“First you take the stick and insert it into the cake,” Charlie said smiling for the camera. “Then you dip it in the batter. Yeah, you want to make sure you let the excess drain off otherwise it gets too heavy. That’s a trick I learned really early on. When I first started, we were using Twinkies, just like my Grand, but the spongy little things couldn’t take a lot of batter.”
“That’s when I came up with my own special recipe for the little cakes we now call honeybees. I also experimented with different flavors to inject them with. Some are jelly. Some are crème. They’re all good though,” she added before dipping a couple of battered honeybees into the fryer.
“Yup, and there you have it. You just let them stay down for a few minutes until they’re golden brown and then,” she said picking up the basket, “Voila. They are ready.”
Dumping the honeybees onto a wire tray she let them drain for a minute as she grabbed her frosting. “Now these over here are cooled already,” she said.
“So, we have two ways to make our Southern Fried Honeybees. One is we dip the whole thing in chocolate and let it cool. Once it’s hardened we drizzle lemon frosting on top. This way is my personal favorite. However, if you don’t like a lot on your frosting we just do a drizzling of chocolate and lemon in stripes all over the honeybee. Both are popular it just depends on what you like,” Charlie said.
The cameraman motioned for her to take the money shot. Picking a honeybee up by the stick she took a bite closing her eyes to savor.
“Still so good,” she smiled into the camera. Sue gave her a thumbs up as the cameraman zoomed in. “So, yeah that’s it. Now you can make it yourself, or you can just come on down to the Coast. Y’all come see us at the Southern Fried Honeybee, and let us show you how it’s really done.”
“And cut,” Rob said. He was the lead camera and the one who seemed to be calling the shots.
“Great job! Okay so we’re going to mainly stick to the front side for the rest of the day. We’re making magic here. Your interview earlier was perfection,” the camera man began but was cut off by a loud explosion. It sent everyone ducking for cover. A second later there was yelling coming from the back of the kitchen.
Without thinking Charlie ran towards the back. By the time she reached the fryers Romeo was on top of a person lying prone on the ground. He had her face covered with a towel, but when he removed it, Charlie nearly fainted. There were screams but Charlie could only see Cyndi. The woman’s once pretty face was an angry red gelatinous blob.
“Call an ambulance,” Charlie shouted as she tried to stop the woman from further damaging the already blistering skin on her face. “Someone get me a bucket of cool water and some of those clean towels,” Charlie nearly lost it when she heard a low whimpering coming from Cyndi’s still body. The sound ripped at her heart because the woman’s pain was palpable. “Get me the damn water!”
“What the hell happened?” Charlie yelled as a bucket of water appeared next to her. She dipped some rags in the water then made cold compresses to place on the woman’s face and head. The burns were really bad. Charlie could already see where parts of the woman’s hair had been burned away as it peeled away from her scalp.
“Oh my God,” Charlie said as she did her best to comfort her friend. It felt like hours, but the ambulance soon arrived. Within minutes they were speeding away.
“Boss, I don’t know how it happened. One minute she was at the fryer doing some fritters just like usual. I left her back there for a couple of minutes, that was all and then I came back and…. Her face was-. Man, her face was on fire,” Romeo said his voice choking up. They were the same tears Charlie felt pooling in her throat, but she refused to give in. She had to keep it together.
Cyndi was more than a coworker; she was one of her best friends. They’d known each other since freshmen year. By the time she’d been invited to one of Cyndi’s family cookouts they were basically family.
“Close up for me,” Charlie sniffed as she grabbed her purse to follow the ambulance thankful, she could depend on Romeo to help Sue take care of everything. “Make sure everything’s locked up tight.”
“Sure thing boss,” Romeo said.
Charlie jumped in her car and sped the few blocks to Regional hospital, dreading having to make the call. However, once she realized the emergency room staff wasn’t going to give her any information because she wasn’t legally family she knew she had no choice.
It didn’t take long before the Mackenzie clan descended on the ER en masse demanding answers from the overwhelmed staff. It was Cyndi’s mother who eventually got a doctor to come out personally to explain what was happening.
“We have her sedated, Mrs. Mackenzie, but I’m not going to lie it’s not good,” the doctor said sitting next to the older woman. “The most severe injury was a contusion on the back of her head causing some swelling to the brain,”
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Mackenzie gasped. The doctor placed a hand over hers.
“Luckily most of your daughter’s burns are on her hands. However, she did suffer some severe burning on the left side of her face. We’re doing everything we can. The good news is these are injuries she can recover from.” Cyndi’s family all exhaled in relief except for the matriarch whose face was set in a grim mask.
“What’s the bad news doctor,” she said.
“The bad news is we’re having to relieve the pressure in her skull. And the damage to her face is pretty severe. She’s going to need reconstructive surgery, and her eye,” he said shaking his head. “We’ll have to wait and see for now. Her hands we’re going to have to wait on to see how much she’ll be able to do once the healing process begins. It looks as if she used her hands to shield the majority of the grease. I can only assume she knew it was coming,” he said shaking his head. “Where was she?” Charlie looked up to see both the doctor and Mrs. Mackenzie’s intense stare on her.
