Back To U - By Kathy Dunnehoff

Chapter One

The addition of a powerful ingredient can change the whole recipe.

Missy loved chili. That’s what was important.

Gwen kept telling herself that as she chopped the onions and tried to ignore the sharp vapors that stung her eyes. She felt the first tear seep out and stepped away from the cutting board, chef’s knife still in her hand. And there, in the middle of her butter-yellow kitchen, two months after Steve walked out twenty years into a lifetime commitment, her eyes gave up.

A flood of tears unleashed, and flood was all she could think when the cascade began down her face. It fell over her jaw like Niagara, and along the neckline she felt lacked the smoothness she’d taken for granted until her last birthday, the sneeze away from forty, thirty-nine. She lifted her face to the farmhouse reproduction pendant light she’d shopped for all fall when Missy started her senior year. She felt the deluge of tears pour into her blouse, soak the collar, run in a rivulet between her breasts. She loved that light. That light was never going to leave her.

She lowered her face to check the time, but the clock on the Viking Stove wavered in a black and white blur. She’d have to estimate since her eyesight was swamped. She'd started the chili at four, browned the meat, chopped peppers. Had to be four-forty-five when she’d hit the onion. Missy wouldn’t be home for an hour. Gwen didn’t want her to see her mother like some kitchen serial killer, onion soaked knife in hand, unhinged and venting tears. It would be the last night to even wonder when Missy was coming home. She’d be gone too.

Gone. Gwen could cry every night alone in her kitchen. She looked at the light again, the tears not even slowing. She thought some moisture had traveled down to the waistband of her capris. That damn light. The two of them would be left there. Steve in his condo. Missy in her dorm room. She hated the stupid farmhouse reproduction pendant light, and she was going to do something about it. First, she’d stop crying and finish the chili. Missy had to come home to eat it. It was the last supper.

Gwen shifted as the tears made their way into her underwear. And after the last supper, Missy would get in her graduation car that Gwen had filled with a coordinated mini household. There was the Egyptian cotton duvet cover and poppy red towels with a monogrammed laundry basket. It was everything Gwen had wanted that first year of college. And when the graduation car and the matching hangers left the drive-way, Gwen was going to yank out that damn farmhouse reproduction pendant light and do nothing but chop onions and weep until she was dry.

She’d need a job too. She'd yank out the light and get a job chopping onions to pay the utilities for a house no one lived in. She took in a breath. Had she been breathing in the deluge? It was like getting air under water with no possibility of coming up to the surface. It was a surface where no one lived, not even her. She’d be the only one there with no company but a twelve inch chef’s knife and onions. And what would she do? Keep getting up? That had been hard enough when Steve left in the spring and there was only the occasional sighting of Missy.

For months the possibility that Missy would share a meal or at least say hi had kept her going. She’d waited for the moments Missy would sail in to grab something out of her bedroom, her first bedroom that had become her second all those nights she’d stayed with her dad. But even the chance of a Missy sighting would be gone in about fifteen hours if her water-soaked estimation was accurate.

She had to pull herself together. Her mom had suggested a new bra and a good haircut, like that had helped her mother ever steer them in a useful direction. Gwen knew she could get control of herself again. Hadn’t she held her life steady for years? She shook her head to clear it and felt the tears fly like water off a dog’s fur. It had even soaked her hair. The salt would frizz her curls for a week. She wiped the back of her free hand over her cheek, the knife still in the air. Maybe the flow of tears had slowed. Like