By Carrie Carr and Jan Carr
Disclaimers from Carrie: I’m totally psyched by the chance to write with my wife, for the first time in years. Of course, I planned on a simple romance, but you know how my Jan can be. J So, the little twists are HER idea! (And it’s a lot better story, IMO) Thank you to the Academy, who graciously allows me to post my stories. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks a lot for reading! – Carrie
Normally, I’d say that Carrie is my inspiration for everything I write. But then, this is a Halloween story, so…. It’s always a treat for me to put my creative mind together with my Carrie’s. It’s everyone else who should worry. –Jan (a.k.a. “Carries AJ”)
The searing heat made each breath burn deep in her chest, and the heavy smoke made it impossible to see. She dropped to her hands and knees, skimming the hot concrete floor in desperation. Just as her hands grazed a familiar form, the ominous creaking of the ceiling caused her to raise her eyes in alarm.
“NO!!!” Anne Weston sat up in her bed with a choked cry. Tears streaked down her cheeks, mixing with the cold sweat that covered her body. She glanced around the darkened bedroom then rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Oh, god. I hate that damned dream.” Taking a shaky breath, Anne tried to calm her pounding heart.
She’d been having the same dream for several years, although it had become much more menacing as of late. Always searching for someone…a woman, who obviously meant a lot to her, if her emotions in the dream were correct. Anne sighed. Just once, she’d like to be able to see whoever it was she was so desperately looking for. Brushing her hair away from her face, she exhaled heavily and stretched out on her back again, hoping to get at least an hour or two of sleep before morning.
The blinking LED of the digital clock mocked the panting woman as she struggled into her jeans. Still damp from her hasty shower, the denim stuck to Anne uncomfortably. Angry hazel eyes glared at the clock. “Useless piece of....” It was the sun that had awakened her, since the electricity had gone off during the night; hence her mad scramble to get ready. She had no clue what time it really was.
It had been two days since Anne’s watch had suffered an ignoble death. A fuse had blown in her car leaving her turn signals inoperable. When Anne stuck her hand out to signal a left turn, the clasp on her watch broke. The poor Timex fell off her wrist and skidded into oncoming traffic. She glanced at the tell-tale tan line on her left wrist. “Of all the rotten luck.”
“It looks like the accident on Highway 14 has cleared up, so if you still have a commute to make, you should have easy sailing. Thanks for joining us today on ‘The Morning Show’.”
“And thanks for joining us today,” Anne mimicked in a whiney voice, then stuck her middle finger out toward the smug looking TV host as he turned to his co-host for the usual end-of-show smiles, banter, and the ‘we just love to do the news together’ laughing and nodding of the heads. “Bastards! You can barely stand each other, you—ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!”
With her eyes fastened on the television screen, Anne had managed to jamb her toes against one of the legs of her bedroom chair, sending a pain right to her brain that made her break out into a sweat and unleash a litany of curses that lasted until the throbbing in her toes eased.
She angrily tucked in her yellow polo shirt and gathered her tennis shoes from where she’d carelessly kicked them the previous evening. Her mattress squeaked in protest as she sat on the edge and tugged on her shoes, hissing in pain as she gingerly slid her wounded toes into place. Pulling the string tight, she growled as it snapped off in her hand. “Damn it!”
After changing shoes, Anne rushed to the kitchen, only to find her coffee pot’s display blinking at her as well. She didn’t have time to manually start it, so she unplugged the device and left the apartment.
Either the morning news had lied or the traffic gods were against her. It was the week before Halloween, but Anne swore that every crazy was already out and about. When she finally pulled into the Starbuck’s drive-through, she was at the end of her already short fuse.
The drive-through speaker crackled and hissed, before a bored woman’s voice came through the static. “Welcome to Star…how can…you?”
Anne closed her eyes and counted to three before rattling off her order. She repeated it twice in hope’s of being heard, and waited not-so-patiently for a response.
“That’ll be…and twen…cents. Drive…ease.”
“Yeah.” Anne shook her head and moved her car forward two feet, just barely missing the Pontiac in front of her. She nervously ran her fingers through her thick, curly blond hair, realizing she’d forgotten to do anything with it after showering. “I look like some kind of damned road kill,” she groused. While she waited in line, Anne took a scrunchie from her purse and pulled her wild, shoulder-length hair into a ponytail.
Six long minutes later, she reached the window. Anne held out her credit card, unnerved by the girl who snatched it from her hand. Frightfully pale, with her dyed black hair, matching lipstick, eyeliner and nail polish, the girl appeared to be something from a horror movie. “You’re ready early for the holiday,” Anne joked, trying to cover her unease.
“Huh?” The young woman handed out a cardboard carrier filled with drinks. “What holiday?”
“Never mind.” Anne accepted her card and dropped it into her purse. “Thanks.” She hoped the coffee would smooth things over at work since she was coming in later than usual.
KRTL was one of three local television stations. It had several studios, with the kitchen set on the second floor. Anne had started out in the mail room three years ago and slowly moved up to become a gopher for a weekly cooking show. Having worked for “Grammy’s Kitchen,” for two years, she’d recently been promoted to assistant producer. It was only one of several hats she wore at the station, but she was still proud of her accomplishment. Anne backed through the door, both hands full of the coffee carriers. She cringed when she heard the piercing voice of their star, Sharon Cutler.
