Stolen Love

Written for the 2017 NYC Midnight Short Story challenge, round one.

I was tasked with writing a complete tale in a week given these prompts:

Romantic Comedy, a baker, kleptomania.

I’ve read two of the stories in my group, (Grp. 23,) and both follow the same logic, one is somewhat similar to mine, the other is, unfortunately for me, hilarious. Thankfully at least three of us move on to round two.

Comments and shares are welcome.

Stolen Love

By Miguel A. Rueda (Wayne Hills.)

Synopsis:

A shy woman pilfers items from a local baker to satisfy her desire to be with him. Meanwhile, a lonely baker allows a woman to steal from him in order to keep her close to him.

Luciana ‘Lulu,’ Migliaccio’s home resembled the aftermath of a small Midwestern town following a level-5 tornado crammed into a twenty by twenty studio apartment. But the objects on the table near the door were arranged in precise, matrix-like order.

Stale cookies—sugar and with various fillings—lined the front edge; dehydrated donuts—previously jelly or crème filled—occupied the next row; and several small display signs—one declaring a “2-for-1” sale, another a “Baker’s Dozen” special—were against the wall. The arrangement created a tiered effect around the table’s focal point, a framed newspaper clipping.

Picking up the picture, she gazed at the man standing in front of ‘DaVinci’s Italian Bakery.’ The article’s headline read, “Enzo DaVinci Carries on Family Tradition in Brother’s Memory.” She held the thin wooden frame with her fingertips so as not to dislodge any of the paint pulled from the wall when she had stolen it. The memento, along with everything else on the table, had been taken from DaVinci’s.

The smell of anise floated into her apartment. “Enzo must be making biscotti,” she muttered.

When baked, the extract produced a distinct aroma that comforted her. She loved to dunk the oblong biscuit in coffee and let the hard shell soften. She closed her eyes and imagined the texture of the dough melting against her tongue, the feel of the softened hazelnuts filling her mouth. She smiled at the thought. It was heaven.

She opened her eyes, kissed the glass, and placed the frame back on the table. She put on her bright-red overcoat and left her apartment. Which was one floor above the kitchen of DaVinci’s bakery.

Enzo was indeed making biscotti. He had just pulled out the long flat loaves to let them cool before slicing them into their familiar shapes and returning them to the oven. This process gave the twice-baked cookie its literal name.

DaVinci’s front half had tables and display cases with a one-way mirror separating it from the kitchen so that Enzo could see what was going on while he worked. The entire store took up a third of a block with the entrance to the apartments above the stores at the opposite end.

He inhaled deeply and let his mind return to the small town near Sicily where he grew up. His grandmother had lived in the tiny kitchen of the apartment on the second floor of his parents’ home. She gifted him his love of baking, especially bread and desserts.  Food made her happy, which made him happy. In his mind, the scent was the smell of home—of love—of eternity.

“Uncle Enzo.” The squeak and subsequent thud of the door separating the kitchen and retail spaces broke Enzo’s daydream. “She’s back.”

Even though he had lived in the United States for the last decade, Enzo spoke with a thick Italian accent. It added a poetic lilt to everything he said. “Who is back, Gio?”

“That woman who keeps shoplifting. The fat lady….”

Basta, Giovanni! Do not disrespect anyone. Your Nonna looks the same way, no?”

Gio nodded, “Yes uncle, you’re right.”

Enzo peered into the shop. She stood by the door like a mouse poking her head through a hole checking for a cat, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.

Enzo said, “That woman is the perfect woman, Gio. She is, eh, Rubenesque.”

Gio’s face skewed. “Ruben-who?”

“Rubenesque. Like the woman’s body painted by Rubens? You are not taught this in your fancy college?”

“Do you mean, Rubik’s, like a Rubik’s cube?”

Enzo glared at Gio. “Si’, nephew. I mean she is a Rubik’s Cube.” Shaking his head he looked back at her, “She is not a square. What person is square?”

Gio mumbled, “Well, you’re a bit of a square.”

Enzo threw a handful of flour at Gio. “Kids today, no respect. What with your, eh, Facepage and constant tweetering.” He pointed to Gio, “Go out there. Apologize to that pretty lady.”

“Um, no uncle. I’m not doing that. What would I even say? I’m sorry I think you need to lose a few pounds but my uncle thinks you’re cute?”

Enzo blushed, “No, no, no, do not mention me!” He thought for a moment. “Ah, tell her she won something. A, eh, free coffee for being our hundredth customer today. Go. And ask her name.”

Gio smirked, “You want me to ask her name? Why would I….” Realization came to him. “Oh, you do like her. That’s why you let her get away with taking stuff.”

