by Aurora DePuy
Gossip started brewing the day he arrived. It was to be expected in a town with just under a thousand people. He’d bought a shop and was cleaning the window the first time I passed. Our eyes met and his hand stilled on the glass. Sister Pfeiffer said he was European, adding to the already outrageous gossip, and he look it. At least, he didn’t look like any other person I’d ever seen. He was middle-aged, given away by the start of crow’s feet near the edges of his eyes, which were the bright color of forget-me-nots even through the dusty window. In a moment of self-awareness, I realized I was staring. The man smiled as I passed and I offered him a shy smile in response. It stayed on my face the whole walk home.
I didn’t see him again until a few weeks later. Through the buzz at St. Mary’s, I’d gathered his name was Osvald Ladak, European as Sister Pfeiffer thought though no one had discovered from exactly where. His name was all anyone knew aside from the fact he made the best chocolates anyone had ever had.
I walked along the trash-lined gutters, heading home from penance. On the way, I passed his shop and became aware of the loose change in my pocket left from Sister Pfeiffer’s errands. She wouldn’t notice if a little was gone. Before I could talk myself out of it, I’d stepped into his shop. The drowsy air of rich chocolate made me sleepy.
Mr. Ladak was behind the counter, back toward me. His arms moved in short movements and, craning my neck to the side, I could see he was drizzling a red sauce over a few chocolate squares. “My apologies,” he said with a thick accent. I wasn’t sure where it was from. Germany, maybe, or Denmark, though I’d never met anyone from either place – or anywhere in Europe. “I must do this while the glaze is warm.”
“No rush,” I said, watching him work. Mr. Ladak looked over his shoulder and eyed me, a smile taking over the corner of his mouth. It was a peculiar grin – as if he knew something I didn’t – and I looked away, face flushed.
Mr. Ladak finished with a grand flourish and turned. My eyes raised to meet his. The women about town gushed over him often, whispering behind their hands, and I understood why. He had a slight build and dressed well, even when working on the chocolates. His thick head of hair – somewhere between a soft brown and dusty gray – was parted smartly to the side and swept back. His face was broad, but his features delicate in a way that suggested high-breeding, at least to me. His nose was thin and ski-sloped, sitting atop his permanent pout. But there was something I couldn’t name, something different in how he held himself.
“You walk by every day,” he said. I offered him a small smile and glued my eyes to the display case.
“I do,” I said. “Just never had the chance to stop by.”
Mr. Ladak’s head tilted to the side. “And why not?” he asked. How he held himself – perfectly still – and even the tone of his voice seemed constructed, somehow.
“I’m from St. Mary’s,” I said, pulling the loose change from my pocket. “I don’t usually have money.” He gave a hum and turned away with a smile. St. Mary’s was the home for girls. There were twenty-three of us who lived as wards to Sister Pfeiffer and the other nuns.
“I see,” he said, busying himself with something behind the counter. “How is it that you’ve come to have those coins, then?” He looked at me, amusement perked up on the corners of his mouth.
“Sister Pfeiffer sends me to do errands every day. Sometimes there’s a bit left over,” I said.
“You stole it?” he asked. I froze for a moment, locked in place by his eyes, then finally nodded. The smile grew over his face, exposing how his top teeth dipped in. “I see,” he said, studying me for a moment before turning back to the glass case. “And what would you like?”
I shifted on my feet. He’d only just called me a thief. “Uhm,” I started, face warming. “Surprise me.”
That seemed to please him. He made a great show of it, looking over chocolates as if he couldn’t decide, but finally chose a round piece the size of a gumball. He popped it in a small paper box and traded me for a few coins. “Don’t worry. Sister Pfeiffer doesn’t mind being indulgent when it’s for herself.”
I grinned, knowing Sister Pfeiffer frequented his store like every other woman in town, and we said our goodbyes. On my walk home, I decided I liked Mr. Ladak a great deal. He saw Sister Pfeiffer for what she was – a lying hag who hid chocolate under her bed and never shared anything. I smiled over it the whole walk home up until that night when I snuck the chocolate from my coat under the bed. On the little box was my name – Lucia – written in a practiced hand. I hadn’t given him my name.
The next day, Mr. Ladak’s arrival at St. Mary’s made me anxious. I’d been taking a small break after doing laundry, staring out the bedroom window when I saw him coming up the walkway. Surely he’d come to tell on me. Sister Pfeiffer would put more scars on the backs of my hands if he told her I was a thief. I shot down the stairs. Just as I arrived at the bottom, Sister Pfeiffer was opening the door and let out a mewl of surprise to see him. Mr. Ladak’s eyes caught mine over her shoulder and he smirked, but looked back to the nun and dipped his head to her. “Good morning, Sister Pfeiffer,” he said, shoulders square and tone cordial. “I brought these for you to share with your girls.” At that he handed over the large box from his shop. I watched him, my stomach tight in fear that he would tell. Vaguely I was aware that a few younger girls ran through the room giggling. “I’m told your girls do service,” he continued politely. “I came to ask whether you would consider letting someone help in my store. Perhaps Lucia?”
The way my name rolled off his tongue threw a knot in my throat. I quickly looked to my feet. It wasn’t even a question to Sister Pfeiffer. She pounced on the opportunity to speak more often with Mr. Ladak and therefore I had no choice. Arrangements were made and it was agreed I would begin the next week. The thought of it – of being the envy of all women in the town, of being alone with him – twisted my stomach.
It was a long week. Sister Pfeiffer had come down with a serious case of the flu. While the other nuns took the younger girls to church and out to do service afterward, I was stuck inside caring for her all day. She was raging with fever and couldn’t eat. The other sisters kept their distance, fearing the illness. I was glad when the day came to begin working for Mr. Ladak.