The cooking diva stood in the middle of the set, waving a dented pot. Her gray hair was styled close to her head, and her round face would have appeared almost grandmotherly, if not for the string of curse words spewing from her mouth. “Where the hell is Anne? This is a fuckin’ disaster!” She slammed the pan onto the counter and picked up a small green pumpkin. “I cain’t use this! It’s too goddamned small. Who th’ hell bought this piece-a shit?”
Anne set the containers far away from Sharon. “I’m right here.” She took the vegetable from Sharon and placed it in the shopping bag on the counter. “Those are fine for the spice bread recipe.”
“I’m th’ fuckin’ chef, and I wanna cook my ‘trick-or-treat soup’. Ya’ll know I need a large pumpkin for th’ bowl.”
The program's director, Reggie Norfolk, waved his hands in the air to get their attention. His slender form practically shook from anger. “We’ve already set the menu and done the shopping. It’s too late to change things around now.”
“Bullshit!” Sharon grabbed two small pumpkins from the bag and threw them on the floor. She grinned triumphantly at the loud splat. “Oops.”
Reggie took off his headset and flung it across the counter. “Goddamn it!” He pointed at Anne, who was staring at the remains that dotted her best sneakers. “Fix this!” He spun away, grumbling under his breath about going back to directing children’s programming, which, undoubtedly, had more mature actors.
Anne glared at his retreating figure, her mind going over recipes at a rapid pace. She often wondered what “Grammy Sharon’s” adoring public would say if they knew the kindly grandmother was anything but. Sharon Cutler was a vodka swilling, foul-mouthed diva who couldn’t boil water without help. Anne was the genius behind the folksy recipes. Besides writing the weekly script, she also did the food preparation. She sighed heavily. “Sharon, you should try to be nicer to Reggie. It’s not his fault—”
“Well, it ain’t my fault the fuckin’ ratin’s are slipping. We were doing great afore that sorry fruit started directin’.” Sharon sipped her coffee and frowned. “What the fuck is this?”
“It’s a non-fat cappuccino. You said yesterday—”
“Goddamn it, Anne. I’m havin’ enough trouble ‘round here without you stabbin’ me in the back.” Sharon poured the contents down the sink, forgetting it was only a set. The remnants of her coffee began to leak from beneath the faux cabinet. “Fuck!”
Anne sat in her car, looking at the parking lot that was the interstate. She hoped her ten year-old Jetta wouldn’t overheat again. It was three-thirty in the afternoon and she was already exhausted. The entire day of shooting had been postponed until the next day, since Sharon had returned from lunch too drunk to manage even the simplest kitchen task and bellowing about how she’d “been thrown out of the best culinary schools” and didn’t “need to work for this Podunk station”. Reggie offered to replace her, causing even more friction. He’d taken Anne aside and privately asked her to reconsider starring in the show. If she wasn’t so terrified of being in front of the camera, he’d have fired Sharon years ago.
Fuming at the lack of progress of the traffic, Anne decided to take the next exit and flipped on her right turn signal. Two traffic lights and several turns later, she came to the sick realization that she was lost. “Great.”
The area she found herself in was an older neighborhood with several multi-story brick buildings lining the street. She saw a business that appeared to be busy and figured it would be safe. She parked her car in an empty space and couldn’t help but be delighted at her decision. “‘Mike’s Fresh Produce,’ huh? Well, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”
Anne had barely made it through the door when she was rammed by someone carrying several cases of fruit. “Hey, watch it!”
The boxes lowered, and a contrite face appeared. “Sorry. I didn’t see you.” The woman was in her mid-forties, her short salt and pepper hair dropping into her gray eyes. She sported a green tee shirt with the business name emblazoned across her chest. “I don’t remember seeing you around here before.”
“No wonder, if this is how you treat all of your customers,” Anne snapped.
The woman gave her an embarrassed grin. “I really didn’t mean to run you down. I usually only flatten my regular customers.” She raised the boxes again, only this time not quite as high. “Let me know if I can help you with anything.”
Anne watched her go, intrigued with how well the worn jeans fit her frame.
“See anything you like?” A friendly man asked, startling Anne.
“Um, well, I uh,” Anne shook her head. “Actually, I’m trying to find a few cooking pumpkins.”
He scratched his balding head. “What kind of pumpkins?” Although in his fifties, he’d only been working for the market for a couple of years, and it was something he’d never heard of before. He wore the same logo of the market, yet his shirt stretched tightly across his ample belly. “Did you ask Mike?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not—”
“Heck, no.” He waved to someone behind Anne. “Mike? A little help over here, please.”
Anne turned just in time to see a familiar face. “Damn.”
“Hey, there.” The woman from earlier swatted the man on his shoulder. “What’s up, Todd? You didn’t step on this poor woman’s foot or something, did you?” She turned to Anne and held out her hand. “Mike Lawrence.”
“Anne. And no, he didn’t do anything to me. I was trying to find a few pumpkins for cooking.”
Mike squeezed her hand a little longer before releasing it. “I think I can accommodate you.” She winked at Todd. “Let’s go to the back room.”
“I beg your pardon?” Anne flushed hotly at the images that flashed through her mind.
“I think I’ve got a case of sugar pumpkins in the back. There hasn’t been much call for them, since most folks are looking for carving ones.” Mike led her through several aisles of vegetables, before coming to a door at the rear of the building. “Watch your step.”
Anne followed Mike, amazed by the quality of the produce. Everywhere she looked were neatly stacked boxes. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such fresh produce.”
“Thanks. It all comes from my family’s farms.” Mike restacked several boxes before opening one. “Here. What about these?”
“Beautiful.” Anne scooped a couple of smaller pumpkins and studied them closely. “You grow all this yourself?”
