January yearned for a beautiful end.
Passing a small convenience shop, he slowed his hurried steps. What was once the storefront now glittered with faint light. Sunset pinks, oranges, and blues danced along a cascading waterfall that flowed no place known. The light erased and cleansed the cityscape. It brought on the glitches that destroyed everything they touched—buildings, cars, people. Now, the light had engulfed Ms. Kim’s shop. It was a shame, really. Less so if Ms. Kim wasn’t inside when it happened. Alas, it wasn’t the first shop to be glitched out of existence by the light and it wouldn’t be the last. January took off again, bag swinging from his shoulder. He had somewhere to be.
Because even as the city fell apart, the demand for baked goods had only increased, and ghost bakeries, like the one where January worked, were running nearly nonstop. Even while the apocalypse swallowed the city one piece at a time, hungry citizens demanded their éclairs and their baguettes. For now, behind closed doors and in the silence of his bakery, January kneaded fresh dough and set the mise en place, as the world outside dissipated into an empty sky.
The same order came in every day, without fail. Despite the end of times unfolding and the rising panic outside in the streets, today was no different:
#2 – LUNCH SPECIAL
SUB GRUYÈRE CHEESE
EXTRA EMMENTAL ON SIDE
Same number, same delivery address, same time. And just as any other day, the order came through at noon-ten, when January was seconds away from a break. He rushed to fill it without a moment’s hesitation. A number two lunch special consisted of a freshly baked baguette that’d been proofing since the night prior, a generous spread of room temperature butter, a thin layer of French ham, and three slices of gruyère cheese.
“Can someone fire three more baguettes?” January shouted against the rising noise of the bakery. He always handled the recurring order himself. Patterns were integral to a baker’s life. But there was something especially alluring about filling the same order every day for the same person. A relationship of sorts, as close to one as January would allow himself. He had spent many nights, unable to sleep, wondering about who was on the other end of that order. Who was he feeding every lunch— “Mishi, baguettes, like, yesterday. With a modicum of urgency.”
Mishi slammed the door to the kitchen shut with her hip on the way in. “Chef, my car got glitched this morning. Not my fault.”
“And now you’re here and we need five baguettes in the ovens.”
“Yes, chef.” Mishi scurried over to the fridge and pulled out five identically shaped rolls of dough.
The lunch orders began to flow in. Yet, January paid them no mind. Mishi could handle most of them, as she had since the glitches started. Most of the city ran with the first glitch, but some remained for whatever was to come. It was January’s self-imposed responsibility to feed them.
“Ben, I need ham from the cold room,” Mishi called out.
Despite his utmost efforts, January was never alone here. Here there were people who worked by his side and loudly chased the same goal, at least during work hours. Calling them ghost bakeries was an oxymoron. There was no other place with more life and vigor than a bakery. There was no place with more love and soul, than a place where imagination and nostalgia played out through taste. And despite the attempt to strip bakeries of every non-vital organ, every ounce of individuality, the organism defiantly lived on. How long could the organism survive amongst the glitches? How long before a pillar of light would swallow January up along with the kitchen, the ovens, the dough?
They were good questions, but for now, January fed ham through a slicer, producing slices so thin, light easily passed through them. Three slices of ham, a spread of the best, imported butter, and a sprinkle of microgreens. Perfectly imperfect, every single time. Each slice of ham was then gently placed between the two halves of a fresh, warm baguette, gleaming with melted butter. Outside, the world crumbled, but here there was still room for artistry. A pinch of salt and a final spread of butter across the crust finished off that portion of the sandwich. January reached for the cheese next but found none. “Mishi, Emmental cheese?”
“Vendor got glitched,” she called back, in between packing eclairs into their protective boxes. “All cheese is Gruyère now.”
January counted back from ten. “The customer didn’t ask for Gruyère.”
Mishi had nothing to say and shrugged in return, her frame already turning to the ovens, rushing to attend to the things still within her control. January had three minutes to finish the order. He tightly wrapped the sandwich in parchment paper. Then, he grabbed a mille feuille and quickly placed several strawberry slices and candied cranberries on top with a pair of tweezers. Once the delicate pastry was in a box, January tore a page from his notepad and scribbled:
I’m sorry, we are out of Emmental cheese. Glitches are affecting the supply chain. We appreciate your patronage and hope you will continue to order from us for as long as we’re around.
