The smallish storefront on main street had been closed for years. Older residents of the tiny town of Nether recalled the days when they could walk from Sunday service down the sidewalk and stop in at Millie’s bakery for coffee and a donut. Fasting before the eucharist only made Millie’s confections taste all the sweeter and her cheerful smile encouraged indulgences. Millie had passed away almost a decade ago and her little shop had sighed into disrepair and neglect. When the For Rent sign disappeared one drizzly day in March the gossip started up immediately.
“I heard it’s going to be a Starbucks.”
Oh, the tongues clicked at that one, the heads shook.
“A shame. It was such a nice little place. No one wants to work anymore, that’s the problem.”
“It is a lot of work to run a business.”
“It’s the pride. No one has any pride in ownership anymore. With how much money a person can get for sitting on the couch, why would anyone want to do anything anymore?”
“That’s why the young people are so heavy these days. Everything so easy. No one even cooks anymore.”
“My granddaughter made a Stoffer’s lasagna— we’re Italian! My mother would spit on her.”
Then a pause. A shrug.
“Starbucks might be nice. I kind of like those cold drinks.”
“They do have some lovely teas.”
And so on and so forth, day after day while hired builders moved in and out, the newly blocked out windows acting as the blindfold for the surprise. The construction workers themselves were no help at all. None of them indulged a single nosey inquiry. All through March the saws hummed, the hammers drummed, and the traditional sounds of renovation and rejuvenation composed a familiar and curious song for Nether until the third day in April hummed into town and all at once there it was. The paper was pulled down from the invisibly clear glass allowing the spring sunshine to gleam off the soft, wide tiles made to look like planks of wood from some farmhouse. There was a high butcher block counter laid atop an awaiting display case, kinking over to the cash register which was something from another century what with its huge pulling arm saluting up from its right side. Chalk boards hung holding their breath for specials and menus on white subway tile walls. And there, in garish gold outlined red letters was the name of the new establishment: Unjust Desserts! With an exclamation point and everything.
“A new bakery, that’s what it is.”
“Oh excellent, we definitely needed one. I’ve had to go all the way to city for anything worth calling a croissant. I hope it has a decent baker.”
“Well, it will be difficult to outdo Millie. She really set quite a high bar, you know. She was in there from dawn until dusk perfecting those recipes of hers. There was nothing she couldn’t bake.”
No one was going to mention how Millie’s cakes were dry, the crumb too large to be delicate. The crusts of her pies were usually overworked and very often burnt. Every third batch of donuts was just a touch rancid-y because she hated to throw out that oil too soon. Oh, and no one would admit that Millie never thought to leave some butter out at room temperature so she was always throwing it into the microwave until it was half solid, half liquid, resulting in flat, crunchy cookies pretty much every time. Millie had never even attempted a croissant.
“I hope it’s not some gluten-free, alternative thing. There’s one Celiac in the whole of Nether and he cheats on that diet every day. No reason to spoil everyone’s baked goods for one old codger.”
“I bet it’ll be all coconut flour and oatmilk. What a shame. I was really looking forward to something special.”
By the time Gal arrived, the town had gone through all the stages of grief over the death of her venture. She walked down the deserted sidewalk, the click of her small wooden heels on the pavement the only sound other than the imagined sound of the light drizzle misting over the street. She turned her brass key in the brass doorknob and smiled at the cheerful tinkle of the actual bell above her. She hated those electric chimes. She wouldn’t have that in her shop. Gal removed the floppy green rainhat from her carefully curled dark brown hair and smoothed all the strays down in the reflection of the glass case. Her red lipstick perfectly matched her porcelain-like skin, her waterproof mascara had been chosen just for this type of weather. Gal made a few adjustments based on her reflection, straightening her dress, the sage green fitted bodice with three-quarter sleeves stopping at a matte brown leather belt to allow for a swinging skirt covered in poppies that fell to the middle of her calves. On top of this she tied a long cream-colored apron. With a smirk and a deep breath, Gal got to work on her offerings for opening day.
The bell chimed a welcome to her very first customer and Gal smiled warmly from behind the counter. It was a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, graying hair pulled back in a low ponytail, her black raincoat coming to the middle of her thighs over her jeans.
“Welcome, you’re my first customer,” Gal beamed. She spotted the pleased surprise on the woman’s face at the sound of her unexpected accent. She reached her arm out over the counter to offer her hand. “I’m Gal Campbell.”
“Freya Millstone,” the woman replied. Her fingers were knotty and limp in Gal’s warm grasp. “You’re from England?”
“Wales, specifically,” Gal said cheerfully. She watched as Freya’s cloudy blue eyes skimmed over the bounty in the display case. “Anything you fancy in there? Or do you have a favorite in mind already?”
