Cupcakes and Fingernails – Part Nine

Cupcakes and Milk

Short Story

Mercifully, thankfully, as an immaculate gift from on high, Jennifer was given the next day off. Her plans fell apart soon after she woke up around three in the afternoon, but she took this as a sign. Sleep was good. Sleep was something the body needed. She slept for another hour and a half and only left her room for dinnertime, not even bothering to remove her fuzzy sleep-pants all day long. She drew an ugly picture of a cat, watched TV, tried to read a book, got bored, read a different book, and fell asleep around 3AM.

So after a well-spent day off, coming back into work the next day was as painful as pulling her fingernail from the root with needle-nose pliers. But as she walked inside, she noticed something off. There were a couple customers inside, which was strange for that early, but not unheard of. Alex stood alone behind the counter, like he usually did, as he poured sprinkles over cupcake icing. Jennifer ran a glance around the corners of the room and came up with nothing truly out of the ordinary.

She walked across, circumventing the small line and slipping past the counter. Instead of going directly to the register, she poked her head inside the kitchen door. The room was empty, the walk-in cooler was closed, and the back door was still locked from closing.

“Alex,” she asked over her shoulder, “where’s Wendy?”

He paused, transfixed on accurately distributing toppings, and spoke after he handed off the cupcake with a warm smile.

“Day off,” he said curtly, pulling out another plastic sheet before politely taking the next customer’s order.

Jennifer frowned. Gateau wasn’t open on Sundays, so Wendy constantly petitioned to have her day off on Saturdays. Dwayne could have finally taken a tiny step forward in initiative and told her no, but Jennifer doubted it. What seemed strange that morning wasn’t the absence of Wendy in itself, but an entire atmosphere change. Despite the room moving with activity and customers, Gateau had never felt so cold and bare before. Alex’s curt attitude was suspect as well, bringing to head all of her paranoia temporarily forgotten the day before. She made a secret promise to herself to keep a closer eye on him today. Pay attention to the subtle things; don’t listen to what he says, listen to how he says them; hand movements, the whether the patterns of his finger movements are different, etc. It made Jennifer feel equally ridiculous as it did comfortable.

Alex and Jennifer were never on extremely friendly speaking terms. Wendy may have been a dour black hole of negativity, but having a third person around diffused tension somewhat. Saturdays were usually extra awkward without her cushion, but Alex had taken it to a new level. While he stayed as bubbly and cheerful as ever toward customers, there was a forced and artificial air to it. Jennifer would have had to be deaf not to hear it. And his comments and questions to her, as few as they may have been, were short and often vaguely antagonistic. Jennifer could see shades of the Alex who had intercepted her on the way to his ‘friend’s’ car. The facade seemed to have a fracture.

By noon, Gateau was empty. The reasoning is that no-one wanted a cupcake for a meal, so their busiest times were usually a few hours after lunch and dinner, when the dessert cravings began to kick in. Jessica sat on the counter, with her back facing the door, and fiddled with a new game on her phone, trying to skip virtual rocks as far as possible. In between throws, she would steal a glance at Alex, who was probably starting to notice her watching.

He slumped against the back wall, arms folded over his chest, as he scowled into the middle distance. His demeanor had taken a complete turnaround in only a day. Without Wendy around, Jennifer could only guess at what had happened (though, admittedly, she probably wouldn’t get much of an answer).

But that’s the question, isn’t it, Jennifer said to herself. Where’s Wendy? But she had been working on telling the difference between suspicion and paranoia. She assumed her anxiety was of the latter, so she turned back to her game.

The bell on the door tinkled brightly as it opened. In less than three seconds, Jennifer dropped from the counter, slipped her phone into her pocket, spun around, and put on a happy face for the customer. She took it right back off once she saw Dwayne shuffling inside. Admittedly, she was more happy to see him than usual. Anything to break the tension would be welcome.

Alex, meanwhile, barely registered. For the first time during work hours, he had pulled out his phone and was tapping in numbers.

“Hey Dwayne,” Jennifer said. While she couldn’t ever bring herself to like him, she did pity her boss at times. He looked worse for wear, his eyes reddened from possible tears and his face unshaven. From what she recalled, he was wearing some of the same clothes from the day before last. Dwayne sniffed wetly at her attention, stared through her for a few uncomfortable seconds, then wearily smiled.

“Wassup, Jenny?” he said. To reiterate, Jennifer did not like Dwayne very much.

“Uh, yeah. Everything going okay?”

Dwayne sniffed again and rubbed one of his eyes. “Yeah. It’s… been rough. But, y’know,” he shrugged, “gotta keep on keepin-on, yeah?”

“I hear you.”

“You, uh, your mom doin’ okay?”

“Yes…” Jennifer responded suspiciously.

“That’s good. That’s good. Think she… Think she might be free this Sunday?”

Jennifer was only moments away from laughing in his face before she got a good look at the desperation behind it.

“I… Maybe,” she said, hopefully. “I’ll check for you. Sound good?”

Dwayne’s face softened a bit. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Dwayne,” Alex piped in, his voice deep and resonant. “I’m going home.”

“What?” Dwayne blurted out, swinging his attention to his other employee.

“I’m going home,” Alex repeated, his expression flat, but his voice cold.

“When?”

“When my ride gets here in roughly eight minutes.”

“Eig- Then you should have told me earlier,” Dwayne growled.

“I did. Be happy I didn’t just walk out.”

Dwayne snapped his head back to Jessica, whose face proved she had no more insight than he did. His gaze floated between the two of them, before he cursed under his breath and marched off into the back room.

“Some advice,” Alex said, glancing at Jennifer. While his voice stayed as dead as before, his eyes showed a deep weariness, heightened by their clashing colors. “Never mix business with pleasure.”

 

next chapter: CUPCAKES AND FINGERNAILS – PART TEN

previous chapter: CUPCAKES AND FINGERNAILS – PART EIGHT

all chapters: Cupcakes and Fingernails

more by WILL HEMLEPP

photograph by Mario Calvo

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