After Ashley left, several more people came in, teachers and students alike. Ashley wasn’t the only person who liked an afternoon treat to pick them up. But after the post-school rush, the bakery slowed down. It always did on Wednesdays. Like clockwork. Whoever I had working with me—usually Sarah, like today—and I alternated who got to leave early as a result. It was nice to get an extra hour sometimes.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to stay?” Sarah asked as she put on her sweater and slung her bag over her shoulder. “You already let me take a longer lunch. I don’t mind if you’d rather go home early.”
“It’s okay. I have a feeling I might be needed here.”
“Why does that make me feel like I should stay too? Your witchy senses are rarely wrong.”
I raised an eyebrow at her.
She gave me a sheepish grin. “What? They’re creepy accurate, even your matchmaking. What else would you call it?”
I shook my head but smiled. I sometimes forgot how much stock she put into the rumors.
“Experience and a bit of luck. There’s nothing witchy about that.”
“If you say so. I’m covering for Lauren tomorrow, so I’ll see you in the morning.” With that, Sarah exited the front of the shop for home, leaving me alone in the bakery.
The truth was, I looked forward to the last hour of the day on Wednesdays. With so few people coming in, I used the time to have a relaxed closing. Tomorrow would be busier as people geared up for the weekend. Thursdays were like that.
I’d already consolidated and covered the remaining baked goods with covers that would keep them fresh until morning. Most of the till had been counted and placed into a bank envelope for deposit. The kitchen was swept, its counters clean. I still had a few minutes left before I could flip the sign from open to closed. I wouldn’t do it until the exact top of the hour to give anyone the last-minute chance to come in and buy something to satisfy a craving or buy the forgotten dessert for dinner.
I was dusting a display shelf, my back turned to the checkout counter, when a slight rattling against a surface followed by a shuffle caught my attention. I glanced up, curious, but saw nothing. I resumed dusting, and it happened again. After finishing the shelf, I walked back around the counter and saw the brush Ashley had left with me three feet from where I had placed it.
I picked up the brush. It had moved, but how? Why? I placed it back on the counter where I had first put it and tried to slide it myself. It wasn’t difficult, but there was some resistance. It wouldn’t just slide on its own. I lifted the brush and gave it a slight shake. Nothing rattled. Nothing hidden—physically—yet something was going on with that brush. But what?
The front door opened, and Rich walked in. I placed the brush back next to my bag on the shelf beneath the checkout counter.
“Hi, Rich, how are you today?”
He smiled politely. “I’m good, yourself?”
“Oh, the usual. What can I do for you?”
“I hope it’s not too late. Can I place an order for tomorrow?” He took off his glasses and wiped them with a small cloth he pulled out of his pants pocket. He glanced up at me with his ebony eyes that were as dark as his skin. He was such a handsome man, clean-cut. A good man too. I regularly heard positive things from students coming into the bakery after school. I had no doubt he was the perfect match for Ashley. He placed his glasses back on his face and tucked the cloth back into his pocket.
“Sure thing. What do you want?” I grabbed my order pad and a pen off the counter behind me.
“My AP history students have a big test in the morning, and everyone knows your muffins will give them a boost of luck.”
“Aww, that’s sweet of you. How many are in your class?”
“Eight. Last fall, Robbie got a near-perfect SAT score, and he had one of your muffins for breakfast.”
I smiled. Like Liz sharing her news about her job this morning, Robbie had come running in here to tell me his score, waving the envelope with the results in his hand. “I heard about that.”
“Word got around school, as it usually does. So it’s become ritual for me to give them something special. Did you know that there’s only one teacher in the school who will still give tests on Tuesdays? Everyone else makes sure you’re open, just in case.”
“Just in case?” I repeated.
He leaned in slightly as if to tell me a secret. “Yeah, you know, just in case it’s real.”
“Oh, I see. Okay. So eight muffins, or do you want one for yourself?”
“Just the eight.” He chuckled. “I don’t have a test to take. A variety of flavors is fine.” He looked down and straightened his bowtie. Could this man get any more adorable? I could see he was toeing around something else. I had a good idea what. He didn’t have a test, but maybe he needed a bit of luck.
“I saw Ashley today. You missed her by an hour.”
Something shuffled and hit the floor near my foot with a slight clank, loud enough for only me to hear. Perhaps Ashley hadn’t been wrong about the brush showing up in her purse. I had a sneaking suspicion that it had moved on its own. Again. I had placed it down in a spot where it couldn’t move accidentally. And if it wasn’t an accident, then something or someone had moved it.
“Oh yeah?” His eyes lit up a bit. “I had cross country practice. They have a meet on Saturday.”
