just make sure you get a good share of all of them, okay?”
“Thank you, Katrin.”
By the time they returned to the main room their smiles were back, and the world was as it should be to all intents and purposes. Until Katrin saw what Mark was holding.
“It was just a thought!” she said.
“Doilies, Katrin? Seriously? How old are you, eighty?” As Mark messed around with the paper, balancing them on his head, Katrin looked round at her friends.
Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe I shouldn’t have invited everyone… The looks Louise was giving her said she felt the same way. But what could Katrin do now, just send everyone home, with no explanation? Besides, at least this way Xavier got some food. His t-shirt was already hanging loose on his shoulders.
The conversation drifted over everything and nothing, all the topics staying safe. How work was going, how their families were doing, reminiscing about old times. Nothing serious came up, despite the room full of drama.
The first time Katrin left the room, Louise was hot on her tail, grabbing her arm as soon as they were out of sight.
“You haven’t told–”
“Of course I bloody haven’t.” Having her integrity questioned twice in one day was insulting, but Katrin could hardly explain that. Instead she forced on her best smile. “You know I wouldn’t do that. It’s your news, to tell who you want.”
“Yeah. Thanks for this, by the way. Not telling anyone. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just not fair.”
“I don’t think June or Evan would judge you for it.”
“Judgement or not, it’s still cruel. ‘Sorry you can’t have a baby, by the way I’ve just aborted mine’.”
“They know you’re not in a position for a kid. And they’ve still got a few options themselves, it’s not the end yet.” Not by a long shot.
“I guess. I’m not going to rub it in their faces just now though.”
“Understandable. Hey, while you’re here, can you take the water jug back through with you?”
“Sure thing. Oh, hey, Shivani.”
“Anything I can help with?” Shivani asked, trading places with Louise as she headed back to the front room.
It took all of Katrin’s self-control not to roll her eyes. A moment’s peace, please! “Nah, I think we’re good here. Unless you think we need napkins?”
“Bloody hell, Mark was right. You are getting old. Speaking of Mark.” With a final check of the main room – where June and Evan were sharing stories from their last holiday – Shivani broke into a ridiculous grin, and whispered. “Are you going to ask him out?”
“What? No, of course not. Not today.” I’ve too many other things to keep track of.
“Come on, Katrin, you’ve always been sweet on him. And it’s been ages since you had a boyfriend. You’re missing out, you know.”
“You’ve become very… uninhibited since meeting Roxanne.”
Shivani’s grin was answer enough. “Yeah, well. You know. It’s fun.” The teenage-smirk was replaced with a look of horror. “You haven’t told–”
“No, I haven’t. I won’t breathe a word of it. You just enjoy it. For those of us who aren’t in relationships.”
“You really should talk to Mark.”
“Not today, Shivani. Let’s get back to the others.” Let me out of this kitchen, before anyone else comes and accuses me of blabbing. Or before I have to end up blabbing.
To the disappointed looks of Shivani, Katrin did everything she could to avoid being alone with Mark for the rest of the day. In fact, she was doing well at not having clandestine meetings with any of her friends, which was earning her panicked looks from June. Definitely shouldn’t have bothered with this. Cookies aren’t worth this much stress.
The end of the afternoon was drawing in, and Katrin knew she had one job to do before her friends left. She’d wanted to put it off for as long as possible, but much longer and she’d have to say it on the doorstep. That wasn’t fair on anyone.
“Does anyone want coffee?” she asked in a lull in the conversation. Coffee; the natural, end of an evening beverage. The subtle hint that the event was almost done. Collecting the orders Katrin headed to the kitchen alone, and wondered how to get the other party there.
“Need a hand?” Evan asked from the doorway as she was filling the coffee maker.
Perfect. “Can you get some mugs from the cupboard?”
As they got all the bits together Katrin took a few deep breaths, and waited for the right moment.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“Good. Yeah, it’s going well.” Evan gave her a smile, but she pressed on.
“How’s… you know.”
“The fertility treatment? That’s, well, not so good, honestly. It’s going to be expensive, and they need to run some more tests. See if they can work out what’s wrong with me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Evan snorted. “Except there is. I can’t have kids. It’s simple fucking biology, and I can’t do it.” He was leaning back on the counter, and Katrin watched his knuckles go white. Anything to not look at his face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s tough. I know June’s been finding it tough as well. She won’t say anything, but I can tell. I mean, look at how many cookies she baked for today. Anything to keep herself busy. I’m worried about her, honestly. She always wanted children, and now I can’t give her that. She’s heartbroken, and I’ve failed her.” He sighed, a heartfelt rattle that tied Katrin’s stomach in knots. “I’m sorry, dumping all of this on you again. And after you’ve just organised such a wonderful party.”
“It’s not a party. It’s a cookie exchange. And it’s a cover.” Now or never, and never won’t be forever. With a teaspoon in hand for support she faced Evan and finally looked him in the eyes. “I have something to tell you, and it’s not going to be easy, and I’m sorry, but this was the only way I could think of to do it.” One last deep breath, before she plunged under the surface. “June’s pregnant.”
There was a flash of hope, of wonder, before the questions started in Evan’s head.
Before he realised the truth.
And the betrayal.