Valentine Wheeler © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The travel mug banged against the counter. Marianne jumped. “Jesus, Kevin! I didn’t hear you come in.”
“It’s full again.” Kevin crossed his arms and glared. “The parking lot back there.” He made a show of glancing around the nearly empty bakery, eyes pausing on Zeke in the corner, mug in his hands and laptop open as usual, big red headphones covering his ears. He crossed his arms. “Why do you pay that kid if all he does is ignore you? And the customers?”
“You’re in a mood this morning.” Marianne pushed herself off the stool and grabbed his aluminum coffee mug. Her ex-husband was still an attractive man fifteen years after their divorce, and she couldn’t work up the energy to be annoyed at him for it anymore. “If you want to go next door and complain about the cars, go ahead.” She filled his mug with hazelnut coffee, added an espresso shot, capped it, and handed it back. “It’s not like our customers are beating down the doors for spots right now.”
“I did go next door,” Kevin grumbled, taking the cup. “It wasn’t productive.” Now it was him avoiding her gaze.
The parking lot issue wasn’t a new one—it had been a problem for a few months—and on a busy day Marianne would be filled with a low-level simmering rage as customer after customer complained about it. Still, she wasn’t going to tell Kevin that. Their relationship had improved in the years since their divorce but not quite that much.
“Not productive?” she pressed.
He sipped his coffee to cover the slight flush in his pale cheeks and didn’t answer.
“She threw you out, didn’t she?” Marianne’s estimation of her neighbor and nemesis rose a notch. “You tried to yell at her, and she didn’t take it.”
“I was very polite!”
“Hm.” Marianne put her hands on her hips and considered the man she’d spent nearly twenty-five years married to. He could be charming when he wanted to be—the whole silver fox, sparkling blue eyes and white teeth politician thing—though he never tried it with her anymore. Many women had found him suave and attractive during their marriage and probably still did. But when he wanted something from someone with no interest in what he was peddling? Politeness wasn’t his style. Generally, once charm had failed, he whined worse than any of their three kids had as toddlers. She’d learned that plenty during their marriage, and again during the divorce. “I’m sure you were.”
“I can talk to Bruce and Andrea,” said Kevin. “Just because I’m retired—”
“No need to get the city council involved, Kevin. I’ll handle my own property, thanks.” She glanced at the clock on the wall, its tarnished brass pendulum swinging below the cracked glass. “Aren’t you going to be late for your train?” He was still showing up at transit meetings in the city every other week since he had been appointed to the regional transit board as community representative now that he wasn’t an elected official. Kevin had a habit of holding onto things too tightly and refusing to let them go.
Kevin glanced down at his watch and swore. “Yeah. Shit.” He took another long gulp of coffee and leaned over the counter to kiss Marianne’s cheek. “Thanks. Who knew retirement could be so busy?” He turned to hurry out the door and then stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. “You be good, all right? Don’t work too hard.”
Marianne rolled her eyes and shooed him out with a towel.
It wasn’t that she didn’t notice the number of customer complaints about the parking lot. Every third customer mentioned it, even the ones who took the train in or walked. She supposed in her great-grandfather’s day when the bakery had had a dozen employees and filled the entire building, it hadn’t been a problem. The old rail for parking—well, tying, technically—horses was still there, a deeply worn set of posts by the dumpster. In 1892, no one had complained about the lack of space for cars. They’d been more worried about whose sheep had wandered into whose pasture.
Of course, Marianne wouldn’t have been running things back then. And even if she had been allowed to work, she’d probably be in petticoats or some other kind of nonsense. She’d take the complaints in exchange for being able to wear jeans to work and the right to vote. And maybe once the winter snows really started up, she could convince Ray to do a less-than-perfect plowing job. That would show that woman next door. See how she liked the constant complaints.
Feeling a little better, if a little petty, she pulled a tray of cranberry muffins from the oven, their tops steaming and barely cracked, glistening with sugar crystals, as the bell over the door chimed. She smiled at the thin black man who shuffled in. “Hey, there, Joe,” she called. “Eight o’clock already?”
