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Two dozen pink Gerbera daisies. Hailey’s favorite.
The girl at the flower shop smiled too much. Eric found it distracting.
It wasn’t an unkind smile. It wasn’t even that there was nothing to smile about. It wasn’t a solemn occasion. The flowers weren’t for a funeral. Precisely the opposite, as a matter of fact. They were for a baby shower. A celebration of happy expectations. The joyfully imminent arrival of a beautiful baby girl. There was no reason not to smile, really…but it felt a little bit like she was laughing at him.
As she swiped his card, he eyed the bouquet. It was bigger than he’d expected. And so brightly colored… He might as well walk out of the store with an armload of lit sparklers.
It was a silly thing, really. Stupid, even. Just some childish streak of macho pride nagging at him, asking him if he really intended to be seen in broad daylight cradling this big, pink bouquet of daisies.
It didn’t help that the girl was so young. She looked about the same age as his high school students, barely old enough to drive a car. And it never failed to impress him how cruel kids could be at that age, how easy it was for them to ridicule others. And they could be especially mean-spirited toward adults. At that age, looking out at the world, you knew everything. Looking back from that world, from the other side of Eric’s thirty-two years, it was obvious that you really didn’t know anything. Those differing perceptions, from two completely opposing perspectives, sometimes made it difficult to communicate. It created a gap between them, a fissure of sorts.
Eric knew a thing or two about fissures.
His phone came to life in his pocket, buzzing urgently against his thigh. That would be Karen. Again. Begrudgingly, he fished the annoying device from the depths of his front jeans pocket and answered it: “Hello?”
“Did you get the flowers?”
“Paying for them now.”
“How do they look?”
The girl’s smile broadened. It looked warmer now, friendlier, less mocking. Perhaps it really had all been in his imagination.
“Hailey’ll love them. Don’t you think?”
“Definitely. Nothing celebrates a new life like decapitating some pretty plants.”
The girl giggled a little at this as she handed him back his debit card.
“Out with the old, in with the new,” declared Karen.
“One way of putting it, I guess.” Eric punched in his PIN number and asked, “How are the cupcakes coming?”
“First batch is done.”
“Awesome. You girls having fun?”
“Yes, we are.”
Eric returned his card to his wallet and lifted the bouquet off the counter. How was he supposed to even hold this stupid thing? They looked so delicate, yet they were heavy enough to demand a firm grip. And while he was talking on the phone, he couldn’t even handle them with both hands. He’d never really developed that knack for holding the phone in the crook of his neck like other people. He always dropped the damned thing.
Maybe he had an abnormal neck.
He hated cell phones. He hated the way people were always talking on them, as if everything they had to say was far too important to wait until they returned home. Talking and talking and talking, in their cars, at restaurants, while checking out in stores…like he was doing now… But Karen insisted he carry one. She was a firm believer that everyone should have one on them at all times. In case of emergency. Or, you know, in case she just wanted to talk to her husband right now.
Personally, he’d rather just ignore the stupid thing. But if there was one thing he’d learned as Karen’s loving and devoted husband, it was that she hated for her calls to be ignored.
“Diane keeps asking me to have you bring home tequila, though.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good idea. Won’t the cupcakes get more lopsided as you go?”
“That’s what I keep telling her.”
From the background, Eric heard Diane say, “Everything’s more fun with margaritas.”
Eric smiled at this. “She does have a point.”
“Don’t encourage her.”
Karen met Diane Shucker at college, where they were roommates. They’d been best friends ever since. Today, Diane was helping prepare for the shower. Although Eric had noticed on previous occasions like this one that “helping” usually meant little more than keeping her company. Karen always did the vast majority of the work. Diane would hand her things and help keep the kitchen tidy, but she’d mostly just sit with her, the two of them gossiping and giggling like schoolgirls.
Karen earned a fair amount of spending money as a freelance cake decorator and caterer. Her cakes, pies and cookies had won awards at every county fair for the past six years. As a result, she spent most Fridays and Saturdays in the kitchen, preparing for one gathering or another.
Eric thought she should just open a business and hire some real help, but she didn’t care at all for the idea of turning her hobby into a career. She was convinced it’d take all the fun out of it, and he supposed she might be right about that.
Satisfied that the bouquet wasn’t going to topple out of his grip, Eric nodded goodbye to the overly-smiley, too-young florist and quickly made for the door.
“I just got off the phone with Hailey, actually,” Karen informed him.
