A Measure of Happiness Excerpt
The end of the world came with a soundtrack.
At four o’clock in the morning, Katherine Lamontagne drove through the darkened streets of Hidden Harbor, Maine and angled into her spot in front of Lamontagne’s Bakery, her pride and joy. She filled her lungs with the familiar sweet brine of the ocean, the scent of hard-earned serenity.
The first smoky hint of changing leaves singed the air. Along Ocean Boulevard, the summer’s maple leaves gave way to reveal underlying bursts of warm gold and orange, evidencing the vacation town’s reluctant slide into autumn. On the radio, the DJ’s voice droned on about the upcoming Y2K, and the associated crash of every single computer in the country, as though no one had thought to prepare for a future beyond 1999. In case anyone missed the DJ’s dire hyperbole, REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” intoned in the background, driving home the point.
Katherine cut the engine, but the song still hummed through her brain like an auditory afterimage of doom. She leaned across the passenger seat and rolled up the window, savoring the stretch, the elongation of her spine. She flexed her fingers. Then she fashioned her long, dark hair into a work-ready chignon, slid her purse onto her shoulder, and stepped into the darkness.
When she passed beneath the streetlight’s soft umbrella of light, an involuntary shiver contracted her shoulders, raising tiny hairs on the back of her neck. She furrowed her brow and glanced in either direction down the empty sidewalk. Silly-me grin on her face, she gave her head a clearing shake and turned her key in the lock. Above Lamontagne’s door, the bell jingled its welcome. One hand clasping the door handle, she angled inside the bakery and switched on the lights.
She blinked once, twice. But her sight refused to clear.
Her pinewood tables and chairs lay on their sides, as though an early autumn storm had gathered strength at sea and unleashed its torrent across her café. Beneath the unforgiving lights, shards of jagged glass and hills of sugar glistened and glowed–all that remained of her sugar dispensers. Scattered napkins ringed the floor in front of the coffee station. Gray sneaker tread footprints stomped across their white perfection. Swirls and jabs of spray paint blackened her pale-blue walls and snaked across one of her canary-yellow booth seats, the design as chaotic as her childhood. Trick of memory, in her smoke-free bread- and pastry-redolent café, her father’s stale cigarette smoke narrowed her breathing passages. The corners of her eyes stung.
Who would do this to her? Why? What had she done wrong?
Katherine’s hand shook the door. The jingle bell dinged, like the wail of a burglar alarm. She pried her fingers from the door handle and wrestled the key from the lock.
For twenty-five years, she’d awakened the citizens of Hidden Harbor with their first cups of freshly brewed coffee. She’d nourished them with daily breads. She’d sweetened their birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and graduations with made-to-order cakes. Golden yellow or French vanilla? German chocolate or Devil’s food? Their preferences she knew by heart. Their life events marked her calendar. Their voices she recognized on the phone. Everything in her adult life, good and bad, had started at this bakery. Everything she’d loved and lost. Everything she still hoped to recover.
What if she’d come in early again, determined to wow Katherine with a new recipe? What if Celeste had interrupted the vandal? What if the intruder had found her first? Katherine tried taking a breath, but the inhalation caught in her throat. And an off-beat pulse hammered from within her gut.
“Celeste!” Katherine’s voice echoed in her ears half a second before rational thought returned. Dear, sweet, infuriating Celeste had left her employ weeks ago, gone to culinary school in New York to rid herself of Hidden Harbor, Lamontagne’s, and Katherine.
Thank God Celeste wasn’t here to witness this disaster. Then why did Katherine wish she were?
Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic.
Exactly what you told yourself when you were clearly panicking.
Katherine chewed the inside of her cheek. Her ragged breath sounded in her ears. She tiptoed through the debris. Glass crunched beneath her clogs and ground into the treads. Balled-up napkins covered the coffee station counter, as though a child had pitched a cookie tantrum. Strawberry goo smeared across her check-out counter. A handful of PB&J cookies lay in a crumpled heap, sans the jelly. The trays of leftover black-and-white, M&M, and sugar cookies were empty.
She didn’t give a damn about the pastries.
The register sat open and empty, exactly as she’d left it at closing time. Every night, she counted out one hundred and fifty dollars for her register bag. Profits too late for a bank run went into a larger zipped pouch. She secured both bags in the back in her combination safe.
She didn’t give a damn about the money.
In the kitchen, Katherine hit the light switch. The overhead fluorescents flickered to life, illuminating her clean work tables, her shining stainless steel sinks. Katherine nodded at her ancient Blodgett oven, the kitchen’s workhorse. While waiting for her bread dough to rise, she could bake forty-eight pies in the faithful machine, a dozen per rack. Oven trouble meant bakery trouble.
At the moment, Katherine didn’t give a damn about the Blodgett.
Katherine tiptoed across her clean floor and into her stockroom. Proof boxes. Rolling ladder and wheeled bins of flour, oats, nuts, and dried fruit. The top shelf displayed a row of mason jars filled with specialty flours. The chest freezer hummed against the left-hand wall. On the right, a paisley skirt hung beneath a narrow marble work counter.
Katherine dropped to her knees and lifted the skirt.
The combination safe was locked. Crazy, irrational, but she had to know for sure. Her palms pulsed with perspiration, and her fingers slid on the wheel. She spun the lock to the right, missed the first number, took a steadying breath, and began anew. Three tries later, the dead bolts gave, and she swung the door on its hinges. She pushed aside the register bag, heavy with change. Her earnings pouch? Okay, she cared a little. She checked the bills against the tally sheet. All there. The stack of singles she kept separate from the two bags would’ve done little to tip a scale, but they weighed heavy on her heart.
At the far end of the safe, a plain white dishcloth secreted her prized possessions. She held the cloth to her nose, inhaled. Her fingers twitched, her cheeks heated, her heart hurt. Time hadn’t dulled the power of memory.
“I’m sorry,” she said, the same apology she’d offered her ex-husband when she’d failed to provide him with a good-enough reason for wanting a divorce. The empty words that failed to salve Celeste’s rage. The brokenhearted send-off for the one person incapable of questioning Katherine’s motives.
She unfolded the dishcloth and ran her fingers across the hospital bracelets she kept as reminders, touchstones of all she’d lost.
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