Cody T Luff
The sacrificial meat was displayed on the end cap of the “seasonal” aisle. Tuck’s Grocery was thick with Pie Day streamers, sale signs dangled from every shelf and a large inflatable pie bobbed over the checkout stations. Gabby watched an older woman pick through the plastic wrapped trays, arthritic fingers poking one price sticker after another.
“Too expensive,” the old woman said, glancing at Gabby adjusting baby Marcus in the shopping cart. Marcus drooled happily as he stared at the inflatable pie above them. “I remember when you could get good heart meat back in the day, none of this ‘ethically sourced’ volunteer stuff.”
Gabby made a point of not looking at the older woman as she picked up a thick package labeled THIGH. “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it? I remember my grandma talking about the thing with the prisons.”
The older woman clucked, a dry sound that revealed healthy bottom teeth. “Nothing like heart meat from a hanged man for the Pie. You want a good year? You have to do it right, none of this halfway, soft hands, Oh-we-care-about-everyone-now sort of drivel.”
Gabby put one hand on Marcus as he flailed and giggled at the ceiling. Tomorrow was going to be Marcus’s very first Pie Day, Gabby’s own favorite holiday. She wasn’t old enough to remember the days before the Reformation. She didn’t think this woman did either. “I thought they stopped providing prisoner remains after the war. 70 years ago, right?”
The old woman folded her face into a deep frown, her lower lip glistened. “Are you calling me a liar?”
Gabby busied her hands with Marcus, brushing drool off his fat little chin and plucking at one of his green baby socks. “No, not at all. You just look so much younger than I expected for someone who, you know, who had real meat in her Pie.”
The old woman opened her mouth and closed it, her eyes narrowing as she digested Gabby’s response. “Well,” she said, drawing a package of sacrificial meat to her bosom. “Well.”
Unpacking the car was always a pain with Marcus. A part of Gabby was already in a hurry for her son to be up and running just so she could have one arm back to do all the things she needed to do on any given day. Marcus was like a warm, burping growth that sprouted from her hip, completely absorbing half her mobility and nearly all of her time. The thought of him trotting along beside her rather than tangled in her arms was both wonderful and a little heartbreaking. For the time being, she had developed an expertise in operating her life one handed. She was glad Brian would be home for tomorrow’s meal prep. He needed more time with his son and she needed both arms if Marcus’s first Pie Day was going to be truly special.
After the old woman had huffed her way to the checkout, Gabby had picked three different cuts for the Pie. “Hart”, Select Strip, and Breast. The colorful stickers on the packages reminded her that every portion of All You sacrificial meats was either sourced from tissue volunteers or their new cultured meat selections. No lasting harm done to either the planet or the volunteers. A sacrifice All You could be proud of. After unpacking her groceries and tucking Marcus into his high chair, she stood in the kitchen with her hands on her granite countertop, a frown growing across her face.
“There’s no way, Marcus,” Gabby sniffed. “She wasn’t old enough.”
When Brian got home, they ordered out, a pre-Pie Day ritual. Noodles and steamed buns from the little place just off Walker. The same place Brian had taken her for their first date. It was a little dive by the highway onramp but the food was good and the memory was better. They snuggled on the couch in the living room, Marcus half-asleep in his father’s arms while Gabby told Brian about the old woman at Tuck’s.
“She couldn’t have been more than sixty. I mean, her hair was white and up in one of those scarves you see all the old raisins wearing, but her face wasn’t too bad.”
“Raisins?” Brian bounced Marcus softly, careful to keep his beard away from his son’s head.
“You know,” Gabby grinned at her husband. “Wrinkly.”
“Got that part.” His smile lifted the corners of his mustache. “But you’re right. Reformation was more than seventy years ago. She’s probably just parroting that crap on the news.”
“I don’t think that’s real news.” Gabby watched Marcus snuggle his cheek against his father’s chest and a wave of love almost too strong to bear boiled through her. Here was her world, these two lives tucked close to her on their too-expensive couch in the middle of a too-expensive neighborhood. It didn’t feel like luck, it felt like something she needed to hold onto. With both hands.
“Election season, love. Every talking head in the country will be spouting off about the old ways and the new, about how all the charms are failing because nobody believes anymore.”
“Do you believe that? About the charms, I mean?” Gabby rested her chin on her husband’s shoulder, he smelled like coffee, printer paper, and the warm amber of his skin. He smelled like home.
Brian was silent for a moment, still bouncing Marcus, his eyes searching the place where the walls met the ceiling in their still-new home. “Well, we know they work. The fire charm on the pizza stone has gone a long way to making me gain a little more weight than I’m comfortable with.” Brian winked at her and Gabby smirked in return. “I got stopped on the way home tonight, the Warden was going to write me up because my safety charm was out of date. I don’t know what made him decide not to but he just hung a new one on the rearview and told me to be a little extra thankful tomorrow. He did the thing where they check your tire pressure and top off the charge with one of those turtle shell charms. I always loved that as a kid. I think Marcus will love it too.”