Beyond the small flicker in his eyes, Rich didn’t take the bait. Rather than press him on it, I asked, “Do you need good luck muffins for that too?”
“How about some pastries for after? They might run faster knowing what’s waiting for them at the end on the bus ride home.”
“I can do that.” I wrote it down on the order form with the muffins.
“Thanks.” He sighed, long and hard, then scrubbed his face with his hand. “Fine. I came in here for more than the muffins. Ashley. How did she seem? Is she okay? Did she say anything about me?”
At the mention of Ashley’s name, the shuffling resumed. The brush was on the move, sliding across the floor. Such a curious thing. I’d need to study it further when I got home.
“Well, if you’re asking if she’s come in for a special treat to soothe an aching heart or spice up her love life, the answer is no. What’s up? I thought things were going well.”
“They were, and they are . . . sometimes.” I cocked my head to the side, urging him to continue. “I like her, and I think she likes me. She lights up when I need to visit the junior high and I see her in the office. We’ve been out a few times, but whenever we get together for a date, something happens to make it end early or something feels off. The dates haven’t been bad, but—” He paused and shook his head rapidly as if chasing away a thought. “I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it.”
Perhaps their problem was that they were each too into their own heads. If they’d let go a little, they’d be perfect and wouldn’t be having a problem. “You should try talking to her about it. Clear the air.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I am. Haven’t you heard I have a knack for these things?” I winked at him and grinned broadly, playing up the shtick.
He shrugged. Boy, he was a tough cookie today. His Ashley troubles were really getting to him.
“Hold on. I know just the thing.” I reached under one of the tray covers and pulled out a spiced snickerdoodle, the kind Liz liked so much and claimed had given her the luck she needed for her interview.
“Here.” As I handed Rich the cookie, I spotted an old man standing silently in the back corner of the bakery. A thick silver-white mustache stood out against his dark skin, and his tightly curled hair was more white than gray. He was wearing an outdated small-checkered suit coat over a green button-up shirt and pleated brown trousers. His hands rested casually in his pants pockets, but he stared at Rich with an intensity that rivaled the looks given during any serious matchup.
Rich dug out his wallet and tried to hand me a five-dollar bill, but I couldn’t stop looking at the older man. I had no doubt about it. This man, whoever he was and however he was tied to Rich, was a ghost. That made two today. This man and the man walking his Dachshund earlier. Okay, three ghosts if you counted the dog. I’d been able to see them since I was a kid, but it wasn’t all the time and never three in one day. Ghosts? Possibly possessed brushes? A match on the rocks? What was going on?
“It’s on the house, Rich. You need it.”
He pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow at me. “You know I don’t believe in this, right? A cookie isn’t going to make me magically feel better.”
Trying to stay focused on my living customer, I crossed my arms and lifted an eyebrow of my own. “Says the man who bought good luck muffins for his students.”
He threw his arms up in surrender and laughed. “I don’t, truly. There’s no such thing as magic. But they believe it, which is what matters.”
“Fine. And I agree with you. It isn’t magic, but who’s never felt better after a cookie?”
“Okay, you’re right about that.” Rich bit into the snickerdoodle, one hand under his chin to catch crumbs. He took another bite, closing his eyes as he chewed. He licked his lips slightly, then said, “Mmm . . . this is good. Thank you.”
“See? Feeling better already.”
“Gotta hand it to you. Maybe there is a bit of magic in your cookies. They’re that good.” He stole another bite as he looked at his watch. “Oh goodness, it’s already after four thirty. I’m sorry to have kept you.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I still have a bit to do before I can officially call it a day.” I glanced at the corner of the bakery. The ghost was still there, still staring. Who was he to Rich? Dad? Grandfather? Uncle?
“Well, I’ll let you get to it. Have a good night, Joanie.”
“You too.” I walked around the counter to follow Rich and his ghost toward the door. The ghost paid me no attention even though I was hot on his heels. He hadn’t realized I could see him, which was fine by me. It wasn’t something I had wanted to draw attention to. One didn’t wave to a third person in the corner when there were only supposed to be two people in the room. I was already dealing with the rumors of my being a witch. I didn’t need rumors spreading about my seeing ghosts, too, especially when those would be true.
Rich and his ghost exited the shop, and when the door shut, I locked it behind them and flipped the store sign to closed. Rich walked down the sidewalk, still eating his cookie. The ghost followed him until the corner when he blinked out of view. But I knew he wasn’t gone for good. There was more to it than that. I’d be seeing this ghost again, for sure.
Once Rich was out of sight, I drew the shades and turned around, hands on my hips.
“Now where is that brush?”
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