January placed the note carefully inside the pastry box along with the parchment-wrapped sandwich and handed the order over. Glitches or not, it would be delivered on time.
Outside the fogged-up window, another pillar glitched a thirty-floor high-rise out of existence. January watched the concrete and glass melt into ethereal light through the crack in his curtains. It was as silent a night as any. And just as with many nights before, this was a sleepless one. Remnants of the glitches encroached on the city spreading across entire neighborhoods like a great flood. It might only be a matter of hours before January’s own apartment building would go up in a blaze of light. The thought brought on only mild distress.
When the glitches first appeared, mass panic spread like wildfire and led to evacuations. But for those like January, with nowhere to go, and no one to go to, there was nothing to do but continue on as they always had. The world outside the city was foreign to him and he a stranger to it.
Like a horse that had memorized its path to the market, he made his way back to his bakery. Maybe they were called ghost bakeries not for their lack of a storefront, but rather for the cooks who ran them, inhabited them, lived in dreamlike states for years on end, never once veering off their path. By habit, January measured out flour and yeast and started rolling out and separating the dough for tomorrow’s baguettes. It was the only thing to do.
Despite the odd hours and the improbability of an order, he hovered around the receipt printer. One receipt in particular, leftover from the tail end of the lunch rush, caught his attention. It must have printed right before the machine had been shut down for the night, right before the kitchen was left to rest. The receipt came from the same number as the recurring lunch order:
No Emmental, no problem ☺ The sandwich was as delicious as it was beautiful (especially the mille feuille I don’t remember ordering). Please thank the chef who prepared my order for their care and attention.
When the staff didn’t return to work the next morning, Mishi insisted that January close the bakery down for good. They argued about it up until the lunch rush, but as soon as the orders began to flow in, all arguments were forgotten. It was decided then that Mishi, as the less-experienced chef, would deliver the orders on her single-speed bike as long as they were within a five-block radius of the kitchen. The others would have to arrange for pickup just outside the underground entrance. With their plan clear, both got to work.
But just as January was about to fill the first order, the receipt printer spat out the coveted words:
#2 – LUNCH SPECIAL
OR WHATEVER YOU STILL HAVE
“Oh, absolutely not,” Mishi shouted over her shoulder, balancing four takeout bags in her short arms. “No more tweezer work, no more notes—yes, I saw you the last time. We’re getting buried here.”
“It’s an important order.”
Mishi dropped the bags and spun around. “No, you have decided that this order is more important than others. You probably want to keep the bakery open so you can keep sending free pastries to your favorite customer.” She crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. “The city is falling apart and you’re here, baking.”
“You’re free to leave, Mishi.” January was rarely crass, but he was losing both patience and valuable time bickering with Mishi.
Instead of biting back, Mishi turned her eyes to the floor where the takeout bags had crumpled. “You know I won’t.”
January had forgotten that Mishi too had nowhere at all to go and no one to go with. She too recently stood at the edge of the city, unable to bring herself to cross the threshold into a world that could be worse than simply disappearing. Bakeries, like this one, attracted people that never belonged anywhere else. They were a safe haven for those who were too damaged, too strange to be of use to anyone in the outside world. January didn’t bother apologizing; the silence was enough. Both were inexplicably trapped inside a decaying city. At least they would meet the end together, in a place that had become a makeshift home for them both.
“I know,” January said at last. “Go run those to the customers. I’ll deliver this order myself.”
“That’s uncalled for,” Mishi scoffed.
“It’s only four blocks, and I can run the underground path for three of them.”
“So, this is it now, we’re gonna do our own deliveries? For how long?”
January didn’t have an answer, although the immediate reply that came to him was until we get glitched. But he said nothing and instead returned to placing candied orange slices atop a tart before Mishi’s eyes. She scoffed again, naturally, the way a teenager who is almost an adult does, picked up the takeout bags, and sauntered out the kitchen door.
#2 – LUNCH SPECIAL
OR WHATEVER YOU STILL HAVE
January re-read the order. They were nearly out of ham. The only protein left was a pathetically thin block of Gruyère cheese. He lay the slices on to a bed of micro-greens spread across a heavily buttered baguette. A spring bouquet of scraps. Pleasing, if only to the eye, assembled with only the finest that the dying bakery could provide.