“At work. She was at work,” Charlie said clearing her throat.
“Do you know what happened?” The doctor asked. Charlie shook her head.
“No, I was up front,” she said. “It wasn’t until I heard the screams,” Charlie’s voice faded out as Mrs. Mackenzie started another prayer.
“We’re taking care of her,” the doctor said his face full of compassion. He reminded Charlie of her own father only older and grayer. She could imagine if he had a daughter she’d be about her and Cyndi’s age. It somehow comforted her, but it didn’t take a genius to read between the lines.
Even after Cyndi made it through this, it would be months, maybe years before she’d be even close to her old self. That in itself was a huge loss.
Cyndi had always been the cheeriest of their little crew. They’d formed their group listening to hip hop music during late night study sessions and baking parties. It was always Charlie, Cyndi and Sue the entire four years, well in Sue’s case five years, but now one of them was in a really bad spot. For once Charlie was powerless to fix it.
They had been inseparable even after graduating. Soon after Charlie had started her business both young women had joined the staff at the Honeybee. Without them, Charlie knew she’d still have opened, but it wouldn’t have been near as fun.
“Darling,” Mrs. Mackenzie said touching Charlie’s cheek. They younger woman jumped at the touch before melting into it. She was barely holding it together, but she had no choice but to keep up the front. Falling apart now wasn’t an option. Cyndi had been the one that had been injured. Her friend had experienced a level of pain she wouldn’t wish on anyone. She owed it to her friend to be there for her family.
“You need to go home and get you some sleep,” Mrs. Mackenzie said.
“I can’t,” Charlie began but the woman cut her off.
“Oh yes you can,” she said. “You have to go open up tomorrow. You know Cyndi wouldn’t expect any less. Her life is just as invested in that place as yours,” she said. “Maybe even more now,” she added. Her eyes were steady and left no room for argument. Charlie knew Cyndi’s mother worried about how much time they both spent working, but she’d come to accept it over the years.
As much as she wanted to stay, she knew fighting would just cause more pain for the woman. Charlie stayed long enough to say goodbye to all of Cyndi’s relatives. The Mackenzie clan was an amazing group of people, who were just as forgiving as they were loving.
Less than an hour later she was back at the Honeybee. She was shocked to see the yellow and black police tape flapping in the breeze at the back-door entrance.
Charlie twisted the knob but it didn’t move. The building was locked up, but the hanging tape gave her pause. Did the cops suspect this was more than an accident? Was her shop under investigation? Questions swirled in her already overtaxed brain, but Charlie stopped herself from going inside. Instead she went and sat in her car.
There were a few people walking by which wasn’t unusual for this time of night, but for once the Southern Fried Honeybee was dark. Normally the Honeybee didn’t close until ten every night except Sundays. However, after the accident there was no way she’d expect for them to stay open.
Not only was Cyndi the most popular member amongst the Honeybee staff she was also most popular with all the stores surrounding them on Main Street. They all knew the cheerful young woman with the fun-loving spirit. In fact, Charlie already had gotten a couple of texts on her phone from some of their neighbors asking how Cyndi was doing. Charlie scrolled past them. She would answer tomorrow, but for now she needed to find out how her people were doing.
It was only nine o’clock but she didn’t expect anyone would still be hanging around especially not after what happened. She had a slew of missed calls, texts and voice messages. Seeing the majority of texts were from Romeo, Charlie called him first.
“Thank God, Boss,” Romeo said answering the phone. “How is she? I tried to come to see her, but they wouldn’t let me up.”
“Yeah they have her in the burn unit, and they don’t allow a lot of visitors. I didn’t even get to see her, but I was able to sit with Mrs. Mackenzie while they waited for Cyndi to stabilize.
“It’s bad,” Charlie said.
“Jesus,” Romeo exhaled into the phone. “I was hoping it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but even I knew that was bad. God, it looked like her face just melted away.”
“What the hell happened in there?”
“I don’t know man,” Romeo said. “All I heard was the screaming then the next thing I knew Cyndi was running to me with the skin just bubbling away on her hands and face. I’d never seen nothing like it. Then she just fell into my arms, and I was just trying to keep her from hurting herself. All that screaming, my God. Boss, I’ll never forget that sound,” Romeo said as he cleared his throat then continued. “The next thing I knew you were there doing your thing. Barking orders, get me this, get me that. You were amazing.”
“I was scared out of my mind,” Charlie said refusing to take any credit. She’d just done what she’d remembered from the first aid classes Cyndi had forced them all to take.
Cyndi because of her human resources background had naturally fallen into managing staff when she came on at the Honeybee. Besides helping Charlie with the hiring and firing, Cyndi had been in charge of all staff development. Charlie knew her friend would get a kick out of knowing the classes she’d grudgingly taken had actually helped her possibly save Cyndi’s life.
