On the other side of the plate glass windows, the parking lot lights flickered out. There were tinsel Christmas-tree hoops near the top of each of the lights and they looked about as cheap as you’d expect them to in a town like Lansdale. The lot was empty, the sky overcast. It was 3 a.m. on the dot and Liv hadn’t had a break yet.
By the look of things, she wasn’t going to get one, even though there were two of them. The bake was huge and Vi was as slow as she was. Which, Liv supposed, was why the company had scheduled the two of them that night. Normally, they were too cheap to pay for more than one baker per cafe.
Vi slid the last of the bagel dough trays onto the 12-tier cart and rolled it into the proof box. It wasn’t really a box at all but a miniature room that felt like a sauna. The pale rings of dough were perfectly spaced on the trays, perfectly shaped, which explained why it had taken Vi an hour to complete that one task. Every slot on the tall, metal rack was filled and it took her a minute to maneuver it into the box, which was already crowded with other racks of rising bread.
“You probably noticed the temp’s set high,” Vi said.
Their boss always warned them against setting the proof box above a certain temperature. It made the bread rise really fast, he said. Which was the whole point—otherwise, they’d still be baking when the morning manager showed up.
“I set it high too.” Liv didn’t say so, but she set the proof box at her home cafe at the exact same temperature.
Vi closed the proof box doors and returned to her work table, where she started on the baguettes. The dough came pre-made and all she had to do was stretch each piece to the proper length, lay it out on the baking screen, then slice it down the middle with her knife. Three baguettes to a screen, 12 screens to a rack. The pan-up called for 120 baguettes, which meant multiple racks. It would probably take her three hours.
Liv was definitely not getting a break.
Well, there was nothing to be done about it so there was no point thinking about it. She kept working on the pastry rings. It was two days before Christmas and the pan-up listed 14, which was ridiculous because the only ones who bought them were little old ladies. She finished shaping the dough and began scooping cherry filling into every third circle.
“You’re a lefty.” Vi stopped scoring a baguette to watch her. “I’m a lefty too.”
Liv glanced at the small, sharp knife in Vi’s left hand, then at her tattoo sleeves. A lot of bakers had them. Still, it was weird that they both had the same pattern—a series of skulls topped by the grim reaper across their upper arms. An occasional black rose where an eye would have been.
“Cool sleeve,” Liv said, the corner of her mouth tugging upward.
“Same,” said Vi, returning her grin.
Outside, the wind had picked up. It rattled the glass and whined across the lot. Liv remembered it was supposed to snow at some point but couldn’t remember how many inches they were going to get. She donned a new pair of rubber gloves—cherries were so damn messy—and went back to work. Liv had gotten used to third shift. She was a loner and preferred the quiet to the drama of working the registers. Still, the quiet could get a little creepy, especially when it was just her.
“Ever get creeped out,” Vi asked, “when it’s just you?”
Liv’s spine tingled. She scooped some cherries into the pastry ring on her own baker’s table. It had just struck her that the two of them had the exact same shade of dark brown hair. Almost raven black, worn pulled back into a bun. Minus the regulation hat because the CCTV cameras in the cafe were broken. Something to do with the feed.
Liv threw the cherry scoop into the bin for dirty utensils and started with the cream cheese filling. “Who wouldn’t?”
“You get used to it,” Vi said. “The quiet.”
“Eventually,” Liv agreed.
“I almost miss the camera,” Vi said. “How weird is that?”
“I know, right?” Liv missed it too. At her home cafe, she hated the way the CCTV cameras recorded her every move but their presence gave her a certain peace of mind.
For a while, they worked in silence. Vi loaded a tray of prepped baguette dough onto a rack, started in on another. “What did you do,” she asked, “. . . before?”
Nobody worked third shift at the “fast casual” cafe on purpose. If you were a baker, you were there because you got laid off from a real bakery or were looking for a job in one. Others were illegal or had their reasons for not wanting to work days.
“Not much.” Liv tried to infuse some humor into her voice. “What about you?”
“I was an aide,” she said over her shoulder. “In a school.”
Liv didn’t know why that surprised her. There was no reason it should. “That must have been fun.”
Vi snorted. “Not really, for what they paid us. But I love kids.”
“Why’d you leave?”
A slight hesitation. “I got fired.”
Now it was Liv’s turn to hesitate.
Vi set down a piece of baguette dough and wiped her gloved hands on her apron. A nervous gesture. “They said I was scaring them. The kids. It was an elementary school and I mostly worked with first graders,” she said. “I wasn’t scaring them. Well, except for this one girl who—well—it doesn’t matter.”