Mike wiped her hands on her jeans. “Not me, personally. But my family, yeah. The Lawrence clan has several spreads north of here.”
“No wonder.” Anne returned the pumpkins. “I’ll take the whole case.” It was more than she actually needed, but she couldn’t seem to resist. Something about the way Mike’s eyes sparkled tempted her in more ways than one. While she was at it, she decided to pick out the ingredients for a healthy salad that she planned on having for dinner.
After Mike rang up the order, she carried the box to Anne’s car. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Do you deliver?” Anne joked. She placed her bag of salad fixings next to the box in the trunk.
“We can, depending on the quantity. I mean, a head of lettuce once a week, no, but for larger orders, sure.”
Anne bit her lip while she considered her options. Shopping for the show was her responsibility, and having such fresh ingredients would really make a big difference on-air. She dug one of her business cards out of her purse and handed it to Mike. “Would this be too far to deliver?”
Mike read the card. “KRTL studios? What are you, the caterer?”
“It sure seems like it, sometimes,” Anne muttered. “No, I’m the co-producer of ‘Grammy’s Kitchen’.”
“Oh. Cool.” Mike was impressed, even though she’d never heard of the program. She tucked the card in her back pocket. “When would you need the produce?”
“Ideally, I’d place the order on Sunday, and want it by Tuesday, at the very latest. But I really need to have some things by tomorrow. Would that be possible?”
“I’m not sure. It would depend on how much you needed, and if I had it in stock.”
Anne didn’t know why, but she didn’t want this opportunity to get away. “Dinner,” she blurted.
“I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, can we talk about this over dinner? My treat, of course.”
Mike appeared to think it over, when in fact she was barely able to resist the urge to jump up and down for joy. “Sure.”
“Great!” Anne took her Blackberry from her purse, and looked over her schedule.
“What the heck is that?”
Anne gave Mike a funny look. “My phone. Haven’t you ever seen a Blackberry before?”
Mike’s confused frown said it all. “It’s different, that’s for sure.”
Figuring the grocer was just not up with all the newest gadgets, Anne let it slide. “Tonight? How about I cook?”
“Um, okay. Do you live around here?”
Anne blushed. “Actually, I’m not sure where here is.”
“I’m lost. I was stuck in traffic, so I took the first available exit.” Anne shrugged. “And here I am.”
Mike laughed at the chagrined look on Anne’s face. “Well, I’m very thankful for your lack of direction. Dinner sounds great.” She spent the next few minutes helping Anne map her way home, as well as getting directions of her own.
Anne started to back out of the parking space. “Remember, it’s a newer complex. If you see too many trees, you’ve gone too far.”
“No problem. I’ll look for the barren land,” Mike joked, tapping the hood of the car. “Drive carefully.”
Once home, Anne left the box of pumpkins in the trunk and placed the bags of vegetables on the kitchen counter. Before doing anything else, she set the microwave time for a few minutes later than she remembered the display showing in the car. Anne checked her pantry and decided that pasta would be the easiest to fix on short notice. She usually liked to make her own sauce, but decided to add her favorite seasonings to the jar she pulled from the cabinet.
She carried the bag of produce to the sink. Loosening the tied top, she reached inside to take the tomatoes out. When her thumb poked through something soft, she opened the bag wider and was dismayed to see the contents. The tomatoes were wrinkled and dented, with spots of mold growing over them. Anne quickly dropped the bag and washed her hands. “I picked these out myself, and I know they weren’t like this. What the hell happened?”
Mike was completely confused. She followed Anne’s instructions carefully, but was unable to find the condo. She kept returning to an empty field, which held a billboard that read, “Coming Soon – Plantation Estates Luxury Condominiums”. She circled the area several times but couldn’t find any streets signs that resembled the address Anne had given her.
She dug into her back pocket, where she had tucked Anne’s card. It wasn’t there. Mike pulled her truck over to the curb and unfastened her seatbelt. She quickly went through all her pockets, but couldn’t find the card. “Dammit. She’s going to kill me.”
Not knowing what else to do, she buckled her seatbelt and headed for home, hoping she had left the card on her dresser.
Anne stared at the congealed mess that used to be dinner. The microwave clock showed eight-thirty, and she hadn’t heard from Mike. She wished she had asked for Mike’s phone number. She was worried, because Mike didn’t seem like the type to lead her on.
She finished the bottle of wine while she cleared away the dishes. The more she had to drink, the angrier she became. Anne tossed the spaghetti down the garbage disposal and placed the serving bowl in the dishwasher. She slammed the door closed and was about to throw away the bag of rotted vegetables when she changed her mind. She’d take them back to Mike’s, hopefully getting a good explanation for the condition of the food and Mike’s absence, as well.
Satisfied that her kitchen was back in order, Anne turned out the light and went to her bedroom.
The following morning, Anne stomped through the halls of the station. She’d already checked with the guard, and there had been no sign of Mike, or her produce. Anne was glad she stopped at the regular grocery store on the way to work, or they wouldn’t have anything to film with. She was about to push open the door to her studio when she heard the loud voices coming from inside. “Great. Just what I needed. ‘Grammy’ is having another one of her fits.” She shifted the bags she held and used her back to push the door open.
“Would ya keep your goddamn voice down? I ain’t deaf,” Sharon bitched, closing her eyes to try and block out the bright lights.
Reggie laughed. “Maybe you shouldn’t get so wasted the night before shooting.” His voice was loud enough to echo in the room.
Anne set the grocery bags on the counter with a heavy thump. “It’s a good thing we don’t shoot until this afternoon. That should give you enough time to look presentable.”
