Five thirty in the morning was way too early to think about stalkers.
Just my luck, I was fifteen pounds overweight, what my Aunt Teresa called an “unconventional beauty”, which was an acceptable way of saying my front teeth stuck out, and freckles splashed my cheeks, and no one would mistake them for beauty marks. Despite all this, Mathew had stalked me as if I were a modern-day Marilyn Monroe.
The police officers who failed to lock him up told me every stalker had a type, and it just so happened I was his.
I’d found a semblance of peace these past few months, pounding flour and yeast into bread, rolls, or donuts while working in my auntie's bakery. So much so that it caught me by surprise when I spun around to spot the danger and went into full-body tremors when delivery dude slammed the giant sack of flour on the counter behind me.
A single flashback pinned me to the asphalt, one of Mathew’s knees on my shoulder, his hand on my neck. I couldn't scream for help. Mathew pulled a gun from behind his back and aimed it at my head.
“Click!” he said and pulled the trigger on an empty chamber.
He smiled a hateful grin, full of malevolence and death, and I knew months ago when it actually happened, I'd never get his expression out of my head.
I was right.
One sack of flour tossed too hard behind me and he was suddenly holding me down again while I struggled to hold back a scream.
No place was safe. Not even this small town in the middle of nowhere.
Telling myself to snap out of it, I sucked and blew air like a freight train, lucid again and aware of my surroundings. My chest ached as if I was at the end days of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Hey, you okay?” The delivery guy asked, and I started involuntarily.
I am safe, and all is well... I am safe and all is well...
Repeating the mantra recommended by my damned therapist didn't do shit, and it was too early for a glass of wine.
“Yeah. Fine.” I answered. I’d given up trying to explain my weird behavioral quirks. Most people didn't understand how harassment and unwanted attention turned so sick and twisted, it made me run away from my own life to escape it.
To be on the safe side, I went to the window and pulled back the curtain.
Mathew's car wasn't in the back parking lot.
The sound of the industrial mixer started up in the next room, grounding me, followed by the yeasty smell of bread dough. My clenched muscles relaxed in an unexpected release of tension and tears which welled up behind my eyelids.
There was no danger here with Aunt Teresa.
Chill out, Savanna. I told myself. Mathew has no idea where you are.
Aunt Teresa came in, unaware of my minor panic attack, and plopped a dome of her famous cinnamon bun dough on the marble counter. Watching her move under the puffs of flour dust, backlit by morning sunlight that streamed through the overhead antique skylight, my throat felt tight and a little sore.
Right about now, my best friend Kate would be cleaning puppy cages, and feeding the rabbits, kittens, and assorted animals at the shop we had opened: Muddy Paws.
“Coffee's ready.” My auntie said cheerfully. “Help yourself to that and the granola I made yesterday. Then if you'd make the cream cheese frosting for the carrot cake, we'll be all set.” The custom made, marble topped island filled center of the room. Redwood wainscoting covered the walls and Aunt Teresa had painted it her favorite color, tiffany blue.
Her capable hands went over the kitchen surfaces a million times a day. She was as reliable as the waves of the tide lapping at the shore; elemental and reassuring.
Gradually I'd learned how to help make her secret recipes. We cast kitchen spells by melting butter, mixing batter, sprinkling cinnamon... hoping they helped our everyday difficulties dissipate like a sugary glaze dissolved on the tongue.
I gathered my hair on top of my head in a high ponytail to keep it away from the baking equipment. My aunt told me stories of bakers pulled into an industrial mixer, kissing the rest of their days sayonara.
As if I weren't flinchy enough.
It was weird in Briarville, a tiny, picturesque “Victorian village” on the northern coast of California—vastly different from the city of Oakland where I had gone to business school, graduated, and opened a shop with Kate.
People here looked you in the eye when they passed you on the sidewalk.
I turned over the "Open" sign and unlocked the front door of the bakery where three cowboys waited on the black and white octagonal limestone tiles my auntie paved the entry way with. It didn't matter to her that her customers tracked dirt and grime in from the fields. “Working-class people deserve first class treatment, Savanna,” she’d remind me.
The first customers entered the bakery as if they were entering a church. A temple where it was okay to slap each other on the back, kid one another about how they needed to “wake up sleepy head!” and dish about what happened last night at The Saloon. There was also catching up on daily chatter, “Did you hear about Ingrid? She got kicked in the head by a bull yesterday, tying an elastic band around its balls.”
The holy water in this church was coffee, it's communion, baked goods.
A smiling cowboy, the same one who said to me the first day I met him, “You're real pretty.” Stepped up to the counter and asked me, “You getting used to these crazy hours your aunt keeps?”
“Pretty much. I just go to bed early.” I slid his triple foam cappuccino across the counter with a blueberry scone, not about to go into my chronic insomnia with a virtual stranger.
I sometimes wondered if it was being overly friendly that got me into trouble with Mathew.
Teresa reassured me that cowboy Bart was harmless enough, after I about shit a brick from his initial attentions. One advantage of small-town living was that it was hard to hide your sins in a place like this. The creepers got called out, so you knew to avoid them.
The rhythm of the bakery continued, and I went into the back kitchen to brush butter on the sandwich rolls and slide them in the oven, and I ran a stack of crumb covered plates through the dishwasher.
Pulling down the door of the commercial machine, I heard my aunt murmuring affectionately from the front of the shop, “Dante Drago, as I live and breathe. We've missed you around here.”
The reply was so deep, it tickled the bottom of my belly and spread to the base of my spine, “Few reasons to get out, Teresa. This is one of the few places worth stopping by. You have any of your famous carrot cake left?”
“Oh." I hear the unmistakable sound of my auntie assembling a cake box, "You haven't met my niece yet.”
On cue, I picked up the cake smeared with cream cheese frosting and decorated with edible nasturtiums, hefted it proudly above my shoulder, and walked it up front.
At least, that's what should have happened.
Instead, I wound up slipping and tripping ass over tea kettle upon glimpsing the best-looking man on planet Earth.
Men like Dante Drago were blessed by Mother Mary in Heaven. Invisible tears shed by women everywhere kissed his muscles when he walked past without stopping to give them the time of day.
I guess falling on my ass in front of him was one way to get his attention.