Freya was astounded by the sheer volume and variety of goods before her. The case was fifteen feet long with three levels of staggered shelves and there was not a bare space to be seen. She wetted her lips, shifting her weight from one foot to the other like an overwhelmed child in a candy store.
“I am fond of croissants,” she admitted shyly. “I know they’re pretty plain but—”
“How about this one?”
Freya lifted her eyes from the hypnotic display to find Gal holding a flakey brown crescent out to her. Her eyebrows rose as the buttery smell swirled up into her nose. And Gal’s encouraging smile in her peripheral vision, a soft blur in the background.
“Such a complex little delight, isn’t it? The simple flavors are always the most difficult to master.” Gal laughed a lyrical, light, wonderful sound that had Freya giggling without knowing why. “Far from mastery myself. Why don’t you try it and tell me what I can do to make it perfect. I am hoping to give out lots of samples today and find out just what you folks in Nether have a tooth for.” She winked that heavily lashed green eye and Freya found herself holding the croissant.
A strange delirium started to whisper in the back of Freya’s mind, pulling her from being present in the bakery, pulling her somewhere she was all too happy to go. Her teeth crunched through the outer shell, each layer getting softer and softer, becoming less bread and more butter until her teeth met just before the dough became too soft. For a flash of a moment, a single taste, Freya saw the Eiffel Tower, heard the throaty accents. She felt the snapped flakes of the brown of the croissant on her lips and caught them with her tongue before they fluttered to the floor.
“Well, Freya, what can you tell me?”
Gal’s voice brought Freya back to the new little bakery and the friendly baker. The setting, Gal’s classic look, the taste of the croissant, Freya’s mind wobbled between the year it was and the years all of her senses insisted it was. Her hand fluttered to her mouth to clean up the remnants.
“Amazing,” she said in a quiet wonder. “It- it’s just like when I was in Paris in my twenties. I haven’t tasted anything like this since way back then, I swear. I always wanted to go back and I never got to.”
Gal waved a wand at her playfully. “Plenty of time, Freya. Paris isn’t going anywhere. I’m sure you’ll go back, have a croissant there and realize what a stand-in mine is. So sweet of you to say though. I am so glad you like it.”
“I’ll take a dozen,” Freya announced, startling herself. The missing bite from the croissant in her hand put an anxious swirl in her stomach. This one would be gone in just a few bites. If she had twelve, that could last her all week. Freya already knew she was kidding herself: the croissants would hardly make it to the end of the day. The baker simply smiled at her, counted out twelve croissants into a brown paper bag, rolled the top down, and met Freya at the register.
“Do you have cash, miss Freya? I’m afraid I do only accept cash these days.”
“Yes, sure, I have it.” Freya’s arthritis slowed her progression into her purse but did not halt it. She eagerly handed over the wrinkled bills, cradling the bag close to her chest. The big arm of the register cranked down, the drawer drew open with a chime and a clunk, and Gal held out her first customer’s change.
“Here you are then. Would you like a receipt, Freya?”
“Not necessary,” she waved hurriedly. She wanted to get back to France as soon as possible. The dollar and few coins made it a few inches from Gal’s hand to land in the mason jar beside her register. Gal’s cheeks dimpled.
“Thank you so much. You’ve made such a lovely first customer for me. Please do tell your friends to stop in. I’ll be open Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.” She leaned in a touch, luring Freya in despite her increasing desire to scuttle from the bakery with her bounty. “I’ll be sure to have the croissants for you,” Gal promised with a wink.
The bell chimed as chipper in farewell as it did in hello, but Gal’s expression darkened the moment she was alone. Her makeup stopped looking so vintage and turned to packed clay on her face. She stared at the door, at the grayish sky beyond it. At least she had one already, she appeased herself. Freya would be back and she wouldn’t be all too difficult to slip a little something extra to in the future. She sighed, tired already even though it was hardly nine in the morning. She slapped a dishtowel over her shoulder and went to rearrange her goods to fill the hole left by the croissants. Besides, there was something else that had to be front and center for her next customer. Gal picked up a shiny fruit tart with an impossible crumb crust and put it on the top shelf, down further in the display, closer to the register, and she waited.
He already knew he’d messed up. He was supposed to have gotten a cake for Missy’s sister’s baby shower. He was supposed to because he’d volunteered to after he’d forgotten to pick up balloons for Missy’s dad’s eighty-fifth birthday.
“No problem, Missy,” he’d assured her. “I would be happy to get something for Tanya. You have so much to do. Just leave this one little thing to me.”
Yeah, great idea. Billy wasn’t certain which of them was more the idiot: him for offering or her for trusting him. Of course, as long as they had been together, this could very well be another one of Missy’s traps. She had this way of setting him up to fail. Made him think that she really did expect him to do something when there was no way a woman with her IQ would still believe Billy was capable of following through. There was no ring on her finger. There was no shared house with a picket fence and kids. This was not her bridal or baby shower. At almost forty, Missy should have picked up on the idea that Billy was not the following through type.
