This is the conclusion to The Tiny Chefs: Part 1.
I awoke when it was still dark. My date had shifted in her sleep and now had her back to me. I picked up my cell phone from the side table and pressed the button to illuminate the face. The phone read 2:52 am. Wanting a glass of water, I slipped out of bed and headed towards the kitchen.
I got a glass from the cupboard and filled it with tap water. I began to drink, wandering out of the kitchen to sit at the dining table. As I sat down, I put the glass on the table and just sat there. I listened to the wind that was blowing outside. Beyond that, there was a faint buzzing of a street lamp. Beyond that, a taxicab was dropping off some inebriated neighbors who had been barhopping downtown. And beyond that, just the silent, sleeping city.
I drank from my glass again, and as I set it back down I noticed that the table was completely clear. I don’t remember doing that before we left for my room. Maybe my date had gotten up and cleared the table as a sort of trade. Sure she had brought the wine, but then I had made a tremendous and amazing meal, much better than she expected it to be, so maybe she felt a little guilty and did a little cleaning up. I looked at the sink and saw that there were no dirty dishes. I went over and opened my dishwasher, but there were no dishes there either. I went back to the cupboard and opened it to find all of the dishes, cleaned and stacked in a nice little pile.
Sure, I said to myself¸ after screwing me four times, she came out here, washed, dried and put back all of my dishes because she felt guilty. I’m sure that kind of thing happens all the time. I closed the cupboard. I had forgotten to make lunch, or had forgotten that I had already made lunch; did I forget that I cleaned the dishes, too? Was I doing it in my sleep? I had heard a lot about sleepwalking, but I had never had any history of it and I didn’t recall anyone ever sleep-cooking. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, right? It’s a strange world out there and –
Tap tap, tap tap.
Something was tapping lightly in my kitchen. I looked at the window, expecting to see a crow or a pigeon, but there was nothing there.
Tap tap, tap tap.
I opened the cupboard again, thinking that we were going through a small earthquake and the glasses were clinking together, but everything stood still and silent.
Tap tap, tap tap.
I spun around in the kitchen trying to figure out where the tapping was coming from. It wasn’t coming from the sink, the fridge, the dishwasher or any of the drawers.
Tap tap, tap tap.
I stopped spinning as I stood in front of where the tapping was. It was coming from the oven. No, it was coming from inside the oven.
Tap tap, tap tap.
And I suddenly remembered what I had seen, what I thought I had seen, when I had taken the chicken out in a hurry: A little hand, dashing away into the grates of the oven. I stared at the oven, finding it all too easy to imagine a little hand tapping on the other side of the oven door.
Tap tap, tap tap.
And as I stood there, staring at my oven, the tapping began to sound like knocking. I reached my hand out slowly and let it hover over the door handle. For a moment I considered turning the oven on full blast, killing whatever was making that noise, but it would take ten minutes to for the oven to heat up enough to kill anything. And I wanted to know what was in my oven. I grasped the handle and pulled the door open.
There was no creature, no little hand knocking on the inside of the door. No sign of life whatsoever. What was in the oven was a piece of paper folded into a small square. It was singed around the edges and had little sooty three-fingered hand prints all over it. I picked it up and unfolded it. Inside was written a note is a scraggly, almost unreadable scrawl. It said:
1. WE COOK WUTEVR YOU PUT IN OVEN
2. UNWRAP FOOD BEFOR YOU PUT IN OVEN
3. SET OVEN TO 326°
4. WAIT 1 HOUR N 16 MINUTS, THEN FOOD READY
5. DO NOT LOOK IN OVEN
6. WE GET LEFTOVRS, PUT IN OVEN
7. IF RULES NO FOLLOWED, NO FOOD WILL COOKED
8. NOONE MUST KNOW
In the corner was a little arrow, so I turned the note over.
AND TODAY WE DID SPECIAL. AFTER NOW, YOU WASH YOUR OWN DISHES.
And that was it. Nothing else. I rubbed my fingers over the writing. It was soot, and smeared. I stared at the open oven, thinking that maybe it was a joke. Perhaps my date was a bit of a practical joker. Maybe she had gotten up in the middle of the night, cleaned everything and then decided to scratch out this little note to fuck with my head.