Zeke glanced up and pulled his headphones off, shutting his computer. “Hey, Grandpa!”
“Ezekiel, Ms. Windmere.” He nodded at them each solemnly. “A beautiful morning out there. Though I hear the sunlight isn’t going to last.”
Zeke helped him to a seat, a hand hovering under his elbow. Joe shooed him away, then pulled his rolled newspaper from his back pocket and smoothed it on the table with gnarled hands.
“Your usual?” asked Marianne. Joe Mitchell was one of many reasons she’d never fire Zeke for taking breaks as long as he wanted a job. Ninety-eight years old and still living on his own, Joe had been a delivery boy for her great-grandfather in the thirties before they both went to war. He was family. And he remembered Windmere Bakery in its heyday. Most importantly, he walked, and since it was around the back, he’d never once asked about the parking lot.
“I saw Ms. Wahbi this morning,” he said as he accepted a cinnamon scone, already toasted and buttered. He breathed in appreciatively, savoring the spiced steam rising from its crisp top. “That’s the longest anyone’s lasted in the building in years.”
“It’s only been a few months,” said Zeke. “There’s really been nobody who stayed that long? What, is the place haunted or something?”
Joe leaned forward, cane tapping the floor by Zeke’s foot. “We don’t like to talk about it, Ezekiel, but there was an accident back in 1979—”
Marianne suppressed a snort of laughter as Zeke leaned forward, eyes wide in his brown face. “An accident?”
“It was a paper business back then, with huge cutting machines that sliced the reams to size, and one night, late in September, a young man was working late. He shouldn’t have been there after-hours. Told his boss he’d finished something he hadn’t. He wasn’t paying attention—he was listening to some record instead of watching his fingers—and the next morning they found his arm in a case of paper. Donna Summer was still playing on the record player.” His cracked voice lowered as he paused to chew his scone. “Sometimes, in the evening, you’ll still hear the strains of MacArthur Park playing through the wall.”
Joe whacked Zeke in the knee with his newspaper. “No, boy. Don’t be a fool. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” He finished the last bite and winked.
Zeke stared at him, betrayed, as Marianne suppressed a snort. Joe grinned at her and pushed himself upright. He tucked his coffee into the cupholder of his walker and pressed bills into Marianne’s hand. “You take care of that idiot grandson of mine, Ms. Marianne.” Still shaking his head, he patted her on the shoulder as he passed and then clapped Zeke fondly on the back before shuffling out the door.
Zeke waited until the door closed behind his great-grandfather, a smile fighting its way onto his face and then turned to Marianne. “No customers yet, huh?”
“What do you mean? We had Kevin, and Joe—”
“No paying customers yet. Grampa and your ex don’t count.”
“Kevin pays! I consider it his alimony.” Marianne glanced up at the clock. “It is a little odd, I guess. But it’s still early. The lunch rush won’t start for another few hours.”
As she spoke, the door swung open, the bell over it jingling loudly. A familiar figure in navy blue strolled in, her short dark hair tousled by the winter wind and the tip of her usually brown nose reddened with cold. She let the door swing shut behind her and leaned on the counter.
“Doris! Anything good in the mail for us today?”
Doris pushed back the brim of her postal cap and smiled. “Hey there, Marianne, Ezekiel. Just the two of you this morning?” She flipped through the pile of letters in her arms and then pulled a manila envelope from her satchel. “Would have thought you’d be mobbed the way the cars are out there. You can have this if you’ve got one of those almond croissants saved for me. You’re the only place I know who do those toasted salty almond slivers on top, you know? Can’t find them anywhere else.”
Zeke laughed, his cheeks a little darker as he smiled up at their tall, gorgeous mail lady. “And you won’t find them anywhere else, ma’am. They’re a Windmere Bakery specialty. I’ll get you one.”
Marianne watched him hurry behind the counter and leaned in toward Doris. “He knows you’re married, right?”
“Considering Tasha was his math teacher last year, I should hope so,” replied Doris, voice low. “It’s sweet though. And he’s a good kid.”