“Gio, stop. That is absurd.”

“Oh really, unc? I’ve known you ever since my pop got sick and you came to help us keep the bakery. You weren’t married in Italy, and you’ve never dated here. You’re always in here, baking. You took care of us when my dad passed away, but we’re good now. I’ve seen the way you look at her. Go ask her out.”

Enzo looked at Gio, then back out the window, “Okay, nephew, I will do that.” He wiped his hands on his apron, then ran his fingers through his hair, adding in more flour than he wiped away. He took a deep breath and walked out.

When he opened the door, Lulu was trying to slide a plate of cellophane-wrapped cookies under her coat. The hinges’ squeal drew Lulu’s attention. When she saw Enzo looking at her, she dropped the cookies and ran out.

“Wait!” Enzo rushed after her.

He picked up the plate and followed her. He saw a flash of red as she ducked into the entrance for the apartments. Hurrying through after her, he found a second, locked door leading into the building.

He looked around and saw an intercom unit. A quarter-sized glass bubble sat atop a mesh grill covering the speaker. Four handwritten name tags sat beneath it: Sam Cohen, another with indecipherable Chinese lettering, a third that had several small bats and a skull sketched onto it, and finally, in perfect script, the name Lulu Migliaccio.

Guessing that it had to be her, he pushed, and believing it was necessary, held the button next to her name. The electronic ringing from the speaker stopped when a small lightbulb inside the button lit up.

He heard a woman’s voice, out of breath, quiet and sounding far away, “Hello, can I help you?”

Ciao. Eh, hello Signorina Migliaccio. This is Enzo DaVinci from the bakery. You dropped your struffoli.” He released the button.

She had heard him speak in the bakery, but he’d never said her name. When he pronounced, Migliaccio with a proper Italian accent, it sounded operatic. She stared at Enzo on the small monitor set into the wall above her shrine to him. His voice, deep and exotic, wrapped her in a warm blanket of love. Her mind drifted on the possibilities.

Enzo placed the cookies on the package shelf below the mailboxes and pushed the button. “Hello. Eh, Miss Lulu, are you still there?”

His voice pulled her back to the present.

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Your cookies are left by the door. Eh, if you are free, I would like you to join me at eight o’clock tonight for coffee and dessert.” He released the button. Then quickly, and unnecessarily, he pushed it again, “My, eh, treat.”

He stepped back and waited for her response.

Lulu watched him fidget. In the mirrored wall of the lobby, he noticed his hair was speckled with clumps of dough and streaks of flour. He licked his fingers and tried to brush it away, succeeding only in making it stick out at odd angles in some places and plastering against his scalp in others. She laughed at the short, chubby man on the screen who had no idea she could see him.

“Enzo, yes. I would be happy to.”

She saw him smile and reach for the button. He paused and, unaware she could hear, whispered, “Vincenzo DaVinci, you are going to marry this woman.”

He pushed the button, “Thank you. I will see you tonight.”

In the weeks before that evening, Enzo had watched her from behind his mirrored partition. Every morning as she walked past the store to the bus stop on the corner, she glanced in. If it were empty, she would open the door and grab anything close enough to steal without having to enter. Enzo began to leave items near the entrance, each day moving them a little farther inside. One day, she had made it halfway to the counter when someone walked in behind her. Startled, she turned and scurried out, only stopping long enough to grab a framed newspaper article off the wall.

Since that day, he had vowed to confront her. Not about the thefts, but about his feelings for her. Despite her size, he knew she was invisible to all those around her but him; he saw her as demure and fragile. They had to be alike: lonely, but too shy to do anything about it.

Enzo closed early that evening, returned home and showered; making sure that his hair was combed neatly and remiss of extraneous baking supplies. At eight o’clock, he walked to her apartment and pressed the intercom. It rang only once. “Hello, Enzo. I’ll be right down.”

“Si’, I will wait.” He released the button and waited a full fifteen minutes before reaching to press it again.

A familiar fragrance stopped him. He caught a whiff of Biagiotti Roma, the same perfume his grandmother wore. Lulu opened the door. The voluptuous beauty he had been searching for all of his adult life stood before him. Her eyes sparkled in the dim light. His voice barely audible, he said, “Buona sera.” He coughed to regain the power of speech. “Eh, good evening, Lulu.” He held out his arm for her to hold as they walked back to the bakery.

He had set a table up in the center of his kitchen; he always felt most secure surrounded by the equipment and tools he loved. They talked, nervously at first since they knew virtually nothing about each other. Neither could admit they had secretly been stalking the other.