“I don’t give a shit.” Sharon blinked and glared blearily at Anne. “What’s your fuckin’ problem?”
“Nothing. Can we get on with this, please? I have something I need to take care of today.” Anne removed the food from the bags and put things away.
Sharon sipped from her covered coffee cup, careful to keep it away from Anne. She had no intention of being criticized again for her choice of sweeteners. The vodka soothed her nerves, which Reggie was quick to get all over. “Whatever.”
After taping the show, Anne drove to Mike’s Produce. The parking lot was almost empty, and she was able to park next to the front door. She’d spent the drive over thinking about everything, and marched into the grocery madder than ever. She had to struggle to keep from snapping at the young woman who was working the cash register. “Is Mike around?”
“Sure. She’s in the back. Do you want me to—”
“No, that’s fine. I know the way.” Anne headed toward the rear of the store, getting angrier with each step. She pushed on the door and met with resistance, so she put her weight behind the shove.
A loud thump could be heard, followed by indistinguishable mutterings.
Anne peeked around the door and saw Mike sitting in the floor, a box of lettuce upended on top of her. “Serves you right.”
“What?” Mike moved the box from her lap and stood. “Anne? What are you doing here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne’s hands dropped to her hips and she had to force herself to stay angry. Mike really was attractive.
Mike brushed her clothes off and started to place the lettuce back in the box. “I couldn’t find your place last night, and I somehow misplaced the card you gave me.” She took the box to one corner of the room and set it aside to go through later.
Anne followed her. “What about the delivery you promised?”
“I made that myself, this morning. Why?”
“Because there was no record of it, and there was certainly nothing there when I got to work today. It’s a good thing I stopped at the grocery store, or we’d have been in trouble for sure.”
Mike turned. “That’s ridiculous. I signed in at the loading dock, just like the old guy working security told me to.”
“Well, it wasn’t there when I got there, and I didn’t see your name on the sheet.” Anne shook her head. “But that’s not all. When I got home last night, the stuff I bought from here was rotten.”
“That’s impossible.” Mike knew her produce was fresh, and was proud of the fact. “You must have gotten it mixed up with something you bought somewhere else.”
Anne took Mike by the hand. “No, I didn’t. And I brought it back to prove it.” She led her through the back door and around to her car.
Mike watched as Anne opened her trunk. She couldn’t help but notice how nicely Anne fit into her jeans, and had to shake her head to clear it when the woman turned around.
“Here. See for yourself.” Anne handed Mike the bags, a victorious smirk on her face.
Mike opened the first sack and frowned. She pulled out a large tomato, which was ripe and shiny. “Looks fine to me.”
“No, that’s not possible.” Anne took the sack away from her and dug through it. All the produce appeared fresh. “I don’t understand.”
“Are you sure this looked bad last night?” Mike went through the other bag, coming away with the same results. Everything seemed fresh to her.
Anne took the other bag away from Mike and searched it as well. “I swear, everything in here was ruined.” She dumped the contents into her trunk. “One of the tomatoes was so rotten that I put my thumb through it.”
“They all look okay to me.” Mike stood close enough to Anne to smell her hair. The fresh scent caused her to close her eyes for a moment. When she heard Anne clear her throat, she opened her eyes and blushed. “Um, sorry about that.”
“This is too weird for words. Every piece in that bag last night was ruined.”
“Well, it’s fine now.” Mike gathered the items and re-bagged them. “Since you’re already here, why don’t we try again? I live upstairs, and I’d love to make you dinner.” As upsetting as the whole situation was, she saw something in Anne that she couldn’t let go of.
Anne shrugged her shoulders. She had no idea what was going on, but she found Mike attractive, and was curious to see how things progressed. Whatever the problem had been, she decided to let it go. For now. “All right. But only if you let me help.”
“Great.” Mike checked her watch. “I know it’s kind of early, but how about we get started now? I’ll tell Todd to close up.” She didn’t want to let Anne out of her sight, afraid she’d never see her again. “Is that okay?”
“Sure.” Anne walked beside Mike as they moved through the aisles of the store. She noticed how well-kept the grocery was, and her initial misgivings slowly faded away.
Mike whispered to Todd, who chucked her on the shoulder and laughed. She rolled her eyes and motioned for Anne to follow, as she headed out the front door and to the side of the building. “I’m going to apologize in advance for the dust, because I’m an awful house keeper.” Mike moved up the sturdy wooden stairs to the second floor, unlocking the door and allowing Anne to walk in ahead of her. She flipped on the light switch and closed the door behind them. “I don’t think any of the dust bunnies are big enough to hurt you, though,” she joked.
Anne glanced around the wide room, not seeing anything out of place. The living, dining and kitchen areas were all in the same room. Along one wall was the usual sink, stove and refrigerator, surrounded by light oak cabinets above and below an off-white countertop. The small, round wooden table and two chairs were next to a window, with blue gingham curtains. “We must have scared them, because I don’t see any,” she quipped, taking in the rest of the apartment. An overstuffed brown sofa and matching recliner were in the middle of the room. They faced a nineteen inch television with a rabbit ears antenna, resting on a wooden TV stand. The only other component was an old VCR, which looked like it had seen better days. She turned to Mike. “There’s not a speck of dust anywhere, you fraud.”
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t remember when I cleaned last, to tell you the truth.” Mike hurried over to a partially open door and closed it. “But I do know I haven’t made my bed, or picked up my dirty laundry.” Her grin turned bashful. “Warn me if you need to use the bathroom, and I’ll clear you a path.”