“He spent a lot of time doing homework for their class,” mused Marianne. “Maybe he’s got it bad for both of you.”
“Coffee?” called Zeke from the pastry case.
“Yes, please,” Doris raised her voice. “Milk, one sugar. Thanks, kiddo.” She pulled out her wallet and handed Marianne a ten. “Hey, give the kid the change. Might make his day.” She set their mail down on a table and took her coffee and pastry bag from a blushing Zeke at the counter. “Have a good day, folks.”
Business picked up after that—locals and regulars trickling in and slowly filling up the eight tiny tables that crammed the small area between the counter and the wall. Carol Ramirez stopped by to buy three-dozen chocolate-chip cookies to sober up late-night drunken bar customers, dropping off a gallon of fresh homebrew for Marianne’s beer bread experiments, and Sheri Ng picked up a whole tray of muffins for some kind of board meeting at the new office park. Marianne and Zeke stayed busy as the sky darkened outside the wide glass windows.
Ray Bell stomped in around two thirty, with Fatima, one of the admins at the high school, hands pausing their signed conversation as they entered. Ray called a hello to Zeke, unbuttoning his coat and hanging it over a chair, as Fatima considered the pastry case. “Getting cloudy out there,” Ray observed. “What do you think, Marianne? This gonna be the big one this year?”
Marianne smiled. “I’m always wrong about the weather, Ray.” She waved at Fatima, who waved back and pulled out her phone. Marianne did the same, once again making a mental note to try to learn more sign language. She’d known Fatima nearly forty years, since her family had settled in Swanley so her father could commute to his grad school program in Boston. About Marianne’s height, Fatima was slender where Marianne was broad. She and Ray, six feet tall and a former linebacker at Swanley High, made an odd but familiar sight. But the two of them had been close friends since high school.
Channel Five says at least six inches tonight, Fatima texted. Are you staying open?
Marianne nodded, making sure Fatima was looking her way before she spoke. “For a while. I don’t have far to go.”
“Hoping we don’t lose power again this time,” said Ray, accepting the coffee Marianne handed him. “Last time it was three days till we got it back. A cold three days. The wife made me buy a generator the day Harvey’s opened back up. I swear that hardware store takes half my paycheck with how often I’m in there.”
Marianne shivered. “I keep meaning to get a generator or something, but I only remember when it’s too late.”
Fatima tapped the glass, pointing at a chocolate croissant. And a coffee, she texted. Black, please. The Starbucks in Wilshire closed already. You may get a rush.
“Wimps.” Marianne put the croissant on a plate and took Fatima’s card, swiping it through the reader.
How are the kids? Fatima asked.
“They’re good,” said Marianne. “Janie’s finished her program and started working as a nurse out in Detroit. Jacob’s heading back to school in the fall in California. Anna’s working as an architect in Pittsburgh.” She passed Fatima her food and drink. “I know Janie’s coming back next year for her ten-year reunion at the high school.”
Fatima smiled. I’ll see her then. She signed the receipt and settled down across from Ray.
By the time late afternoon rolled around, Zeke was long gone, and Marianne was happy to see the last customer of the afternoon rush out the door, leaving her alone in an empty bakery. She glanced at the pile of trays to be washed, the dusting of flour across the surfaces, the muddy patch in front of the door where snow boots had dragged in half a town’s worth of dirt, and then she slumped down in a chair, taking a moment to rest. She needed a vacation. She needed a retirement.
The first few flakes were beginning to fall outside now, the low heavy clouds promising to worsen the precipitation before long. Marianne didn’t mind the snow. Not really, not until slush sat gray and wet in the gutters for weeks at a time. That’s when she longed to be anywhere but the town where she’d spent nearly all her sixty years.
Zeke’s main complaint, on the other hand, had been that snow on a Saturday wouldn’t give him any break from his classes. She’d countered that most of his classes were online, anyway, so he had no excuse. If they’d had online classes when she’d been in school, she might have finished more quickly and done better afterward. Maybe she’d be off somewhere in a high-powered job, planning her three-week vacation in Aruba right now, instead of scrubbing hard-baked chocolate off a metal tray that had seen better days.