He would deliver the disappointing meal himself, yes, and if his newfound bravery didn’t leave him by the time he arrived at the correct address he would perhaps even linger long enough to meet his customer.
In bright midday, squinting through both sunlight and migraine, January stared at a glistening pillar of light at the exact spot he was to make his delivery. The takeout bag lay at his feet. Around him, the languished drone of cicadas echoed in his pulsing headache.
The trek had been pointless from the start, just as Mishi had suggested. Despite the sweltering rays beaming across his chef’s coat, January was shuddering from his core outwards. Pointless, just as his attempts to leave the city. The city that now more closely resembled a ghost town. During his walk from underground path to what used to be a corner store, January failed to meet a single person. Of course, who’d stay when entire stores were disappearing into nothing but a scattered glow.
The disappointment was palpable.
At his feet, a lone cicada wriggled weakly before it flapped its translucent wings for the final time and stopped moving altogether. Gently nudging it with the tip of his shoe, January shared a moment of kinship with the insect, having too spent an inordinate amount of time underground only to emerge and face his demise.
For another five minutes, he watched the pillar, having half a mind to touch it and be done with the ordeal. But there was still Mishi, waiting for him at the bakery to complain on repeat about how keeping the bakery open was nonsense. After the five minutes passed, January turned his back and slowly made his way back to where the underground path would guide him away from the light and disappointment.
But the city was not finished doling out disappointments, and the next greeted January at the entrance to the underground path that would guide him back to the bakery. Now, a shimmering pillar was cutting it off from the outside, severing the tunnel and Mishi’s red, single-speed bicycle in half. For a split second, January entertained the delusional thought that Mishi had simply left her bike there while she recovered more takeout orders from the kitchen. For another second, he attempted to convince himself that she simply stepped away for the moment. But as he drew close to the light, a sliver of navy cloth beckoned him closer still, identical to his own. No, Mishi hadn’t escaped her fate after all.
And just like that, the glitches claimed the few people January knew. He had always been a solitary creature, and yet the notion that solitude was no longer an option but rather the default brought on a wave of grief. Even the migraine dissipated into sweeping apathy.
There was nothing to do and nowhere to go now. There was only the bakery, now truly a haunted place. The bakery that had served January with connection and distraction, the bakery, which was the only place he could safely call home. Throwing one last look to where Mishi met her end, January slipped his hands into the pockets of his trousers and started off towards the closest available entrance to the underground.
At first, still blinded by the midday sun, January mistook the figure by the bakery doors for a mere shadow. But as he approached closer, without worry or caution, the outlines of linen culottes and a bright orange blouse seeped from the darkness and materialized around a young-ish woman. She was waiting patiently, leaning against the concrete walls of the tunnel, one foot draped over the other. Her face, January pondered, must have mirrored his own expression, one that without a single word relentlessly uttered no one is coming.
He was an arm’s length away when she finally looked up from her intent study of the floor, and said, “I came to pick up my order instead of waiting for delivery. I hope that’s okay.”
No customer had ever visited the bakery before.
“Are you sure you’re at the right place?” January muttered before he could stop himself.
The woman gestured to him, his apron, and back to the door, then said, matter-of-factly, “I’ve been ordering from here every day for the past three years. I’m pretty sure this is the spot.”
Struck by the realization, January silently slipped past the woman and into the kitchen. “I’m afraid your order has already been delivered.”
The woman followed inside, unfazed by the curtness of January’s replies. “Unfortunately, my shop got glitched right after I placed the order—”
Crossing her arms over her chest, the woman leaned against a counter. “And how would you know that?”
“I delivered your order. Our delivery driver got glitched or wanted to leave before he got glitched. Maybe both.” January paused for a moment. “I’m sorry about your shop.”
“Shop, apartment, car.” The woman shrugged. “It’s just how it is these days.” She watched January pick out a knife and begin to anxiously carve a strawberry into a fine spring bloom. He worked the berry quickly with nimble fingers, barely watching as the slices parted to reveal a beautiful flower. “You’re the one who’s been making my orders.”
“Sometimes,” January lied.
“You’re the one who wrote to me.”
“I’d hardly call it writing.” January switched to a melon ball next, pruning the flesh into a budding rose. “I mistakenly thought you got glitched along with your shop. I left your order behind. I’ll make you a new one, but I don’t think we have any ham left. I can check.”