Anne laughed. “Thanks.” She walked behind Mike to the kitchen area, and took a seat when Mike pulled out a chair for her. “Chivalry isn’t dead, huh?”
“Habit,” Mike admitted. She opened the fridge and glanced inside. “I’ve got two bottles of wine, three light beers, and a questionable quart of milk. What would you like?”
“Wine would be great, thank you. Do you need any help with dinner?” Anne noticed what a nice back Mike had when she reached up for the glasses in the cabinet. The faded tee shirt stretched across her shoulders, giving Anne a wonderful view. Hearing Mike speak, she blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
Mike had a pretty good idea what had distracted Anne and she couldn’t help but grin. “I said, I’ve got the makings of a cold shrimp salad, if that works for you.” She poured the wine and handed her guest a glass. “You don’t have any food allergies, do you?”
“No, I’m good.” Anne took a sip of wine to try and hide her blush. “I mean, that sounds good.”
The meal was almost over before Anne brought up the missed produce delivery. She swirled her wine around in the glass and exhaled heavily. “I’ve truly enjoyed this evening, Mike. But I’m still a little confused.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Anne started, holding up one hand. “You seem like a really nice person, but I’m not sure how well it’s going to work.”
Mike leaned back in her chair with a frown on her face. “What? You think I’m going to whack you over the head and drag you off to my bedroom, or something?”
“Then, what?” When Anne didn’t answer her, Mike pushed away from the table and stood. She started to clear the table when Anne grabbed her arm.
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I was talking about. Please, sit down.” Anne waited until Mike dropped back into her chair. “I was talking about having you deliver the produce to the studio.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Mike struggled to keep from going off on Anne. “Look. I delivered the produce to KRTL, just like I promised. I signed in, even when the old guy at the dock looked at me funny.”
“Do you remember his name?”
“Oscar, or Oliver, or something like that. Hell, I was even early. Got there around six-thirty this morning, and signed back out around six forty-five. He even gave me a hard time because I messed up his coffee break.”
Anne shook her head. “I don’t understand. Simon’s the guard on duty in the mornings. And he’s my age.”
“Simon? No, this guy was probably seventy, if he was a day. And I’m pretty sure his name started with an O.”
“That is weird.” Anne shrugged her shoulders. “Well, whatever happened, I’ll figure it out tomorrow. For all we know, this Oscar or Oliver works the night shift. Maybe it just got misplaced.”
Mike nodded, glad things were calming down. “Yeah, you’re probably right. For the next delivery, I’ll be sure and tell him who it’s for, and get his name.”
“Good idea.” Anne leaned back and relaxed.
The next morning, Anne was determined to figure out what happened to the produce that Mike had delivered. Instead of parking in her usual place, she pulled around to the loading dock and was greeted by Simon, who opened her door for her.
“Good morning, Ms. Weston. I wasn’t expecting you back here.” Simon followed Anne up the steps. “Is something the matter?”
She allowed him to hold the door open for her, and Anne went directly to the security office. “I’d like to look over the logbook, if that’s possible.”
“Sure thing.” Simon stepped around the counter and turned the book around so Anne could see. “Looking for anything in particular?”
Anne ran her finger down the sheet, shaking her head. “This is the only log book, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. Why?”
“Who was on duty yesterday morning, around six-thirty?” Anne flipped through the pages, on the off chance Mike signed in on the wrong page.
He adjusted his duty belt. “Me, of course. I get in at six every morning. Haven’t missed a day in years.” He watched as she studied several sheets. “Ms. Weston, what are you trying to find?”
She brushed the hair out of her eyes and looked up. “I’m trying to find the produce delivery from yesterday.”
“There wasn’t one, at least not while I was here. And I was at my post until eleven, when I went to lunch.”
“Did you take a break? Maybe someone else—”
“No, ma’am. I was here the whole time. We didn’t get any deliveries in yesterday, except for the office supply truck. And that was after lunch.” Simon pointed to the line where the deliveryman logged in. “See? Nothing before that.”
Anne turned away. “Thanks, Simon.” She could feel her blood pressure rising. “Why did she lie to me?” Determined to get to the bottom of things, she decided to stop by Mike’s on her way home.
Just thinking about the missed delivery caused Anne to get upset all over again as she drove home from work. After finding a parking place, she slammed her car door and stomped into the produce store. The first person she came upon was Todd, who was stacking potatoes on a display. “Excuse me.”
He looked up and smiled. “Hi. What can I do you for?”
Anne wasn’t in the mood for exchange pleasantries. “Where’s Mike?”
Todd was taken aback by her harsh tone. “Well—”
“Never mind. I’ll find her myself.” Anne turned and headed for the back of the store. As she neared the door that led to the storeroom, she paused. Why was she so upset? She’d had vendors not follow through before. Yes, it was annoying, but why did she feel so betrayed? Shaking her head to lose that train of thought, she shoved the door open.
She glanced around the room, spotting her quarry in the far corner, stacking empty boxes. With a resolute exhale, Anne squared her shoulders and went to stand behind the other woman. “Mike!”
“Yeow!” Mike nearly fell into the pile of boxes she had stacked. She turned and realized who had startled her. “Hi, Anne.”
“Don’t ‘hi, Anne,’ me. If you couldn’t handle a simple order, why didn’t you just say so?”
Mike took in the crossed arms and glare. “What are you so pissed off about?”