Thinking of Zeke reminded her of her own kids—she’d told Janie, her middle kid, that she’d give her a call over the weekend. Given the way the weather was looking, she figured it would be better to call sooner rather than later. She started what parts of closing she could, bagging the leftover savory pastries to make into croutons and the sweet ones to munch on herself later since she wasn’t going to make it out to the shelter to donate them before they went stale.
The various doughs and batters for the morning she prepped as much as she could, premixing huge batches of flour and sugar and baking soda and salt into various proportions to add liquid to in the morning, and sticking tubs of muffin batter in the fridge beside buckets of diced berries and chocolate and nuts. She even gave the old monster of a gas stove a good scrub down, working the cast iron until the dark metal gleamed.
She noticed as she stacked trays covered in plastic wrap that her prepped macarons were running low: she’d have to plan a long day of mixing and piping in the next week or two to build up a buffer of chocolate, lavender, and green tea for the next month’s specials. She was especially proud of the lavender—she’d seen someone make them on a cooking show, and the idea had gripped her for weeks before she’d figured out the recipe. Now, they were one of her biggest sellers when they appeared on the specials list.
Marianne glanced at the laminated list on the wall beside the entrance to the pantry, reading under her breath through the familiar instructions. Some things had changed in the nearly sixty years since her grandfather had turned the bakery over to her father—the nighttime cleaning instructions weren’t one of those things. Daniel Windmere Senior’s familiar handwriting, slanted and neat, still led her through the tasks she could probably do in her sleep. She read the list every evening the bakery was open, and she would keep doing so until whichever of her kids she could bribe into taking over let her slide into a graceful retirement somewhere far away. Somewhere warm. Hawaii. Arizona. Anywhere but rural Massachusetts, with its changeable weather, its small-town gossip, and its neighbors who didn’t understand how to share a damn parking lot.
The snow was falling faster out the big glass window now, starting to stick in a quickly thickening layer on the sidewalk. Marianne leaned against the counter, watching the few people still outside fighting against the wind. None of them looked like they were interested in croissants.
She shook her head and pushed herself upright to flip the sign on the door to Closed and turned the deadbolt. It was nights like these that made her glad she’d moved back into the apartment above the shop.
“I’d probably get hit by a car in all this snow,” she muttered. “I’m stuck in here till the plows come through.” She had plenty of food and supplies between the shop and the apartment. She hardly left the building most days, anyway. Most of her necessities were delivered to the shop, and she could get anything else on her weekly grocery store run. Her kids had wanted her to find someplace new when she’d sold the house. They’d said it wasn’t healthy for her to move back where she worked, especially when she could afford to buy something small in a nearby neighborhood with the revenue from the sale.
Janie especially had objected, saying Marianne would end up even more isolated and lonely. Marianne had scoffed and reminded them she’d grown up in the apartment back when her grandfather had been the one running things, and she’d been living there when she’d met their father, so how isolating could it be? Besides, she’d used the money from the old house to pay Anna’s tuition, so she really shouldn’t complain. She didn’t need to be investing in new real estate at her age. And the apartment was nice and toasty—
The lights flickered. Marianne flinched and pushed open the door to her apartment in the back of the kitchen, climbing the narrow rickety stairs. The ovens had been burning since four a.m., trays and trays of croissants and muffins and pies that had flown off the shelves until a few moments after the first flakes had fallen. Even if the power went out, the heat from the day’s baking would linger for a few hours at least. For the hundredth time, she wished she’d gotten around to installing the backup generator or switching to gas. Electric heat sounded great until the power went out. She supposed she could start baking to raise the temperature, but the idea of messing with knives and fire in the dark didn’t appeal. Besides, her body ached. She’d spent her day in and out of ovens and fridges. The last thing she wanted to do now was bake more.