Liv pressed the edges of the pastry ring inward so the filling wouldn’t spill over the side when it baked. She could see Vi out of the corner of her eye. “They’re pretty impressionable. At that age.”
“Yeah they are. At least this one girl was.” Vi sighed. “But that’s what I love about them, you know?”
Liv didn’t know and she was more relieved than she should have been about it. The similarities between her and Vi were starting to pile up and that bothered her, though she couldn’t say why. Normally she felt guilty about not liking kids all that much. Like something was wrong with her. Whenever she told guys she didn’t want kids they always gave her a strange look. As if she weren’t sus enough already, with no friends (unless you counted books) and no desire to be part of the ordinary world. Sure, the nights could be scary but she couldn’t imagine herself ever going back to crowds, traffic, sunlight so bright it exposed your every flaw. People thought of night as a whole cloth, an unending blackness without boundaries, but it wasn’t like that. It was as alive, as full of subtle variations, as any landscape.
“To be honest, I’m not a fan of kids,” Liv confessed. It felt good to say it, freeing even. “Maybe because I grew up as an only child.”
Liv resisted the urge to scream. Was Vi lying? What did she really know about Vi, anyway? They’d only met that night, when Liv’s boss told her to drive out to Lansdale for her shift. Had Duncan been messing with her? But Vi wasn’t lying about being left-handed and even if she dyed her hair, it was still the same shade of black as Liv’s. Then there was the similarity between their names—Liv, Vi. Both variations on Olivia. And the sleeves. Her stomach tightened.
Vi laid down the dough she was stretching and walked over to Liv’s table. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Even Liv could hear the stiffness in her voice. Her mother would have called it a tone. She wasn’t even attempting to look like she was working anymore. The pastry ring sat finished on the table, its red and white fillings staring up at her. Perfectly symmetrical, perfectly shaped. 13 more to go. She needed to get moving.
Vi pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You look kind of . . . weird. . .rattled. Do you want me to take over with the pastries?”
“I’m not rattled.” Liv pasted a smile onto her face. As if Vi wasn’t already behind with the baguettes. And she was going to take over the pastries too? They’d be there until lunchtime. “Just a little tired. I think maybe I’ll go to the freezer. If you want, you can take over.”
What the hell?
A flicker of surprise crossed Vi’s face. Freezer runs were the worst task of all. Not only did they have to climb a ladder to reach the boxes of frozen cookies and muffins, but they had to do it with the freezer door shut. The temperature couldn’t rise above 32 degrees. Last month a baker up north had fallen off the ladder and hit her head on the way down. They found her sprawled across the steel floor the next morning, half frozen to death. She’d never gone back. Somehow the idea of ice cold air seemed like a comfort to Liv though. That’s what she needed to clear her head.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Vi asked. She had already returned to her station and sliced the last piece of dough on the screen. “It’s fucking freezing in there.”
“Hence the name freezer.” As she spoke, Liv realized the entire baguette rack was full, that somehow Vi had finished prepping all 120 baguettes. How was that possible? Meanwhile, 13 uncut strips of pastry ring dough sat thawing on her table. Another 20 minutes and the dough would be too warm to work with.
Vi pressed her lips together as she wheeled the baguette racks into the proof box. She pulled the twin bagel racks out and transferred them to the walk-in oven. Steamed wafted out of the crack at the top of the door and dissolved into the ceiling. Behind the glass door, the racks began rotating.
“What happened with the girl at the school,” Liv burst out before she could stop herself. “What did you do that scared her so much you got fired?”
Vi fastened her gaze onto Liv. Her eyes were sapphire blue. Just like Liv’s. Of course. “I didn’t do anything to her.”
Liv wasn’t buying it. “So they fired you for nothing.”
“They fired me because I made the mistake of telling her I saw things sometimes. People. That when I don’t take my meds, sometimes my sense of what’s real. . .gets a little shaky.” Vi said in a rush, her voice rising as she went on. “There’s this one guy, a recurring hallucination, I guess you’d call it. He kept showing up at the school. With a gun. Or so I believed at the time. He was right there, in the hallway, when I was taking Kaylee to the bathroom. I stepped aside. I mean I knew he wasn’t there but I grabbed her hand and pulled her to one side so we wouldn’t walk into him. So we wouldn’t upset him. I was trying to protect her, to save her. It was stupid, I understood that at the time, but I did it anyway. It’s just instinct, you know? He looked so real. They all do.”
“So you. . .told the girl–Kaylee? That there was a guy with a gun in the hallway? Or a . . . hallucination. . .with a gun?”