“Oh yeah? How is she today?”
“Good. Her family got here last night.” Hailey was his and Karen’s sister-in-law. Her husband, Andrew, was Karen’s baby brother. This would be their first child, and the first grandchild for Hailey’s parents. It was a big event for the entire family. They drove all the way down from Northern Minnesota for this shower.
“It is. But they all showed up.”
“Uh oh.” Eric stepped out into the warm sunshine and squinted at the surrounding street. He didn’t see anyone staring at him with one of those stupid smiles, but there was plenty of ground to cover between him and his silver PT Cruiser.
“Uh huh.” They’d only been expecting Hailey’s parents and maybe an aunt or two. “So I’m going to need you to bring home some more sparkling juice.”
“Sounds like a wild time. Red or white?”
“Both. About four more bottles, I think.”
“No. Four total. Two of each should do it.”
“That going to be enough?”
“I think so. Sounds like her dad and uncles brought down enough beer to show the whole town a good time.”
“Now you’re talking.”
“Right.” He knew she was rolling her eyes. It was a baby shower, not a wedding reception. She hadn’t planned on having any alcohol. She stood firmly by her assertion that it simply wouldn’t be fair to the expectant mother. And he certainly couldn’t argue with that. He wouldn’t want to be thrown a party where he was the only one not allowed to drink.
Eric made it to the vehicle without attracting a crowd and stopped as he realized that he now had no idea how he was going to dig the keys out of his pocket to unlock it.
So close to sanctuary…
Karen took a moment to think it over. Eric wondered if she was doing it on purpose. “I don’t think so,” she decided at last.
“Okay. I’ll see you in a little bit, then.”
Eric said goodbye and hung up. He shoved the phone back into his left, front pocket and then awkwardly shifted the bouquet to his left hand so he could retrieve the keys from his right, front pocket. A light breeze blew past him, threatening to unbalance the daisies, and he had to rest them gently against the side of the vehicle to keep from dropping them.
Once the keys were in his hand, he unlocked the doors and glanced around one last time. Still, nobody seemed to be staring at him. Nobody he could see, at least. That silly part of his brain was convinced that there were dozens of laughing eyes hidden behind all those store windows. But the only person he saw was a man in a navy blue hoodie hurrying across the street with a paper grocery sack in his arms.
Something about this man seemed curious. Perhaps it was the hoodie. It wasn’t sweltering out, but it was early June and plenty warm enough for shorts and tee shirts.
Eric watched this man as he hurried into a narrow alley between two buildings. There, just beyond the sidewalk, he turned to look back the way he came, pulling down his hood as he did, allowing an unobstructed view of his face.
Immediately, the big, pink bouquet was forgotten. Here, right before his eyes, was a face he hadn’t seen in over six years. In fact, as far as he knew, no one had seen this face in over six years.
The young man turned and scanned the street and sidewalk until his eyes met Eric’s. Instantly, surprise washed over him. Then panic. He turned and bolted deeper into the alley and out of sight.
Eric hurried after him, but by the time he entered the alley, Aiden (if it really was Aiden) was gone.
A high, chain link fence blocked the back of the alley. It was old and flimsy and didn’t look like it’d stop anyone sufficiently determined to pass through it, but it should’ve been enough to slow someone down. And Aiden hadn’t been out of sight for more than a few seconds.
On the left side of the alley, between him and the fence, a door stood ajar. It was much more likely that he’d gone in there.
Cradling the flowers in his arms, Eric walked to this door and opened it wide. There was no latch and no lock. It swung freely on its creaky hinges, practically useless. Inside was darkness and silence. A shadowy set of stairs led up to a second floor landing.
He hesitated. He didn’t like this. He felt like a child standing at the front gate of a haunted house. And he had every reason to be apprehensive. He’d done this sort of thing before. And unlike when he was a child, he knew first-hand that monsters were real.
He glanced around once more, but this seemed to be the only place the mysterious young man could’ve gone.
He didn’t have to do this. He could walk away. He could just go home. But… What if it really was Aiden?
Was it possible? After all this time?
If it was him, he couldn’t just leave. It’d haunt him for the rest of his life. Aiden Chadwick was one of this city’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
He looked back up into the shadows at the top of the steps and took a deep breath. “Don’t worry,” he said to himself. “You brought flowers. What could go wrong?”
