When Tara awoke Thursday morning, her pillow had turned to marshmallow, gooey from the warmth of her head and the sunshine blazing through the window. Fruit rollup blankets slicked her legs with psychedelic slime. The mattress, now a soft-baked blondie with white chocolate chips, was permanently indented by her ass.
Her hands trembled as she backed away from the bed and scrambled for her phone on the dresser, but when she touched the device, it turned to peppermint, and she dropped it with a shriek. It landed on the carpet beside the baseboard heater and started to melt into the carpet pile. She dove for it, but turned the carpet into cotton candy that dissolved along the heater’s length. Tara’s mouth watered at the smell of burning sugar.
Stumbling to stand, she backed up against the bedroom door. It became a peanut brittle slab. She bumped against the wall; it became iced gingerbread.
Tara tried to breathe. It had to be a dream. Or a psychotic break brought on by stress. It was the layoff, the breakup, the move back in with her parents, and—more than anything—the lunch with Stephanie Dorham at eleven-thirty today. Steph Dorham, who graduated from their high school with a full-ride to NYU, who dropped out junior year to create a start-up that less than two years later she sold to Google for a fortune, who travelled the world at twenty-three, Instagramming tea in the Himalayas, Diwali celebrations in Mumbai, and rehabilitated cheetahs in Kenya before she returned to the states for a coveted job at a Washington think tank: THAT Steph Dorham.
The same Steph Dorhan who used to stuff herself with Skittles at sleepovers until she couldn’t stop giggling, who screamed full-volume at horror movies, and who hadn’t so much as posted Happy Birthday! on Tara’s Facebook page in three years. Then Tuesday, she texts about being in town and suggests meeting for lunch.
Tara slumped against the gingerbread wall. Up in the corner, a cellar spider flailed in tacky icing, unable to free its legs. It wasn’t fair. How was she supposed to go to lunch when everything she touched turned to sugar? She couldn’t spin it like she’d spun the layoff (now she could pursue her true passion), the breakup (she needed to focus on loving herself), or the move home (“Saving so much $$—house down payment, here I come!”).
She should cancel lunch, but what if Steph hoped she’d cancel because she’d only reached out to avoid crossing paths by accident? They might have been inseparable in high school, but what did they have in common now? Tara imagined Steph smiling with relief as she texted back: SRRY to miss u! Im in Virginia for 3 weeks then going to Tokyo 4 work! 🙁 Even if she could have stomached that, however, Tara realized it was pointless. Her phone was a peppermint.
Fists clenched, Tara stormed to the closet. It took four tries before her clothes turned into something wearable. She fought into a green taffy sheath dress, rubbed Pixie Stick dust onto her cheeks, and cherry Jolly Rancher onto her lips. By the time she headed out the door, she’d even managed to wrestle her hair into a peach gummy hairband.
The car became candy when she climbed in, but despite this the engine puttered to life like boiling maple syrup. The sunlight through the sugar glass windshield softened her dress and heated the licorice steering wheel so her hands made sucking sounds whenever she changed position. Blasting the A/C helped, and thankfully the restaurant was only a couple exits down the highway. As she drove, the car pumped out acrid smoke that smelled like burning brownies. The asphalt melted the chocolate tires, and she fought to keep the car from fishtailing.
Tara sighed with relief as she pulled into the parking lot, but froze when she spotted Steph. She was at a booth by the broad front windows, phone in hand as she waited. Her dark bobbed hair, minimalist black tee and jeans, the concrete pendant necklace and myriad thin rings shining on her fingers, even the poised way she sat looked culled from Tara’s own Pinterest style board. It took all of Tara’s nerve not to go back home. She could email and say she’d gotten sick. She could say an urgent work thing had come up and that she’d dropped her phone in the toilet.
Tara turned off the car with a shaking breath. How was she supposed to make this work? The sugar dusting her palms caught the sunlight and shimmered. In the heat, the taffy dress had molded to her in all the right places. Her flattened hair, which at first looked like a disaster in the rearview mirror, conformed to any shape she tugged it into, like a cloud of cotton candy. In this light, from the right angle, she looked almost pretty.
Maybe the universe was trying to give her something. Candy was formulaically delicious, prismatic, perfect. Everyone loved candy, craved it, sought it out and savored it. Wasn’t that, deep down, what she wanted, too? To be craved, to be loved, to be savored? Maybe the problem wasn’t the candy. Maybe the problem was imperfect, human her. What if she stopped fighting it?