But this time he really did want to get it right. Was it really his fault that the grocery store didn’t have baby shower cakes? How was he supposed to know it wasn’t something you decorated cakes for on a regular basis? Who would know something like that? But Billy had one last hope: he’d passed Millie’s old bakery on the way to the store and saw that the new baker had finally opened her door. He pulled his not new but not ancient truck nose-first into one of the slanted spaces on that side of the street and walked down the sidewalk to the brightly painted door. Unjust Desserts! lured him forward with the miasma of food chemistry shrouding the storefront. He glanced up towards the tinkle of the bell until Gal swept into the room from the back.
Billy thought Gal looked like some kind of classic magazine cover where the little wife had warm slippers and a pipe waiting for her husband at the end of the day. Maybe Gal would have a little extra waiting for him based on how snug the top of her dress was.
“Good morning to you, sir,” she greeted in her exotic lilt. She read the question on his face and put her hands on her hips. “Wales.”
In any other circumstance, in the presence of any other food, Billy would have struggled not to stare at Gal as she swayed along behind the counter, skirt flipping, white legs flashing behind the glass. But Billy found it almost impossible not to stare at the bounty of the case.
“Did you make all of this?” he asked at last.
Gal nodded sharply. “Of course. Doesn’t do me much good to bring in some goods from another baker now does it?” she laughed.
“Why Unjust Desserts? How’d you decide on that name?” He made polite small talk mostly so he could continue to ogle the goods.
“Well, because I don’t just make desserts,” Gal replied with a grin. She laid her forearms on the counter and leaned up over the case. “You seem to be looking for something in particular mister…?”
“Billy Thompson. Just Billly, though.”
“Just Billy, I’m Gal. So, what is it you want today?”
The reality of what he was there for rattled him back to the moment. “A baby shower. I’m supposed to get a cake for a baby shower.”
Gal clapped her hands and the joy bubbling out of her made Billy smile in spite of his predicament.
“Oh how splendid. A boy or a girl?”
“They don’t want to know.”
“A surprise?” Gal tilted her head. “How wonderfully old fashioned. We can’t just go with blue or pink than can we? But something with a bit of both might do the trick.” She curled a finger at Billy as she strolled along down the aisle, luring him towards the tart. The light glinted off of the sugary glaze refracting off of perfectly even alternating rows of blueberries and sliced strawberries. A springtime bullseye. Billy was so hypnotized by his reflection off the surface of the tart that he didn’t notice Gal moving around behind it.
“That little creation has a thin lining of dark chocolate over the tart shell and a nice sharp lemon curd under the berries. A light, optimistic little treat for a baby shower and in all the right colors wouldn’t you say?” And suddenly there was a spoon mere inches from Billy’s face. “But you try this bit of leftover curd and tell me if it’s to your liking. Everyone has a different pucker.”
Normally Billy did not put random spoons of yellow goo from strangers into his mouth, but today was not a normal day. The silken curd hit his tastebuds and drool filled his mouth. The initial cut of the lemon rippled into a soothing sugar balm and Billy tasted his first kiss with Missy. But it wasn’t Missy. It was his passionate kiss with the now Mrs. Susan Tullworth. Several things about her still made his mouth water and Billy felt a hot flush move up his cheeks. He opened his eyes to realize that he’d closed them and stepped back away from Gal, wiping his slick lips.
“Y-yeah, that’s good,” he blubbered. It wasn’t lemon or sugar lingering in his mouth but the sweetness of Susan. Gal’s almond-shaped eyes squinted as her cheeks rose.
“I’ll box that right up for you, Billy. And here now, I’ve a few edible flowers I can dainty it up with. How’s that?”
“Great, yes.” Billy drifted to the register in a sweaty teenage memory guided mainly by the shadow of Gal in his periphery.
“Cash only, please,” Gal insisted. Her eyebrow arched as she set the white box tied with a thin white butch string up beside her register and took the exact amount of cash from Billy’s hand.
Billy wasn’t invited to the baby shower. More of a girls’ day. He left the bakery holding the tart like a sheet of ice. He had to force himself to keep his eyes on the road as he drove to Missy’s house, several cars swerving around him and curing that he was out on some Sunday drive when they had places to be. Every time Billy glanced at the box he tasted her again, felt her hands on his chest, her breath in his ear. Every time he thought about that spoonful of curd he became more convinced that he might snatch Susan by the hair at the baby shower, drag her to the bedroom like a caveman claiming a mate and have his way with her. Of course, didn’t get anywhere near Susan Tullworth. When he arrived with the tart, Missy took it with a disappointed kind of joy that she was going to miss out on telling him what a screwup he was. She said thanks at the door, kissed his cheek, and left him alone on stoop with nothing more than a glimpse at the back of Susan Tullworth’s head.