But that was a poor choice of words. He’d always possessed a very vivid imagination and it was quick to bring to mind several ghoulish examples of how things could go very, very wrong.
Mentally bracing himself, he stepped through the doorway and began to climb the stairs. It was dusty in here. The paint was peeling from the walls. The handrail was coming loose.
What building was this? The bakery was next to the florist. Then that little pet grooming shop, Sheltie’s. Was that where he was? Or was this the next one over? He couldn’t quite recall how Main Street was laid out. He didn’t frequent the shops here that often. Many of them he’d never set foot in. He didn’t have reason to. He didn’t own a pet, for instance.
From this perspective, the building appeared to be deserted, except for the footprints in the dust. Those were fresh. Someone had been using these steps very recently. And frequently. A great many footprints had merged into a path up the middle.
At the top was another door, this one unbroken and properly latched. He paused here and listened. Everything was quiet. He reached for the knob, but stopped himself. He had no idea what was on the other side of this door. Most of these old Main Street shops had apartments over them. What if this was someone’s home? He couldn’t simply start rattling the knob, trying to break in. Best case scenario, someone would call the police. Worst case scenario, he’d find himself answering to a big, angry property owner with a big, angry gun aimed at his face.
No, the stealthy approach was simply a bad idea. This was Aiden, not Hannibal Lecter. He closed his open hand, took a calming breath and rapped his knuckles firmly against the door.
No one answered. He wasn’t surprised. Aiden hadn’t looked overly happy to see him, after all.
He knocked again. “Aiden?”
Not a sound.
“Is that you, Aiden? It’s Eric Fortrell. Do you remember me?”
Eric tried the knob. The door was unlocked. It creaked open, an eerie sound in the silence. “Hello? Anybody home?”
A narrow hallway stood before him. Shadowy, dusty, with cobwebs in every corner. A kitchen was to his right, a cramped bathroom to his left. He could see a table in the dining room ahead of him. An apartment, just as he’d predicted. But it looked as decrepit and poorly kept as the stairs that brought him here. The paint was faded, peeling. There was water damage on the ceiling tiles over the sink. There was no furniture except an old gas stove and dated refrigerator. It was hot and stuffy. And it smelled bad, like overflowing trash cans and dirty public restrooms.
Aiden was nowhere to be seen.
Eric felt his stomach sink a little as he recalled a similar deserted home, a farm house with the same kind of empty rooms. Like this time, he’d even followed someone right through the door, someone who vanished before he could catch up.
He could even remember a similar, narrow hallway. A bathroom. A bedroom. An old wardrobe…
Eric shuddered at the memory.
He forced himself to relax. This was different. That place was far away, unfamiliar, threatening. This was Creek Bend, Wisconsin. His hometown.
And this place was far from deserted. Someone had been here. It was a mess.
“Hello?” he called again. “Aiden? Is that you?”
Still although narrow the daisies in his arms, Eric stepped into the apartment and looked around. Garbage was strewn across the kitchen counter. And now that he was inside, he could hear the buzzing of flies. Standing there with the daisies in his arms, he felt a strong urge to turn and flee back down the steps.
“Please, God,” he muttered under his breath, “don’t let there be any dead bodies in here…”
On the counter, next to the sink, surrounded by crumpled soda cans, warm bottles of Aquafina water, snack food wrappers and empty tequila bottles sat the paper bag Aiden had been carrying when he entered the alley. Eric walked over and peered inside. It was filled with junk food. Snack cakes, mini-donuts, pretzels, some cereal bars… He was reminded of long nights cramming for exams in college. The only things missing were the Hot Pockets and microwave burritos.
Clearly, this was where Aiden went after he vanished from the alley. But where was he now?
Eric left the kitchen without searching it. It was obvious that no one was here. And he had no desire to check the fridge for human heads. He returned to the hallway instead.
The bathroom reeked. It smelled as if no one had ever flushed the toilet. Covering his mouth and nose against the stench, he leaned through the door and looked around. There was no shower curtain and a sizeable pile of dirty clothes lay in the bottom of the bathtub. A large package of toilet paper stood open and half-empty on the floor within reach of the toilet. Beside this was an empty five-gallon bucket. A toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, deodorant and a comb lay scattered on the counter around the sink basin along with several empty bottles of water and one half-empty bottle of Captain Morgan.
He reached out and twisted the knob on the sink, but no water came out. Clearly, the bottles of water were for brushing teeth while the bucket served to manually flush the toilet. But only occasionally, by the smell of it.