The living room was dark and a little chilly, so she cranked the thermostat up to seventy-three. Might as well get a little extra heat in the apartment while she could, knowing the state of the power grid. Deep within the walls, the heat clicked on, whirring to life. She rummaged in the counter drawer nearest the door until she found the box of emergency candles, and the big green safety flashlight Kevin had gotten her for Christmas one year. Theoretically, it glowed in the dark, but not if she kept it in a dark drawer all the time. She also pulled a few logs from the rack beside the fireplace, settling them in the iron grate and stuffing newspaper and twigs into the space below.
Another gust of wind rattled the windows. Marianne shivered. Was that thunder?
A crack of wind shuddered the building. The branches of the old pine tree out front scraped against the windows. A groan outside signaled the fall of snow against the power lines, and the lights flickered again before sputtering out. With a slow groan, the heat pump stuttered and then stopped.
Marianne let out the breath she’d been holding. The dark was familiar. In the dark, with the sound of snow and wind against the windows in the air, the apartment could be fifty years in the past. With her eyes closed, her grandfather could be around the corner in the master bedroom, her father and mother in the spare room, her cousins stuffed into bunk beds in the warm little office above the bakery stove. The quiet inside broke the illusion though. Even with no one awake, the apartment had felt full, breaths and creaks and stifled giggles and cries. Even in a storm, it was louder inside than out. Now it was empty except for her.
She picked up a candle from the kitchen counter and searched around for matches. None in the junk drawer, and none above the mantle where they should be. Where—
Marianne groaned, remembering the birthday party they’d hosted earlier in the week. She’d borrowed the matches from the apartment for it, and she’d probably left them downstairs next to the cake case. It had been a lovely party, even though most of the guests had had to park in the municipal lot a block and a half away since the parking lot had been completely full of customers for the Cairo Grill next door.
Outside, the last streetlight fizzled out, leaving a blackness outside the window broken only by the distant glow from the battery-powered lights of the train station. On the table, the flashlight’s body glowed the faintest shade of green, and Marianne stumbled to it. Its beam wasn’t very bright once she flicked the switch on, but the faint light was enough to get her back to the staircase without breaking her neck. She made her way carefully to the bottom, found the matches right where she’d left them, and shook her head at her own folly. She pulled one out and struck it to light one of the candles she used for events and then tucked the box into her apron pocket.
Flashlight in one hand, candle in the other, she wended her way back through the furniture to the stairs. Not trusting the thin, wavering light, she slid a foot out until she tapped the stair’s riser with her toes and worked her way carefully up to the landing and then around the turn. Then a stair wasn’t quite where she expected, and she gasped, dropping flashlight and candle. She grabbed for the rail, slipping and landing with a thud on her rear, barely avoiding knocking her face into the bannister. She groaned and tried to lever herself back upright without falling any farther and then slid on her butt down the remaining steps. She stopped at the bottom, breathing heavily, and fumbled for the flashlight that still glowed faintly on the floor a few feet away. The candle, thank goodness, had gone out when it landed. She didn’t love the idea of trying to reach the fire department in the middle of a snowstorm.
A sound filtered through the wall. She froze and listened carefully, heart pounding in her throat.
“Hello?” called the voice again, faint through the wood and plaster. “Is everything all right?”
A pause. “Rana. Rana Wahbi,” said her neighbor. “Ms. Windmere? Is that you?”
Marianne pushed herself upright and then froze as her ankle twinged when she put her weight on it. She gasped aloud, squeezing her eyes shut as she hopped on the other foot.
“Ms. Windmere?” The woman’s voice was pleasant and concerned, lightly accented, and low-pitched. “Are you all right?”
Could that really be the woman who’d been keeping all Marianne’s customers away for months with her parked cars? Nearly three months they’d worked on opposite sides of the building, Marianne realized, and this was the first time they’d spoken. She sounded nice. That was the strangest part. “I’m fine,” she called back.
“Are you sure? That was quite a crash. Did something fall?”
“Just me. I slipped and twisted my ankle, I think.”
There was a pause through the wall, long enough that Marianne wondered if Ms. Wahbi left.
Marianne pressed her fingers to the side of her ankle, feeling for a bump or blood or something.