That morning, I was standing at his storefront, anxiety flitting in my stomach. Mr. Ladak unlocked the door when he saw me and I was happy for the warmth inside, having walked several blocks in the cold to get there. “Good morning, Lucia,” he told me, shutting the door behind us.
“Good morning, Mr. Ladak,” I replied, offering a polite smile and trying to rein in my nerves.
“My dear, call me Osvald,” he said. My stomach tightened as he drew close and helped me out of my jacket.
“Yes, sir,” I said and then cleared my throat. “Uhm, I mean Osvald.” He grinned in return, retreating behind the counter to hang my jacket on a peg.
“And how is Sister Pfeiffer feeling?” he asked, busying himself with a tray of chocolates he’d left on the counter.
I looked down at the ground and stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Not well,” I told him, feeling rotten for disliking her so much. “She wasn’t responding this morning. They called for both Dr. Bell and Father Stetson.” I braved a look up at him to see him staring back at me, his lips turned down.
“I am sorry to hear that,” he said. “I did not think you would look so sad. I got the impression you didn’t like Sister Pfeiffer much.”
I shifted on my feet. It was too intense looking at his bright eyes. Instead I stared down at the floor, running a finger over the thin scar on the back of my hand. “I don’t,” I admitted.
“Is that from her?” he asked. I looked up to see his eyes set where I rubbed the scar. I nodded. “Does she reprimand you often?” he continued, but something in his tone seemed amused.
“Once was enough for me,” I told him, letting my eyes again find my hands. Osvald walked out from behind the counter and stood before me, taking my hand and lifting it for inspection.
“What did you do?” he asked, running a finger along the scar.
“She was discussing Psalms with me at dinner and mentioned it was her favorite book,” I confessed. “I told her Revelations was mine.”
That earned quite the laugh from him and I couldn’t help but smile, all the tension I felt before washed away with the laughter. I wondered if my story attributed to his bright smile through the rest of the day. It seemed he didn’t really need help at all, but rather just wanted someone to talk to. I sat at the counter greeting customers and listening to stories of his travels. It was a great day, with the exception of the hearse parked in front of St. Mary’s when I got home. Osvald had invited me to stay for dinner and during that time Sister Pfeiffer passed away.
That night all the girls sniffled even though they disliked Sister Pfeiffer as much as I did.
The next day, in Osvald’s shop, he asked me all sorts of questions. When he asked me how old I was and I told him fifteen, a broad smile grew across his face and he said that was a fine number. Then he asked me how old I was when I went to St. Mary’s. “Five,” I told him and he laughed, finding humor in something I couldn’t see. I asked why he found it amusing and he said one day he would show me his Tarot deck that he bought during his travels in France. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“Each card is numbered,” he said. “I’ll show you the fifth and fifteenth another day.” I was curious, but didn’t ask farther. Instead we were swept off into several other topics and the Tarot deck was left forgotten. Before I left, he asked how I felt about Sister Pfeiffer’s passing. I shrugged.
“All people must die,” he said, counting the money from the drawer. I was standing with my hand on the doorknob. “There’s no use being sad if you won’t truly miss them.”
When I made it home that evening, I found the nuns bustling about – one had a bowl, another a stack of rags. I followed them up the stairs and quickly found another of the nuns was ill, as was one of the younger girls. The unspoken fear through St. Mary’s was just how contagious this flu was. That night I woke thirsty and left my bed to get a drink of water. The bed nearest the door was empty, belonging to the sick girl, but as I neared the light in the hall, my eyes caught the corner of a white box sticking out from under her bed. The box Mr. Ladak brought Sister Pfeiffer.
Days passed and people would comment on how I was such a nice young girl for helping out and Osvald would stand proud next to me with his hand resting on the back of my neck. It always gave me a terrible blush when his finger traced a light circle under my ear. That seemed to amuse him greatly and he began touching me more – on the back of the arm, between my shoulder blades. During the days, when no customers were in, he would hold me captive with discussions on philosophy or art, sometimes literature. But his interests were of the wayward sort and certainly nothing I could breathe a word of outside the shop. I suspected he knew this and enjoyed his wickedness quite a bit – how he made me question things. Or perhaps he enjoyed it so much because he could sense how I enjoyed it as well.
A few days after the girl’s funeral and the day before the nun’s, Mr. Ladak seemed quiet. I jumped when he spoke. “I’ve been thinking I might need a protégé,” he said.
I walked to the counter and laid my hands on the corner, copying how he sometimes cocked his head to the side. “Is that an offer?”
“Yes,” he said, that wide grin of his pulling his lips taut across his gleaming teeth. For a moment he looked impish. “You might not like it, though I hope you do. Sometimes there are things in the chocolate that ought not be.”
It was as much of an admission as I was going to get. “I know,” I said simply. I’d already figured him out. “But, why?”
Osvald shrugged, a movement so strange on him that I had to wonder if he’d picked it up from me. Perhaps it was not only I who was so greatly affected in the small confines of the shop. “There are not reasons for all things,” he said, giving me a long look with those eyes. I thought of how I felt they were the color of forget-me-nots the first time I saw him and found it amusing now. As if there were a way to forget him. “Will you come with me?” he asked, lying his hands on the edge of the counter, his shoulders still.
“Where?” I asked. Although there was no question, not really. I wanted to be interesting like Osvald, I wanted to travel and collect strange things. I wanted Osvald’s approval.
“Somewhere magnificent.” He reached across the counter and cupped my cheek, his thumb crawling up and brushing across my bottom lip. I could feel the uncertainty on my face, my breath hitching in my throat. He began to part my lips with his thumb, my teeth following suit. “Will you go?”
I looked up at him, the swell of my tongue brushing against the pad of his thumb. And I nodded.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student