On Tuesdays, in town, the dead would occasionally come back for a slice of pie at the local train depot diner. The dead, Shelly noticed, were partial to the cherry pie. But, then again, who wasn’t? It had an all-butter crust, so flaky that crumbs would get everywhere no matter how dainty a nibbler you were. The filing was made from real Door County cherries, which the diner owners froze in huge batches every summer. Shelly liked making the filling, dumping the cherries into the mixing bowl, where the frozen orbs would ping against the metal. The red stained everything and she’d lost many a blouse sleeve to a splash. The key was a little bit of lemon juice, a little bit of orange peel, and the tiniest hint of clove—never pre-ground, you had to do it as you made the pie—and a little mahleb. You put the stone of the cherry alongside the fruit, the owners said, because then the pie knows it is whole. No one knew about the clove or mahleb, except the owners and Shelly. People would ask what the secret ingredient was and Shelly would whisper, “just between you and me….it’s the moon.”
The owners had let her in on the secret, a small gift from them, a “please the universe isn’t all bad” after her sister had disappeared. It was what they could offer and Shelly kept it close to her. Shelly was 22 that year and her sister, Magdalene, was 15. Magdalene liked movies about real-life events, trying on shoes at the mall, and wanted to be an engineer. She also hated everything sometimes, would slam her door when irritated, and rolled her eyes at Shelly so hard that Shelly thought Mag’s eyes might one day spin right out of her head. But those things were seldom, and human, and mostly Shelly loved Magdalene more than she loved the world.
Magdalene had been missing for five years and eleven days, but had never shown up on a Tuesday. Every time the diner bell dinged as the door swung open, Shelly would look up and there would be her old kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Rachelle, waving at her. Or the mayor from a hundred years before Shelly was born. Shelly wasn’t a fan of his. He talked fast and with such bombast that Shelly could almost see exclamation points appear from his mouth like he was in a comic book. Or it would be someone else. Some dead who had decided to have a slice of pie on their day off from the afterlife. Shelly had worked every Tuesday for the past five years and eleven days. Once even taking her shift when she had sprained her ankle so badly that she had to use crutches. The owners had helped her carry orders out to the tables. They watched her with the keen eyes of people who knew what it was like to have your heart jump into your throat at the sound of every doorbell.
On the fifth year and eleventh day, the Tuesday rush was slow. Only the living entered. Shelly took orders: less pie, more coffee and meals. The living needed sustenance while the dead only needed taste. A regular flagged Shelly down for a refill. Mrs. Hamberlin came in almost every Tuesday on the off chance her husband would be able to come, and when he did, would jump up and hug him. They’d hold each other so tightly for a moment, as if trying to crush the other, because they both knew how easy it was to never be able to hug the person you loved again.
“Did you hear, hon?” Mrs. Hamberlin asked Shelly, as she poured a mug back into being coffee-filled.
“The dead won’t be coming back. The door is closed. Some bureaucracy.” Mrs. Hamberlin fluttered one hand above her head, showing the silliness of the government.
Shelly swallowed hard. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hamberlin. Your husband—”
Mrs. Hamberlin shook her head. “I’m closer to him than here, anyway. But, how are you?”
The woman studied her with kindness and Shelly felt like she might float up and away. It was always when people were kind that she could feel everything. “I’ll be fine. She never comes.”
“Maybe that’s because she’s not there. Only the dead show up.”
Shelly had never thought about it. Had never imagined a life for Magdalene. A runaway somewhere in a city unlike the town they grew up in. Maybe Magdalene was taking classes at the local tech college. Maybe she called herself something else: April or Ruby or maybe just Mary because only she would get the joke. Maybe every Tuesday, she woke up, sipped tea, and didn’t think about her sister at all.
Shelly let out an oof of breath. “Maybe.”
That night, she cleaned up the diner. Pushed chairs in and refilled the ketchup bottles. The owners pointed to the cherry pie, unordered by anyone and still whole, and told her to slice some up for the three of them. She placed plates on the counter and cut too large slices, so that they spilled over the edge of the wedge-shaped spatula she used to scoop them out. They sat around their slices in silence until Shelly took the first bite. The sour-sweet hit her tongue on the edge of bitter, of something unplaceable, yet exactly where it belonged.
“How did you decide on the recipe? The mahleb?” She asked, having learned the secret without ever hearing the path.
One of the owners smiled. “Our son, he used to say ‘every sweet needs its sharp.’ We found our sharp in mahleb.”
Shelly licked the filling from her fork. She wondered how the dead slept that night, knowing they were far away from everything they’d once known. She wondered if her sister looked out the window, in some other place, and saw the moon.
Chloe N. Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Your Strange Fortune, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph. Her favorite pie is pumpkin. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.