TWA #9 – Short Story “The Gluten-Free Man” by Nathan Cabaniss

gluten

The Gingerbread Man was growing more and more depressed by the day.

“Run, run, as fast as you can…”

In the old days, now centuries past, it had been so easy. The children went for anything sweet: cookies, biscuits, cakes… all you had to do was plop one in their little laps. Keep dropping them in a trail and they’d follow you anywhere, even right straight to the ovens. Before long they’d be sound asleep, and the Gingerbread Man could hoist them in and close the door, and they’d be a’ cooking in no time–plump little gingerbread children to add to his collection.

Those were the good old days. The days before words like “calories” and “carbs” existed. You think people a hundred years ago gave a damn about how many grams of sugar were in a nice, tasty wheatcake? Of course they didn’t! People back then knew sweets were a luxury to be taken at any and every opportunity given to them. Back then, people still knew the value of a good meal.

But now? Now it didn’t matter how much sugar you caked on. It didn’t matter how much the frosting glistened or how round and succulent the cherry was sitting atop that mountain of sugary goodness… if it wasn’t fat-free, then the kids weren’t having it. If Hansel and Gretel were still around, they’d be Kale-inhaling, Botox-filled plastic people before the age of twenty.

“You can’t catch me, I’m the-”

“Is this gluten-free?”

“What?” the Gingerbread Man said weakly, once more faced with the prospect of defeat.

The girl continued, “It’s just that… my Mom says I really shouldn’t eat anything with gluten in it.”

The Gingerbread Man looked down at his sweet, a pony-shaped cookie adorned with pink frosting and more candied sprinkles than there was whiskey in Ireland.  If he couldn’t get a little girl to eat that, then all hope was truly lost.

“Well, your Mom doesn’t have to know. I won’t tell if you don’t…”

The girl waited before responding, and the Gingerbread Man thought for a moment that he’d finally succeeded after a long, dry spell. But then she spoke again, “Yeah, sorry, but no. I’m going to be a singer one day, and it’s like my Mom always says: they don’t judge you on American Idol based on your voice alone.”

The Gingerbread Man slumped over hopelessly. Suicide was always an option. He could just find a kennel, throw himself over the fence and let the dogs have at it. But with his luck, the dogs would probably turn out to be vegan.

“So, can I go now?”

“Sure, whatever,” the Gingerbread Man said, completely and totally defeated.

“You might want to consider cutting back on the gluten yourself. You’re starting to look like a giant cookie,” the girl said, turning before she left. “Oh, and that pony-shaped cookie? Way sexist.”

The Gingerbread Man receded into the corner, sinking his frosted face into his gingerbread hands. Maybe relocating to Los Angeles was a bad idea…

###

A few more weeks passed before fortune finally smiled. The Gingerbread Man had taken to leaving chocolate-chip cookies lying in school playgrounds while he watched from the sewer, seeing if any of the kids would take a bite. Most of them turned their nose up in disgust, too good to eat a perfectly good treat just because it was lying on the ground.

But today… today a nice little plump boy with glasses saw it, couldn’t take his eyes off that golden, brown-spotted circle of butter and flour for the entire time his class was at recess. When the bell rang and the other children ran back inside, the boy with glasses lingered, and looked around uneasily as he bent over to pick up the cookie.

The Gingerbread Man stifled a giggle as he watched the boy take a bite. Even better, he ate the whole thing–devoured the entire cookie in a matter of seconds. Oh joy… oh rapture! After all this time, a real, honest-to-God kid with a real, honest-to-God sweet tooth. It was all he could do not to jump out of the sewer and give the kid a big, fat, gingerbread hug.

With a glee he hadn’t relished since the old days, the Gingerbread Man whispered out through the sewer grate: “Psst… kid. Hey, kid! Come over here…”

The boy jumped, looking around in fright before seeing the Gingerbread Man’s candy-colored eyes through the grating. He pointed uneasily at himself.

“Yeah, you… come here.”

The boy walked over, bent down low to get a better look at the stranger in the sewer.  “You’re liable to catch a disease down there, you know. It’s very unsanitary…”

“What do you want from me? I have sensitive skin. And it’s about as unsanitary as eating a cookie you just found lying in the grass…”

The kid’s face turned red. “I didn’t- I mean, I wouldn’t-”

“Hey. Hey… it’s all right. I’m not gonna judge you. A cookie’s a cookie, right? Shouldn’t matter where you got it from. And it was pretty good, yeah?”

The kid nodded enthusiastically.

