A Quiet Dinner Party

by Kathy Dillenbeck

It always happened when the room was too quiet. Random phrases were once again racing in and out of her mind. Black forest, red velvet, white wine, blue cheese, hash browns... Her hands tightened into fists and she furiously shook her head, trying to dispel the obsessive thoughts that assailed her daily.

She wiped her hands across her apron as she turned to the pot that was now boiling over. When she was putting the hot pan in the sink, she noticed a movement in the reflection of the window. She turned quickly, but her guests were still sitting motionless, right where she'd left them…

"Black forest, red velvet, white wine, blue cheese, hash browns..."

The whispering voices screamed in the stillness, startling Rachel as she walked into the kitchen. She looked over her shoulder, wondering if any of her guests had heard, but they continued to sit motionless, right where she'd left them.

Before she could stifle the silence, the pot she was checking boiled over. Rachel transferred the pan to the sink, sloshing hot water all over the floor. She rushed over to the stereo, fumbled through the stack of CDs, and re-loaded the CD player.

When the mellow voice of Anne Murray filled the room, Rachel sighed in relief. The quiet invited the voices, voices that would not stop. She checked her guests again. They stayed where they were, staring at each other with what could only be called vacant expressions.

"Hope everyone likes Anne Murray," she called, walking back to the kitchen to finish her preparations. Not hearing any objection, she smiled and hummed along with the music as she mopped up her mess.

"Sorry it took so long to clean up this floor. It'll just be a few minutes and dessert will be served," she announced to her guests, taking her famous red pepper cheesecake from the refrigerator.

As she reached into her china cabinet for dessert plates, she caught a reflection of movement in the glass door of the cabinet. Whirling around, she searched for the source of the manifestation, but could not account for it. She stepped over to the door of the dining room. Everything was as she left it. No one had moved from the table.

"Did any of you see someone moving about?"

No one offered any help. She looked out into the garden, but all was still.

She shrugged, went back to the china cabinet, and pulled out the dishes. She decided it must have been a figment of her imagination.

From a coil of fishing line she kept in her junk drawer, she cut off a segment about six inches longer than the diameter of the cheesecake. Even though the line was new, she ran it under the faucet to rinse it off. She shuddered at the thought of what might have been on the line if it had been used. Still, it was the perfect way to slice cheesecake. Knives did not work well. They had to be wiped off frequently because they were like magnets to dabs of cheesecake.

The spring pan came apart easily. She cut the cheesecake into eight perfect pieces and slid them onto the plates. She spooned a mixture of apricot jelly and water over the top and finished by garnishing with pita chips. The pita chips had been drizzled with olive oil, salted, peppered, and baked crispy. As she took a moment to appreciate how scrumptious they looked, she realized she had to clear the dinner dishes before serving dessert. Fetching a large, round tray from the pantry, she returned to the dining room and retrieved the dinner plates.

"Hope you all saved room for dessert," she told her guests as she served her latest masterpiece. "I don't think I've ever made my red pepper cheesecake for you, have I? I found the recipe on the Food Network. Do you ever watch Giada De Laurentis? I know it sounds like a strange combination, but I think..." The doorbell interrupted her words.

"Excuse me just a moment. Go ahead and eat. Don't wait for me."

She pulled the dining room door shut and went to the front door. Through the peephole, she could see a dark-haired man, probably late 30's, dressed in a light blue suit. She opened the door as much as the safety chain would allow.

"Hello, may I help you?"

"Yes, I hope so. My car stopped down the road about a mile and my cell phone wouldn't work. Could I use your phone to call for help?"

"Certainly, come right in. I'm not surprised you had trouble with your cell phone. It's the mountains, you know." She closed the door, removed the safety chain, and opened the door the rest of the way.

"Why don't you let me call Hank? He owns the filling station down in Elkland. He can fix anything. While you're waiting, you can have a slice of cheesecake. Come right through here." She led him into the kitchen.

"This is a beautiful big home. Have you lived here a long time?"

"Yes, it's been in the family for many generations. It used to be a funeral home. That was the family business, but it's been many years since it's been used for that."

"Sit right there and I'll get you a piece of the cheesecake." Rachel pointed to a chair at the kitchen table and took the extra piece of cheesecake she was saving for later out of the refrigerator. She placed it on the counter near the pantry.

"Just let me get some of my special brandy sauce for it." She opened the pantry door and pulled the bottle from the top shelf. It only took a few seconds to drizzle it over the cheesecake.

"Thank you so much. This is a special treat. I may have to break down more often." He used his fork to slice off a healthy portion of the cheesecake. "This is very good. Who would think of putting red pepper strips in cheesecake?" He took another bite, licking his lips as if he didn't want to miss any of the brandy sauce.

Rachel re-capped the bottle and put it back in the pantry.

"Would you like something to drink with that? I have fresh coffee or sweet tea. Or, I might be able to scrounge up some soda from the pantry."

"Coffee would be great. I hope I'm not keeping your from something important."

Rachel shook her head. "No, I'm having a small dinner party and we were just getting to dessert. In fact, if you'll excuse me, my guests are probably wondering where I am. As soon as I let them know, I'll call Hank for you." She walked over and opened the dining room door.

The man followed her with his eyes and smiled in preparation for greeting her guests. The smile quickly faded. He gasped and started to rise. "What's going on? Is this some kind of joke?" Halfway out of the chair, he fell onto the floor with a loud thud.

"Hey, folks! We've added a new member to our group. I didn't catch his name, but he likes the red pepper cheesecake. Do you?"

At that moment, the music stopped. The voices were back.

"Black forest, red velvet, white wine, blue cheese, hash browns, red pepper cheesecake..."