The morning fog was unusually thick as Jared unlocked the front door at the bakery. With the display case in front of him and large windows surrounding him, he rotates the scones and croissants to show their best angle to the customers. He wants them to see the best things available today.
A mother, father and daughter walk in, causing the bell above the door to chime. Sounds of the busy street outside fade as the door closes.
“Good morning,” Jared says to the man, not looking at the others.
The girl’s eyes light up as she sees the cinnamon bun overflowing with buttercream icing. She taps the glass three times as she gazes up at her father, an eager smile on her face.
“We’ll take three of those, please,” the father says to Jared.
“Of what?” Jared asks, not having watched where the girl pointed.
“Cinnamon buns,” the father says.
As Jared completes the transaction, he looks up to see a 40-something woman standing in line, dressed in high-waist jeans and a white sweater. Her friendly eyes meet Jared’s as he thanks the man walking out the door with his family. His neck stiffens.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” she asks.
Jared rubs the back of his neck. “Pretty foggy right now.”
“Foggy mornings often burn into beautiful sunny days,” she says, looking down at the baked goods. “Perfect time of the morning. Nothing like getting first pick at such beautiful creations. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Sure,” Jared replies.
“The raspberry scones are popular,” Jared says, pointing to the basket closest to him with six scones. The joints in his fingers pop as he tried to relax his hands. He winces, then shakes his hand, looking confused.
“I’ll take one.”
Jared cracks his knuckles, then scoops a scone onto a white plate. His hand shakes as he brings it to the counter, and the scone spills onto the counter.
“Feeling a bit tense?” the woman asks.
Jared blushes as he picks up the scone and puts it back into the plate. Crumbs are scattered over the counter.
“Just a hand cramp. Happens in the morning sometimes.”
“My mother always said three things cause pain. Lazy lifestyle, poor food choices, or a heavy conscience.”
Jared looks her in the eye. “Was she a doctor?”
“No,” she smiled, “but she knew things. Just like I do.”
Jared turns to close the display case. But he can’t turn.
“Busy day today?” she asks.
He struggles to maintain his calm demeanor as he tries to turn again. “No more than usual,” he manages. “Just people enjoying breakfast. Like they’re the only ones here.”
“Funny how we don’t notice people around us until we can feel them watching us.”
Jared feels the woman’s gentle eyes drill into his own. He holds eye contact because he can’t look away, even though he tries.
“How much for the scone, Jared?”
“Two seventy — ”
Jared doesn’t finish the sentence. He isn’t wearing a name tag.
She puts three crisp dollar bills on the counter, resting them on top of the crumbs.
“I know, Jared.”
Jared feels sweat beading on his forehead. The back of his shirt is damp. He tries to wipe his face with his sleeve, but he can’t move his hand from the counter, each finger feeling as if tied down by invisible strings. His shoulder blades clench together.
She points out the window as sunshine pours through the glass. “See? The fog is already burning away.”
Jared stares straight into her eyes, seeing the sun only in his peripheral vision. His skin starts to burn.
“Who told you?” he finally whispers.
“That doesn’t concern you,” she calmly answers. “How we learn a truth doesn’t matter so much as the fact that the truth has gotten out.”
She takes a bite of her scone, holding eye contact.
“Besides, it wasn’t you who did it.”
The bell chimes as man and a young girl walk in. Jared feels his eyes strain toward the girl, her curly hair painfully familiar. They ache as he tries to pry them away, but he can’t. They start to water, but he can’t blink.
“Youth is a wonderful thing,” she says. “So much adventure. Innocence. So much presence in the moment. Feeling invincible, almost.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” he says. “It wasn’t me.”
“Did you stop it?” she asks.
Jared’s teeth press together, forcing the tension into his jaw and down his neck.
“We all have names,” she says. “What was hers?”
“You must know it already,” he whispers through clenched teeth.
“I do. But I’d like to hear you say it.”
Jared’s gaze unwillingly follow the young girl as she walks to the counter to get an extra napkin. He feels pressure behind his eyes, as if someone is pushing them out.
“Say her name,” she says calmly.
“Clara,” Jared finally says, his face glistening.
The woman smiles, takes another bite of her scone, and grabs a napkin. She wipes her mouth, then looks Jared in the eye again.
“Yes, Clara. I wonder where sweet Clara is right now. Do you think about her, Jared?”
He tries to walk back to the kitchen but his feet are stuck to the floor.
“We can continue on our path, Jared. Or we can make it right. If you choose to make it right, just let yourself be led. That’s all you need to do. But whatever you do, don’t turn around.”
Jared is ambushed by the memory of the new girl in class, her curly hair. The date she chose a different route home after school. The image of his best friend he’d sworn to protect. The subsequent twenty years he’d fought to keep it all buried.
“I’ve got other stops to make, so I should move along.” She takes another bite of her scone. “This is delicious, by the way.”
Jared watches as she walks out the entrance into the sunshine and strolls down the sidewalk. The door didn’t chime. His eyes are forced down, and he sees no bills or crumbs on the counter. There still are six raspberry scones in the display case.
Against his will, his mouth twists into a smile as his teeth clench together again. He pushes his tongue between his molars to pry them apart. His teeth cut the skin. He swallows the blood. His feet force him around the counter, across the cafe floor and out the door. “Whatever you do, don’t turn around,” he hears her say in his head. He feels his arms spread out at his sides as he walks. Tears roll down his cheeks as he silently fights to scream. He struggles to untwist his smile as he steps into the busy street and the 18-wheeler fails to stop in time.