the Nine series (novel excerpts)

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Five years ago, Nine baked a rainbow cake to impress Ahmir, who she’d been seeing for three years by then. Three years was, by far, the longest she’d made a relationship last. There’d been 22-year-old Levi when she was eighteen; he stuck around for a year. And when she was 21, there was Damon, who she dumped after six long-distance months. Her relationship with Ahmir was uncharted territory. Was he a blessing or a barnacle? She hadn’t decided. Until she did, it made sense to continue crafting a certain self-mythology for his benefit.

She wasn’t much of a baker, though she’d been at it since toddlerdom. To keep her occupied, her mother would shake a bit of unsifted flour and tap water into a shallow bowl for Nine to mix. Mixing had been a favorite pastime of Nine’s ever since. Stirring ingredients by hand, in rhythmic, clockwise motion, was nothing short of cathartic. Over the years, she’d come up with her best lines of poetry while absently creaming butter and sugars. She’d discovered her ability to hit high notes in accurate pitch, while melting German chocolate on a stovetop.

On the Sunday of the woebegone cake five years ago, Nine had cooked an entire meal. Seafood alfredo (sauce from scratch). Steamed lemon-butter broccoli. Garlic bread, also from scratch. It was a good meal—great if you you were Ahmir and used to subsisting on value menu items at McDonald’s.

And so Nine’s mythologizing gained momentum. The dinner was more than enough to reinforce her position as a steady girlfriend. But the cake, if properly executed, might just secure a proposal.

It was a basic white cake—not from scratch. If it were about the mixing alone, she would’ve been just fine. But there were layers. Nine knew nothing of layers and how to pour the batter evenly between three round pans or how long to let each cool before attempting to wrest it from its metal casing or how to balance one atop the other, neatly, unbroken.

Still. All this might’ve been managed, were it not for the jello. Three different kinds were required. (After all, how else would the cake be a rainbow?) This meant adding careful measurements of hot water to the the powdered gelatin and a delicate hand to drizzle each color atop each layer of cake.

She tried. Oh, how the girl tried! She held her breath, watching the cherry and lemon and lime liquid-jellos soak into the white cake, staining it red and yellow and green. She placed the layers onto a cleared rack of the refrigerator and waited the necessary two hours for the liquid to gel.

Things seemed to be going well, and if she cleared this hurdle, there was only one more to jump: the even slathering of Cool Whip frosting. She pulled each layer from the fridge and smiled that her cake seemed to have reached its proper consistency. But when she tried to jimmy one tier from its pan, she realized she’d been far too liberal with the jello drizzle. It’d seeped straight through to the bottom and stuck. Each rainbow color was a fault line, her every movement, no matter how gentle, an earthquake. There was no way the remaining white sections of the cake would survive as a whole. This, she thought, must be what her middle school geography teacher was trying to tell her about tectonic shift and its potential repercussions for California.

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