He had made mini-cannolis overflowing with a vanilla-bean-infused ricotta filling. By the end of the evening, they had made plans to meet the next night.

Enzo walked her home and returned to his kitchen. He wasn’t surprised when he found that one of the espresso demitasses was missing. He looked up toward the apartment above him and blew a kiss.

“One day, all of this will belong to you. No matter if you take it piece by piece or all at once.”

They continued to meet every night at the same time. Enzo would make special versions of the desserts that made the bakery popular. Cannoncini filled with dark-chocolate mousse, linzer cookies with raspberry jam that had a perfect balance of sweet and tart, each tiny seed exploded with flavor. Enzo always served them in odd numbers so that Lulu could have the last one.

At end of their first week, Lulu stopped stealing from the bakery. That evening, she had snuck out with a half-filled silver creamer in her purse. She had been nervous, and secretly excited, as he walked her home. Inside her apartment, she looked at the table she had piled with everything she had pilfered and realized that she no longer needed that thrill to feel connected to him. She now had all of him.

She threw away everything with the exception of the framed newspaper. She had other plans for that.

On their one-month anniversary, Enzo set the table with a pure-white tablecloth, linen napkins, and two slender ivory candles in silver candlesticks. He replaced the usual porcelain plates with fine Italian china that he had shipped from his hometown. In the center of the table sat a plate of seven pignoli cookies. He baked the patterns of the small pine nuts into the cookies in pairs: two stars, two squares, and two circles. The seventh unique shape lay hidden beneath the others.

Lulu arrived, carrying a flat, rectangular box.

When she saw the special setting, she said, “Enzo, this is beautiful, I mean, bellissimo.” She had been studying Italian using a book that she had actually paid for. “Is this a special occasion?”

Si’ Lulu, it is.” He pointed to the package. “You have something special for me?”

“Oh, this? Yes. Perhaps we should sit.”

Enzo held the chair for her—just as he did every night—then sat and poured them both coffee.

“Enzo, before you open this, there is something you need to know.” She handed him the box. “I have a problem that I’m working on. I steal things. Little things, nothing big or expensive.”

Enzo chuckled. “Mio amore, eh, my love, I know. I have always known.”

He opened the box. He saw the picture she had taken from his wall.

She had reframed the clipping in an ornate gold frame she had purchased from an antique store.

“This is beautiful. Grazia.

“But Enzo, I…. “

“No.” Enzo reached across the table and placed his finger on her lips. “No more talk of the past. Tonight is about the future.”

Embarrassed to make eye contact with the man to whom she had just confessed her darkest secret, a secret he had accepted without question. Tears welled in her eyes. She tasted a cookie. The inner dough was soft and moist, the pignoli supple on her tongue. They reached the seventh, hidden cookie. Slightly larger than the others, the toasted nuts were set in the shape of a heart.

Enzo smiled and played the game he did every night. “I am full, Lulu. You take the last.”

She looked at the remaining cookie, the candlelight flickering off the glaze baked onto its surface. She knew that each pine-nut had been touched by Enzo’s loving hands. She began to cry.

Enzo’s smile fell, he started to stand, “Mio amore, what is wrong?”

Lulu stopped him, “Sit, I’m okay. It’s just so beautiful, everything. You’re just so lovely to me.”

She picked up the cookie and bit it in half.

She chewed once. Stopped. Looked at Enzo.

He rose and stepped around the table, kneeled and took her hand.

Signorina Luciana Migliaccio. Mi vuoi sposare? Lulu, my love, marry me.”

The musical poetry of his words, spoken with his beautiful accent, overwhelmed her. She began to shake. Between the excitement and emotion of the moment, she started coughing. Then she swallowed.

Enzo jumped up. “Lulu, did you…?”

Lulu grabbed her throat. She looked as though somehow she could find a way to jump back in time.

He took her hand. “Don’t worry, we will get help.” He led her to the door, stopping before opening it. “Lulu, I have to know.” He looked into her eyes, “Will you?”

No longer concerned about her predicament, she calmed. “Si’, Vincenzo DaVinci. Ti amo.”

The Will to Trust

NYCM 2016  Short Story Challenge.

Round 2, Group 7.

Romance.

Last Will and Testament.

A man with one eye.

Synopsis: A young woman’s accident cements her cynicism with the world, but provides her a way to become a successful lawyer, and break the cycle of abuse.

 

 

The chirping of the awakening birds and the sweet smell of late-spring azaleas accompanied Maria Ruttle as she raced her BMX bike through the neighborhood. She had hoped to deliver the morning’s newspapers before the mere act of breathing caused her to break out in sweat.

