“Pine, that’s wrong!”
“I’m doing it like I want, Palmer. Dad said it’s okay.”
“They don’t look like the pictures! Dad, tell him to do it right!”
“Do what right? Oh hey! They look amazing. Good job guys.”
Sunny entered the kitchen, greeted by the perfectly normal sight of his twin sons arguing over the correct way to do things. The room smelled divine, sugar and spice mingling with the pine-and-holly wreaths adorning the walls. The boys stood in front of a table covered in trays of cookies and pastries. It was their first year getting to help their parents sell goods at the upcoming winter festival.
“Dad,” Palmer, younger only by a few minutes, held up an old cookbook. “Pine’s not following the recipe like he’s supposed to! See?”
“What do you mean?” Sunny scratched his head, a quizzical expression on his scruffy face. “I made sure you guys had all the right ingredients before we started.” It was true. Sunny and the boys spent most of the day in the kitchen, baking up a storm. He knew better than to allow his sons to use the oven and stove by themselves but refrained from doing all the work himself. He guided the boys, answering their questions as best he could and showing them nothing but patience if they got confused. They wouldn’t learn if he did everything himself.
“He’s coloring them wrong!” Palmer shouted, gesturing to his identical twin. Pine stood by the cookie trays with his arms folded across his chest in complete defiance of his twin’s micromanaging. “He’s supposed to use white frosting, but he’s making them all crazy colors. They don’t look like the pictures. They won’t sell at Yule Land!”
“How do you know they won’t sell?” Pine demanded to know. “The recipe book doesn’t say they have to look exactly like the pictures.”
“If they weren’t supposed to look like the picture, why would they put one in the book?” Palmer smugly asked.
“Maybe you’re jealous I’m more creative.” Pine shot back. “People will think my cookies look more exciting than your boring old gingerbread men, and I’ll make more money for the farm.”
“People prefer the classics!”
“’Classic’s’ a fancy way to say boring!”
“At least I follow instructions!”
“At least I think for myself!”
“Hey guys?” Sunny calmly asked.
“Excuse me?” The boys recognized the sudden edge in their father’s voice, coupled with the single raised eyebrow and displeased expression on his face, and immediately looked regretful.
“Sorry dad,” they said in unison.
His features softening, Sunny assessed the gingerbread cookies his sons worked on while he tended to their baby sisters in the other room. Pine’s gingerbread men were indeed colored in various shades and hues, while Palmer’s looked pristine with snowy white piping.
“You know,” Sunny calmly explained, “you can’t judge a cookie until you’ve eaten it. Why not save the arguments for after the taste-testing, okay? And no more yelling, boys, please. This is supposed to be for fun.”
“For fun.” Sunny emphasized. “Palmer, if Pine wants to give his cookies different colors that’s perfectly okay. No one said he couldn’t, and you shouldn’t make a big deal about it. And Pine, Palmer’s allowed to decorate them like the book if it makes him comfortable. He knew what he wanted his gingerbread men to look like and he stuck with it.” The two boys glanced at each other before turning back to the unfinished cookies on the trays, not saying a word. Sunny continued with “We still have a lot to do for the festival. I’ll clean up while you decorate your cookies, okay?”
The twins prepared their gingerbread men in silence while Sunny washed the various pans, cups, and baking supplies they’d been using all day. Even with his back turned, he felt the adversarial energy permeating the kitchen’s warmth. He didn’t need to read their minds to know the boys still figured they could one-up the other.
Ruefully smiling and trying not to sigh, he wondered if he’d been like this with his own sister when they were that age. Then he remembered no, they were much, much worse. Palmer and Pine were arguing about decorating cookies? That was nothing compared to the arguments Sunny and Rain shared.
How long ago had that been? Twenty years? It almost felt like 200. The same could’ve been said for everything that happened before Starfall.
This would be the first Yule he’d be celebrating without Rain.
Snapped out of his memories, Sunny wiped his hands on a dishrag to see the boys proudly heralding their gingerbread creations. Palmer’s treats were neat, orderly, and identical. He was definitely his mother’s child, and Sunny knew Rhea would be proud of his sprouting organizational skills. Pine’s cookies practically made a rainbow, leaving Sunny wondering how he managed to make so many different colors.
“Try mine first.” Pine held up a gingerbread man wearing shades of salmon pink and mint green. Daring, if clashing.
“Try mine!” Palmer insisted, holding one of his own cookies looking like it’d been plucked from the recipe book.
“Dad’s gonna like mine better.” Pine declared. “Pink’s his favorite color.”
“Pink maybe, but yours looks like you used icing made from fish!” Palmer stuck out his tongue.