“Quit acting so innocent. I know for a fact you didn’t make that delivery, because I looked at the logbook personally.” Anne’s voice changed from angry to hurt. “Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t.” Mike brushed by her and moved to where an old four-drawer filing cabinet stood. She opened the top drawer and flipped through several folders before removing a slip of paper. “I had the guard sign a copy of the invoice. Wish I would have thought to show this to you yesterday.”
Anne accepted the paper and tried to read the scribble at the bottom of the page. She couldn’t make out the signature, but there was no mistaking the scrawled Oct. 25 above it. She raised her eyes to Mike, who was standing quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Mike shrugged. “You obviously don’t trust me. It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last.” She started to leave, but was stopped by Anne’s hand on her arm.
“Please, wait.” Once Anne was certain Mike wasn’t leaving, she handed the paper back to her. “I don’t understand what happened to the delivery, or to your entry in the logbook. But want to trust you.” Her voice softened. “I do trust you.”
Mike used her free hand to brush nervously through her hair. She sighed. “I don’t know, Anne. Maybe this is fate’s way of telling us something.”
“I don’t want to believe that. Please, let’s give it one more chance.”
“All right.” Mike finally smiled. “But the next time, I’m going to get a picture with the damned guy.”
Anne laughed. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” Noticing a smudge of dust on Mike’s jaw, she brushed it away with her thumb. “Are you busy tomorrow night?”
Mike’s eyes softened and she caught Anne’s hand before it left her face. “Depends. What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s try for dinner, again. I saw a little Italian place not far from here. How about seven?”
“Are you talking about Ti Amo? Sounds good. Let me meet you there. That should give me enough time to clean up.” Hoping she wasn’t wrong about the look in Anne’s eyes, Mike ducked her head and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. After a moment, she pulled away. “See you tomorrow at seven.”
Unable to come up with a coherent response, Anne could only nod. She gathered her wits about her and left, looking forward to the next evening.
Anne checked the clock on the far wall and sighed. She was the only customer left in the restaurant, and, since it was close to closing time, the staff seemed in a hurry for her to leave. Situated in a strip shopping center, Ti Amo appeared to be on its last legs. Most of the old wooden tables were scarred, and the interior walls could have used a new coat of paint. The breadsticks she had subsisted on were tasty, and Anne was sorry she hadn’t had a chance to try something else on the menu.
She took another sip of water, her earlier anger faded into resigned disgust. She looked around the room for a final time, before leaving money on the table and standing. An hour and a half was more than long enough to wait, and she couldn’t believe it. Once again, Mike had been a no-show. As Anne stepped out into the cool evening, she was at a loss.
Tired of the games, Anne decided to head home. She made certain her route didn’t take her by the produce market. She was not willing to get into another argument. Mike could have a perfectly good excuse for not showing, but she wasn’t in the mood to find out what it was.
The following Tuesday, Anne actually made it into the studio early. She had just put her purse away when Reggie came up to her.
“Thank god you’re here. We’ve got problems.”
He took her by the arm and led her to a quiet corner of the room. “You name it, we’ve got it. Sharon came in too hung over to work, so I sent her home.” Reggie pointed to the spotless set. “Not that it matters, since we don’t have a damned thing to work with.”
“What?” Anne followed his finger. “Shit. I can’t believe this.”
“I was hoping you were bringing something with you, and just forgot to tell me.” He lowered his voice. “You know I don’t mind where the stuff comes from, as long as we have it here on time. But this—”
“No, you’re right. I’ll take care of it.” Anne squeezed his hand. “I’m truly sorry about this, Reg. How can I make it up to you?”
His face creased into a devious grin. “Agree to take over the show.”
Anne’s eyes widened and she began to shake her head. “I couldn’t.”
“Sure you can. Sharon’s taking the rest of the week off, supposedly to dry out. We can do a test run while she’s gone.”
“I don’t know—”
Reggie could tell he was winning her over. “Just this once? I promise, if you don’t like it, we’ll throw it out and I'll never bother you about it again.”
“All right.” Anne held up a finger. “Only once, though. But not before I get a hold of a certain grocer.” She gathered her purse. “I’ll talk to you later.”
He did a little dance as she left the studio. “Yes!”
Anne tried to ignore the loud yell on her way to the elevator. The sick feeling in her stomach was as much due to the thought of filming as it was to the thought that Mike had let her down, again.
She stepped into the security office and gave Simon a smile. “Hi. Could I possibly take a look at the log, please?”
“Sure, Ms. Weston.” Simon turned the book to face her. “We haven’t had any deliveries today, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“How about before you got here?” She turned to the previous page, which was from the day before.
Simon shook his head. “Nope. Larry would’ve told me, if there was.”
Anne looked up from the book. “Larry?”
“The night shift guy.”
“Ah. Okay.” A thought occurred to Anne. “Has Larry been off work recently? Maybe someone else taking his shift? Oscar, or Oliver, perhaps?”
The guard frowned. “Oscar Mancuso?”
“I guess so. Is there anyone else by that name, or something similar?” Anne felt as if she was finally getting somewhere.
“Oscar retired about six years ago, Ms. Weston. After him, it’s just been me and Larry.” He raised the front of his baseball cap and scratched his forehead. “How’d you know about him?”
She shrugged. “Lucky guess.” Her mind whirling, Anne decided she needed to see Mike. “Do you keep all the old log books?”
Simon nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Why?”
“I don’t have time to explain. Can you find the last year that Oscar worked? I’d like to go through it later, if I could.” When he responded positively, Anne thanked him and left.