The rum, Eric could only speculate, was the all-in-one medicine cabinet, good for whatever ailed.
In need of fresher air, Eric withdrew from the smelly bathroom and moved on.
Next door was a small bedroom. A pile of old blankets were arranged into a makeshift bed surrounded by flashlights, empty soda cans, more water bottles and even more empty liquor bottles. There were junk food wrappers, fast food bags, napkins and other trash, as well as more dirty laundry.
His eyes washed over these clothes, examining them. Pants and shirts, socks, briefs… No women’s clothing.
Eric eyed the bed nervously. A tightly rolled blanket lay in the corner, a makeshift pillow. Aiden wasn’t merely spending time here…he seemed to be living here. And had been for a while. It must have taken at least a few weeks to make this much of a mess, perhaps months.
But how could he have been here this long without attracting attention? The whole county knew about Aiden Chadwick. His disappearance was the stuff of urban legends.
Now he was beginning to look a little more Hannibal Lecter-y.
Turning his back to the bedroom, Eric glanced back the way he’d come, half-convinced that someone was sneaking up behind him. But the apartment remained empty and silent.
He had a bad feeling about this place. More and more, he was sure that what he found here was going to ruin his day.
He walked to the end of the hallway and stepped into the combination living and dining room. Here, the walls were decorated with maps and photos of Creek Bend and the surrounding areas. In the middle of the room stood the cheap folding table that Eric had seen from the doorway. A large map of the city was taped to it. Several locations were circled in black Sharpie marker, each with a straight line drawn from it to the edge of the map, seemingly at random. In the center of one of the circles, a screw had been driven into the table. Two lengths of bright green string ran from this screw to two more screws driven into the walls on two sides of the room, where strange, spiraling arrangements of numbers had been drawn onto the faded wallpaper. Strewn across the table on top of the map were a wooden ruler, a compass, several markers and an old Polaroid camera.
There were more maps lying in an untidy pile on the floor under the table.
What the hell was this?
That bad feeling grew even stronger. Carefully, he placed the daisies on top of the map between the camera and the compass and reached for his cell phone.
“Are you seeing this?” he asked as he pulled it from his pocket.
The phone rang obediently in his hand. He answered it and lifted it to his ear without glancing at the screen.
“It’s weird, right? I mean it’s not just me?”
“Definitely not just you.”
“Like I should be concerned about how weird this is.”
“I agree. You should be careful.”
Eric looked around the room again. “You think I’m in danger?” The only other door leading in and out of this apartment was in this room. With the apartment empty, Aiden must have gone through there. By now he was probably long gone.
“Never hurts to assume so.”
Eric nodded and said, “Especially when things are freakishly weird.”
“Especially then. I’m doing great, by the way. Thanks for asking.”
Eric was looking nervously around the room, appreciating just how weird this all was, but as soon as she said this, he felt his shoulders slump. “Aw crap… I’m sorry.”
Isabelle giggled. “I’m totally just joking. It’s fine.”
“No it’s not.” Now that he was thinking about it, it’d been over a week since he last spoke to her. Karen had been keeping him so busy preparing for the shower… He felt like a jerk.
“I’m fine, Eric. I’m not a kid. Well… I am a kid… You know what I mean. I can entertain myself.”
“Still, that was rude of me.”
“Seriously. Forget it. You should be focusing on those…what are those? Maps?”
Isabelle couldn’t actually see what was in front of Eric. More accurately, she could perceive what he was looking at by what he was feeling and thinking. They shared a connection. It was…complicated.
Eric turned in a circle, scanning the walls around him. “Yeah. The whole city. He’s circled a bunch of locations for some reason.”
“He’s put some serious work into all this,” observed Isabelle. “But what’s he up to?”
Eric turned and leaned over the map on the table. This part of Main Street was enclosed in the circle with the screw driven into it. A line jutted out from the circle, roughly westward, all the way to the edge of the map. It crossed three other lines, each of which originated from another circle. Like the first one, none of these appeared to lead anywhere. And none of the drawn lines matched those created by the two lengths of string. “Is he planning some kind of…massive burglary?”
But Isabelle didn’t know.
There was another circle drawn over the hospital and another just south of the water tower, centered over Milwaukee Street. The others didn’t seem to have any outstanding landmarks to help locate them.