Shaking his head, Sunny held up Pine’s cookie in his left hand, Palmer’s in the right. The kitchen grew silent, the boys awaiting their father’s judgment. They watched him inspect the cookies in his beefy hands, turning them over, scrutinizing them with his blue-gray eyes.
His approval meant everything to them. When it came to cooking and baking, he was the master. Since their parents retired to life on the farm in their father’s hometown, all they knew were meals made by his hand. Admittedly, Sunny never cared much for the kitchen until after he became a father. He took pride in the meals he crafted to make his wife and children happy. All that cooking certainly showed on his body. Sunny bulked up considerably over the years from sampling his meals to ensure they were up to his standards for Rhea and the kids. Plenty of fat, but plenty of muscle underneath. The only thing that made Sunny happy about having the ideal body was the happiness it brought Rhea, too.
Pine and Palmer’s mother never set foot in the kitchen if she could help it, having no culinary capabilities aside from brewing coffee to help pull all-nighters. That was fine for everyone involved. She enjoyed her husband’s cooking, but still had an ingrained preference for premade meals. That sort of thing wasn’t really popular in Sunny’s hometown, but she adapted. One of Rhea’s most attractive features was her ability to adapt to any circumstance. She was a natural leader.
Sunny took care of the manual work on their farmstead while Rhea handled the administrative details. Their teamwork was seamless, always had been, ever since they were teenagers. This year had been tougher. The events of Starfall had thrown everyone’s lives into chaos. Some were calling it the return of the Dark Ages. Many were relieved when Yule approached, giving them a chance to focus on the Yule Land market and festival. A happy diversion from the harrowing changes they were still dealing with.
At long last, Sunny carefully bit off a chunk of Pine’s cookie. The boy cast his twin a smug glance as their father sampled his colorful treat first. Palmer scowled before Sunny sampled his by-the-book gingerbread man. The twins’ father chewed, savoring the taste of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and molasses mixed with sugary icing. He swallowed, then appeared contemplative. They held their breath.
“I’m not sure what to think,” Sunny finally said.
“Mine’s better, right?” Pine begged. “You tried it first.”
“He needed mine to wash the taste of yours out of his mouth,” Palmer said.
“Now boys.” Sunny placed one hand on Pine’s shoulder, the other on Palmer’s. “I’m sorry to say I don’t know what to think. I’m afraid…” His expression went from thoughtful to devious, his gaze zeroing in on the rest of the gingerbread men. Licking his lips, Sunny announced “To decide which is best, I’ll have to eat ALL of them.”
“You can’t!” The boys shouted in unison. “Then how will we sell them at the festival?!”
“Sorry, but I can’t think of another way to make up my mind.” Sunny shrugged. “You did say you wanted to know whose was better.”
“You can’t hog all the cookies for yourself after we worked so hard on them!” Pine stood to shield the trays from his father’s greedy, grasping hands, even though he was much taller and could simply reach over the boy.
“It’s not fair if you eat them all before the festival!” Palmer linked arms with his twin.
“We won’t let you!”
“You could just make another batch,” Sunny suggested.
“NO WAY!” The boys defied their elder.
“He wants us to give him free labor,” Pine whispered to Palmer.
“AND free cookies! Aren’t there laws against that?” Palmer whispered to Pine.
“Don’t you want to know who made the better cookie?” Sunny inquired.
“We don’t need to know that badly!”
“Well, can I at least bring a couple to your mom?” Sunny put on his most innocent face. “You can trust me to do that, don’t you?”
The boys shot wary glances at their father before they turned around to confer with each other. Sunny couldn’t believe this trick kept working when the boys turned to him, holding a cookie in each hand.
“We want a full report from Mom,” Pine demanded.
“If these don’t reach her, you’re in big trouble,” Palmer threatened.
“You have my word.” Sunny carefully took the cookies. “While I check in with her, you guys can wrap these up for the festival.”
“Good idea,” Pine nodded.
“That way he can’t get his hands on them without us finding out.”
“See what happens when you work together?” Humming to himself, Sunny practically skipped out of the kitchen as his boys realized their own father conned them into cooperating yet again. He took a detour into Apple and Arisia’s nursery, grateful the babies soundly slept. He’d been worried the shouting would’ve woken them up, but the girls remained nestled snuggly in dreamland. It made Sunny remember when Pine and Palmer were that small. To think, this would be the girls’ first Yule. He couldn’t wait, and neither could-
“Rhea?” Sunny poked his head into the master bedroom, the only response was her gentle snores. Smiling, he closed the door behind him as he headed for the bed. Rhea lay beneath the sheets and quilt, her golden hair spread out over the pillows.
