I turn the key and hear a dull thunk as the deadbolt turns. Seven in the morning might as well be 2 AM for all the action Main Street is seeing right now. Not that I’d expect anything different from the bustling metropolis of Sugar Creek, Maine, population 4,306. Give it a couple hours, though. All the skiers lacking stamina will trickle off the mountain and into town for lunch and shopping.
I take a bracing breath of frigid air and push the bakery door open. At least, I try to. The stubborn door sticks on its ancient, heavy hinges. I throw my shoulder against it, twice, before it creaks open. I haven’t set foot in this place for twenty years, and it’s like a warped sensory memory. I can almost smell the muffins baking and the smoke of the wood fire, but not quite.
An icy wind blows down the street. It sucks at the door, slamming it shut. An awful crunching sound comes from the handle and I wince, mentally starting a fix-it list and adding the broken door to the very top.
Canvas sheeting covers stacks of furniture, but the interior looks to be in good shape. Judith’s lawyer said she had just finished the renovations when she got sick. A brief pang of loss hits my heart. She was so close, and it kills me that she didn’t get to see the bakery full of tourists sipping cocoa and eating her famous pie.
My great aunt tried for years to buy the family bakery back from her brother, but he refused, despite hating the business and baking in general. I don’t know all the details, but I get the impression he was just spiteful and didn’t want her to have it. She managed to purchase it after he died because it passed to his adult children, my distant cousins, who couldn’t afford to keep it running with all the debts he owed.
Judith bought it, paying off the debts for them. She spent the last six months renovating and preserving everything she could. In her letters, she told me that she planned to reopen the family business on Valentine’s Day. It would be a poignant opening date, she noted: exactly one hundred years from the day her grandparents originally opened Sugar Creek Bakery.
That was the plan, at least. But cancer is a bitch. Sometimes it’s slow and can be treated or delayed, other times it moves with the speed and indiscriminate ruthlessness of lightning.
Rubbing my legs with both hands, I try to bring the feeling back to my extremities. My burgundy cable knit tights might look cute and “small-town cozy” with my black leather miniskirt, but they didn’t stand a chance against the slicing New England cold. Making another mental note, I plan to buy at least four layers of the warmest, most unflattering thermal underwear I can find.
I move through the front room, peeking under the sheets and running my hand along dark wood dining furniture before crossing to the original rough stone fireplace. I remember playing on this hearth with my cousins as a six-year-old, before my mom moved us to L.A. to pursue her career as an actress. She couldn’t stand one more minute in this small town. Not that I blame her. Being a single mother is hard enough, but doing it in a town where everyone knows each other’s business must have been next-level miserable. At least in L.A., nobody cared that my biological dad was in and out of prison. I was just another kid with home issues, a dime a dozen.
Pushing through a swinging door, I find the kitchen and yank a sheet off of what appears to be a brand new oven; the steel polished to a perfect satin shine. Under other sheets I find brand new worktables, an industrial refrigerator, freezer, and the entryway to a small walk-in closet, loaded with pots, pans, bowls, and equipment. It appears Judith did not skimp in stocking the bakery.
Checking my watch, I let out a huff of frustration. Judith’s “restaurant consultant” (whatever that means) should have been here five minutes ago, but there’s no sign of him yet. I wander back into the dining room and start pulling the sheets off the tables and chairs, revealing the cozy cabin ambiance that Judith must have been going for. I can almost envision the dining room as it was when I was a child: buzzing with the cheerful chatter of customers, a fire crackling in the fireplace, and the air filled with the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread.
I’ve never been great in the kitchen, but thankfully, Judith recruited a baker out of New York before she passed. Emailing her to make sure she was still on board was the first thing I did, because if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to make Judith’s dream a reality.
There’s a thump directly overhead that makes me jump halfway out of my skin. “What the hell?” I whisper into the empty room. A little tingle of fear crawls up my spine. The sheet-covered furniture suddenly feels a lot creepier than it did when I walked in. The only thing above me is the attic, and as far as I know, it’s just storage space. Grabbing the antique fire poker, I creep over to the door that leads up to the ancient staircase. Mercifully, it swings open quietly and I tiptoe up the worn wood boards, my mind racing with all the terrible things I could find. I swear to god, if I die at the hands of an attic hobo, they better find my body in one piece.
Holding my fire poker like a little league softball player, I peer through the banister, just above floor level. No feet, just boxes. That’s a good sign, at least. Taking the last handful of steps carefully, my eyes sweep the dusty attic. It’s freezing up here and my breath rises in little clouds in front of my face. I place my toes on the plywood flooring, testing it with one foot before trusting it with my entire body. The makeshift flooring runs down the middle of the attic, with exposed joints shooting off on either side, visibly time-worn.
Tentatively, I walk the length of the attic until I’m positive there’s no one up here waiting to jump out and murder me. Breathing a sigh of relief, I hunt for the cause of the thunk I heard. An old coat rack is lying on its side in one corner, the surrounding dust disturbed.
Stooping down to grab the decorative iron end, I tip it back up. The top rocks up against the sloped roof with a bang, and to my horror, something huge and black screeches just above me, diving at my face. Heart racing, I scream, stumbling backwards. With a sickening crunch the floor gives way under my foot and I realize, a split second before I drop, that I just stepped backwards off the plywood.
“Shit!” I shriek as my feet crack through the plaster, punching a hole into the room below. The top third of my body lands with an awful, bone-crunching, rib-breaking, lung-emptying THUD on the plywood, but by some miracle, I manage to hang on.
I can hear bits of drywall and plaster falling into the room below me. I fruitlessly try to pull myself back up into the attic, but my ribs protest so badly that I have to stop.
And even though I’m stuck through a ceiling, I can’t pull myself back up, and I don’t dare drop through to the room below for fear of breaking my neck, all I can think, is: “Please let it be over an area that I haven’t pulled the sheets off of yet.” Because that’s logical, right? No worries about the possibility that I’ll die here. By all means, brain! Worry about the goddamn mess.
“Help!” I cry out to no one in particular as I struggle, feet flailing. If the stupid restaurant consultant had shown up, I could have made him come up here and let Nosferatu eat his face instead of mine. You just can’t find decent help these days.