Vi nodded. “I don’t know why I did that. It was stupid. But I don’t get why it scared her so much. Kids see ghosts all the time. They love that shit. But Kaylee freaked out. And she told some of her friends when we got back to the classroom. And they told the teacher, only it got all messed up—like with Telephone—and some of the kids thought there really was a guy with a gun in the school. We ended up going into lockdown. The police showed up. People were. . .panicking.”
The oven timer started buzzing. The bagel racks need to be switched so the outside faced inward. Some of the bakers didn’t bother but Liv liked the way the bagels came out perfectly golden on all sides. Apparently Vi did too. She grabbed the oven mitts, walked over to the oven and pulled the heavy door open. When Vi got back to the baker’s station, Liv had swept the 13 unmade pastry rings into the trash. They were too warm to shape now. She’d have to get more from the freezer for Vi. They were way, way behind now. Under other circumstances, she’d be stressed about it. Now it seemed almost trivial.
Vi eyed the trash barrel but didn’t comment on the ruined dough. Instead she lifted the one perfect pastry ring off the table and moved it into the walk-in refrigerator. “We can bake this with the others later.”
Liv watched the ring disappear into the fridge. She grabbed an empty cart to take to the freezer and pushed it a few feet toward the other end of the back room. Then she stopped. She couldn’t let it go: the lockdown, the girl, the imaginary guy with the gun.
“So they fired you after the lockdown?” she asked, keeping her voice casual.
“Not right away.” Vi said with a little laugh. “Her parents were both professors at the college. One of them was chair of the psychology department as it turned out. So Kaylee goes home and she tells them the whole story. I mean, of course they’d already heard about the lockdown on social media but not the whole story. And later, when Kaylee tells them about me, they freak out that their kid was alone with a schizo. From the way they told it to the principal, it was like I was the one who would bring a gun to the school. Like I was a psychopath or something. A danger to others. Supposedly.”
Liv studied Vi. On the surface, she looked perfectly normal. Goth, but still normal. Not like someone who saw stuff that wasn’t really there. Not like someone who would tell little kids about men bringing guns to their school. “The girl did get you fired,” she said, “in a way.”
“I don’t hold it against her or anything.” Vi grabbed a cloth and started wiping down Liv’s table. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“No,” Liv said firmly. Was Vi going to try to convince her the hallucinations were real? Please, God, no. She’d had enough of that with her mom. “Not at all.”
Liv felt a little better, but only a little. At least Vi knew what reality was. Sort of. “Do you hear voices too?”
A beat. “When I’m not on my meds.”
Another beat. “Are you on your meds now?”
Vi focused on the table. She wiped some crumbs into her gloved hand and dropped them into the trash on top of the dough. Jesus. Here she was working with a psycho with a knife and no cameras. It was a small knife but it was still sharp as hell. Liv’s knife was too. At least there was that.
“Do you see anybody here, when you’re working?” Liv asked. If Vi was hallucinating, she needed to know. She needed to know what she was dealing with. Should she call Duncan? No. That would make her seem like she was afraid. She’d be no better than the girl at the school. Plus she’d have to get her phone out of her backpack without Vi noticing. “Like in the cafe?”
“You mean in general?” Vi finished wiping the table and threw the wipe into the trash. She peeled off her gloves and added them to the pile.
“Yeah.” That wasn’t what she meant but it would have to do. For some reason, Liv didn’t want to ask Vi outright if she was hallucinating right now.
“Sometimes.” Vi’s voice was neutral as she reached for a new pair of gloves. She pulled them over her crimson nails, wiped both hands on her apron.
Had Vi’s nails always been red? Liv hadn’t noticed them before. They weren’t supposed to wear fake nails. “Is it . . the same guy? The one with the gun?”
“What does he look like?”
“What does it matter?” Color seeped into Vi’s pale face. For the first time that night, she looked angry. “He’s not real.”
“I just want to know,” Liv said. “I’m just curious. It’s not a big deal.” Vi was right, it didn’t matter. But for some reason she really did want to know.
Vi’s gaze turned inward. “He’s tall. Big. Not fat, more like he works out. Broad shoulders. He always wears the same plaid flannel shirt, jeans, work boots, a black knitted cap. He’s got a beard. Sometimes he wears a jacket.”
“What about the gun?”
Her sapphire eyes came back into focus. “I forgot about the gun. Yeah, he has a gun. A handgun. In a holster under his shoulder.”
“Does he always have it?
“Most of the time. Not always.”
“And you never saw this guy before. In real life.”
“Never,” Vi said. “At least I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever seeing him.”
“Does he ever say anything?”
Vi shook her head. “No. Nothing.” Then, in a tone, “Are you done?”
