A man was following me.
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, for the past month, he has been there, sitting, sipping black coffee, curiously passing glances at me when he thought I wasn't looking. It was difficult not to return his look when I could feel his eyes on me as I piped pink tulips on the cupcakes, back turned to him. It was an intense stare, like he was looking right through me and into me, making the hairs on the back of my neck rise and a shiver sometimes electrocute my body.
Nobody ever sat next to him, nobody ever spoke to him. A few of our patrons would cast their own peek at him, but he never minded them, either reading a newspaper or focusing on me.
When he first started coming, I thought he was new in town and liked our Ecuadorian coffee (we did grind some of the best), but he kept showing up, sitting, staring. My manager, Ronald, suggested he was a new regular, but if he was, he was the strangest one I had encountered. Usually, our regulars would talk to us and make light conversation, helping us remember them and what they ordered. We had one that came in only on Wednesdays to buy a dozen cupcakes for the special education class she taught, and another that showed up on Saturdays to order a caramel sticky bun while he flirted with Jeanette, my coworker.
My stalker, as Ronald so lovingly referred to him as, was unlike the regulars, though.
"'Least he's cute," Jeanette murmured to me, both of us kneeling and placing fresh cupcakes in the glass display. From our vantage point, we were able to spy on the blond man, hand balled up under his chin, looking painfully bored. He had been sitting there for about ten minutes already, languidly sipping his steaming coffee, casting looks my way when I was distracted.
"Still creepy," I whispered, now standing, silver cupcake tray in hand. Our eyes met for a second, mine and that man's, and I quickly averted my gaze back to Jeanette as she tugged off her vinyl gloves to twist her chocolate-colored hair into a tight bun on top of her head. "He doesn't do anything other than sit there and stare and drink. He barely talks when he asks for his coffee, too."
"I'm gonna talk to 'im if you don't." She gave me a look that said she was serious, and I knew that if she tried, she could get him. She had that irresistible Southern lilt, a habit that I even had, although hers was different. She had an accent that announced her coming from South Carolina, while mine told that I was from Alabama. Hers was prettier, I thought. "Here, gimme a cupcake. I'll see if he'd like one."
Rolling my eyes and sighing, I crossed the small kitchen and grabbed one of the strawberry cupcakes, untouched and still sitting in the silicone holder. Quickly, I decorated it with the champagne-flavored icing and edible pearls, carefully handing it off to Jeanette. "If this'll get'm out of here or get'm to quit staring at me, I'll give him all the cupcakes he can eat."
"I'll see what I can do," she assured, batting her long eyelashes and grinning, wiggling her butt as she traipsed out from behind the counter and headed to the blond man's table. Holding the full icing bag, I bent over the tray of cupcakes, looking over my shoulder to see how this went with him, certain Jeanette could get some kind of reaction out of him.
She approached the table, daintily holding the cupcake by its paper wrapper between her middle finger and thumb. Without pausing to ask if it was available, Jeanette took the spare seat across from him and placed the cupcake in the direct center of the table, garnering a smirk from the man, his eyes once more fleeting to me before flicking back to Jeanette and her curvy body, full breasts nearly falling out of the low cut of her tank top, thin waist, and an ass that even made me look sometimes.
Once I knew she had his attention, I went back to piping, creating swirls of rich frosting on the tops of the shocking pink desserts, hoping that there wouldn't be any other distractions at the bakery. We were reasonably busy—several people stopping by every few minutes to get their treats, then leaving before the next bout of customers could welcome themselves. It gave me time to fill out special orders—like the strawberry champagne cupcakes I had to complete for a bridal shower that night.
As soon as I had finished the last of the two dozen cakes, I heard Jeanette's tennis shoes squeaking on the tiled floor behind me, and I turned to see what she wanted, surprised at the exasperated look on her face. Neither of us wanted to speak about the man since he was still in the shop and could tell if we were talking about him, so I gave Jeanette a short smile and want back to work, touching up the decorations and finishing off the extra cakes to put them on display for the regular customers.
"Did she say if she was gonna pick those up?" Jeanette asked, leaning against the steel counter, watching as I carefully lined the cupcakes in two large boxes. I knew that was her asking if she could drive to pick up lunch after she had delivered the cakes.
Looking at her above my glasses, I smirked at her ploy. "Just pick me up a chicken sandwich when you grab lunch, 'kay?"
"Clark, you know me so well." Flashing me her lipstick-coated grin, she raced to grab her purse, returning to gather the boxes of cupcakes to take out to her car. "Text me her address. I'll be back in about an hour, at most." Then, in a hushed whisper, "He's looking again." I saw annoyance fill her eyes, a look she rarely got, then she stormed out of the back of the shop, the sound of her shoes echoing down our hallway.
Gritting my teeth, I peeked over in the man's direction, and, sure enough, his blue eyes were glued to me, coffee mug brought to his mouth. His young eyes crinkled at the corner as he smiled, and, out of kindness, I returned it, trying to find some way to busy myself, pulling out a calendar for the next week's schedule, seeing which new projects existed for me, finding that there was nothing until Friday, the day after he would be back again.
Scowling, I scanned the front of the shop to check on the other customers, stepping out from behind the counter to make sure they had everything they needed. I refilled one woman's coffee cup and brought out another bite-size brownie for a little boy at the request of his dad. It didn't keep me occupied for long, and soon I had caught the attention of the blond man again.