Only one of the circles didn’t have a black line running out from it. Instead, it’d been circled again in bright red marker and then crossed out with an X. This particular location wasn’t far from his home. He wondered why it was marked out. It was the only one like it. Was it a mistake?
“I get a seriously weird feeling about that place,” warned Isabelle.
“I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But I really think you should be careful.”
Eric glanced around the room again. There were two windows. One appeared to have been broken. It was boarded over with a roughly cut piece of plywood. Eric’s eyes were drawn to a hole in the center of the wood. Bright sunlight was pouring through.
As he ducked under one of the strings and moved toward this window, he saw that there were actually two boards, one behind the other, with about an inch of empty space between them. The second board had a hole in it, too, but it was offset from the first so that he could only look through them at a sharp angle. Peering through these holes, he could see the roof of one of the buildings across the street and the tall peak of a distinct structure reaching up behind it. Pressing his eye to the hole for a better look, he thought at first that it was the steeple of the Catholic church on Deer Street, but it was squared off, not pointed, less a steeple than a tower. And as he thought about it, he realized that Deer Street was in the opposite direction. This looked more like a clock tower, minus the clock. But he couldn’t quite place the building, even though he’d lived in Creek Bend most of his life.
A noise startled him. It sounded like a door clicking closed.
Suddenly his heart was racing.
“Be careful!” hissed Isabelle.
Eric nodded but didn’t dare speak aloud. Was that Aiden? He pressed his back to the wall and glanced around the room. The big, pink bouquet was still lying on the table, visible from the door all the way down the hall. If anyone had entered the apartment, they’d know instantly that someone was here.
That was really stupid.
But no one called out to ask who was trespassing. The building remained deathly quiet. The only sound was the occasional rumble of passing traffic on the street outside and the thudding of Eric’s pulse in his ears.
Silently, he stepped away from the wall and ducked under the string again, careful not to make any noise. Seconds passed as he crept toward the hallway, his body tense, ready to defend himself, but no one came to investigate the bouquet. The apartment remained quiet. And when he peered around the corner, he found no one there.
He’d left the door open behind him. Now it was closed. Perhaps a breeze had pulled it shut. It wasn’t all that unlikely. The door at the bottom of the steps didn’t have a latch, so the wind could easily have created a draft.
He checked the bedroom and bathroom, just to be sure, but both remained empty. There was nowhere to hide. There weren’t even any closets.
He peered out the door and down the steps, but no one was there, either.
Returning to the living/dining room, he opened the second door and looked out. Another dark stairwell led down to the first floor of the building.
Eric turned around and scanned the mysterious apartment again. If these were the only two exits, then Aiden could only have gone this way.
Isabelle’s voice drifted up from his hand and he lifted the phone to his ear. “What was that?”
“I said, what’s the deal with this guy, anyway? You knew him?”
“Not very well. Aiden was one of my students about seven years ago. The next year, he disappeared without a trace. It was big news in this town for a long time.”
“A missing person, huh?”
“I can relate to that.”
Eric smiled. “That’s right.” He found Isabelle almost a year ago. She looked and sounded thirteen, but she’d been missing for thirty-six years, trapped inside a living mansion that existed between two worlds. She saved his life, and in return he gave her the courage to escape her strange prison. But she still wasn’t exactly free. Although she’d left the terrifying Altrusk House behind, she could only travel between buildings with similar properties. She still couldn’t venture outside.
“Maybe you can save Aiden, too, just like you did me.”
“Maybe.” But Aiden didn’t seem to want to be found. He was gone as quickly and mysteriously as he’d appeared. “But for now, I’m going to hang up until I’m out of here.”
“I’ll be watching.”
Stuffing the phone back into his front pants pocket, he retrieved the daisies from the table and then left the apartment down the spiral staircase. At the bottom was a heavy, steel door. Like the others, it was unlocked.
He stepped through the door and immediately found himself standing in a shadowy room that smelled of leather, stale beer and faint cigarette smoke. A round, oak table stood before him with a single, unlit candle resting in the middle. Four high-back chairs of matching oak stood around it. Similar tables were set all over the room. The walls were painted black, the floors were hardwood. The décor appeared to be a passionate marriage of Harley Davidson and United States naval history. Leather jackets, gloves and biker helmets mingled with American flags, framed photographs of aircraft carriers and battleships, paintings of sailors, framed medals and other various war memorabilia.
This was a bar.
He was still on Main Street, just a few doors down from the florist. He thought for a moment and finally realized where he was. This was Big Brooke Tavern.