The Gingerbread Man grinned. After all this time, he still had it. “Well, listen: I made that cookie. I make all kinds of sweets: cookies, cakes, pastries… each one better than the next. I could give you some, if you wanted…”

“Really?”

“Of course! Tell you what, you come back and meet me here tonight, and I’ll give you as much of it as you want. All the sweets you could possibly eat…”

“I- I dunno…” the kid said.

“How about this, kid…what’s your name, anyway?”

“Sam.”

“All right, how about this, Sam. I’ll be here tonight with a whole bunch of sweets, regardless of whether or not you show up. I’ll bring everything: frosted cupcakes, apple strudel, ice-cream sandwiches. You just take the day to think about it. And if you don’t show up, no hard feelings, yeah?”

Sam nodded, and promptly left. The Gingerbread Man cackled in delight. The kid was all but licking his lips as he read off his list of sweets–no way he’d be able to pass up a delicacy like that.

The Gingerbread Man sighed contentedly. There was much to be done before nightfall…

###

The Gingerbread Man carefully laid out his feast for Sam on the merry-go-round in the middle of the playground. In his excitement, he went a little overboard with the desserts… he even took the time to prepare some Turkish Delight. Turkish Delight! Nobody even knew what that was anymore.

He couldn’t even remember the last time he had a new little gingerbread boy or girl to add to his collection. This one, he decided, he would go all out on in the decoration. Style and fashion had changed so much since the last time he made one–there were so many possibilities. Perhaps he could give this one a pixie haircut.

While lost in thought, Sam finally appeared.

“Sam! Sammy, my boy, you came! What a delight…I thought I was going to have to eat all of this by myself.”

Sam didn’t approach, just stood there staring at the Gingerbread Man and the tapestry of sweets laid out before him.

“Come on, now, Sam. Don’t be shy. I know you’re dying to have a little taste.”

Sam still didn’t move. “Look, here’s the thing, Mister. I appreciate you going to all this trouble. I mean, it looks really good and all, but I can’t eat any of this stuff anymore.”

The Gingerbread Man felt the bottom of his stomach fall out. Not again. Not another one. “What? Why, Sam?”

“Well, my parents hired me a personal trainer.”

“A personal trainer? Oh, come now, Sam…that’s not you. All that sweating and working out and starving yourself? It’ll be terrible.”

“I dunno. I think I’m gonna give it a shot. The other kids pick on me, and besides, I think I want to grow up to be an actor. And if you’re my size, you’ll wind up being a Farley or a Hill: one died, and the other one wound up losing weight anyway.”

The Gingerbread Man started to panic and grabbed a cake from the merry-go-round. “Just take a bite. Please, Sam…surely you can allow yourself one bite?”

Sam looked at the cake longingly, but still shook his head. “Sorry, but I’m on a strict Kale diet now.”

Sam turned and walked away, and with him walked the Gingerbread Man’s last hopes for reclaiming even just a sliver of his past glories.

“But…but…Turkish Delight…”

“Sorry, Mister.”

Sam disappeared down the street and the Gingerbread Man fell to his knees. He could’ve shed tears, if only his frosted eyes had tears to shed.

###

The Gingerbread Man pulled the newspapers up his waist further. This was it, he figured. The world had changed, and it was just so. There was no more room for he and his kind. He would now wait out the rest of his days here on the streets, in the hopes that someone–anyone–would come along and eventually eat him. Perhaps he was to sit here for the rest of time, getting little nibbles here and there, and that was just as well, too. The world was not made for him anymore. The world had moved on.

“Hey, buddy,” a voice called out from above. The Gingerbread Man looked up half-heartedly, barely acknowledging the presence of the man speaking to him.

The man handed him a card. “You look like you could use this. Why don’t you stop by sometime and pay us a visit?”

The man left, and the Gingerbread Man saw a trail of gumdrops fall from his pants leg. The man looked around hesitantly, scooped up the gumdrops from the ground and hurried off.

The Gingerbread Man looked down at the card, saw no title or name. Only an address.

###

The Gingerbread Man entered the room quietly from the back, saw them all sitting in folding chairs arranged neatly in a circle. He had followed the address from the card–not entirely sure what to expect, but with nothing better to do he might as well have seen what the deal was for himself.

A voice echoed from across the room: “I used to be in a real bad place, man. But, I’m happy to say I’ve been doing better than ever now, once I realized that it was me in control of the cookies, and not the cookies that were in control of me.”

The circle broke out into applause, and the Gingerbread Man froze in his tracks. They all applauded for the one in the center, a fuzzy blue thing with wild eyes sticking up out of his head. The Gingerbread Man looked around the room at the others, saw an even more colorful collection of characters: there was a Transylvanian with a chocolate-colored cape, two round fellows with the letter M adorning their chests, a young girl dressed in pink with red hair and freckles and a strawberry on her hat… each one more colorful than the next.