"Excuse me," he called as I was sketching out a cake for a new display piece. I looked up from the drawing and set my pencil on the paper, pushing my glasses back onto my head to rub my eyes. He was standing in front of the glass case, coffee cup in hand, weak smile on his lips. "I was wondering if I could have a refill. I really can't get enough of it." His voice was low, soft, and somewhat comforting, as little as I willing to say.
"Yeah, sure," I quickly answered, snagging the cup from him and crossing over to the coffee maker we had settled on its own little cabinet next to the decorating station. "Cream and sugar?" I asked, already knowing how he'd take it: straight black.
"Surprise me," he said, catching me off guard as I was about to hand him the mug back, and the smile broadened when I stared down at the dark coffee, my own stupid reflection staring back at me, my red hair still showing in the opaqueness of the drink.
Spinning on my heel, I went back to the coffee station, prepping the coffee how I preferred: lots of creamer and a spoonful of sugar. It instantly became a dark tan, something Jeanette referred to as the same color as some of the tourists around the area. It was probably something he wasn't used to, this sweetness, since I had only ever seen him drink black coffee and never once touch any of the sweets. Maybe I made it too sweet for him?
"Just remember that you asked for this," I told him, offering him the cup. "I got a big sweet tooth, and a lot of people can't handle it." Graciously, he accepted the cup, and I yanked back my own fingers when I felt his graze mine, not wanting the unnecessary touch from him.
I watched as he took a sip, sucking his top lip into his mouth to get rid of the film of coffee, giving me a subtle nod. "It's pretty good. You weren't lying about you having a sweet tooth, though." Resting his arms on the display, his eyes danced around the bakery, from the two-tiered ovens, down to my sketchbook with half of the cake design sitting there. "It looks nice. Is it for someone or . . . ?" He took another sip of the coffee, eyes on the paper.
"Oh, n-no, it's for a store decoration," I explained, tossing my finger at the old display in front of the window, a three tiered cake with sky blue icing, lace, and flowers. While the icing and fondant were real, underneath was cardboard. Nobody was able to tell, though, and I felt proud in showing it off since it was a creation of my own. "I try to update them once a month so that they look fresh and regulars don't get sick of looking at them." Pursing my lips, I lifted up my notebook to let him get a better look, my face flushing with color since this was so new to me. I had only ever shown Jeanette and Ronald my cake sketches, never a customer, especially not one like this man.
He pulled from the mug again, blue eyes studying the page thoughtfully. He was about to reach for another page before I jerked it away from him defensively. "I was hoping you'd show me more," he gently explained, face turning into something sympathetic looking.
"No, s-sorry, I just . . . I'm not used to people looking at these." Clutching the notebook to my chest, I bit the inside of my lip, trying hard not to bring my thumb up to start munching the nail, as was my habit. This notebook was like a teenager's journal: nobody was allowed to look or read it, and I tried concealing it whenever I could, usually in my backpack. It was probably because my dad had picked on me a lot as a kid when I would doodle cake designs and write out cake flavors and recipes that went well together.
"I understand. I guess I'll have to wait to see them like everyone else." He stood there finishing his coffee, handing me the mug by the rim when he was done. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his wallet and handed me a five dollar bill to cover the coffee and the refill, then fluffed up the scarf wrapped in layers around his neck, unusual for this time of year when people typically wore shorts and T-shirts. "Until next time?" he asked, already turning to leave.
Dumbly nodding, I cupped the mug tightly in my hands, watching him as he left, the little bell from the glass door ringing as he went, taking a left and strolling along the sidewalk. I waited until he definitely wasn't coming back before I dumped the mug in the sink, narrowing my eyes at it, wondering why it was today that he decided to be ballsy and talk to me.
The squealing of rubber soles on tile made me snap my head back towards the back hallway, Jeanette entering with a greasy white paper bag, the familiar Chik-fil-a symbol on front. "The lady loved the cakes! Said they were just so cute and smelled divine," she told me, setting our lunch on the decorating table. Her eyes scanned the bakery before finally settling back on me. "So he left?"
"Yeah, just a minute ago." Reaching into the bag, I pulled out my food, realizing how starved I was. It was three in the afternoon, and I had yet to eat, my stomach feeling grossly empty. "He saw the new store front cake, which was weird." The sandwich tasted better than I had imagined it would, and I greedily ate it down, wishing there was more. I was tiny, but I ate like a pig, part of the reason I was working at a bakery. "He almost saw the rest of them, but I stopped him in time."
"Clarky, you need to show them skills off more," Jeanette cooed, picking at her own food with her fingers, careful not to mess her red lipstick. "See, I had sat down with him and tried askin' about him, but he only wanted to know more about you. Now, I ain't had a boyfriend in quite some time, but I know when someone is interested." She wiped her fingers on a napkin, then ran them through my messy hair. "He likes your hair, too. Said it looked like a wildfire."
"Quit bullshittin'," I grumbled, getting back to work on my sketch. All my life, I had been picked on for my red hair, so I wasn't going to suddenly believe someone had taken interest in it. Family and friends always picked on it, especially one in particular. "Look, don't leave me alone next time he's in here. That was uncomfortable earlier, and you totally could have averted the situation." If Jeanette was here, it would have been easier. He never would have talked to me and we could have kept up with our silent eye-play, which was preferable to him knowing too much about me.
"Oh, chill," Jeanette urged. "I'll keep him from talking to you, if that's what you want. Think you should give'm a chance, but whatever." She wiped off her hands and threw away our trash, then put on her apron. "What do you need for the new display? I'll get it for ya."