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The clock struck five. Charlotte glanced at it, but said nothing. Peter was one of her oldest (literally) and most loyal customers, and she didn’t want to be rude to rush him out right at closing time.
“So, Charlotte, how have you been? You look lovely as usual,” Peter tried to break the ice he kept feeling since he arrived. Had he offended her without knowing? Maybe she was just having a bad day. He lifted the cup to his nose. “Oh, this is what I hate about nasal cancer. I can’t even smell coffee anymore!”
A twinge of pity washed over Charlotte. She had watched him transform from a rotund senior to a gaunt skeletal figure in the course of a few months. He endured three rounds of chemotherapy, and despite the nausea and diarrhea, he still came here to have his caffeine fix. How could she turn him away now? She knew what she had to do, but she didn’t have the heart to do it.
“Thank you, Peter. It’s been a bit quiet this summer. I suppose there are much more exciting attractions elsewhere than my little shop in this little town,” Charlotte said, still not directly looking at him.
“Well, September is just around the corner, things will surely pick up!” Peter said. He always tried to stay positive, especially since his diagnosis. “My grandkids are about to start grade school. My wife kept using that as an excuse to go out and shop. I know it’s not easy dealing with cancer and chemo and all that, so maybe it’s a good thing she’s got stuff to do. Keeps her busy.”
He stopped himself from talking more about his wife and grandkids. Charlotte had lost her husband and their only child in a car accident just a year ago, he didn’t want to be insensitive.
Charlotte nodded. It was now a quarter past five. She calmly walked to the door and flipped the OPEN sign over to CLOSED. Then she strolled to the bakery counter and took two more cream puffs and put them in a brown paper bag.
“Peter, please take these,” Charlotte handed the bag to Peter while fighting back tears that were welling up in her eyes.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear, I didn’t even notice the time!” Peter suddenly realized it was past closing time. He fumbled for his wallet in his pockets but couldn’t find it. He was feeling bad now, because he could see her eyes getting red.
“Please, Peter, it’s my treat! Thank you so much for your patronage all these years. I am so...so grateful. Please enjoy them. Safe travels,” Charlotte’s voice trembled.
“It’s only a ten-minute drive home for me, my dear! And this is too much, Charlotte, I don’t want you pitying me. I’ll be around for a long time and I will come by every day. You’ll be broke at this rate!” Peter said.
Charlotte gasped when he said every day, but she composed herself. “No worries, Peter. It’s the end of the day and these won’t be any good tomorrow anyway. Please...you should go now,” she said gently.
“Okay, dear. Thank you so much! No more freebies after today, okay?” Peter winked and grabbed the bag. He hadn’t even tasted his coffee or touched the cream puff on the plate yet. He put the uneaten cream puff in the bag and helped himself out the door but left the coffee behind.
Charlotte turned and went to the kitchen. As the front door closed, she peered back through the glass on the kitchen door. She was shaking and crying. It had happened before when her husband and son died — they returned home on the seventh day after the accident, not knowing they were dead. It took weeks of willfully ignoring them for them to move on. She could only hope that Peter would realize it soon. He needed to go wherever it was that the dead had to go and not come back here. Definitely not every day!
After Peter disappeared around the corner, Charlotte locked up her bakery and drove home. The house was empty, just like her shop these days. Sometimes it was hard for her to be alone, but she had become used to it. Sometimes she still thought too much — too much about what she had lost.
She drew herself a bath and managed to have a good night’s sleep, with help from her trusty sleeping pills.
The next day, Charlotte woke up refreshed, and started baking at her shop at seven a.m. as usual. She had just finished her first batch of croissants when the door opened and a familiar voice greeted her.
“Charlotte, dear, how are you?”