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As predicted, the day of the parade was bright and warm. Several floats decorated by high school students and staff and local civic groups gathered in the sports field just off the main street. The town’s celebrated ancients were divided among the floats, with Wilbur Cowell and Harry Cosgrove taking their place at the front of the procession to walk the length of the parade route. Precisely at noon, the cavalcade got underway. It ended four blocks away in the parking lot of the Elk’s Club, where a tribute was to take place. As expected, several members of the media were in attendance with their microphones and cameras.
“Welcome, my fellow Dalbyites, future residents, and visitors to what has become known worldwide as ‘Centenarian City’ because of these remarkable people here before you,” proclaimed Atwell.
“It would have been perfect if your mom had joined in,” whispered Howell into Harlan’s ear.
“Sorry,” said Millie Flynn’s octogenarian son. “Said she’d rather be in her garden than on display here like some kind of oddity.”
“Mabel Calloway, who herself will turn 100 next year, has made one of her famous cakes for members of our One Hundred Plus Club,” continued Atwell.
On cue, with the help of two assistants, 99 year-old Mabel wheeled out a cart containing her confectionery handiwork. The Town Manager then sliced the cake for the honorees, putting aside the last slice for the absent Millie Harlan, which inadvertently fell to the ground and consequently was deposited in a waste barrel. The esteemed elders ate their cake with zest and received loud cheers from the audience for doing so.
“So, the real secret of great longevity is cake,” joked Atwell.
Following the event, the prized centenarians were escorted out of the hall and returned to their respective homes where they all took their routine afternoon naps. By evening, however, news quickly spread that none of the elders had awakened. All 13 had apparently died in their sleep.
Shocked and baffled by the tragedy, the townspeople were further aghast when the coroner announced the deceased had been poisoned.
“Arsenic,” declared Dr. Donald Jason at an impromptu news conference.
“How?” shouted reporters.
“Cake,” replied the coroner. “Mabel’s cake was loaded with it.”
* * *
An hour earlier, Sheriff Lester had been at the alleged murderer’s bedside. Next to him stood the woman’s elderly daughter.
“She’s got late-stage cancer. I was totally amazed that she was able to make that cake and give it out. It was something she really wanted to do,” said Clair Calloway, unaware of why the sheriff was visiting her mother.
Lester bent to within inches of the dying woman’s ear and whispered to her. “Why’d you do it, Mabel?”
“Knew I wouldn’t make it to 100 and hated them for beating me to it. Now who’s the oldest in Dalby?” said the former baker with a faint cackle.
When Harlan reported the calamity to his mother, she replied, “Hope this town learned that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
Despite the deep sadness he felt for what had happened, Harlan could not keep from smiling.
Michael C. Keith is the author of four story collections and an acclaimed memoir. To learn more, click on his website http://www.michaelckeith.com