Liv tightened her grip on the cart. Vi’s warmth had disappeared entirely and she couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t Vi’s fault she saw people who weren’t really there. Who was Liv to make her feel bad about it? On the other hand, it was Vi who had quit taking her meds. Vi who had traumatized a six-year-old and sent an elementary school into Code Red.
“It’s not my fault I see people who aren’t there,” said Vi. “Who are you to judge?”
Liv’s head started to throb. Suddenly, she wanted to get as far away from Vi as possible. She wished the shift was over. She wished she could quit. But she couldn’t, she needed the money. “I’m going to head to the freezer. We’re pretty behind. Which is my fault for asking you so many questions.”
The oven timer went off. Vi grabbed the oven mitts and hurried to take the bagels out of the oven. “We’d better focus on the bake from now on.” Her voice was flat.
Liv shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It didn’t help. “Good idea.”
She grabbed her coat off the hook behind the baker’s station then took the cart and headed for the freezer. When she got there she used a chair to prop open the door and pushed the cart inside. The last thing she wanted to do was spend time in the freezer with the door shut and Vi roaming free through the cafe. If only she’d been able to grab her phone when Vi wasn’t looking.
Liv pulled on a pair of wool gloves and climbed onto the first rung of the ladder. On the other side of the open door, the light seemed brighter than usual. Almost blinding. It took her longer than usual to pull the frozen cookie batter and the uncooked muffins off the shelves, partly because she didn’t know where anything was and partly because her headache was getting worse. It was taking so long the temp had to have shot up to 40 degrees. Thank God the cameras were broken because Duncan would definitely have written her up for that. Still, she had to keep stopping to rub her hands together. As she worked, she tried to listen for the oven timer, for Vi’s movements, but even with the door open she couldn’t hear a thing.
When the cart was full, she dragged it out of the freezer. She moved the chair back to the manager’s office and started toward the baker’s station. Up ahead, Vi was pushing the bread rack into the oven. She pressed a crimson fingertip to the timer as Liv approached. The smell of fresh bread filled the air. Liv felt nauseous.
“I’m back,” she said brightly. A little too brightly, but maybe Vi wouldn’t notice.
Vi eyed the cart. “I don’t see the pastry rings,” she said. “Are they underneath the cookies or something?”
“Shit.” Liv had forgotten all about the pastry rings. She had crossed them off the pan-up earlier that night and must have skipped over them when she went back to the freezer. “I’m sorry. I’ll run back and grab them.”
Before Vi could answer, Liv turned and jogged back toward the freezer. Which was when she realized she was on the verge of passing out. She’d been working nonstop since 8 p.m. without so much as a drink of water. What a disaster this night had been. She couldn’t wait to drive home at dawn and collapse into bed. She reached out and braced herself against the wall. If she could just splash some water onto her face she’d be fine. She would pop into the restroom out front and head straight to the freezer. Vi wouldn’t even realize she’d made a detour.
Outside, it was snowing. Thick flakes swirled out of the darkness and settled onto the pavement. A lone car sat parked beneath one of the unlit streetlamps, coated with a dusting of white. Liv edged closer to the plate glass windows, skirting around the empty tables and chairs until she reached the front of the cafe. Behind her, computerized menu boards cast a faint glow onto the countertops. She could hear Vi in the back room pulling a rack out of the proof box. The wheels clacked reassuringly across the tiles.
Liv lurched a few steps forward and braced herself against the glass with both hands. It was so cold it burned her palms. She realized she was sweating.
The car looked like an older model, American made. Kind of boxy with four doors. Not that different from the car Liv had “inherited” from her mother a few years back. She couldn’t tell what color the vehicle was but it looked as if nobody was inside. It probably belonged to Vi, but then why hadn’t Liv noticed it before? She was sure it hadn’t been there at the beginning of the shift. Liv scanned the ground around the car for footprints. There were none.
The wind howled as it lifted the snow and pushed it up against the building. Liv heard footsteps behind her. She whirled her head around to see Vi standing in the doorway between the cafe and the backroom. Wisps of dark hair framed her shadowed face.
“What’s taking you—” she started to ask then broke off. Her eyes flicked past Liv, fixed on something beyond her.
When Liv turned back to the window, he was there, his palms pressed up against the glass to mirror her own. Black cap on his head, snow melting in his beard, jacket open to reveal his gun.
Lori Lamothe has published four poetry collections, with Aldrich Press, FutureCycle Press and Kelsay Books. She also writes fiction and articles; her prose has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The South Florida Sun Sentinel, History of Yesterday, The Writing Cooperative and elsewhere.