Anne was out of her car almost before the engine died. She impatiently followed an older woman into the produce market and immediately began looking for Mike. Instead, she found Todd working the cash register. “Hi, Todd. Is Mike around?”
If he was surprised to see Anne at that time of day, he didn’t show it. “Yeah, but she’s kinda busy right now.” He pointed to the back of the store, where Mike could be seen in a fierce discussion with a heavyset man. “I’m seriously thinking about going back there, though.”
They watched as the man reached for Mike, only to be rebuffed.
“Back off,” Mike yelled, taking a step away from him.
Todd reached beneath the counter and turned up the radio, hoping to drown out the argument. He gave a nearby customer his best smile.
The music stopped. “You’re listening to KVFT. Only the latest and greatest for our listeners,” the DJ said. “And now, Lady Marmalade, from the hit movie, Moulin Rouge.”
Anne listened as the song played. “Since when did KVFT switch from Top-Forty?” she asked Todd.
“They haven’t. I know it seems like it, since that song’s been on over and over lately, but still—”
“No, that’s not possible.” Anne slowly backed away from the counter, the puzzle pieces starting to come together in her mind. “Could you tell Mike I was here? There’s something I need to check out.”
Todd nodded. “Sure thing.” He watched in confusion as Anne hurried from the market, then shrugged and went back to work.
As soon as Anne got into her car, she switched the radio to KVFT. All she got was static, until she pulled onto the freeway. Within moments, Viva La Vida by Coldplay blasted through the speakers. “This is so weird.”
It was still early, so she headed back to the television station. She hoped Simon had luck finding the old log books. Anne didn’t know why, but she felt they would help her figure out what was going on.
A short time later, she parked once again near the loading dock of the station, meeting Simon on her way inside. “Hi, Simon. Were you able to—”
He held the door open for her. “Yes, ma’am. I don’t know what you’re looking for, but I’ve got the last couple of years of books from when Oscar was here.”
“Great!” Anne followed him inside, her fingers almost itching to go through the books.
“I hope you know, I could get in trouble if anything happens to these,” Simon explained, handing over the logs. “You’ll bring them back, right?”
She nodded, holding the books close to her chest. “Of course. Do you want me to sign something?”
“Nah. Just, you know, be careful with them.”
“Of course. Thank you, Simon. I promise they won’t leave the building.” She headed for the elevator. “I’ll be in my office if you need anything.”
Upstairs, she hurried into the small room that was her office and closed the door. She placed the books on her desk, then dropped into her chair and turned on her computer. After it booted up, Anne did a search on the song that had been on the radio in the grocery. “2001? That can’t be right.” She clicked through several pages, each verifying the answer. “But if that’s true, then—” Glancing at the logs, she opened the one from the year 2001. As she had feared, on the date of October 25th, she found Mike’s signature. Flipping forward a few pages, Anne found her signature again – on October 31st. “Oh, my god. She did make the delivery. Seven years ago!”
With her heart pounding, Anne fished Mike’s business card out of her purse. It appeared more faded and wrinkled than she remembered, but she ignored that fact and tried to call the grocery. The telephone company recording advised her she had reached a number that was no longer in use. Frowning, Anne dialed the number again, getting the same result.
Now more frightened than confused, Anne picked up her purse and left.
The feeling of dread grew heavier the closer Anne got to the market. Once she turned off the freeway, she was surprised when the radio didn’t turn to static. She drove the familiar streets, noticing new landmarks that hadn’t been there before.
Her hands started shaking when she got to where Mike’s Produce was supposed to be. All that was left was a charred skeleton, weeds and trash scattered amongst the debris. Anne parked and stepped out of the Jetta, tears coming to her eyes. There was no lingering smell of smoke – the ruins were obviously many years old. She was at a loss as to what to do. With a heavy heart, she got back into the car and drove home.
Dread filled Anne as she struggled to see through the smoke. She hurried past the flaming bins of vegetables, holding one hand in front of her face to protect it from the heat. “Mike!” Her voice came out in choked cry as bits of ceiling fell around her. She reached the rear of the store. Touching the door to the storeroom with the flat of her hand, she pulled it back quickly at the burning sensation. “MIKE!!”
Anne jerked up, panting. She glanced at her alarm clock and shook her head. Three o’clock in the morning was too early to get up, but she was afraid to go back to sleep.
It made so much sense to her now. How she felt so close to Mike, so quickly. “She’s the one from my dreams,” Anne murmured, rubbing the ache in her chest. She pushed the covers back and swung her feet to the floor. She wished she would have brought the log books home from work. She still had so many questions. Since she couldn’t sleep, she could thought she might as well work on writing a few new recipes for the show.
Later that day, the taping of Anne’s first cooking show went much smoother than she had anticipated. Still numb from the early morning revelations, she didn’t have enough wits about her to be nervous.
Reggie had noticed, but waited until they were alone afterward to say anything. “Hey, Annie. Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know, to tell you the truth.” Anne headed for the nearest mirror so she could remove the makeup she’d been forced to wear. Before long, she was able to recognize herself again. “Do you need me for anything else?”
“No, we’re good.” Reggie touched her shoulder. “You look like you’ve lost your best friend.”
Anne shook her head and swallowed heavily. “I may have.” She went to her office and closed the door, intent on doing some research into what happened to Mike.
It took less than an hour, thanks to Anne’s prowess on the computer. She narrowed time down by checking the tax records, then did a search through the local newspaper’s archives.