Looking at her, Sunny always felt as if he were seeing her for the first time, falling head over heels in love like when they were kids. No matter what she looked like, how tired or worn down or frustrated she might get, how young or old she might be, she’d always be the most beautiful woman in the world. Placing the gingerbread men on the bedside table, Sunny knelt by Rhea’s side and placed his hand into hers. He could smell the lavender soap on her skin when he reached out.
Rhea? He thought, holding her hand. Rhea, can you hear me?
…Sunny? He heard her call out his name inside her head. He was grateful she hadn’t been so deeply asleep she wouldn’t hear his thoughts. This sort of gift was common among her people.
Hey, Sleeping Beauty. Sorry to disturb you.
What time is it? Rhea’s voice asked in his mind, while her body rested. How long have I been asleep?
It’s almost 3 in the afternoon, Sunny confessed.
What?! Sunny winced as he heard Rhea shout. Why didn’t you wake me sooner?
You barely slept last night. You were tossing and turning for hours but wouldn’t show me why.
Oh. Oh damn. I didn’t want to disturb all of you.
Do you want to let me in?
You never have to ask that.
Sunny closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he found himself in Rhea’s inner sanctum. The place she created inside her mind when her conscious body was resting. It resembled an idealized version of her room at the academy, the first place she ever had to herself. He recognized they weren’t alone.
“No wonder the girls slept through all that arguing,” Sunny mused as Rhea played with Apple and Arisia.
“Arguing?” Rhea wondered.
“Nothing to worry about.” Sunny puffed up his chest. “Superdad took care of it, like always.”
“Here, Superdad, I believe these two would like a word with you.” Rhea picked up the girls and brought them to their father. She laughed as Sunny eagerly scooped up his little angels, talking baby talk and making ridiculous faces as they giggled and cooed. He balanced them on his big belly, like he did with the boys when they were smaller. Rhea never got tired of that.
“Are you okay, Rhea?” Sunny asked while keeping his eyes on the girls.
“I am now. I just needed some time with them,” Rhea confessed.
“Aww, you guys were able to help Mommy feel better?” Sunny asked. “I’m so proud of you two.”
“I’m sorry.” Rhea said as she kissed Sunny on the cheek. “I don’t know why I’ve been having so many bad nights.”
“It’s okay,” Sunny empathized. “It’s our first Yule since everything went to Hell. We’re all stressed.”
“There’s still so much we need to do for the market,” Rhea remembered.
“We’ve got it all pretty much taken care of, hon,” Sunny affirmed.
“I just want this to be perfect for the kids,” Rhea confessed as she took Apple from her husband’s arms.
“We say that every year,” Sunny reminded her.
“And for you, too,” Rhea added.
“I know you’re celebrating without Rain,” Rhea said. “And I know that’s a big deal.”
“It’s okay, Rhea.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Yeah, it really isn’t. But, as long as we’re together, we’ll be okay.”
Rhea’s heart broke for her husband. Though their children had their siblings with them, Sunny’s sister was stuck on Earth, several light years away from their homeworld Pomona. Rhea and Sunny were effectively cut off from their friends and allies when Starfall happened, including their best friend Geo. How she longed for the nights where the two worked on spreadsheets and planning meetings. No one could craft a pie chart like Geo. The approaching holiday made Rhea yearn for their friends. She imagined them doting over the newborns as they doted on Pine and Palmer when they were born. Thinking about it made it difficult to sleep at night, but she kept those thoughts from leaking out.
Communication and travel between planets had been cut off for several months, and the cause was still unknown. The gates, cruisers, even the teleportation equipment, all shut down. That first month was madness, but not as bad as it must’ve been everywhere else in the more tech-heavy worlds like Gigas. This was the beginning of a new age. Schools would be teaching children about life “pre-Starfall.”
Pine and Palmer were entering a new era and needed to adjust to how much the world had shrunk. Sunny and Rhea believed they more than anyone needed, nay, deserved a good Yule to combat the frightening upheaval they had to witness. Apple and Arisia wouldn’t know anything different as they grew older. The world as it was now might be the only world they’d know. Would they have trouble adjusting if those connections were restored, and the world suddenly became so much bigger and brighter than it was when they were little?
The planet Pomona was a frontier world. It had access to the most rudimentary technology of the age but was still a farmer’s world which purposefully remained rural for centuries. The people had a desired balance with nature, likened to the olden days of the motherworld when people worked the land. They still used electricity and other conveniences (thank God they had television), but many races considered the planet “backwater.” What else could you say about people who cut down trees and decorated them for Yule? Rhea herself secretly thought of Pomona as such, until she fully recognized the advantage Sunny’s people had having been self-reliant for so long.
