Cynthia sat under the flickering gasjet lights in the alley behind her bakery and lit a cigarette. The early morning starry sky added a small amount of extra light, enough to read her pocket watch. Four. Enough time to enjoy the cool autumn air before heading back into the inferno that was her kitchen.
She shoved the watch and the tiny box of matches back in her white apron pocket. Sticky sweat evaporated from her forehead and hair, giving instant and much needed relief. Today had been an early morning to make up for the accident yesterday. Cynthia still didn’t know what happened – she had stepped outside for a smoke and gone back in a few minutes later. Her breads were burnt, the cupcakes and muffins smoldering masses of black goo, the frosting on her pastries practically disintegrated. Somehow she had lost an entire hour of work in the time it took to finish one cigarette.
Cynthia ritually chain smoked a quarter a pack in her fifteen minute breaks. By the time she got home at the end of that harrowing day, she had extras in the box. She had to arrive extra early this morning to make sure enough products were on hand for all the disappointed customers yesterday.
In the distance – perhaps down the alley a ways, closer to Main Street – somebody played a flute. A lilting tune with lots of stops and starts and high pitches followed by low lulling melodic phrases. Cynthia couldn’t help but tap her foot in time. Why had she never noticed this flutist before? Sure the person played regularly in this neighborhood.
She fished out the small wood cigarette box and lit another. The music got closer – perhaps a few buildings away – each note pronounced a bit clearly, more sharp and a bit faster paced now. She tried to remember what her break was like yesterday, what the gasjets looked like, how bad the trash from the adjacent fish store smelled, the sounds of other business people opening their back doors and setting up shop. Cynthia tried to recall what she had been thinking about – her books maybe, the troubles she’d had in recent months keeping up with her bills, the mounting debt she had collected and owed the bank. All of that had been on her mind for several months, except when she was baking and working. Work took her mind off her troubles, eased her as she stressed out over keeping her customers happy.
But finances and work were not what she had been thinking about during her break yesterday morning. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember what had been on her mind.
The flutist got a bit closer now. Cynthia craned her head around the bend of the alley to better see this musician. He or she wasn’t view yet, but definitely down there and getting near. Cynthia wanted to thank the person – the music was smooth, changing melodies without changing the nature of the song played – and she felt more relaxed as the music approached her like some weird wall of sound.
She lit one more and decided that was the last before heading back in. The bread would be ready to be taken out of the oven any minute and she still needed to make the frosting. Her helper would show up in another hour to help with setting up the store, assuming he hadn’t been too creeped out by Cynthia’s blank stares and unusual behavior. She had tried to explain to the young man how weird it felt to lose track of time – as if being distracted by a shiny object without realizing you had the object in your hand. He had shrugged and mumbled about how early it was, and went to work on setting up the display cases.
A man in a green felt hat with a flute to his lips appeared in front of Cynthia as if appearing out of thin air. He had funny leather shoes with the toes pointed upwards and iridescent colored laces. The white and black buttons on his double-breasted jerkin shone brilliantly in the gasjets, reflecting beautiful rays of light that made the dirty, dusty street glimmer. All around his body was burning white flame like an aura that shimmered around him. He bowed to Cynthia, bending his knees just a little, still busily playing the flute. She stared in utter fascination, hardly moving a muscle, not daring to breath any more than necessary, while he played a joyful tune that made her heart swell and her throat constrict.
When he moved on down the alley, Cynthia went back inside.
Her assistant closed the shop door behind him. “Are you sure you aren’t sick with something?” He said while putting his spare key in the counter drawer. “You still have that confused look.”
“What are you talking about?” Cynthia felt for the cigarette box in her apron. Her feet hurt like hell. She wondered why she hadn’t taken her break yet after coming in so early. What time had she come in? She decided it didn’t matter as she went outside to have a smoke.
Word count: 860
Today’s story was the result of a prompt from The Speculative Fiction Muse. Check out more Friday flash fiction from the writers of Forward Motion!