At least the old Cyndi would have gotten a kick out of it. Charlie just hoped when her friend came out of this, she still had the same sense of humor and temperament.
Charlie’s phone beeped signaling another call. One look told her she had to take it.
“Look I gotta go, but I’ll see you in the morning,” Charlie said.
“Sure thing, Boss.”
“Hey,” Charlie said feeling the tears come finally.
“Don’t,” Sue said. “If you start crying then I’m going to start.” Charlie did her best to hold back the tears, but she ended up wiping several that slipped through onto her shirt sleeve. Her makeup was completely messed up, but it was the least of her worries.
“How is she?” Charlie’s silence said everything. “Oh God, I just can’t believe this is happening. How?”
“I don’t know but Cyndi’s going to make it. She’s going to be alright. It’s going to take some time, the doctor said but that girl is tough.”
“Yeah, she is,” Sue said sighing. “What did Romeo say happened?”
“He doesn’t have any more idea than you and I. He said one minute she was cooking and then the next he heard screaming.”
“That damn fryer! Jimmy told me it wasn’t acting right, but I just assumed it was you know, Jimmy. He complained about everything that meant more work for him,” Sue said.
“Wait, he said what?”
“He was complaining about it the other day, but like I said it seemed like he wasn’t completely clear on how our fryers worked.”
“Wait, do you think he might have done something to it,” Charlie asked her stomach churning. He was angry enough to waste trays of food, could he have somehow rigged the fryer?
“I don’t know,” Sue said but Charlie could tell she was thinking about it.
“I mean what else could explain it. Those fryers are good. We haven’t had any problems with them,” Charlie exhaled. “I don’t know, maybe I’m just talking out the side of my neck. I just want to blame someone, something. Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen. Not to us.”
“I know,” Sue said. “We just have to wait for her to wake up. Until then it’s just a bunch of guessing.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Today was supposed to be such a great day. Everything was coming together, and now just the idea of going back to that store tomorrow. It’s like the last thing I feel like doing.”
“Don’t say that, Charlie. If Cyndi heard you say that she’d cuss you out, and you know it. The last thing she’d want would be for Honeybee to fail or make a misstep regardless of what happened.” Charlie heard the words, but all she could think about was their friend in that hospital bed with half her face burned off.
“We will both be back at the store tomorrow morning. And we will continue on with our plans,” Sue said her voice growing stronger.
“How are you doing it,” Charlie said. “I just don’t think,” but Sue cut her off again.
“Don’t think,” Sue said. “Keep your mind on what Cyndi would do if she heard you were thinking about quitting.”
“She’d slap me silly,” Charlie laughed.
“Naw, she’d just give you a twenty chapter Power Point presentation on the reason why you can’t quit. She knows how much this means to you. All of us. Everyone in that store believes in the Honeybee, and not opening up tomorrow wouldn’t just be letting Cyndi down. It would be letting everyone who works there down. We have to carry on, that’s what Cyndi would want.”
“I know. You’re right.”
“Of course I am,” Sue said. “Now, what you need to do is go home. Take a long bath, and sleep. Then tomorrow morning we start again.” Charlie was silent on the line.
“Hey,” Sue said, “you want me to come over?” Charlie shook her head then remembered she was on the phone.
“No, of course not,” Charlie said, “The kids.”
“You want to come over here?” Sue asked. “I can make up the couch.”
“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t be good company anyway.”
“Like that would matter to us,” Sue laughed. Then it was her time to get quiet. “Maybe you should call Darryl.”
“I’m fine, Sue,” Charlie said. “And don’t you call him either. We’re through remember?”
“Jackass, that’s what he is,” Sue said.
“Look, you and Stan y’all kiss the babies for me,” Charlie started her car. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“That’s a promise?”
“Promise.” After the phone was disconnected Charlie pulled out of the small parking lot behind the Honeybee. She was about to pull out onto Division Street when she saw a tall lean man leaning against one of the green lampposts across the street from the Honeybee’s storefront. She couldn’t see him clearly, but she was sure she recognized the face. However, by the time she pulled onto the street and got closer to where the man had been standing he was gone.
All the way home her mind flashed back over everything that had happened, but it kept going back to the man she’d noticed keeping watch outside of the Honeybee. It wasn’t the first time she’d caught him in the area skulking around.
What was Trace doing there? And why was he watching her store?
It creeped her out, but at the same time after everything that had gone down, it was too much to process. As soon as she pulled into her garage, Charlie was ready to throw the whole day away. She needed to unplug. She went straight home and took the bath like Sue told her to do. However, instead of calling Darryl she took a sleeping pill and lay down.
The day couldn’t end quickly enough, but even as she drifted off to sleep her mind kept going back to the Honeybee. Was that really Trace watching from the shadows? She was certain it was him, but if it was…the question was why?