The Oven of Plastic Death

“I’ll now place the cookies in my oven of plastic death.”

“Emmie, what are you doing?” Leah turned off the faucet to better listen to her daughter’s answer. Had she just said “oven of plastic death?”

“I’m baking cookies, Mummy. In my oven of plastic death.”

“It’s an Easy-Bake, Sweetie. Why in the world are you calling it an oven of plastic death?”

“That’s what Miss Galloway bakes her cookies in. I really like Miss Galloway.”

Leah sighed. She didn’t envy Miss Galloway, or any other kindergarten teacher for that matter. Apparently she had a new item to add to her discussion list for next week’s parent-teacher conference.

“...and without a doubt, Emmie should have those private art lessons. She’s really good.” Gina Galloway paused to let Leah comment. It was easy to overload the young mothers at these teacher conferences.

“So I guess my fridge is going to be covered up for quite a few years to come...and maybe the rest of my kitchen.” Now was her opening to ask the nagging question. “That reminds me, Miss Galloway, Emmie has quite an imagination, and I’m not always sure where she gets some of her ideas. Recently she was telling me you have an oven of plastic death. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’m never sure just how to handle some of her fantasies.”

Gina sat perfectly still for several seconds before bursting out laughing. Leah realized that the teacher’s laugh was slightly shrill and broken, even like one of those cackling cartoon witches. She was somehow glad that Miss Galloway wasn’t the paragon of glamour that Emmie always portrayed.

“I’m afraid Emmie is telling the truth, Mrs. Parker. I ran short on material for our story hour last week and had to relate the tale of my disastrous Christmas dinner last year. My sister stashed a couple of plastic bags of rolls from Ramon’s Bakery in my oven and forgot about them. When I turned the oven on an hour or so later, we soon discovered we had flake rolls covered in sticky plastic sauce. There was no saving any of them. All three dozen...quite dead as my sister Babs continues to remind me. Ergo, my oven of plastic death.” 

Gina Galloway cackled again, but this time Leah laughed with her. As her husband Bill always said, there’s usually a simple explanation for the stories that Emmie came up with. Miss Galloway was indeed a diamond in the coal mines of today’s education system. Leah was still smiling when she exited the kindergarten classroom and encountered her neighbor Casey.

“I see Miss Galloway has brightened your evening. Meadow Hills is lucky to have her after all that trouble in Fairfax County.”

“Trouble? I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you remember. The girl who went missing two years ago. They never found the slightest sign of her. She was in Gina Galloways’s class; that’s why she left Fairfax and moved here. Bad memories and all.”

“No. I didn’t know. How terrible.” Leah’s step slowed slightly and she felt a chill. Had something in the story of the missing girl literally made her shiver? Obviously it was just the late September breeze creeping in under the nearby exit. After all, it wasn’t like her daughter could ever go missing, not with her and Bill to protect her. She reminded herself how perfect her life really was as she heard Miss Galloway’s cackling laugh receding down the hallway. 

“Better hurry, Honey. You’ve only got 27 hours to get all those cupcakes baked.” Bill quickened his step as Leah threw a wooden mixing spoon at him. Maybe it was just a children’s Halloween party, but she wanted it to be nice for Emmie. A neighborhood gathering was certainly preferable to the younger ones trick-or-treating. 

Leah suddenly remembered the girl from Fairfax who had disappeared on Halloween two years ago. She’d been checking regularly online since Casey’s revelation, but there was no news. The six year-old had just vanished, gone up in a puff of smoke. Something about that imagery made Leah shudder. Only 12 more Halloween nights until Emmie was an adult. Valium was looking good. 

It was fifteen minutes until the official start of the Halloween party, and Leah already had a dozen screaming, giggling children in her family room, along with one hundred orange cupcakes, a tub of apples, and a fog machine. Thank heavens for Target.

The back doorbell rang once more, but this time Bill called her into the kitchen. Casey was sitting at the bar and told her daughter to go join the party. Something in the atmosphere caused Leah’s heart to descend to her toes. 

“You haven’t heard?”

“No...what?” Leah quickly seated herself next to Casey and prepared for the worst, or so she thought.

“It’s Amanda Little. She didn’t come home from school this afternoon.”

Leah had thought her heart couldn’t have sunk any lower, but now it was most certainly on its way to China. Amanda was in Emmie’s class. The two girls were in Daisies together. Casey choked back an almost sob and continued.

