On the morning her sister went missing, Portia Cuthcart woke up to thoughts of blueberries and peaches.
The taste of fruit filled her mouth, so sweet, so real, as if she’d been eating in her dreams. With a groggy yawn, she scooted out of bed. She pulled on her favorite fluffy slippers and big-girl’s robe, then shuffled into the tiny kitchen of the double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Willow Creek, Texas. Without thinking about what she was doing, she pulled blueberries from the icebox and peaches from the fruit bin.
She might have been only seven years old, but she was smart enough to know that her mother would have a fit if she pulled out knives, or did anything near the two-burner hot plate. Instead, Portia pulled the peaches apart, catching the sticky-sweet juice on her tongue as it ran down her fingers. She found a slice of angel food cake wrapped in plastic and plopped the fruit on top.
Just as she stood back, satisfied with what she had made, her parents tumbled into the trailer like apples poured out of a bushel basket, disorderly, frantic.
Portia’s oldest sister, Cordelia, followed. “Olivia’s missing,” Cordelia stated with all the jaundiced arrogance of a thirteen-year-old convinced she had the answers to everyone’s ills. “Disappeared,” she clarified with a snap of her fingers, “just like that.”
Portia knitted her brow, her hair a cloud of whipped-butter curls dancing around her face. Olivia was always in trouble, but she usually did bad stuff right in front of their eyes. “Nobody disappears just like that, Cordie. You’re exaggerating.”
Her mother didn’t seem to hear. Mama stared at the fruit and cake.
“Don’t be mad,” Portia blurted. “I didn’t use any knives.”
Her mother dropped to her knees in front of Portia. “Peaches and blueberries. Olivia’s favorites. Why did you make this?”
Portia blinked, pushing a curl out of her eye. “I don’t know. I woke up thinking about them.”
For a second, her mother looked stricken; then she pressed her lips together. “Earl,” she said, turning to Daddy, “Olivia’s down by the far horse pasture, near the peach tree and blueberry patch.”
Her parents’ eyes met before they glanced back at Portia. Then her mother stood and pushed Daddy out the door. Even though the emergency was over, Mama’s face was still tense, her eyes dark.
Twenty minutes later, the missing eleven-year-old Olivia pranced up the three metal steps of the trailer in front of Daddy, her lips stained with blueberries, her dress splotched with peach juice, flowers tangled in her hair.
It was the first time food gave Portia an answer before a question had been asked.
Not an hour after Olivia was found, Portia and her mother were in the family’s ancient pickup truck, bumping along the dirt roads of backwater Texas until they came to her grandmother’s café, a place that had been handed down through generations of Gram’s ancestors. The Glass Kitchen. Portia loved how its whitewashed clapboard walls and green tin roof, giant yawning windows, and lattice entwined with purple wisteria made her think of doll houses and thatch-roofed cottages.
Excited to see Gram, Portia jumped out of the old truck and followed her mother in through the front door. The melting-brown-sugar and buttery-cinnamon smells reminded her that The Glass Kitchen was not for play. It was real, a place where people came from miles around to eat and talk with Portia’s grandmother.
Portia smiled at all the regulars, but her mother didn’t seem to notice anyone, which was odd because Mama always used her best company manners wherever they went. But today she walked straight toward Gram, who sat at her usual table off to the side. Gram always sat in the same place, watching the goings-on, doling out advice, and making food recommendations for all those who asked. And everyone asked. Portia had a faint memory of a time when Gram actually did the cooking, but now she left it to others, to hired help who stayed hidden behind swinging doors.
“She has it,” was all Mama said.
Gram sat back, the sun streaming through the windows, catching in the long gray hair she pulled back in a simple braid. “I suspected as much.”
Portia didn’t understand what was happening, then was surprised when Gram turned to her and beckoned her close. “You have a gift, Portia. A knowing, just like me, just like generations of your ancestors. Now it’s my job to teach you how to use it.”
Mama pressed her eyes closed, steepling her hands in front of her face.
Despite her mama’s frown, Portia was excited about this knowing thing. It made her feel special, chosen, and as each day passed, she began to walk around with a new sense of purpose, pulling apart more peaches and making creations in a way that set her older sisters’ teeth on edge. Cordelia and Olivia weren’t nearly as happy about the special gift Portia supposedly had.
But four months later, the thick Texas air was sucked dry when the girls’ daddy was shot dead in a hunting accident. Four months after that, their mama died, too. The official report cited cause of death as severe cardiac arrhythmia, but everyone in town said she’d died of a broken heart.