“Thank you for sharing that with us, Carl,” said a man at the center, the same man who had given the Gingerbread Man the card earlier, although he was dressed far more extravagantly now, wearing a velvet purple suit and a large, wide-topped hat. He turned and saw the Gingerbread Man standing behind them, and smiled warmly. “It looks like we have a new visitor. Would you care to introduce yourself, friend?”

They all turned to look, and the Gingerbread Man found himself at a loss for words. They were all just like him–people of a world of candy the public at large had long since forgotten. Maybe his best days were behind him. Maybe he would never again have his own collection of little gingerbread children. But, at least now, he knew he was no longer alone.

“I’m the Gingerbread Man.”

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: TWA #9 Dessert Island Battle Thread - The Writer's Arena

  2. This had, hands down for me, the best opening line in the arena so far:
    “The Gingerbread Man was growing more and more depressed by the day.”
    The juxtaposition of the classic childhood rhyme with this weird notion of emotional hardship as well as a ticking clock sort of feeling that it’s getting worse with time and…I don’t know. That just hit me like a brick and made me smile. I was immediately sold on this story.
    And then we get into the concept and get hints of details about how he has existed since eons ago and collects children and uses baked goods and that was all AMAZING. I was dying to see how this worked. What does “adding a child to his collection” mean? What in the hell is going on here? I was dying to know. That’s why the turn at the end left me a little flat. I can understand that the story you were going for was The Gingerbread Man coping in a world of health-nuts, and that was examined and illustrated enough so that the ending wasn’t completely out of the blue. But I…I just wanted more Gingerbread Man. One victim. Just one victim? So we know what this is all about? Does he eat them? Cook them and frame them? Cook them and eat them? Does he just kill them in some weird baking ritual?
    I understand that in a short story you can’t put in every detail that seems interesting and, again, this was a story about the Gingerbread Man in modern times…but I do wish that you had crammed in a kill somehow. Again, it might have added to what was at stake too, though his emotional despondence was a nice indicator of how bad things have been for him.
    And I liked the ending, though it felt a bit abrupt, I enjoyed seeing the vague-on-purpose descriptions of various candy icons in a support group.
    I just wanted to see the Gingerbread Man kill a child. You know. Like you do.

  3. Wow, this was fantastic! A clever spin on an old tale, deconstructed to reflect changing times, and the consequences of changing tastes. I loved how you cast the Gingerbread Man as so desperate, making him up his game in trying so hard to convince these kids that they really want his treats, and the whole giddy involvement of going overboard making the Turkish Delights in anticipation of a long awaited score, only fall deeper into despondence at the rejection of his wares.

    I do agree with Joseph Devon’s comment about wanting to learn more about the underlying hinted insidiousness of his motivations, but I was mostly placated by 2 especially outstanding factors I loved in this story:

    1.) The imaginative visuals in my mind, of thinking about the Gingerbread Man down and out, destitute, using newspapers as bed covers, and finding his way to a support group.

    2.) The dialogue is nearly perfect – though the children sound perhaps just a tad too mature, I can sense their words are more a parroting of what their parents tell them, whereas the Gingerbread Man’s lines are just….so…..perfect, conveying a perfectly comfortable grace and charm for those to whom he speaks, but revealing a barely contained sense of desperation to the reader who is more comprehensively aware of the circumstances. (And it didn’t hurt that the exchange from the sewer grates conjured up images of Pennywise in my mind.)

    Wonderful work, Mr. Cabaniss. Your story was truly a delight, Turkish or otherwise.

  4. I like this. It takes the “creepy guy offering candy to children” trope and puts a crazy spin on it. The theme of the old clashing with the new played really well too.
    But in the end I was a bit confused. What did the gingerbread man want to do with the children he made into gingerbread? How has he survived so long?
    The thing that resonated most with me was the bit where he’s sitting on the sidewalk wishing someone would come along and eat him, and then somehow THAT was the story I wanted explored more fully, the edible man begging to be devoured alive.
    In the end I’m not sure there was anything in particular “wrong” with this one, but it didn’t quite strike the chord with me that I was hoping it would.

  5. Nathan, you have such a potent and clever voice. I really enjoyed this. The arena seems to attract so many interesting and talented writers.

    I also loved the homage to IT with the Gingerbread Man in the sewer. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but it definitely worked for me. What a great effort, thanks for competing. We’ll see very soon what the judges have to say.

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