Fantastic. He was now trespassing in a biker bar before business hours.
This was definitely not somewhere he wanted to be.
Quickly, he turned to retreat back up the steps, intending to instead leave the way he came. But the heavy, metal door to the spiral staircase was no longer there. He was staring at an empty wall adorned with a painting of a bald eagle.
Baffled, he croaked a stifled, “What—?” and twirled around, scanning the room.
Where the hell did the door go? He just came out of it. It was right here.
He pressed his hand against the wall and felt it. It made no sense. Doors didn’t just disappear. Yet this one had done just that. It was utterly gone.
He turned and looked out into the bar again. He had to get out of here.
Stepping around the table, he saw that there was a door to his right, but it was clearly marked “FIRE EXIT” and warned him that an alarm would sound if he attempted to open it.
That wasn’t desirable.
The only way out seemed to be the front door.
A loud bang came from the rear of the building, followed immediately by a deep, angry voice that he couldn’t clearly hear but was certain had uttered a profanity of some sort.
He wasn’t alone here.
Again, he wondered what would happen if he was caught. Would the owners call the police and have him arrested? Or would they simply beat the crap out of him and toss him out with the garbage?
Still clinging to the stupid daisies, Eric made for the front door, weaving around tables as he went.
He glanced back. From here he could see the polished bar with all its bottles of liquor neatly organized behind it and its cozy stools sitting empty and waiting for the day’s first patrons. He could also see the door to the right of all those bottles, leading back into the store room. There was a light on back there, shining through the window in the door. If someone were to glance out from behind that window, he’d be right out in the open and impossible to miss.
He reached the front doors without drawing anyone’s attention, only to find them locked tight. The handles clanked noisily down, but refused to budge.
Panic exploded in his chest. No! This wasn’t fair. What was he supposed to do now?
“Hey!” boomed a frightful voice from the rear of the building.
Eric spun around. Standing behind the bar, having just emerged from the store room, was a large man in a leather vest with big, tattooed arms and an even bigger gut. His hair was cut so short it was little more than a shadow covering his scalp, but he had more than enough beard to make up for it. Black as coal, it cascaded down his chest and came to rest on top of the huge bulge of his belly. “What are you doing in here? We’re closed.”
Frozen and wide-eyed, significantly outweighed and cradling the big, pink bouquet of daisies in his arms, Eric never had a chance of intimidating this monstrous man. Not even a little. He might as well burst into tears and wet himself on top of it all. “I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I think I’m lost.”
Eying the bouquet, the man said, “You think?”
From somewhere in the back room, he heard another voice, this one the deep, throaty voice of a woman: “What are you going on about?”
“I’m not talking to you!” the hairy barkeeper bellowed back.
The man lifted his head, exasperated, and filled his mighty lungs. “Nothing!”
“I’m really sorry,” Eric said again. “I don’t know what happened.” He reached behind him and tried the door again, but it still wouldn’t open.
Stepping out from behind the bar and strolling toward him, looking even bigger now that the bar wasn’t obscuring any of his impressive girth, the man said, “I don’t either. Those doors’re supposed to be locked.”
“Yeah…” Eric glanced back at the doors and was struck by fleeting inspiration. “They seem to be. Now. I was…” He had to force himself to relax. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, he was trespassing…but he hadn’t done anything seriously wrong. “I wasn’t paying attention. I came into the wrong building. When I realized my mistake, I couldn’t get back out.”
“Are you talking to somebody?” bellowed the woman from the back.
The barkeeper stopped and turned his back to Eric. “Just some guy at the door!” he shouted back at her.
“We’re not open yet!”
The barkeeper threw his hands out to his sides as if to say, “No kidding!” and shouted, “I know! He’s just lost or something!” He turned back to Eric, shaking his head and muttering something that sounded like, “Crazy trucking woman…”
Eric was fairly sure the woman in back wasn’t a trucker.
“I really didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
But the barkeeper waved a dismissive hand at him as he walked up and shoved at the door. They were locked tight. “That’s strange. Why would it let you in but not out?”
Eric feigned bewilderment and shrugged. “No clue.”