But part of me didn’t think that was true, knew it wasn’t true. So I went to the fridge and picked out some fruit, an egg or two, some flour, butter, sugar, and some salt. I put all of this on a baking sheet and put it in the oven. I set the oven just a hair over 325°, closed the oven door and then set the timer on my microwave for one hour and sixteen minutes. Then I took a chair and sat right in front of the oven, waiting.
That hour passed by quickly. I remember straining my ears, trying to hear if anything was going on in the oven, but I heard nothing. After half an hour, my hand reached for the handle to pull the door open, but instead my hand went over and flicked the switch to turn on the light inside the oven. But nothing came on. The inside of the oven remained pitch black. I leaned back in my chair, and waited.
Once the alarm went off, I flung the oven door open, expecting to see all of the ingredients that I had put there burnt to something inedible. Instead, what I found was a small fruit tart. There was nothing else in the oven. I got a plate and slid the tart onto it. Slowly, and very hesitantly, I took a bite of the tart. It was incredible. I practically ate the whole thing in three big bites. I had started to think I would save some for my date, but then glanced at the note that had been left for me. I turned the oven off, and slid what was left of the fruit tart back onto the rack. Then I closed the oven door, washed my plate and fork, and went back to bed.
And that’s how my kitchen life has been for almost a year. I buy the food and then put it in the oven, turn it on and return an hour later to find a delicious meal. And I’ve done experiments to see if there isn’t anything they can’t make, and I have yet to find anything. They can even make ice cream. I’m not sure how you make ice cream in a 300 degree oven, but they can and it comes out just as cold as if I have gotten it straight from the freezer.
I’ve also learned a lot about cooking because if I want them to make me a particular dish I need to know exactly what to give them and in what quantities. I usually do this when there is company coming over. I’ll measure everything out before I put it in the oven, and then I’ll whisper “Roast beef with braised turnips” right before I close the door. But my favorite meals have come out from me just putting whatever I have lying around. Those things have cooked up some outstanding dishes where not one ingredient was planned.
After about a month, I put locks on my kitchen door. I also put another lock on the kitchen window, and put up nice thick curtains. I have made my kitchen a tiny fortress in my apartment. My friends eye me with suspicion and concern when they see this, but I tell them it’s because cooking is a very private thing for me and I don’t like people seeing me in the kitchen. Most of them have gotten used to it, just thankful that they are going to get a high quality meal for absolutely no cost. But every now and then, one of them will press the subject, saying that I should have my own cooking show or go to culinary school. I’m usually able to talk them all down, saying something like, “It only seems like it’s top quality. It’s just that it’s home cooked, is all,” but no one has ever been as adamant as Elliott is right now.
I take a deep breath. “Okay. The truth? I don’t care about cooking that much. I know that you’re right, that I’m pretty good, but I’m just not interested doing it for a living.”
“But . . .”
“I like my life the way it is, and I’ve worked hard to get here. I’m not interested in starting anew just because you think my food is good.”
Elliott sat, not saying a word. He’s angry and his ears are starting to get red. I lean over and pick up the plates. I go to the kitchen door, unbolt it, swung it open and then close it behind me. Once it’s shut, I lock it from the inside. I walk over and scrape all of the leftovers and scraps onto a big plate I bought specifically for the “Tiny Chefs” as I had come to think of them. Then I put the dirty dishes in the sink and open the oven to put in the leftovers, and I’m surprised that to find two ice cream sundaes waiting for me.
“Awww, thanks guys,” I say as I slide their plate onto the bottom of the oven and then pick up the sundaes, “You didn’t have to do that.”
From behind one of the grates on the bottom of the oven, I see two little claws poke through. They are covered in thick scales, and are completely black. Then two little eyes appear, bright orange with black triangle pupils, just beyond the grate opening. I lean in closer, and whisper, “I feel bad for always taking credit for your guys’ work.”
The eyes just stare at me. And then he winks at me. And then he’s gone.
I close the oven and turn it off. I grab two spoons, unlock the door, and go back out to meet Elliott. “And for desert, simple ice cream sundaes. Nothing special, and nothing to open a brand new restaurant for.” I close the kitchen door with my rear, and then bolt it.