Katie was beautiful. It was a subject that most everyone agreed on. She’d been Homecoming Queen two years in a row, won numerous pageants, modeled for the local high end clothing store, Frostfield, and had broken many a teenage boy’s heart. Her beauty was something that she diligently worked on, although naturally acquired. Katie made sure she ate right, exercised, took vitamins, slathered her youthful skin with lotions and serums, avoided the sun and drank plenty of water. She was rather obsessed about her appearance, worrying about lines and freckles even at the tender age of sixteen. Her clothing consisted of the latest fashions, trendy but elegant and her hair was never mussed or out of place, professionally styled and dyed the perfect shade of summer gold.
She stood on the porch of a rundown, ranch style house. The front lawn was in sore need of mowing. The grass was high, reaching Katie’s knees. A sad, solitary whirligig sat near the gate. A girl drew water from a well whenever the autumnal wind blew. Katie rang the bell again and stared up at the sky. It looked like it was going to rain, the clouds gray and heavy.
“Hello, Katie!” An excited, bubbly voice greeted and Katie pasted a wide grin on her face. She looked at the girl who answered the door and felt a jolt of hatred course through her. Zoe McLeod. Last year, Zoe had been twenty pounds overweight, with a curtain of dark hair hiding her face and skin that was victim to violent acne. No one had noticed her, no one had cared and the girl had been a ghost. Katie had noticed her though, Katie noticed every girl, always comparing herself to them and often deemed them beneath her. Zoe had been the bleak night to her shining day, the perfect complement to Katie’s beauty.
“Hi, Zoe!” Katie answered in the same light, enthusiastic tone. The girl before her was now a swan. She had shed her ugly duckling skin over the last summer. Zoe’s dark hair was now stylish, the perky pixie cut complimented a beautiful, flawless, heart-shaped face and her figure was slimmer. She wore clothes that were more modern, even though Katie’s sharp eye detected that they were second hand and Zoe’s transformation had imparted more confidence in the girl.
“So…uh…what’s up? What are you doing here?” Zoe asked, her voice surprised and happy but also a little wary. She stood caught between the door and the jamb, blocking Katie’s view of the inside of the house. Katie grinned at the other girl; her cheeks stung from the effort of remaining cheerful and friendly.
“I have this stupid assignment, you know, Mrs. Weaver’s class.” Katie began and Zoe nodded, smiling ruefully. The Home Economics class was one they both took but at different hours.
“Yeah. I was just finishing up mine,” Zoe said and her eyes widened, making her look like a cute animal. Katie was reminded of Thumper from Bambi.
“Shit! My banana bread!” Zoe cried and rushed away, leaving the front door open. Katie grinned with genuine amusement and followed her enemy inside. Katie glided through the dim hallway, past the faded yellow rose papered walls full of family pictures and down into the clean but crumbling kitchen.
A scarred, scrubbed wooden table occupied the center of the room. Four chairs surrounded it like mourners at a wake. The walls were a pale, sea green which must have pretty once but now bordered on vile. The floor shone, the linoleum was white and gray and worn in places, displaying bits of the wood underneath. Katie set her bundle down on the table where two other loaves of banana bread lay, all of them wrapped in cellophane. Zoe was bent over, the oven door open, examining her creation.
“Good.” Zoe sighed as she pulled the pan out of the oven. She held the bread in her oven mitt covered hands and kicked the door of the oven close. It made a metallic thump and the appliance shook.
“So.” Zoe prompted, setting the pan down on an iron trivet. Katie’s grin widened, warming to her plan. She sort of like the feeling of being a spider to Zoe’s fly.
“I made tons of batches but none of them came out right. I kinda wanted your opinion. You are such an amazing baker,” Katie said, her voice honey sweet. She tried not to gag on the words.
“Aw! That’s so nice, Katie and means a lot coming from you! I have a hard time believing that, though. Mrs. Weaver raved about your oatmeal cookies last week. She even had a plate of them set out for us to enjoy. They were delicious,” Zoe said.
“Cookies are different. I’m having trouble with recipe. I thought you could tell me what’s missing,” Katie said.
