“Eat in penne alfredo up! Two large breadsticks for delivery! Charlie, delivery is all set!”
It was the very beginning of the dinner rush at New Winslow House of Pizza. Roman was on the grill, tossing up orders and restocking before things got busy.
Charlie picked up two large boxes of fragrant breadsticks, sliding them into a delivery bag. “Got it, boss,” he said. “I’m heading up to Salt Hill Farm so I might be gone a while.”
Roman nodded, already pulling tickets for his next order. “No worries. Tatiana is coming in in about twenty minutes, so she can take any orders that come while you’re gone.”
Charlie hefted the bag, now carrying the breadsticks and a pizza with a two-liter of soda on top, onto his massive shoulder. “Sounds good,” he said, “Heading out!”
The door swung shut behind Charlie and Roman glanced at what was next. There was only one order, a small Italian sub with no indication of what was supposed to be on it.
Roman sighed quietly. He’d just hired a new cashier, a shy teenager named Cordy. Today was her third day on the register, and he’d had to check on almost every order she’d taken since she got here.
“Hey, Cordy?” Roman called out the grill window.
Cordy was standing silently at the empty register. She jumped and turned around. “Yes, Roman?”
He held up the order ticket. “Does this Italian have anything on it?”
“Oh, sorry!” she exclaimed. “Um, it has everything. With hots.”
Roman nodded. “Okay, thanks. Just try to remember next time.”
Cordy nodded, then turned back around. Roman pulled out a roll and began making the sandwich. As he finished and tossed the wrapped and bagged sub onto the window, the phone rang.
“Italian up! I got the phone.”
He turned around and picked up the ringing phone. “New Winslow House of Pizza, this is Roman speaking. How can we help you?”
“Two large pizzas please.” The caller sounded strange, muffled like they had a cold. “Everything with extra anchovies.”
Roman scribbled that down on the notepad beside the phone. “Two large…everything…anything else.”
The caller snickered. “Uhhh…three large breadsticks. With extra sauce.”
“Three large breadsticks…okay?”
“And that’ll be it.”
The caller snickered again, and it sounded like someone else was laughing right behind them. The voice in the background sounded young, maybe a teenager. Something wasn’t right about this.
“Takeout or delivery?” Roman asked, trying not to let his suspicion appear in his voice.
“Delivery,” the caller said, the muffled voice now sickly sweet.
“And the address?”
The caller snorted. “346 Old State Road? Right over the town line? You gonna bring it yourself right, Roman?”
The caller and whoever was with them burst into young-sounding laughter. Roman slammed the receiver down, his heart racing and face on fire. Who the hell…? Why? Why would someone call him at work to fuck with him like that?
He took a deep breath. Only a little bit longer and his shift would be over. Then he could go home and take out all this rage on his treadmill.
He looked up as another order ticket was printed out. He pulled it out. Small turkey sub. No other notes.
Something throbbed behind his eye. “CORDY!” he yelled.
He stormed out of the grill and around to the register. Cordy was staring at him with wide eyes.
“What did I just tell you?” Roman demanded. “Small turkey? With what? How am I supposed to know what they want on it if you don’t tell me?”
Cordy was shaking. “I-I-”
Roman closed his eyes. “Dammit, I can’t do both our jobs,” he said. “I hired you to take orders and that means taking the whole order! If you can’t do that one thing, maybe you shouldn’t be working here.”
He stormed into the back office, slamming the door behind him. Cordy watched him go, still shaking and trying and failing to keep herself from crying.
“What…the…hell…” The customer standing at the register shook their head in disgust.
Cordy turned back to the register. “W-welcome to New Winslow H-house of Pizz-”
She broke off with a sob, then felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Celine was standing there, her eyes soft. She squeezed Cordy’s shoulder.
“Cordy, I’ve got this,” she said.
Cordy was openly crying now. “Celine, I’m so sorry. I’m trying-”
“I know you are,” Celine said. “That wasn’t about you. I don’t know what it was, but nothing makes it excusable. How about you go take your break? Get a drink and go get some air. We can talk after. You’re doing fine.”
Cordy nodded and walked away. Celine turned to the customer with a tired smile. “Picking up?”
Roman was sitting at the battered desk in the back of their messy office, trying to catch his breath. There was a knock at the door, sharp and efficient. He ignored it and, seconds later, the door opened and Celine strode in.
“So, Roman,” she started, walking up to the desk. She stood over him, her arms crossed in front of her chest. “You want to explain what that was all about?”
He didn’t answer, just continued to stare at the desk.
“I mean, I know I’m only the co-owner of this shop,” Celine continued, “and your wife of, oh, fifteen years? So it’s not like I know know you. But yelling at a teenager for being new at her job just doesn’t seem like something you would do. So how about you tell me what’s going on?”
Roman sighed, still not looking up at his wife. “It was nothing, Celine,” he said. “I fucked up. There was a guy antagonizing me on the phone right before and I snapped.”
Celine raised an eyebrow. “You snapped over a shitty customer? We get those all the time. What happened with this one?”