Tara took a deep breath of burnt brownies and melted licorice and wriggled her toes in her rock candy heels. Then she hugged herself and shivered with delight as sugar rushed through every cell in her body. When she stepped from the car, she was sweet perfection. She smelled like marshmallow and salted caramel. As she clicked across the parking lot, she caught Steph’s eye and a thrill shot through her when Steph’s jaw dropped in amazement. When Tara’s peppermint stick fingertips touched the restaurant door, it remained just a dull, old door, but all the patrons inside gaped hungrily at her.
Steph rose, wide-eyed, as she approached. “Tara … is that you?”
“How are you, Steph?” Tara’s voice sounded different in her ears, like homemade whipped cream, soft and mellow and rich. “It’s been a while.”
Steph hesitated, then put her rail thin arms around Tara’s shoulders and squeezed. Tara worried the embrace might crack her ribbon candy spine, but Steph soon released her, kissing her fondant cheek, and drawing back with an embarrassed laugh. Powdered sugar stuck to her lip gloss.
“Much, much too long. I’m sorry,” Steph said as Tara slipped into the opposite seat. “I’ve been meaning to reach out for ages. I’ve just been so … yeah. But look at you!”
Tara took a sidelong glance at her reflection in the window, just a quick taste, and saw smooth lines of taffy and fondant mingled in luxurious curves, shining spun sugar hair, and thick buttercream lashes. Her stomach rumbled with delight. “Not exactly what you expected.” She smiled with perfect Tic Tac teeth.
Steph shifted. “I mean, you look … delicious. But how …?”
“Just blessed, I guess,” Tara replied, shrugging. “Never wanted to live an ordinary life.”
Steph nodded and glanced across the dining room. She seemed to notice the other patrons watching, because she sat up and squinted a little more when she smiled, which made her look charmingly self-conscious. Tara had seen that smile in many Facebook photos and wondered how long it had taken Steph to perfect it. “What’s it feel like?”
“Great.” Another carbonated thrill surged through her strawberry veins. “Life’s been sweet for both of us.”
Steph’s smile faded at the edges. “Yeah, sometimes. Not always.”
“Oh, come on.” Tara leaned on the table. “I’ve seen your pics from Nepal. And India! And those baby cheetahs, oh my gawd. You’ve been all over the world. Don’t tell me that’s not sweet.”
“I’ve been lucky in travel, sure.” Steph rolled her neck with a sigh. “The truth is, though, behind the lens, my life’s a mess. No, really,” she said when Tara laughed. “I know my Instagram looks good and all that, but things off-camera have been really tough. My mom died last summer, and honestly, I haven’t been managing too well.”
A funny taste rose in the back of Tara’s throat, a phlegmy, unhealthy, chemical taste she remembered from childhood whenever she’d sucked on hard candy for too long. Steph looked deflated, nothing like the grinning, suntanned girl she displayed online.
“Oh, Steph …” Tara remembered Steph’s mom as this effervescent woman who ran a biomedical lab and who Steph only half-jokingly called her other best friend. Dead. It didn’t feel real. Tara’s candy legs stuck to the booth’s leather seat. She shivered. “I’m … I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“I haven’t really talked about it online,” Steph said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin the mood. I’m just … I kind of hoped that if we met up, somehow it’d feel like old times. A chance to remember what I used to feel like, who I used to be. And then, seeing you so changed … I mean, it’s cool. Really cool. I guess it just reminds me how nothing stays the same, you know?”
The waiter came to take their order, and Tara realized she was starving. Her stomach ached, making her nauseous and shaky. She craved meat, protein, vegetables: anything to mask the sickening mucus flavor in her mouth. Steph ordered a roasted brussels sprouts appetizer, a cup of potato soup, and an unsweetened iced tea; Tara ordered the sprouts and soup, too, and the salmon fillet and a coffee, black. As the waiter took the order, Tara felt him stoop low and take a deep breath over her hair. A blissful smile crossed his face before he blushed and hurried away.
“But how are you?” Steph leaned forward, arms crossed under the cement pendant. “It’s been ages. Tell me everything.”
“Oh, you know.” Tara tried to remember all the sugary half-truths she’d spun about her life, but thinking of them made her stomach knot up. “Nothing much, really. Hey, are you still at your job in D.C.?”
Steph snorted. “Yeah, but not for long.”
Steph hunched inward on herself. “Let’s just say it wasn’t a good fit. That’s all they’re going to put in my HR file, anyway.”
The bad taste crawled into the back of Tara’s nostrils. She tried sipping water, but that only made it more chemical and sharp. “That sucks. At least you’ve still got your Google payout to fall back on, right?”
“Not much of that left, actually,” Steph said as the waiter brought over their food. “I socked most of it away in stocks to keep myself from blowing it all. The travel kept me busy, but after Mom passed, I was doing a lot of self-destructive things behind the curtain.” She tapped her iced tea. “Four months sober on Saturday.”
