Jack drags his feet behind him, the bad mood he’s in reflecting on his face. After being on hold for 3 hours, only to have a gruellingly horrible conversation with a Comcast worker, forced to skip his morning run and being stuck in shitty Providence traffic for God knows how long, it’s needless to say that Jack isn’t in the best mood.
When he arrived at the rink, grumbling and slightly flustered, Jack was more than ready to take his frustration out on the ice. Just as he pushed the locker room door open, he was no sooner shoved out the door by Tater, explaining that Jack is the one who needed to pick up the cake for George’s surprise maternity leave party. Jack makes a left onto Charlesfield, pulling out the slip of paper that Tater shoved into his hand.
“37 Charlesfield Street, ‘Bitty’s’”.
Jack looks down and watches as his feet leave tracks in the snow; temporary, only to be covered by the falling snowflakes. Sometimes Jack wishes that his frustration and panic and worry would melt away, just as the snow does every year. The tension that feels permanently fused to his heart is just as rigid and stubborn as the New England winter.
Jack reaches the entrance of the bakery and pushes the door open, the temperature change from chilly January air to the almost overwhelming warmth of the store makes Jack shiver. Above him, he hears the soft chime of a doorbell. A sweet, tenor voice calls out “Just a minute!” in reply. Jack sighs, rubbing his hands across his newly shaven face. Growing a beard outside of postseason was just bad luck, and with the season that the Falconers are having, and now with George taking leave, well, Jack needs all the luck he can get.
He sighs, once again, taking in the surroundings of the small downtown bakery. The soft, overcast sky light seeps in through the open windows, landing on the several scattered chairs and tables around the store. At the front counter, an array of different, quite incredible looking pastries sit behind a glass wall; their bright colours and beautiful golden-brown crusts could attract any patron. There’s a large chalkboard hung up on the wall behind the counter, listing the daily special (today’s is Tri-Berry Tartelettes) along with other options, like sugary sounding lattes.
And, nestled in the corner of the store, is a golden, soft-looking Labrador, dozing in the warmth of the sunlight.
Stepping foot into this strangely magical bakery has calmed Jack more than a night under his weighted blanket with a documentary on in the background ever could. It’s warm, and light, and smells like heaven, and Jack loves it. He steps towards the counter, listening to the soft talking coming from the back-room. When he thought that this place couldn’t get any better, suddenly, a man (or an angel, Jack can’t really tell) pushes the back-room door open.
The man starts to walk toward Jack, words pouring out of his mouth. His golden, straw coloured hair is shining, the reflection of light depicting something akin to a halo. He owns kind brown eyes that crinkle as he smiles wide, his arms tightening around the child in his arms.
--The child? Jack looks down to find a small child, eyes almost identical to the man’s, if not a shade lighter. His mind, already in overtime and dazed at his surroundings, somehow missed the other human in the room. The child, round-faced and red-cheeked, looks up at Jack. He makes eye contact, and almost immediately, the child ducks their head into the man’s chest.
“Oh, don’t mind Marie, she’s shy on her good days but downright cranky on her bad. I know, seems strange to have a child behind the counter, but when I took her into day-care today, they said that they couldn’t take her due to her fever! Now, I, for one, can’t possibly imagine how they knew she was ill because they took one look at her and shoved us out the door! And, really, I know— “The man continues to ramble, his free arm waving as he gesticulates his rant.
And Jack knows; media trained, professional athlete Jack Zimmermann knows that it’s rude to not listen to someone when they speak, and even worse to stare, but he can’t help it.
Jack pulls the receipt from his pocket, slightly crumpled, and thrusts his hand toward the man. He stops speaking, blinking rapidly, his long, golden lashes touching his rosy cheeks as he does, and stares down at Jack’s hand.
“Oh!” He shouts, his face immediately darkening from a light pink to a bright maroon, his entire body moving with his eyes, turning to look at Jack.
“I’m so sorry! Look at me, rattling on to you, you poor man! I assume you’re here to pick up an order?” The man’s wide eyes stare at Jack expectantly, his mouth shifting into a neutral position, lower lip sunk between his teeth.
“Euh, uh, yes. Yes, uh… George?” Jack stammers, his mind drifting to places that certainly aren’t appropriate for a Tuesday morning in a downtown Providence bakery, with a baby, a dog and an undoubtedly flustered, (yet extremely handsome) man.
“Oh, yes! The maternity leave cake?” The man replies, promptly sitting the little girl on the counter to retrieve the cake.
Jack stares down at the little girl, who was now fiddling with the buttons on her denim overalls. Her golden, short curly hair shines just like the man’s, and for the second time in five minutes, Jack wonders how they’re related. The man wasn’t wearing a ring, but maybe he took it off to bake? Maybe the girl was his niece? Why was Jack wondering about this anyway?
“A man, Alexei I think his name was? Ordered it a few days ago. Is he your friend? He was a big guy with a Russian accent, so unmistakably, little me was a bit terrified at this giant man ordering a sheet cake, but Peaches seemed to love him, so I guess more evidence to the contrary- “The man continues, pushing his way through the back door with a giant cake box and a smaller box in his hands.
Jack takes a breath, as it feels like all the love and goodness in this room is suffocating, but in a good way. A way that Jack wants to feel all the time. The man makes his way over, sitting the boxes on the counter and taking Marie in his arms again.
“The cake is already paid for, and the pie is on the house for putting up with my raving.” The man smiles warmly, chocolate eyes shining up at Jack. Finally, Jack takes a breath. His eyes scan over the man’s figure, petite yet muscularly compact, his glinting name badge reading, ‘Eric’.
‘Eric’ Jack thinks, feeling his mouth pull up on the sides. Eric continues to stare at Jack, somewhat expectantly, as once again, ‘media trained, professional athlete Jack Zimmermann’ has just forgotten how to speak English.
“Oh! Uh, no, I can pay for it- “Jack utters out, his speech scratchy and laboured, his body shutting down, almost like every atom in his limbs are fighting his mind, begging him not to leave the strange comfort of this place.
“Nonsense! It’s okay, really.” Eric smiles and ducks his head, his response a little giddy. Jack nods and, somewhat reluctantly, picks up his boxes.
Eric waves, Marie poking her head out from Eric’s collar to wake goodbye at his request. Jack turns away, the unbearable feelings bubbling up inside, making him feel queasy, but in a wonderful way. He swings the door open to traverse into the cold Providence mid-morning once again, his heart already aching for the warmth he has left behind.
Hours later, after George’s party, Jack walks through his front door, pie box in hand. He places it on the kitchen counter as his mind drifts back to Eric, the beautiful man at the bakery. He flips the lid open to reveal a glossy, crisp slice of apple pie. The sweet scents of maple syrup drift through the room, and Jack sighs at how it reminds him of home. Just as Jack pulls out a fork, ready to savour every bite, something catches his eye. Loopy, flowing handwriting covers the inside of the lid. Jack looks closer, reading the inscription. It’s nothing but a series of numbers and a few scribbled hearts and smiley-faces, signed by Eric. Jack looks up and smiles.