To her great dismay, Anne found out that the grocery had been a victim of an arsonist. Reading the date, she realized that the day she had last visited, October 31, 2001, was the same day of the fire. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she read of Todd’s death. Part of the ceiling had collapsed on him as he closed up the store for the evening. Snippets of her dreams invaded her thoughts, helping her visualize the market’s last moments.
Anne wiped her face and continued to read. “After a lengthy search, the owner, Michaela Lawrence, was found in the back storeroom.” A sob tore from Anne’s throat. “My god.” Her eyes scanned the article as she silently prayed. “Ms. Lawrence was air-lifted to County General, where her condition was listed as grave.” The article ended, leaving Anne frantic. She searched for more information, but came up empty. The only consolation was that she never found an obituary.
“Seven years,” Anne murmured, leaning back in her chair. “Now what?”
Remembering that Mike had told her that the Lawrence family owned several farms north of town, Anne took a day off from work and decided to visit each farm, hoping for some word on what happened to Mike. Reggie wasn’t happy, but after Anne assured him of her cooperation during a shorter shooting schedule.
The first farm was nothing but orchards. Anne drove past the peach trees, barely noticing them. She parked her car beside a rusty Ford truck, fighting her nerves as she walked toward the ranch-style house. Plain red brick with the curtains drawn, it appeared to be deserted. Her feet crunched on the gravel walk that led to the front door, a rusty screen standing guard in front of a faded wood one. With heavy butterflies in her stomach, she took her time walking up the three concrete steps that led to the unadorned porch.
She held out a shaky finger and poked the dirt-stained doorbell. The bark from a large dog could be heard inside, which made Anne think twice about hanging around. She was about to give up when the interior door opened and a young woman with a baby on her hip peered through the screen.
“I’m sorry, we’re not interested.” She started to close the door when Anne spoke up.
“No, I’m not selling anything, I promise.” Anne cleared her suddenly scratchy throat. “Is this the Lawrence farm?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe.” She reached out and locked the screen. “What business is it of yours?”
Anne backed away from the door. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Mike Lawrence?”
“Not here.” The woman stepped back into the shadows and closed the door, ending the conversation.
Cursing silently to herself, Anne headed back to her car. She hoped she would have better luck at the next place.
The next two farms netted similar results. As the sun got lower in the sky, Anne began to think she’d never find out what happened to Mike. She had one more on her list to visit, then she’d have to try and figure out something else.
Her Jetta rattled as she drove down the final dirt road. She brushed her hair away from her eyes as she parked in front of a lovely, two-story house. The wraparound porch looked inviting, and as Anne opened the picket gate, she couldn’t help but smile at the peaceful feeling that the place invoked.
Before she could knock on the door, it opened. She stood face to face with an older woman, whose gray eyes were very familiar. “Hi. I’m sorry to bother you.”
The woman pulled a cotton shawl around her shoulders. “Well, come on in. No sense in you standing there ‘til dark.” She held the door open.
“Thank you.” Anne followed her inside, barely able to keep from sighing at the incredible aroma coming from the kitchen. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you, but—”
“Nonsense. Company’s always welcome, dear. I was just baking a pie to tempt my daughter.” The older woman led Anne toward the kitchen.
Anne stopped in the living room, where she spied several photos. She moved closer to get a better look. “Oh, my god. Mike.” She picked up one of the pictures and gently touched her finger to the glass. It appeared to be of Mike’s high school graduation, as she was in a red cap and gown. She was flanked by a younger version of Anne’s hostess and a man, whom she assumed was Mike's father.
“You know my Michaela?” the woman asked, touching Anne’s arm. “Are you all right?”
Anne nodded, unable to speak. She returned the photo to the table and tried to find her voice. “Is…is…she—?”
The older woman nodded understandingly. “Come.” She held out her hand. “How long have you known my girl?”
“Not long. I mean, um,” Anne couldn’t think of what to say. “I’m sorry. My name’s Anne Weston, and I—”
“You’re Anne?” Mike’s mother brought a shaking hand to her lips. “She’s been asking for you for years. I wasn’t even sure you really existed.” She straightened and started to lead Anne through the kitchen, toward the rear of the house. “It’s taken a long time for Michaela to recover. At first, through all the reconstructive surgeries, she retreated so far into herself. Then, slowly, she began to talk to us again.” She sniffled. “She mentioned you quite a lot, Anne. We thought—” she shook her head. “Never mind.”
They stopped at the back door, which was solid glass. Through it, Anne could see a figure sitting on the far end of the porch, ensconced in a colorful quilt. “Is that—”
“Yes.” The woman stopped Anne from opening the door. “She still has quite a few scars, Anne. I don’t know how she’ll take you seeing her.” Holding the door for Anne, she touched her cheek. “She’s very self-conscious about them. If you don’t think you can handle it, don’t go out there.”
“I have to.” Anne squeezed her hand and stepped through the door. Her heart was beating so quickly, she felt light-headed. When she got within a few feet, Anne cleared her throat. “Mike?”
The figure turned slowly, and gray eyes raised in surprise. “Anne?” Half of Mike’s face was puckered and scarred, while the other was still as Anne remembered. Tears started to trickle down Mike’s rough cheek. “Is it really you?”
“Oh, baby.” Anne dropped to her knees beside Mike’s chair. She carefully wrapped her arms around Mike and held her close. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Mike buried her face in Anne’s hair. “I thought you’d given up on me, or didn’t want to see me looking like this.”
Anne raised her face to look into Mike’s eyes. “That’s not it at all. You’ll never believe what I have to tell you.”
“Right now, I don’t care.” Mike cradled Anne’s face with her hands and placed the first of many kisses on her lips.