“Wow. I’d never have guessed.”
Steph chuckled, and it almost sounded real. “Well, that’s something, at least. I haven’t told almost anybody, but somehow, with you, I just wanted to be me. The real me, you know? I miss us. I miss sleepovers—”
“Horror movies?” Tara said, and Steph burst out laughing.
“God, no! Why couldn’t we ever just watch a rom-com? Why did it always have to be something that would scare the piss out of me? You remember the head scene in The Thing?”
Tara snickered, forking a brussels sprout. “All I remember is you flying up the basement stairs, screeching: ‘Nope! Nope! Nope!’ I’d never seen you run so fast!”
Steph slapped the table, nose crunched up as she snort-giggled, and Tara, chuckling, bit down on the sprout. It crumbled to ash on her tongue, and she choked. A swig of coffee, like a hot mud puddle, washed it down. While Steph regaled her with other memories—of class pranks, old teachers, and silly inside jokes—Tara tried the salmon (industrial plastic) and the potato soup (watery sand). Her stomach roiled, but she couldn’t bear to take another bite. She forced laughter where appropriate in Steph’s high school recollections, but the sick tang in her throat made her want to gag.
When the waiter finally brought the bill, Tara offered to pay, just to have the lunch finished. Outside the restaurant, Steph hugged her for a long time. When she pulled back, Steph squinted across the parking lot, blinking quickly.
Tara’s candy hair sagged in the afternoon sun. “It’s been great seeing you again,” she said, hoping the perfunctory words would initiate the good-byes.
Steph nodded. “Yeah, you too. Hey …” Steph hesitated. “Could I … Could I taste you? Sorry. Jeez, if that’s too weird …”
“It’s fine! Here.” Tara reached up and pulled off a lock of hair. It stretched in the heat and slicked her candy cane fingertips with grease as she placed it in Steph’s palm.
Steph stuffed it into her mouth, and scrunched her eyes shut. “Oh my god,” she muttered, mouth behind hand. “You taste so … so good. How do you not just nibble yourself all the time?”
Tara tried to laugh, but it came out funny, flattened between her clenched teeth. The acid in her stomach burned as it crept up her esophagus. She swallowed. “You get used to it. After a while, you don’t even notice.”
Steph finished and sighed. “That’s kind of sad, somehow.”
“I guess.” Tara shrugged.
They exchanged promises to stay in touch, and at the last moment, Steph whipped out her phone for a selfie. Tara posed beside Steph, forcing her heat-softened fondant cheeks to grin. On the phone’s screen, a creature stared back at her with candy cane claws for fingers, blood-red licorice lips, drooping marshmallow flesh, and far too many Tic-Tac teeth. Soulless Gobstoppers stared out from an inhuman candy mask. She choked back a moan of terror as Steph snapped the photo and tucked the phone away. When she leaned in for another hug, Tara stammered a good-bye and almost tripped as she ran to her car.
The afternoon sun had turned the gummy bear seats slimy and fused the caramel seatbelt to the frame. Holes, golden brown at the edges, had bubbled and burned through the windshield. When Tara turned on the car, the vents blasted oven-hot air. She tried to turn off the A/C, to let it cool down, but the gumdrop buttons just squished.
Tara slumped back with a carbonated gasp. Across the parking lot, Steph’s car pulled onto the main road and vanished into the passing traffic. Tara wondered if she’d hear from her again, or if the afternoon’s strange intimacy was the last glimpse of something real between them. Perhaps she’d only ever see the cultivated version of Steph online, the version who was always well-dressed, always smiling, always living her best life. A digital confection made for public consumption.
But she knew the truth, now. Knew what lay beneath the sparkling sugar crust of Steph’s life. And between the two of them, it had been Steph who’d wanted a little taste of her life. Tara remembered how Steph had stuffed the lock of hair into her mouth like a preschooler, unable to resist. She wished she could laugh about it, but her Tic Tac teeth had fused together.
The putrid taste came back in a rush, mixed with ash and plastic and dirt, and Tara’s candy apple heart fluttered in her chest as she tried to drag herself up from the seat, tried to catch her breath, tried to pull whatever was her out of what was the car. She pulled and pulled, but she was trapped, her rock candy heels fused to the floor mats and her caramel legs to the seat. There was nothing to her, anymore. She was flavor without substance, chemically crave-able but unable to satisfy, like a million practiced smiles hiding a normal, messy life. With syrup leaking from her eyes, Tara took one, last carbonated gasp, and melted in the blazing heat of the sun.