Gabby made a soft sound in the back of her throat. The thought of the fine sat painfully against their current bank statement. “Glad he didn’t write you up.”
“Me too, but you know I don’t really believe in all of it. I mean the battery ritual at the crossroad is a pain in the ass. It always works but why the hell can’t we think of a way to charge it at home, wouldn’t that be a hell of a lot easier? The last time someone saw a god was a long damn time ago. And let’s face it, black and white photos just don’t do the Divine any favors.”
“I’m thankful,” Gabby said. A knock sounded at the front door.
“There’s the noodles.” Brian passed the sleeping Marcus into Gabby’s arms. He stood, smoothing his slacks with his palms, a nervous tic she always loved. “I’m glad, love. I am too.” He glanced at their son and his smile lit a little fire in Gabby’s chest. “About everything.”
“I’m never inviting your father again.” Gabby’s face was full of heat, sweat clotting at her temples, her mixing spoon lashing the contents of her macaroni salad bowl.
Brian was wrist deep in pie crust dough, his beard dusted with flour. “I know, I know. He’s an idiot but at least he brought something this year.”
“Oh he brought something last year too, if you don’t remember.” Gabby stopped mixing and glared at her husband’s back. “He brought…”
“He brought a bottle of cheap whiskey, drank it himself, and puked in the bathroom sink, yeah, I remember.”
“And I told you, I didn’t want him this year but…”
“Gabby, please, just please. I need to finish this.”
Gabby clenched her teeth and slapped her spoon down on the counter, a sticky spray of macaroni and mayonnaise spattered against the refrigerator. “Damn it!”
“Are you throwing macaroni at me?” Brain turned to her, his serious face cracking into a quivering smile.
“Don’t you do that, I have a right to be mad. Mad at you specifically,” Gabby said through clenched teeth.
“You do, you totally do but before you take me down, let’s get the crust going.”
The enormous Pie Day tin was already on the counter. Big enough to feed the entire family, one of the few things she managed to take from her mother’s house after her death. It had been in the family for a long time, much longer than her mother could say. It was beautiful in the way of all tools well used. Bright metal worn by hundreds of hands, tempered by hundreds of Pies. At one time a ring of rabbits had been etched into the outside walls of the tin but the years had smoothed them away to pleasant ghosts, just a few ears and one detailed foot remained. Brian’s pleading did nothing to ease her anger but the tin did. It was an embodied memory, her childhood stretched into the present and hopefully, stretched all the way through Marcus’s life.
“Fine, but once that’s in the oven, you can piss off. Go entertain. At least until your brother gets here. He’s always good with your dad.”
“And Marcus. He adores his nephew, don’t you think.” Brian slapped the white disk of dough into the tin, Gabby shaping it against the walls, her fingers enjoying the taste of the dough.
“What the hell am I going to do with a bunch of bananas, Brian? Everybody brings an ingredient and your father brings goddamned bananas. To Pie Day. The booze would have been better.”
“Leave them out then, who cares?” Brian grunted.
“The Pie God. Everything goes in, that’s Pie Day.”
They hadn’t intended on dressing up for Pie Day. Brian’s family preferred clothing that didn’t come with too many buttons but over the years and maybe the influence of the new neighborhood, Gabby found herself in a red dress with far too much gather at the shoulders and red heels that she’d bought just a week before. Brian wore one of his work blazers, heavy enough to make him sweat and formal enough to cause his brother to make fun of him nonstop during the Offering. Fifteen people invited, thirteen showed up, and each ingredient they offered the enormous salad bowl on the kitchen table was traditional enough. Save for Brian’s father’s bananas. There was a soft chuckle when Brian’s father dropped the bunch into the bowl, he wore a sheepish grin that reminded Gabby of Brian’s own grin. Which made her all the angrier after she gathered the bowl in her arms and fled to the kitchen to fill the Pie.
Laughter from the dining room followed her to the kitchen, a crowd of family and friends fawning over Marcus. Gabby couldn’t pin down the feeling bubbling in her chest as she carefully arranged pre-chopped potatoes and slick asparagus spears. Jealousy was closest but made no sense to her. Why did she feel jealous of all of those people adoring her son in the dining room?
“Because I’m in here,” Gabby said to herself. Which was both true and not true. She let her hands chop and peel, wishing her mind would take even the smallest of breaks.