“Do you need help?”
Was her parking lot nemesis really offering help?
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just need to rest for a minute.” She tried the ankle again and winced. Stupid, she thought. Stupid to be here alone, stupid to leave the matches downstairs when I knew there was a storm coming, and stupid to let my pride overwhelm my common sense. Maybe the girls were right. Maybe I’m old and frail and not safe living by myself. “This is exactly what my kids warned me about.”
“They told me if I lived alone here, I might fall and hurt myself, and no one would find me. That I need to, as Janie put it, be ‘aware of my changing body.’ I think it was revenge for my puberty talk twenty years ago.”
Ms. Wahbi laughed. “You’re not exactly decrepit,” she said. “Do they think you’re that old?”
“I’m not sure,” Marianne admitted. “Janie—my middle girl—she’s a nurse. She’s always fussing.”
“Well, if you called loudly enough, I would hear when I came in to start the marinades. So, you wouldn’t lay there more than a day—or two, if you fell on a Monday.”
“That’s reassuring. I’m closed Mondays, too, so at least that’s unlikely.” She tested the ankle again. Still a little sore, but much better. Good. That meant it probably wasn’t sprained, only tender. She pulled her robe closer around herself, shivering in the stairwell as the heat continued to leach from the drafty old building now that the power was out. The silence drew out longer, and she wondered if the other woman had moved elsewhere.
She didn’t even know why she was talking to her, except that the dark chilly stairs with the faint sound of snow pattering on the roof and windows was an odd sort of magical, liminal place where a disembodied voice seemed to fit right in. The fact that this woman had been a source of ire recently didn’t seem to matter when the wind whistled through the trees outside, and the shadows stood tall and ghostly. Still, she cleared her throat and tried to pull herself together.
“It must be getting cold over there,” said Ms. Wahbi. “I’ve made tea on the stove if you’d like some. At least the gas is still on.” Her voice was cautious as if she knew Marianne wasn’t likely to accept.
“No, thank you,” said Marianne. “I’m just getting a few things and settling in upstairs.” She wasn’t about to get murdered in the dark over a parking lot dispute. If the woman next door had cursed Marianne as much as Marianne had her, she couldn’t imagine that would be a good idea.
“You live above the bakery?”
“I do,” said Marianne. “I’m going to ride out the storm up there. Thanks for your concern.” She tried to make her tone sound final. Then she pulled out a fresh match and lit the candle once more, the guttering, sputtering sound of the wick catching loud in the near silence.
“Good luck,” said Ms. Wahbi. “I’m hoping there’s enough of a break in the storm I can make it home. I may have power there.”
Marianne felt her mothering instincts kick in automatically. “Driving? In this weather?” she burst out.
“Well, with no heat, I don’t think I’ll stay here in the restaurant.”
“Still.” Marianne tested the ankle again, resting her full weight on it this time. It seemed all right. She felt strange, leaning here against the wall, hands cupped around the candle as the wick steadied, speaking with the woman she’d been silently cursing for three months.
“May I ask a favor?” Ms. Wahbi’s voice was quiet through the drywall.
Marianne had the slightest moment of hesitation. What favor could this neighbor, this stranger, want from her? The whole lot? The sidewalk out front, maybe?
“Could I perhaps borrow your phone? I need to call my son back and let him know I’m all right. We were in the middle of a conversation when the power went out, and my cell phone is out of battery.”
“Of course,” said Marianne. “I was about to call my daughter. You’ll have to come around though. There’s no way through the building.”
“I think I can manage that much,” said Ms. Wahbi. “The front door? And it won’t be too much trouble, with your ankle, to come let me in?”
“It’s fine,” said Marianne. “I’m not the one walking through a blizzard.” She pushed herself upright. “You know where to go?”
Ms. Wahbi laughed. “Yes, I do. I drive past your door every morning.”
Marianne knew she did. She saw her silver Outback come around the building most mornings around nine and simmered, knowing it was likely to pull into the last available spot in the lot.
A rustling sounded from the other side of the wall. “All right,” Ms. Wahbi said. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”