“Amanda’s parents are divorced, and each one thought the other had picked her up for the weekend. Leah, what are we going to do? What if this turns into another Fairfax?”

Leah stared blankly at her friend until she heard a loud cackle. Was it coming from the television or from inside her head?

One by one the children left the party, still not knowing about Amanda Little’s disappearance. Would their parents tell them once they arrived home or would they leave it up to the school on Monday morning? More importantly, when and how was Leah to tell Emmie? It might as well be now.

“Emmie, I have some news about your friend Amanda.”

“She’s not my friend. Not anymore. Not ever.”

“I don’t understand. You two have always been close.”

“Amanda’s a thief. She stole Miss Galloway from me, and I’ll never speak to her again.”

Leah wondered if Emmie’s words might actually come true, but was surprised by the anger in her young daughter’s voice. What could possibly have turned Emmie against the shy and retiring Amanda?

“Emmie, why do you think Amanda stole your teacher? I’m sure Miss Galloway loves everyone in your class equally.”

“No! She loved me best. She always told me. Now she loves Amanda best. Amanda’s the one Miss Galloway chose to help her cook for Halloween in the plastic oven of death.” Emmie drew in a long breath - she was about to cry.

Leah sank back in her chair. How could what Emmie was saying be true? She had to have dreamt the story.

“Emmeline Patrice Parker, come sit next to me now. I want you to tell me what you mean. Exactly what were you or Amanda to do to help Gina Galloway cook for Halloween?”

“ know how Miss Galloway lets some of us girls help feed the rats and gerbils in the science room?”

No. Leah had not known that, but now she simply nodded her head and let Emmie continue.

“Miss Galloway would sometimes put one of them in her pocket to take home. She said it was a better place for them than cooped up in a cage their whole lives. We just couldn’t tell anyone.”

“How many of you girls helped Miss Galloway?”

“Just me and Amanda usually. Sometimes Leslie. Then Leslie moved so it was just Amanda and me. Miss Galloway said that we had done such a good job she would take us to her house for a special treat. We’d get to see the oven of plastic death and everything.”

“And then what would happen?”

“I dunno. We’d have cake and ice cream I guess. That’s the way I always thought it would be. Miss Galloway said we’d go for a Halloween treat, but when she heard that Amanda spent her weekends different places, she told me we should be nice and let her visit first by herself. I could go later if I promised not ever to tell anyone, but I knew she wasn’t gonna let me. I just wasn’t good enough for her oven. She even told me once that I was too skinny and then she laughed.”

First Thanksgiving came and went, then Christmas. Emmie was enjoying the private church school where the Parkers had placed her after Amanda Little’s disappearance. Leah never spoke of what Emmie had told her. After all, who would believe the little girl? 

As for Gina Galloway, everyone thought she had moved to England where she had relatives, but Leah still felt uneasy whenever she heard her name...or heard a witch cackle on television. 

It was at a January white sale that Leah was sure the broken cackling she heard was not on television. She looked up to see Miss Galloway standing next to her, smiling as she had at the parent-teacher conference.

“Mrs. Parker, how good to see you! How is Emmie? You know she was always one of my favorite students.”

“Funny. Emmie seemed to think Amanda Little was your favorite. They never found her, you know.” Leah watched as green sparks seemed to flare in Gina Galloway’s eyes, then rapidly diminish.

“That reminds me. I have something for Emmie, a kind of keepsake.” Gina undid the clasp on her handbag and reached inside, removing a small figure of a young girl, a plastic figure, but not before Leah saw that the bag was literally filled with similar two-inch models of young girls in Halloween costumes.

“It looks like Amanda. Did you design this? It’s so life-like.”

“In a manner of speaking. I use an ancient process that ensures a special likeness. They come out of the oven looking just like the little girls had in life.”

“Your oven of plastic death?” Leah felt dizzy, and Gina seemed to turn as green as her eyes had been a few seconds before.

“In a manner of speaking. It’s been in my family for years. Always remember, I can do one of Emmie at any time…” 

With that, Gina Galloway emitted a short cackle, then turned and walked away, leaving the small plastic figure of Amanda Little in Leah’s hand. She took it home, placed it in a jeweled box, and buried it under the camelia bush.

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30 Oct 2019

By Firenze