Stunned and silenced, Portia and her sisters moved in with Gram above the restaurant. Cordelia found comfort in books, Olivia in flowers. Portia found comfort when Gram started bringing her into the kitchen in earnest. But strangely, Gram didn’t mention one thing about the knowing, much less teach her anything about it. Mostly Gram taught her the simple mechanics of cooking and baking.
Still, that worked. The Glass Kitchen was known to heal people with its slow-cooked meals and layered confections, and it healed Portia, too. Gradually, like sugar brought to a slow boil, Portia began to ease out of a brittle state and find a place for herself among the painted-wood tables and pitted silverware in a way Cordelia and Olivia never did.
And then it began to happen in earnest, like the dream of peaches and blueberries, but more real, more frequent.
Without a single one of those promised lessons from her grandmother, Portia began to see and taste food without having it in front of her, the images coming to her like instincts, automatic and without thought. She found that she knew things without having to be taught. Rich dark chocolate would calm a person who was hiding their anxiety. Hot red chili mixed with eggs first thing in the morning relieved symptoms of someone about to succumb to a terrible cold. Suddenly her world made sense, as if she had found a hidden switch, the meaning of what she was supposed to do blazing to life like a Christmas tree lighting up in a burst of color.
During that first school year, and the ones that followed, without her parents, Portia spent her days studying and her nights and weekends in the kitchen. During the summers, Portia and her sisters traveled to New York City to stay with Gram’s sister. Great-aunt Evie had moved away forty years earlier, escaping a prescribed life that boxed her in. Once in New York, Evie became an actress on Broadway, famous enough to buy a town house on the Upper West Side.
“This place will be yours one day,” Evie told the girls.
All three sisters loved the old town house that rose up from the city sidewalk like a five-layer wedding cake decorated with perfect fondant icing. Cordelia and Olivia promised each other that as soon as they could, they would move to New York City for good. Portia didn’t believe for a second that either of them would do it.
But ten years after their parents’ deaths, three years after Cordelia married, Portia woke up knowing she had to bake a five-layer cake with perfect fondant icing. Once the cake was finished, Portia stood back, her heart twisting, and knew Cordelia was leaving Texas. No one was surprised when Olivia followed her to New York six months later.
Portia missed her sisters, but her days were full. She became the main cook at The Glass Kitchen while Gram sat out front doling out advice and food choices. And still no lessons on the knowing.
One day Portia whipped up a mixed-up mess of sweet potatoes and asparagus, two items that never went together. But somehow, the way she made it, had people ordering more. Just as she served up the last portion, in walked the young lawyer and up-and-coming Texas state senator Robert Baleau, and her world shifted. Despite being born and raised in Willow Creek, he was as foreign to Portia as if he’d moved there from Greece. He was from the opposite side of town, from a world of debutante balls and heirloom pearls. With his sandy blond hair and laughing blue eyes, he charmed her, moved her with his devotion to serving the people, not to mention her.
Soon he began taking her with him as he traveled around the county to political functions. People all over the region loved Portia and said that she made a pretty boy more real. All she cared about was that she adored Robert.
The day he proposed, she threw her arms around him before she could think twice. “Yes, yes, yes!” she said as he laughed and twirled her around.
Surprisingly, Robert’s wealthy parents approved. It was Gram who didn’t.
“They’ll hurt you,” Gram said, scowling. “You’re not part of their world, and you never will be.”
But with every day that passed, more and more of Robert’s world embraced Portia Cuthcart, the girl who grew up in a double-wide — even if the fancier people weren’t particularly comfortable talking about The Glass Kitchen or the legendary Gram.
As the wedding grew near, another shift began, as slow as thyme breaking through the earth in spring. Robert began to notice that Portia knew things. At first, he laughed them off. But soon he began to tense every time she knew she needed to bake or cook something — like his mother’s favorite lemon bars just before she invited Portia over for tea. Or tuna casserole in a tinfoil pan, the kind perfect for freezing and giving to someone in need — just before a neighbor’s wife died.
One morning Portia woke knowing she had to make long, thick strands of pulled taffy that she wove into thin lengths of rope. Robert walked into the kitchen and came to a surprised stop when he saw the braided candy spread across the kitchen counter along with everything else she had known she needed. “This is unnatural,” he said quietly.
Confused, Portia blinked. “What’s unnatural about whipped cream, Saran Wrap, and ropes of taffy?”
She was almost certain Robert blushed and looked uncomfortable. “Portia, sweet, normal women don’t know things that other people are thinking.”