The man looked at him, eying him up and down, and fished a huge set of keys out of his pants pocket to unlock the door. At that moment, the store room door swung open and a frightfully immense woman sauntered through. She was even taller than the man, at least six and a half feet tall, with broad shoulders and broader hips, a huge mane of badly dyed red hair and a vast amount of cleavage spilling out from a too-tight corset top. She was wearing a lot more makeup than was strictly necessary and gave off a far more impressive presence than the bearded barkeeper. “Why’d you let him in?” she asked, her voice booming over the silent bar. Eric thought she was probably used to the atmosphere being much noisier in here.
“I didn’t let him in. He got in on his own.”
“Didn’t you remember to lock the door?”
“Of course I remembered to lock the damn door. Don’t I always remember to lock the damn door?”
“Then how’d he get in?”
“Hell if I know! Something funny going on with the lock, I guess.”
“Well you’d better fix it. We can’t have people just walking in whenever they want. We have business hours.”
“I know I’ve got to fix it. I ain’t stupid, woman.”
“Again,” said Eric. “I’m sorry. I’m really embarrassed about this.”
The barkeeper shook his head and thumbed through his many keys.
The woman now eyed Eric with a distressingly keen interest. “Those for me, sweetie?”
“What?” Eric looked down at the daisies, startled. He felt an instant blush wash across his face. “Oh… No. I mean… They’re for my wife. I mean, my wife sent me out for them. They’re for a baby shower. My sister-in-law, actually.”
A curious smile touched the woman’s lips. For some reason, he felt like a slab of meat dangling in front of a hungry tiger.
“I was supposed to go to the flower shop and the bakery, but I was daydreaming and I guess I got turned around.”
“I’ll say you got turned around,” the woman told him. “The bakery’s right next to the florist. Two doors back the way you came.”
“Really? Two doors… I’m… Wow. I’m sorry.”
“You would’ve had to walk past it to get here.”
Eric didn’t know what to say to this. Now he was embarrassed about losing the door back up to the apartment and about being too stupid to find the bakery.
The woman laughed. It was a hearty laugh, loud in the silence of the closed bar.
“Well shit, it ain’t no wonder,” said the barkeeper. “Look at the size of that bouquet. Poor guy probably couldn’t see where he was going.”
“Real men buy pretty flowers for their women.”
“I buy you flowers,” the man returned quickly, managing to sound hurt.
“Not pretty ones like those.”
“I buy you roses.”
“Red roses. I know. Every time.”
“I thought you liked red roses. They symbolize love. Passion.”
“I do like red roses, but I like other flowers, too. Like those kind right there.”
The man looked at Eric, bemused.
“I should really let you two get back to work,” said Eric. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
But Brooke went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “You just like buying red roses because you think that’s the only kind you can buy that makes you look romantic instead of like a pansy.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the man, but there was a wounded look in his eyes that told Eric she knew exactly what she was talking about. “Anyway, here you go.” He unlocked the door and swung it open, puzzling over it. “Maybe I didn’t lock it all the way or something.”
“That could be it,” Eric agreed. “Maybe it didn’t quite catch or something.”
He nodded. “You might be right. I’ll keep an eye on it. Maybe it’s just one of those one-time sort of things. If it happens again, I’ll have the locks replaced.”
Eric apologized again.
“Not your fault, buddy. Honest mistake.”
These people were nice. Eric almost regretted lying to them. But he had no intention of telling them the truth.
“Come back and have a beer sometime during business hours, why don’t you?” said the woman.
“Oh, I might. It’s a real nice place you’ve got here.”
“Thanks,” said the man. “We’re real proud of it. I’m Leon, by the way. Leon Rufar. That’s my wife, Brooke.”
“Brooke,” said Eric. “Right. This is…”
“Big Brooke Tavern,” said Brooke proudly. “I’m Big Brooke.”
Eric had thought Big Brooke was a place, not a person, but it was just as apt. Brooke was quite…big…after all… “I’m Eric Fortrell.”
Big Brooke gave him a curious smile and said, “Bring me a pretty flower, Eric, and maybe I’ll give you something on the house.” This offer came with a mischievous wink that left Eric baffled and more than a little uneasy.
Leon rolled his eyes. “Jesus, woman…”
Eric bowed out the open door with an awkward smile. “Thanks,” was all he could think to say. Then he was walking down the sidewalk, squinting in the bright sunlight again, the daisies rustling in the breeze.
His phone chimed at him, alerting him to a new text message.
It was from Isabelle. As always, her messages went straight to the screen, never giving him the option to view or ignore it. This one read, I LIKE YOUR NEW GIRLFRIEND
Eric shoved it back into his pocket with a humorless, “Ha ha.”