“Well, I’ll try,” Zoe said. She went to a cupboard, opened it and retrieved two plastic glasses. Katie watched, eagerly waiting.
“Can you get the gallon of milk out of the fridge?” Zoe asked.
Katie walked over to the old refrigerator and opened the door. There was the milk next to a Tupperware bowl of spaghetti. The fridge was sadly lacking in bounty, the leftover pasta, the milk, half a dozen eggs, and a head of lettuce was all that the appliance held. Katie squashed her pity, telling herself that she was doing everyone a favor, one less mouth for the McLeod’s to feed. She grabbed the milk and returned to the table.
“Thanks.” Zoe grinned. She had sliced up a loaf, two glasses sat across the table from each other. Zoe took the milk from Katie and poured out a glass for each of them.
“Sit,” Zoe said, sitting down herself. Katie bristled at the tone. It had sounded cheerful, like a friendly request but underneath it was the ring of a command. She sat and waved away the proffered slice of her loaf. She was growing antsy, wanting Zoe to eat the bread so that she could leave.
“It’s really good. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” Zoe smiled, good-naturedly, polishing off the slice and starting on the second piece. Katie waited, nervously. After several, long minutes she began to grow puzzled. Why hadn’t anything happened?
“I think it’s much better than mine,” Zoe said. She sliced a piece from the other loaf of bread. The cellophane had been peeled away already.
“Thank you, Zoe. I wasn’t sure. It didn’t taste right to me. Did it taste okay to you?” Katie asked, fishing. She wasn’t sure if the poison would have left an aftertaste.
“It tasted fine. Here. Try mine and you can see what I mean,” Zoe said and handed the slice to her. Katie frowned but accepted the bread.
“I really should go, though,” Katie said. She bit into the slice and tasted chocolate and walnuts. Funny. She didn’t think that anyone else would have added chocolate to the recipe or the glaze of translucent, cream cheese frosting. She swallowed the first bite and her mouth tingled.
“Go? You just got here.” Zoe laughed, resting her head in a cupped palm, her elbow propped on the table. Her eyes glittered with some dark, secret joke. Katie frowned and gulped at her milk, her mouth and throat felt as if she had swallowed needles, the sensitive skin prickled sharply. Her head felt funny, she was dizzy and her vision was fading. She stared at Zoe and the realization of what happened hit her.
She switched loaves! Katie thought, and her mouth opened to shout at the traitor and nothing came out but a gurgle of milk, saliva and mumbled, incoherent words.
“Can’t stand a little competition?” Zoe smirked. “You always had to have the spotlight and it spoiled you. You couldn’t just let me have a chance to shine, could you?” The girl was warming to her subject and her voice was growing louder, swelling with fury.
“You wanted to kill me? Why? Because for once you weren’t going to be Homecoming Queen?” Zoe spat, raising herself from her chair.
Katie heard the words but they sounded far away and muffled. All that was clear was the rapid beat of her heart echoing in her ears, her blood raced through her body, bringing death closer with every heartbeat. She panicked and stood, pushing away the chair as she tried racing to the front door. She stumbled after two steps, her face smashing into the floor, her limbs leaden and she was unable to break her fall. She felt herself being rolled over and a furious, wrathful face loomed above her, just visible amid the spots and haze of her sight.
“I knew you were up to something. Suddenly, the great and magnificent, Katie Calhoun graced my doorstep with a loaf of banana bread in her hands. You never talked to me before and I caught all those nasty looks you threw my way in Algebra. You didn’t fool me one bit!”
Katie’s lungs were refusing to work and her breath was shallow and panting. She tried clawing at her throat, something felt lodged there.
Scowling, Zoe stood over the girl and waited as the life ebbed from her. She sighed, her anger evaporating and sadness soothed the flash of rage. She pitied the girl at her feet, her blue eyes wide and scared, and hands still at her throat and the scratches oozing blood, blood that was no longer pumping and would soon congeal. She reached in her pocket and pulled out her cell.
“9-1-1. What’s you emergency?” The dispatcher asked.
“Hello,” Zoe said her voice flat. “Um…there’s a dead girl on my kitchen floor.”