Fiery streaks of sunlight cut across the pre-dawn sky, intent upon beating the sun’s crest of the horizon, she sped through an intersection without checking for cross traffic. If she had, Maria might have noticed the taxicab about to run through the stop sign because the driver had been staring at a map.

The impact threw both girl and bike over the car, off the roof and into the street. The collision had spun her handlebars and driven the front-brake lever into her stomach. The damage to her still-maturing uterus was so severe that the emergency room doctors told her she would never bear children.

To Maria, her BMX was more than just a bicycle. Wherever she rode: hot and dry, cold and wet, and every-weather in between, it became her happy place. As long as she had those two wheels and the steady vibration of pedal to chain beneath her, she felt content in the wind away from her home. Already aware, by the age of twelve, that the people who were supposed to care for her could also be the cause of great pain, Maria sought mobile refuge from her abusive family. On that early summer morning she learned a hard lesson: every refuge had a price.

Maria’s parents sued the taxi company. The lawyers handling the case stipulated that Maria’s parents write a Last Will and Testament providing for a trust fund to pay for Maria’s college tuition when she graduated high school. Her parents settled for enough money to pay for a year-long bender, which—to the surprise of no one who knew them—led to their deaths facilitated by driving while blotto. The orphaned Maria was transferred into the state’s foster-care system.

She threw herself into her studies, graduating at the top of her class in both high school and college.

After her accident, she believed that she’d never trust anyone again without fear of betrayal or pain.

For the next twenty years, she was right.

***

Zackary Klein entered the law offices of Dewey, Smith, and Ruttle and approached the reception desk.

Jen Meyers greeted him, “Good morning, how may I help you?” Maria had hired Jen after becoming the youngest woman in state history to be made a full partner in an established firm.

Jen buzzed the intercom into Maria’s office. “Ms. Ruttle, I have a Mr. Klein here for you. He says it’s about the Henderson settlement.”

“He’s expected, send him in.”

Standing when the inner office door opened, Maria said, “Hello, Mr. Klein.”

“Please, call me Zack. No reason to be formal.”

Although they’d never met, Maria had heard of him. She recognized him by the leather eyepatch he wore. Around the local legal circuit, he had the nickname Pirata Per Curiam because he took no prisoners and always returned with the gold. Beyond his reputation as the ‘Pirate of the court,’ she had been warned of his ability to make women swoon. She hadn’t believed the gossip until that moment.

The thought occurred to her, that Zack losing an eye seemed like God’s cruel trick to even the playing field for other men.

“Yes, that’s acceptable. I’m Maria.”

He reached out his hand, “I hadn’t expected you to be so bea—” Zack coughed, “uh young, Maria.”

She shook his hand, a tingle of goosebumps ran up her forearm. A warm rush of blood washed through her. She released his hand and motioned for him to sit.

For the first hour of their meeting—which had been scheduled to take twenty minutes—they spoke about the case between their firms. Since both parties had already agreed upon the terms, there should have only been a few final details in the legalese to hammer out. But as the items on the list dwindled, Maria noticed Zack trying to learn more about her. In the past, she would have ignored the questions, or given misleading answers. She had to be in charge. She couldn’t trust anyone’s intentions, but something about this man seemed different. From the moment he touched her hand, she trusted him. Maybe it was their mutual respect for the law. She didn’t question it, she just accepted it.

They spent the second hour talking about their pasts. Maria talked about the taxi accident and the Will that had provided for her education; leaving out any mention of her family history. Zack told her about his love of riding his off-road motorcycle when he was younger. How the wind and speed helped him escape ‘a difficult family situation.’ And why the loss of his eye cost him more than just half of his sight. Without depth perception, he could no longer ride to escape.

When she asked him about what had happened to his eye, he changed the subject and shuffled the papers around the desk as though he’d remembered some obscure legal point they had missed. They both knew they hadn’t. They were too good for that.

Maria had been stealing glances at Zack across the desk throughout the afternoon. The eyepatch allowed her to look almost to the point of staring without fear of being caught. And a couple of times when she looked up, she saw his head snap back to the desk as though he’d been discovered peeping into a window. She hadn’t looked directly into his remaining eye until Jen asked if they’d be working late and would be needing dinner. When Maria looked at his face for his opinion, the sight of the deep blue of his remaining eye made her sad that the world had been deprived of its twin.

Zack noticed her holding his gaze and said, “How about this? If I make you laugh, we go out to dinner. People eat, and despite what my colleagues say, I refuse to believe that you’re simply a beautiful robot sent from the future to win all the cases you’re given. Deal?”