“My grandmother knows.” Portia kept her hands moving, twisting the taffy before it could stiffen.
“I rest my case. If anyone isn’t normal, it’s your grandmother.”
Her hands stilled. “Robert. There is nothing wrong with Gram. And there is nothing wrong with me.”
He blinked, then blurted, “You’re telling me that after I had sexual thoughts this afternoon, and you went out and put together the very things I fantasized about, that that’s normal?”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, his eyes widened. Portia was shocked, too, but then she laughed. “You were fantasizing about me? Me and ropes of taffy and whipped cream?”
She let her laughter turn into a sexy smile; then she wiped her hands and walked over to him. For half a second, the good Christian politician started to succumb, but then he took her hands and gave them a reassuring little squeeze, placing them against his heart. “I want to marry you, Portia. But I need you to be like other women. I need you to… not bake pies before the church announces a bake sale. I need you to be normal. Can you do that for me?”
Portia was stunned into silence.
Robert kissed her on the brow and refused to discuss it any further. She knew to his mind it was a simple yes-or-no question.
Since it was Monday, The Glass Kitchen was closed. As soon as Robert left, Portia went in search of her grandmother, needing to talk. Something had been off with Gram recently. Great-aunt Evie had died only a month before, leaving the town house to the girls. They all missed her, but with Gram it was as if a piece of her had died along with her sister.
Portia walked into the kitchen and realized that Gram wasn’t there in the same second that another bout of knowing buckled her over at the waist.
Heart pounding, she started to prepare the meal that hit her so hard. Her famous cherry tomatoes stuffed with chile, cheese, and bacon, along with pulled pork, endive slaw, and potato pancakes with homemade catsup. She cooked, knowing she could do nothing else, though she was surprised when she realized she needed to set the table for only one.
Gram must have gone out for the day without telling her. But ten minutes after Portia sat down to eat, Gram walked into the kitchen from the back parking lot. At the sight of the meal and single place setting, Gram had to steady herself on the counter’s edge.
Portia leaped up and started gathering another plate and silverware.
“No need,” Gram said, setting her handbag down, then headed out of the kitchen.
Portia raced after her, but at the doorway to her grandmother’s bedroom, Gram turned and pressed her dry hand to Portia’s cheek. “It’s time. I should have known you’d learn the knowing whether I taught you or not.”
“What are you talking about?”
Gram smiled then, a resigned smile. But she didn’t answer. She shut the bedroom door.
Portia returned to the kitchen and paced, hating that she didn’t know what the meal meant. An eerie sense of dread rushed through her. She decided that if Gram wanted to go somewhere, she wouldn’t let her take the car. She wouldn’t allow her near the stove or the knives. She would keep her safe from whatever might be coming, anything that could have been predicted by the single place setting.
It was summer and hot, the painfully blue afternoon sky parched by heat and humidity. Gram didn’t return to the kitchen until nearly four o’clock.
Portia jumped and ran across the hard-tile floor. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s time for you to take over The Glass Kitchen for good.”
Portia kept trying to solve whatever was wrong. But that ended when Gram stepped around her and headed for the back door of The Glass Kitchen.
“Where are you going?”
Gram didn’t retrieve her handbag or keys. There was nothing Portia could take away to keep her from leaving.
“Gram, you can’t leave!”
Gram didn’t listen. She walked out the door, Portia following, pleading, “Gram, where are you going?”
But what Portia hadn’t expected was that her grandmother would stop abruptly underneath the suddenly stormy Texas sky and raise her hands high. Lightning came down like the crack of God’s hand, quick and reaching, striking Gram.
Shock, along with electricity, surged through Portia, knocking her off her feet like a rag doll thrown to the dirt by an angry child. Her blouse ripped at the shoulder, blood marking the white material like a brand.
The rest was a blur— people hurrying to them, the ambulance screaming into the yard. What stood out was that Portia knew she was responsible. If only she hadn’t cooked the meal. If only she had set the table for two instead of one. If only she hadn’t allowed her grandmother to walk out the door. If only she had never had even a glimpse of the knowing.
But if onlys didn’t change anything. Gram was gone, all because of a meal Portia hadn’t even begun to understand but had prepared.
Standing in the dirt lot, The Glass Kitchen behind her, Portia promised herself she wouldn’t cook again.
A month later, she married Robert, then began shaping herself into the perfect Texas politician’s wife, erasing everything she could of herself until she was a blank slate of polite smiles and innocuous conversation. She slammed the lid shut on the knowing.
And became normal.