The woman hopped up on the counter beside where January was working. “I’m Tara,” she said softly, extending her arm.
“January.” He didn’t take her hand.
“An odd name for an odd person,” Tara sang.
“I’m not an odd person.”
“Not just anyone would write back on a takeout order. Not just anyone would stick around a city that’s glitching out of existence. Both make you odd.”
January placed the knife down with force. “Where would I even go?”
He let the words hang. When he finally looked up at Tara, she gave him a sad, knowing smile. “Where would I?” she whispered.
January handed Tara a melon rose, and she accepted it with both hands. “Does it ever feel like you’re trapped in a dream?” she asked, eyes poised on the flower. “And it’s not even your own dream to begin with?”
“Like you’re one of the background characters in someone else’s play? A placeholder until the real actors get there.”
Tara nodded meekly.
“I think Mishi had a similar idea,” January muttered. He scanned the aluminum surfaces, the labelled containers, the ovens, and the trays. Once it was a place that made itself known to the outside world through food. Now, it was simply waiting for the inevitable. Both Tara and him were no different.
January cast Tara a side glance and watched her intently study the melon rose. “I think today’s the day,” she said. She didn’t need to clarify. “If you’re closing down, will you go to the boardwalk with me? The sunsets are beautiful with all the light pillars rising from the water.”
Would he? Close down the bakery for the final time? The bakery would most likely be gone by the morning, but so would he. There was no one to bake for anymore. “Let me prepare something first.”
Long shadows cut along the boardwalk. Tall pillars of light rose from the water at random intervals and pulsed with a kaleidoscopic glow against the setting sun. If there was an end, his would be beautiful, January thought without any regrets.
Beside him, Tara snacked on a handful of madeleines, eating them straight from the bag. Their feet dangled from the boardwalk, but only Tara’s swung to some unheard rhythm. Once in a while, a new pillar of light sprouted from the lake, and the water below bubbled for a few turbulent seconds before settling once more.
“So, you’ve never come here before?” Tara asked with her mouth full.
Before the natural silence settled around them, they had spent hours talking about her family and the convenience store she was left to run after their retirement. And before that, January recounted every restaurant and patisserie he staged in, and every little cooking trick he’d picked up on the way. On their walk to the shore, January pointed out the building where he lived, only for it to perish in blinding light only a moment later. They both laughed and kept walking as the light consumed a second and then a third building in the complex.
“I’m rarely away from the bakery,” January said.
As the sun grew close to the horizon, Tara swallowed the last madeleine and said, with barely contained excitement, “This is the best part.” She pointed ahead. And she was right. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the last of its rays ignited the hundreds of pillars along the lake, so that each burned with a roaring fire.
“I’m glad I made it out this time,” January said, watching more of Tara’s face than the sunset.
As if not hearing him, Tara said, “I think when the light takes you, you wake up, you know? Like we said before. This is some dream, probably. The light just makes us wake up.”
January watched the sun’s dying rays play along Tara’s face. “I think you’re right.”
“Like, there’s no other reasonable explanation for any of this.”
Before Tara could say anything more, the horizon lit up with blinding force. The same light making up the pillars now stretched in a tidal wave across the entire lake, and even in the sunless dusk, it was clear that it moved towards the shore with increasing speed. Yet, Tara didn’t seem to acknowledge it at all. Her half-upturned face still pointed to the horizon, the shimmer of the advancing light wave sparkling in her dark irises.
“I think you just wake up,” she whispered over and over again, like a half-voiced prayer.
As the wave drew near, January found Tara’s hand by feel alone and gave it a strong squeeze. She squeezed his hand back, eyes still glued to the fast-approaching wall of light. “I think you just wake up,” Tara whispered again, softer this time.
“I think you’re right,” January answered in his own timid prayer.
When the air around them grew thick with static, their fingers still intertwined, January picked out a strand of Tara’s hair and focused on it, like the unruly angle at which it curled held all the answers he needed. If he focused hard enough, he could make out the individual hairs as they shimmered and curled, and soon surrendered to the light. Tara’s bright, orange shirt was the next to lose its sharp edges. Then, the boardwalk itself disappeared. It was Tara’s eyes, still black and blindly staring ahead that persevered the longest. And her voice, defiantly carrying its gentle rhythm, rang out until everything else was lost. And January himself became nothing but light.
I think you just wake up.
© 2023 A.D. Sui