Maria smirked, outwardly unamused, even though she found the idea charming.

Zack smiled. “I’m not hearing a no.” He cocked his head and pointed to his eyepatch, “I’m winking. You just can’t tell because of the patch.”

Maria rolled her eyes.

“I only have eye for you. Boom-crash.” He mimicked a drummer doing a rim-shot on a snare-drum and hitting a cymbal.

She shook her head, smiled, and laughed.

“Ha!” He raised his arms in a touchdown signal. “Victory is mine. I’ll pick you up at seven; text me your address.” He stood and began gathering his things.

“Wait, I never agreed to your stupid bet.”

“Ah, but you didn’t not agree to it, either.”

“I’ll go under one condition.”

“You want to work out a plea deal for a date? Sure, bring it on, counselor.” He smiled.

Letting her guard down, she studied his face. Looking at his lips, she wondered how they’d feel against hers.

“You tell me how you lost your eye.” She pointed at his chest. “The real story, not the one you tell woman to get them go out with you.”

His smile fell. “Would you believe me if I said that I was running with scissors?”

“No.” Maria crossed her arms. “And may I remind you that you’re still under oath.”

Zack looked around the room. “I’m not sure I was ever actually under oath, but I’ll allow it.”

“Proceed.” Maria expected another cute reply.

Zack settled back into his chair. “Maria, this isn’t an easy tale for me to tell, and even though I don’t really know you, I feel a connection that, frankly, surprises me.”

He took a deep breath, exhaled and began. “I had been riding my dirt-bike in the woods behind my house. The longer I stayed out, the less time I’d have to spend at home.”

His words echoed Maria’s memory of her childhood. She knew how painful that life could be.

“About a mile out, there was a shack where an old homeless guy lived with his dog. A big old mutt of a black lab. He was smart and friendly—the dog, not the guy.”

Zack laughed, but didn’t smile. “I’d bring him food and he’d follow me around when I rode the trails. I made sure to never go too fast for him and always brought him home. He was my bud.”

Zack stared off in the distance, his mind drifting back in time. “I bought him a bright-blue collar, and I’d rub his big, bowling-ball sized head and he’d wag his fat tail. It was heaven being out there without worrying about—” He trailed off.

Although Maria knew it had to be the lighting, the tear that ran down Zack’s cheek appeared to be the same shade of perfect blue as his eye.

Zack coughed and wiped his cheek. “Well, my pop found out about me hanging around the shack and that old ‘flea-bitten mongrel,’ and he said that I brought parasites back to our house. The next day I rode out to the shack and it had been burned to the ground. The old man and his dog were gone. I didn’t know what happened to them, but when I found the blue collar in the rubble of the fire—”

Zack fidgeted in the seat and clenched his fists. “I flew home, smashing through branches and over rocks, didn’t care if I wrecked. Found Pop outside on the porch smoking God-knows-what. When he saw me, he just started laughing. I’m not proud to say it, but I was just a kid. I lost it. I grabbed a monkey wrench and ran at him. He knocked me down, took it away, and yelled that he’d teach me ‘if I was gonna pull a weapon, I damn better well use it.’ He swung for my head and I tried to dodge it, but he caught me in the face and ruptured my eyeball. He raised the wrench again, but as he swung, that old lab came out of nowhere and latched onto Pop’s arm and pulled him off me.”

Zack’s breath caught in his throat. “Pop was a strong, mean drunk and he threw the dog off. I was screaming and half blind, I couldn’t stop him from using the wrench on my friend, the only real friend I ever had who never asked me for anything. I was only twelve. What was I supposed to do?”

Zack inhaled twice in short choppy breaths. “Social Services finally took me away for what he did to me, but I’d trade my other eye if I could have saved that old dog. Hell, I never even gave him a name and he saved my life.”

Her vision blurred by tears of her own, Maria stood, walked around the desk and embraced him. “I’m sorry, Zack. I didn’t mean to make you upset.”

Maria sent Jen home, and then told Zack the rest of her story, details she’d never shared. They stayed in her office for another hour before finally going to eat the most satisfying meal either’d had in a long time.

After that first dinner together, they shared dessert, and a kiss.

Less than a week later, after their third date, they shared his bed.

For her wedding gift to him, she arranged to have a custom prosthetic eye made that matched his unique blue so that their family pictures didn’t need a patch of any kind. And they had many family photographs that included more than just the two of them, because the universe provided a wedding gift to them both. She became pregnant.

In the decades that followed, Maria and Zack lived, loved, and trusted each other in ways neither had thought would ever be possible.

End

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