“Nothing, babe,” Roman insisted. “They just…it was a stupid prank delivery call, that’s all.”
“Just a prank. It was nothing, I just lost my temper.”
Celine was quiet for a moment, and Roman could almost hear her putting the pieces together. “Where was the delivery to?” she asked. “Was someone being an asshole about -”
“It’s nothing!” Roman snapped, shoving the chair away from the desk and walking away. “Just some dumbass teenagers! Leave it, Celine.”
He heard the sharp intake of breath from behind him. “Fine,” Celine said, her voice cold. “Your shift is over anyway. Try to lose the attitude before you go home, the kids have had enough of their own today. And apologize to Cordy before you go. I know you’re…stressed, but it has nothing to do with her and wow did she not deserve that.”
He turned toward her as she pulled her apron over her head and began tying the strings behind her back. She marched over to the computer and started punching in, still not looking at him.
“I’ll be home at midnight,” she said shortly. “Dinner’s in the crockpot.”
She opened the door to leave, still not looking at him. Fuck, this wasn’t how he’d wanted this day to go.
“Celine,” Roman called over.
“What?” she snapped.
Roman sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just so sick of it.”
Her face softened slightly as she turned to look at him. He sat on the edge of the desk with his head bowed. “It was someone asking if I’d be delivering personally beyond the town line. I don’t even know who it was, that’s the worst part. Just some kids who were bored and thought, ‘Hey, that guy’s been cursed for a while. Let’s fuck with him.’”
Celine walked back over to him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “People are monsters sometimes.”
“It’s fine,” Roman said, looking up with a smile that felt as fake as it must look. “It’s been twenty years, right? I’m used to it.”
He stood up and took off his apron. “I’m going to head home,” he said. “Jamie’s doing a great job watching the other kids lately, but fourteen’s too young to leave them alone much longer.”
He wrapped his arms around Celine. She stiffened for a second, then returned the embrace.
“Love you,” Roman said.
“Love you too.”
He reluctantly let go of his wife and stepped back. “I’ll talk to Cordy on my way out,” he said.
She nodded. “Please do. And don’t wait up for me, go get some sleep tonight.”
Roman nodded. He moved to kiss her, just as he had every day for fifteen years. Then he hesitated, smiled tightly, and left.
Iris had always felt a special connection to the paranormal. She’d always seen things others hadn’t seen and known things that others didn’t or couldn’t know. She’d see spirits in the corner of the room as a child. And later, she had predicted her mother’s car troubles the morning before they occurred. She’d never worked at this, it all just came to her naturally.
What she had worked on, however, was expanding that natural talent. She had spent hours in the New Winslow Public Library as a teen, then later as an adult, studying different herbs and divination techniques. Once she’d moved out of her parents’ house and into her own apartment, she’d really begun to collect books and equipment to help her become well rounded in the paranormal. Then, when she was twenty-eight, the opportunity to open her shop had come along. The owner of Quabbin Convenience had been selling the property, including the apartment above it. Iris had jumped at the chance and quickly converted the shop into Forest Charms, a metaphysical supply and spiritual shop.
Now, two years later, she was just about making a healthy profit and supplementing her sales with tarot readings. Though she was still a little shaky with seances and ouija boards, she was getting more comfortable using them to communicate with friendly spirits on the other side.
She loved her shop and – if she was honest with herself – enjoyed the status boost it had given her as New Winslow’s unofficial town psychic. She thrived on dropping little unexpected predictions on other people in town or passing along messages from what she generally assumed were their loved ones. While she admitted she had a way to go, she knew she was well beyond the skills and knowledge of other people in the town when it came to dealing with the supernatural.
Though, for a town dealing with an actual curse, there was surprisingly little paranormal activity. She’d see spirits lingering around, especially in the old cemetery and some of the older buildings in town, like the library and the town hall. Sometimes they’d want to communicate. Other times they didn’t seem to be fully there at all, more like a lingering image of the person they’d been.
Despite her sensitivity to this kind of activity, Iris had never actually been hit with the curse until yesterday. This morning she was still a little shook. Her plan yesterday had been completely shattered. Instead, she’d spent the day in her shop, reading her tarot cards over and over and meditating in hopes of finding the answer. She thought of how she’d always taken her freedom of movement for granted. Then she thought of Roman, friendly but guarded Roman, who had been trapped in this town for almost the entirety of Iris’s life. She couldn’t imagine that. Even more, she couldn’t imagine being in his situation and not trying every possibility of finding out what was going on. Even under her immediate concern, the potential for new information made her excited.
Then, without fanfare, the curse had lifted. She’d easily stepped beyond the town line again. But that itch still remained. She still needed to know why it happened in the first place. And of course, she wanted to know how she could help others, especially in her position as a town authority on the supernatural. But the idea of all that knowledge was too tempting to ignore.
She’d talk to Roman and see what he thought. Who knows, maybe he’d actually considered it before? She doubted it based on how determined he was to ignore it now, but maybe he had some information that she could work with.
Iris sipped her tea and gazed into the fire roaring in her fireplace. It was fine. She would take a break tonight and get started tomorrow.