It had to be special. For Marcus, for Brian, for all the people gathered in the dining room. That was the point. Pie Day was about giving. Giving time, company, and those precious ingredients in the middle of winter. Back in the old days, offering lamb to the Pie in the dead of winter was both a gift for the folks you invited to Pie Day and a gift to the Pie God. Who knows when folks would get another slice of lamb or fresh potatoes? Who knows if anyone would live through winter and make it to a green spring. Everything offered was special, scarce, needed. And now, Gabby thought, now everything came wrapped in plastic or nabbed from the end cap at Tucks.
“Bananas,” she hissed to the cutting board buried in ingredients. Well, she would put them in the Pie because that’s what one had to do. But she wasn’t going to let Brian’s father ruin this one.
There was a sort of magic in everything, Gabby believed. From the charms the Power Commission put on the solar panels covering their roof to the coins sewn into the elbows of Marcus’s adorable red baby jacket. And there was a little magic in her too. When she’d filled the Pie tin to the brim, Gabby carefully arranged slices of banana in concentric rings over the filling. She picked up her vegetable knife and took a breath.
“Okay,” she said to her empty kitchen. “Alright.”
Gabby slipped the tip of the knife into her palm, the sharp steel parting her flesh like wet paper. There was no immediate pain but there was blood. Too much blood. Bright red drops of her life pattered into the Pie as well as the counter top. The sound surprised her, thick and flat, far too heavy for blood, she thought. For just a moment she considered calling for Brian but the urge faded as the banana slices turned red beneath her drip. Something moved deep within her, a pleasant sort of motion sickness.
“I don’t know the old ways but here is my ingredient. A precious thing for a good year, right?” Gabby held her hand over the Pie until the dizziness nearly pulled her down.
“You’re pale,” Brian whispered to Gabby after the steaming Pie was placed in the center of the dining table. There were the expected OOs and AHs required. Marcus giggled happily.
“You keep saying that. I’m fine,” Gabby whispered back, offering him the comically large Pie Server. “Just keep going.”
Brian stared at her for a moment, the Pie Server balanced in one hand, his face shiny with sweat and perhaps a few drinks. The concern on his face touched Gabby but she made a little motion with her fingers. Get on with it.
“Family,” Brian began. The room fell silent, the smell of the Pie causing stomachs to rumble. “It’s Pie Day!”
“You bet it is,” Brain’s father said. A chuckle rounded the room but Gabby refused. She waited.
“We gather to remember that the Dark Days of Winter will not last. We gather to remember that we are together. We gather to remember that we share the burdens of our family, our friends, our loved ones,” Brian’s voice rose and several of their guests bowed their heads. “There are many gods with many hands, all moving the world around us. They give us life, warmth, joy, and love.” Brian’s eyes found Gabby’s, his smile widening.
“And they give us pie,” Brian’s father said.
“They do,” Brian said. “But today we honor them by giving the first taste of the Pie to the Pie God. And once we’ve had our fill, we give the last taste to the Pie God so he remembers us over the year. The first and the last.”
“The first and the last,” the room said in unison. A soft shiver climbed Gabby’s spine.
“We invite the Pie God to the table, we invite the Pie God to the feast, we invite the Pie God to taste our joy, our togetherness, and we promise to always share what we make with him.” With a flourish, Brian extended the Pie Server, its metal edge carefully splitting the golden crust beneath.
“We have given what was precious to us and we ask you for your presence in return…”
Gabby knew the rest of the prayer by heart. We welcome you in the flesh to our flesh so we might share this flesh. It was a beautiful prayer and even if Brian didn’t fully believe it, he had always delivered the words with such power.
But Brian didn’t continue. The hush that devoured the room was not the hungry eagerness of waiting bellies but something else entirely.
“Do you…” Brian’s father began, his eyes locking on Gabby’s. “Do you feel that?”
When the Pie split open, the sound was that of fabric ripping. Asparagus and potatoes pattered across the tastefully red tablecloth. A face rose from the curling crust, wide and folded, eyes blinking open, slices of dark banana sloughing from its cheeks. It was as if the head was lifted by a chain from the tin, naked shoulders following, the old Pie Tin bowing outward, the sound of fatiguing metal rich in Gabby’s ears.
The Pie God was not beautiful. Its face nothing more than poorly-shaped clay, glistening with Pie innards. Thick lips bloomed, wide flat teeth the color of roasted flesh yawned wide. Half of its body sprouted from the Pie Tin, heavily muscled arms resting on the table cloth. It breathed heat into the dining room, jaw working as it formed words through a phlegmy voice.
“Your offering…” it began, the words hurled from some inhuman place, terrifyingly deep and painfully loud. “Is accepted.” It turned its wet eyes, its gaze sweeping the circle of terrified faces until it settled on Marcus still in his high chair, its dripping hand already reaching for Gabby’s most precious thing.