Owen wheels his orange dolly into the pastry shop and sure enough, on cue, the standing fan in the dining room turns itself on. It speeds up alongside the booming beats of my heart. I duck behind the counter and try to control my breathing as I rearrange some danishes. I’ve got things semi-under control, maybe, when I catch a glimpse of Owen's big blue eyes through the sneeze guard. “Hey, Gem, I mean, Gemma,” he says, holding out an invoice. “I, umm, need a signature.” The fan starts sputtering. I’m not surprised. The first time I laid eyes on Owen, all the espresso machines in this place gave off steam. I should have known then to keep my distance. I try to create some now by turning to the tarts. “Mel can sign,” I chirp, jerking my head toward the barista. “Oh, OK, sure,” Owen says. There’s a rustling of paperwork, the tread of work boots on wood, the ringing of the bell over the shop’s entrance. “Oof,” Mel says. “I thought you two were ...” She waves her hands. “Together.” “We were,” I say. “But?” “I called things off.” Mel crinkles her nose. “What happened?” I eye the pastry case and notice the first row of tarts has melted into alternating piles of white mush and lemon-yellow goo. “Nothing,” I say, grabbing a spatula. “It’s just … things were getting too serious. Someone would have gotten burnt.” Mel shakes her head. “You don’t know that,” she says. I scoop up a disemboweled French cream donut, its middle sunken, like a belly button. “Yes, I do.” Things like this have been happening my whole life. When I'm angry, thunder claps. When I’m sad, the faucets leak. When I’m happy, dough rises, even without the yeast. I just feel things, I guess, very strongly. “You’re a handful,” my mother would say, like that was an explanation. "A real handful." Too much, really, for anyone to hold. Mel and I watch Owen load his truck through the pastry shop’s front windows. “So, this thing with you and him,” she says. “There’s no longer a thing with me and him,” I remind her, grabbing a steel pitcher of milk from the counter's fridge. Mel rolls her eyes. “You guys aren’t a thing, maybe,” she says. “But you have a thing.” She stares pointedly into the pitcher I’m holding. The milk has started to boil; translucent bubbles climb toward the rim. I shove the pitcher underneath the espresso machine’s wand and hurriedly hit “steam.” Mel keeps talking over the noise. “Anyway,” she says. “That’s not my point.” “Well,” I reply. “What is?” “Just that maybe the milk and the melted tarts and our …” She looks at the standing fan, which is mercifully still at this moment, perhaps because I unplugged it this morning. “… air conditions aren’t red flags. Maybe they’re the universe trying to draw your attention to someone special.” Outside, Owen catches us watching him through the window, catches my eye. He lifts a palm and starts to wave, then catches himself and shoves his hand into a pocket. I look away. There's a rattling, a slam, the turn of a key in an ignition. I think of my father driving off, my mother saying he was headed to Topeka because he needed some space. I remember her taking off later for the same reason. “I didn’t think the red flags were about him,” I mutter as Owen’s truck pulls away. Mel puts her hands on my shoulder, her chin on her hands. “I’m just saying,” she says. “Maybe lean into, not away from, the magic.” And it was magic, really, especially that last date Owen and I went on, where we spent hours at a dive bar just down the street from the pastry shop. We were drinking cheap, but cold beer and playing Snowman (not Hangman) on beverage napkins, and Owen kept guessing my words, even with only two or three letters, even when I started using the harder terms I memorized in culinary school. “How are you doing that?” I gasped. “It’s embarrassing,” he replied. “But I made my own dictionary when I went back to college a few years ago. And I added a bunch of baking words after your store wound up on my route.” I blushed and the jukebox turned on. Later, when we finally spilled into the night, Owen held out a hand. I threaded our fingers together. The lights were out on Bleeker Street, but they blinked on, one by one, as we walked along the cobblestones. Another Tuesday and I’m doing circles around the pastry shop, trying to avoid Owen as he wheels pie boxes and coffee cups to dry storage. He doesn’t say hi, but he’s also not-quite ignoring me. His broad shoulders are rolled forward, like he’s trying hard not to impose. Like he sees me, but he's trying, maybe, to give me space. I figure I'll let him when that stupid fan turns on again and oscillates until it connects us on a diagonal. I turn around and lean in. “Owen, I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m being a jerk. It’s just …” I eye the shaky standing fan, which blows the hair back from my face. “I think, maybe, I make things … weird when we get close.” Owen follows my eyeline and stares, for a bit, into the fan's warm breeze, its unplugged plug clearly visible on the floor. “So?” He shrugs. “So …” I take a few steps toward him. “I’m afraid if we were to, like, make things official, the world might implode.” Owen holds out a hand. I hesitate for a second before threading our fingers together. He slips his other arm around my waist and pulls me toward his chest. The steel fan whirs and whirls. “Let it,” he whispers.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Jeanine Skowronski is a writer based in N.J. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reflex Press, Tiny Molecules, Complete Sentence, Lunate Fiction, Fewer than 500 and Dwelling Literary. She placed ninth in NYC Midnight’s 2019 Short Story Challenge.