Cupcakes and Fingernails – Part Ten
He turned away and looked to his feet. He had said all that he wanted to say. Jennifer looked aside as well, appearing to mull over the quote. Instead, all Alex had done was send her suspicions and thoughts flying wildly through her mind like a hive of bees. Not even a sane person could deny that he was hiding something. She was lost inside her wild imagination when Dwayne came back out of his office.
At once, Jennifer’s mind went silent. A cold pain of fear stung the back of her neck.
“She’s off today,” Alex said, nonchalant.
“Yeah. You didn’t remember, did you?”
“Maybe I didn’t, then. What’s your problem?” Dwayne spat before ducking back inside.
The fear of realization did something strange to Jennifer’s thoughts. With the buzz of panic gone, she started to do something she’d never done before: she started to plan.
Jennifer sighed and stretched her neck, giving the appearance of boredom. Turning to crouch under the sink, she retrieved a bottle of all-purpose cleaner and a rag from over the faucet. She rounded the counter and stood over the toppings tray, little bowls of candy toppings that were chosen by the customer to sprinkle over their cupcake. Taking her slow, deliberate time, but quick enough not to arouse suspicion, Jennifer set aside the bowls one by one and wiped down the counter underneath.
She started at the end nearest the counter, the rarely-used dried fruit, and worked her way down to where the bigger bowls of candy were. Jennifer kept up a bored, glazed expression, but would shoot her eyes up to the clock every so often to check the time. At the tail end of five minutes, she stepped slightly ahead of her pattern and began wiping down the candy end of the counter. While picking up the large bowl of peanut M&Ms, she let it slip out of her grasp and crash against the ground, sending pieces scattering.
“Fuck,” she cursed, dropping to her knee and picking up the larger pieces by hand. “Alex, go get me some more peanut M&Ms from the cooler.”
There was no movement. No response or acknowledgment. Sitting up, Jennifer peeked over the counter to see Alex continuing to glower at nothing.
“Hey!” she barked. Even that managed to wrench his attention back to reality. Alex’s eyes flitted to meet hers, his expression sharp enough to cut steel. “You’re still on the clock. Give me a hand.”
Alex stared at her for a moment before making a sound, somewhere between ‘feh’ and ‘tch,’ of irritation. He stood forward, wearily. Letting his arms swing lazily at his sides, he plodded into the kitchen.
Jennifer stopped to listen. Straining her hearing, she caught the light ‘whoosh’ sound and steady hum of the cooler door being opened. Jumping to hear feet, nearly silent, she crept around the counter and slipped into the kitchen herself. It was impossible to quietly open the swinging door, so she walked inside under the guise of looking for a broom. She watched, from the corner of her eye, the cooler door close.
The peanut M&Ms, like the regular kind, had a much longer shelf life than other candies. M&Ms, unlike other candies, could be bought in bulk for relatively cheap. While the plainly chocolate M&Ms were popular on cupcakes, the peanut versions were not. A bag of chocolate M&Ms were kept under the counter for a quick refill, but the demand for the peanut kind did not require this step. So the peanut M&Ms were kept in a large, cumbersome bag, pushed to the back of a top shelf in the walk-in cooler.
Deftly creeping around kitchen appliances and prep tables, Jennifer snatched up a small stepladder that had been left against the wall. In only a few short moments, she had darted to the cooler door, quietly closed it shut, and wedged the stepladder between the door and the adjacent wall. With a jerky, panicked speed, she snuck away from the door and neared the kitchen door, pausing to listen.
Silence at first. Then the soft, metallic thunks of the handle being turned. Another, louder thunk of the ladder bracing against the wall. This repeated twice more before she heard the crumpling sound of a large bag being set on the floor. Another set of thunks, each harder than the last. A loud slam, evidently Alex’s foot impacting the door, followed by a subtle crack of the drywall the ladder sat against. There was another pause before a knocking came from inside the cooler.
“Jennifer!” Alex called. “The door is stuck! Jennifer!” He pounded harder, this time with both hands. “Jennifer!” He had begun to scream. “Jennifer! Open the fucking door!”
Jennifer took the opportunity to slip out of the kitchen. Closing the door quietly behind her, she turned to find herself face-to-face with a very confused Dwayne, who had stopped mid-type on his cell phone. The silence between them was broken only by Alex’s continued yells from inside the cooler. Dwayne glanced toward the kitchen, then at Jennifer, looked back at the kitchen, then raised an eyebrow to Jennifer. She stood completely still, blinking as if caught in a bright light. Dwayne, with the ghost of a smirk, walked back into his office and continued typing out his phone call.
She sighed in relief. Glancing out the window, she found exactly what she had been hoping and praying she wouldn’t see: Alex’s ride. The big, black van. The enormous stupidity of her plan slapped Jennifer in the face as she watched it idle quietly outside.
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck this was stupid this was stupid this was stupid oh my god this was so stupid, she thought. Yet, despite her panic, Jennifer found herself walking toward the front door. She took a moment to poise herself with a confident, broad-shouldered stride as she stepped outside. She briskly crossed the street, thankfully avoiding any passing cars. She hoped to reach the van as quickly as possible to stop it from speeding away, but was at least prepared to take down its license plate number in the event that it did.
Fortunately, albeit bizarrely, the van sat motionless against the curb as she neared, still quietly rumbling in park. Grasping the handle, she flung the door open as hard as she could, hoping to catch the driver by surprise. But as Jennifer opened the door, and opened her mouth to speak, she found both actions to be meaningless.
In the driver’s seat sat a mannequin. A large, bald, pale-skinned, male mannequin, staring straight ahead through the windshield. Its hands were poised around the steering wheel, but from the forearm downward, its elbows were replaced by mechanical joints that fed back into its upper biceps. Its hips had been removed as well, leaving a similar series of artificial bones and joints to feed down to the peddles.
“What the hell are you?” Jennifer asked out loud. She had nearly fallen over from the unexpected surreality she was faced with. She climbed into the passenger seat to take a closer look. The mannequin’s fingers wrapped tightly around the wheel. Leaning over, she saw that the metal pipes connected to a pair of thighs, ankles, and feet, poised over the break and gas. In one way or another, Alex had evidently made for himself an artificial chauffeur.
Jennifer followed the metal elbows up the shoulder until she found a seam running up the side of the mannequin’s head. Looking more closely, one eye closed, she found it to be a thin line of stitches, running completely around its head, starting at the cheekbone. Thin flakes of dried material stuck out from underneath, appearing to have been sewn over in layers, multiple times.
Slowly, horribly, the pieces began to come together. Jennifer backed away, her eyes growing wider with every inch as her jaw slacked open. The driver wasn’t a mannequin.
The driver was a corpse.
next chapter: CUPCAKES AND FINGERNAILS – PART ELEVEN
previous chapter: CUPCAKES AND FINGERNAILS – PART NINE
all chapters: Cupcakes and Fingernails
more by WILL HEMLEPP
photograph by Tatiana Lapina