Unfortunately, many were separated from family members who’d been offworld at the time of Starfall. All contact had been lost, and no one was sure how long it would remain so. No one could get off Pomona, and it seemed no one was trying to get to Pomona.
Though Sunny did his best to move forward, throwing himself into the farm, raising the boys and now the girls, Rhea knew the loss of his sister was like a knife in his chest. An only child, she never experienced the kind of bond siblings shared for herself. If Rhea appeared exhausted, one could only imagine how tired Sunny was.
“Tell me, Superdad.” Rhea asked, “What’ve you been up to while I was dozing?”
“Teaching the boys how to bake,” Sunny explained. “I’ve brought you tithings in the waking world.”
“Before I wake up, can I see what you’ve been doing with the boys?”
Effortlessly, Rhea was able to pull up Sunny’s recent memories of baking with Pine and Palmer. Their sisters laughed as they watched their father and brothers having fun in the kitchen, mixing cookie dough, measuring ingredients. Rhea even pulled up the olfactory memories for the girls to enjoy. She could feel the warmth, not just from the kitchen, but from Sunny himself. The happiness he felt helping the boys, getting them to work together, sampling their baked goods, was sweet, but slightly bitter. Even as he thought about his sister and all their friends on Earth, he still gave all of himself to his family.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Sunny announced. “The boys wanted you to try their gingerbread men. They’re probably wondering what’s taking so long.”
“Ah.” Rhea nodded. “Say no more.”
Sunny blinked again and was back in the bedroom kneeling beside Rhea. Yawning, Rhea pulled herself up from bed, her husband by her side.
“Hey there, Prince Charming.”
“Hey there, Sleeping Beauty,” Sunny leaned forward and the two kissed.
“Mmm, you always taste so good,” Rhea sighed.
“Not half as good as you,” Sunny replied.
“Are these from the boys?” Rhea reached over, picking up the two gingerbread men. She was impressed by Palmer’s precision, and touched Pine remembered her favorite colors were cobalt blue and brick red.
“They taste amazing. They’re gonna make a fortune at Yule Land,” Sunny beamed.
“You know…” Rhea casually turned the cookies over. “We could freeze a couple of them to save for your sister.”
“For when we see her again,” Rhea clearly spoke. “You understand, Sunny? When we see her again.” Rhea honestly had no idea when that might be, but if Sunny could hold on for this long, it was only important she ensured he had hope of seeing Rain and everyone else again. However, she was saying it to herself as much as her husband.
“Oh… oh! Yeah, of course.” Suddenly heard cries coming from the other room. “Ulp, the girls are awake. I got this while you get your bearings.” As Sunny hurried to the nursery, Rhea yawned again. Getting up from bed, the two gingerbread men in her hands, she headed for the kitchen. If she was going to start the day with fresh-baked cookies, she’d need something to go with them. Coffee. Real coffee, that only she knew how to make. The kind of black sludge that shocked one into full awareness of the world. For all his culinary mastery, somehow Sunny couldn’t make coffee the way God intended it to be.
As she exited the threshold into the hallway, Rhea found her husband carrying their little girls in his big, brawny arms. Apple pulled at a strand of Sunny’s red hair as Arisia giggled.
Pine and Palmer flanked their mother on both sides as they all headed into the kitchen.
“Did you like the cookies?”
“We spent all day making them.”
“Dad tried to eat all of them.”
“We stopped him so you could try one.”
“Wasn’t that thoughtful of them?” Sunny asked while placing the girls in their highchairs. “But boys, there’s something you haven’t considered.”
“What’s that?” They asked in unison.
“Well…,” Sunny grinned slyly. “How do you know your mom won’t prefer MY cookies over yours?”
Pine and Palmer chased after their father while Apple and Arisia laughed. Rhea turned her attention to coffee. Even if the world kept changing, at least some things remained the same.
Jude Deluca is a nonbinary aegosexual Capricorn (he/him/they/them). Their areas of interest are magical girls, slasher fiction, young adult horror, superhero dads, and big beautiful men. As a professional horror detective, they enjoy rediscovering lost and unpublished horror media from the 1990s. Some of their favorite finds were Goosebumps: Dead Dogs Still Fetch by R.L. Stine and Braden Gardner, and Strange Matter: Kitty Kitty by Daryn Cash and Danielle Johnston. Their dream is to professionally write about Roy Harper, his adorable daughter Lian, and the Legion of Super-Heroes for DC Comics. Some of the groups they’ve been previously published by include The Crow’s Quill, Ghostwatch Zine, Dollar Store Magazine, Naked Cat Publishing, Knight Writing Press, and Two Gargoyles Comics. They can be found on twitter as @judedeluca1990, and everywhere else as Jude Deluca.