Although we’re huge fans of grocery store bought birthday cakes in my house, Greg and I typically make a sacrifice on our birthdays and allow the kids to create our cakes. Since we’re not masochists, we don’t let them make them from scratch, but, instead, we buy a box of Betty Crocker cake mix, Pillsbury frosting, and let the kids believe that they’re the reason the cake tastes so delicious. It feels misleading, in a way, to present this as actual baking. I imagine they’ll be years out of college, still bragging about the culinary skills, before they realize that cracking three eggs, dumping a half cup of oil, and one cup of water into a pre-made baking mix doesn’t constitute skilled baking. Those mixes are foolproof.
When making the cake, the kids feel like they can let their hair down when we decorate it. Literally. They get strands of hair in the frosting. They, also, cough all over the cake, dump fistfuls of sprinkles on it (so much so that I feel like I might crack a tooth biting into it), and believe they’re both Degas. This year, when making Greg’s cake, I wanted Darla to feel more invested in the process. As someone who for years was a subpar cake decorator (please don’t ask me to draw any designs. I can do rosettes, and that’s about it), it was necessary to me that she tries to kind of learn how to frost, as well. I purchased a prefilled pastry bag with rosette tips to make this dream a reality. As we prepared to frost the cake, I noticed that the safety seal on the pastry bag was broken. I immediately thought of the Chicago Tylenol Murders of 1982, where 7 people died of poisoning from Tylenol bottles that had been tampered with. It’s the entire reason there are safety seals on commercially sold consumable products sold in containers, now. Seeing the seal broken on the frosting made my heart rate subtly increase. Were we going to be the first victims of the Wilton Frosting Murderer of 2018?
“Did you open this,” I asked Darla as I held out the bag, trying to look serious but unthreatening.
“No,” Darla said.
“Are you sure?” I said. “You won’t be in trouble. I just need to know.”
“I swear I didn’t,” she said, tears filling up in her eyes as she teetered on the edge of a tantrum. Her reaction wasn’t necessarily an indication that she was truthful. She’s put on this act even when she has lied in the past.
“Seriously, Darla,” I said, again. “Did you open this?”
“I can lie and tell you I did open it,” Darla said. “Does that work?”
“No, we want you to tell us the actual truth,” Greg said. “It will determine whether we keep this bag.”
“Why?” She asked.
“Because I want to make sure no one else opened it,” I replied. “If they did, we can’t use it.”
The temperature in the room immediately changed. My kids began to look panicked. Darla quickly ran to the door that leads to our kitchen and closed it. Jude covered his ears and closed his eyes.
“I have goosebumps,” Darla said.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” yelled Jude who looked like he wanted to hide.
“It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine,” I said quickly, unsure why everyone was in such a panic about this. As far as I knew, they weren’t aware of the Tylenol murders. In my mind, that was the only thing to worry about.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Darla said, her eyes wide with horror. “Please come with me.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Greg said, both of us still confused as to why they were so scared. “No one else opened the frosting container. I was the one who opened it. You don’t need us to come with you because nothing scary has happened.”
“Darla, I’ll go with you,” said Jude, the only other person in the room who understood why Darla was afraid. Together, they embarked on a journey down the well-lit hallway to the well-lit bathroom with much trepidation. They came running back into the kitchen after, both because they were eager to decorate the cake and get away from whatever was freaking them out. I ended up using the scary frosting to prove to them that the Wilton pastry bag was nothing to be afraid of. Also, chances were high that I had unscrewed it myself without thinking. Mindfulness isn’t my strong suit.
By bedtime, the kids were still afraid, and we still didn’t know why. After much cajoling and talking down, both kids eventually fell asleep. With a moment to ourselves and a second to think, it finally occurred to us what the kids were afraid of. Darla has been reading Harry Potter, and there’s a poltergeist named Peeves who, as any good poltergeist would, fucks with all the students at Hogwarts. It’s feasible that Darla, to allay her fears and scare her brother, had told Jude about this character.
When the kids initially saw my look of concern, they didn’t understand what the big deal was. To them, an opened container was a non-issue. The look on my face, though, told them otherwise. In an attempt to make sense of my apprehension they, simultaneously and without any discussion, had concluded that a poltergeist had unscrewed the Wilton frosting bag. I wasn’t aware that I had told them a spooky story that chilled them to the bone when all I wanted to know was whether the frosting would kill us.
After coming to this understanding, I’m not too confident which scenario is less scary. Would it be preferable to think an agent of chaos would put arsenic in a commercially sold frosting to raise awareness of the United States’ dependency on sugar? Or, would I rather believe that a ghost was hovering around the house waiting for opportunities to mess with our heads? In the end, I might say I’d prefer to have a poltergeist since I ended up using that frosting to decorate Greg’s birthday cake and I’d like to think that I don’t currently have a poisonous cake sitting on my counter.