Roman woke up the next morning sure that the House of Pizza had burned down in the night. Celine had gone into work earlier than he had, letting him sleep in a little after last night’s late shift. He got up and glanced at the clock. Seven-thirty. Time to start the day.
Celine’s nightmares about his death still lingered, no matter how much he tried to push the thoughts aside. He was taking her advice to heart, even right now as he began his new morning stretching routine. At forty-three, his muscles had not been happy when he started this. But in the short time, they’d adapted and he felt off all day if he didn’t take the time to stretch.
A little while later, he was showered and dressed. As he was making a smoothie for breakfast, the babysitter they’d hired to watch Aidan and Abby during the overlap in shifts arrived. She was a sweet girl, one of Jamie’s classmates who had been looking for weekend work. She seemed a little nervous around Roman, but he figured it was just shyness. Still, he was polite and offered her some breakfast, which she declined. Now, with one final thank you to her, he was on his way out the door.
Normally, he’d have his music blasting before the car was out of the driveway. But as he’d peeked in one last time before leaving, Aidan and Abby had both been so peacefully asleep in their little beds. Even the thought of scaring them physically hurt Roman, so he kept the music quiet until he was halfway down the street.
The House of Pizza was still standing when he pulled up and parked in his usual spot. He scanned the front for any signs of broken windows or graffiti. But there was nothing. And as he walked inside a few minutes later, all he smelled was the slight char of the oven warming up.
“Morning!” he called as he locked the door behind him.
There was a beat, then Celine called back a greeting. He made his way out back to find her sitting at the desk, the communications log book open in front of her.
“Hey, you,” she said, leaning up for a kiss.
Roman kissed her back, running a hand over her hair where it was tied up in a messy bun. Then he pulled away and glanced down at the book. “What was the damage when you got in?” he asked.
She shrugged. “A couple of burnt pizzas last night that were comped. It seemed fairly normal. Weren’t you the one who comped them?”
“No, I mean with Roland.”
She glanced up at him. “Nothing.”
“No, I expected at least something. But there wasn’t even a pizza box out of place when I got here.”
There was no way that hadn’t been Roland last night. The wards had broken just enough to let him in and they’d been put up specifically for him. So it wasn’t like a random stray ghost with the same terrible personality was going to find their way in. But to have nothing out of place after a visit from Roland was just odd. It made Roman uneasy.
“Maybe he’s got something planned,” he said, as though Roland were capable of thinking ahead.
“Or he appreciated having somewhere to go on a cold night.”
He didn’t believe it and Celine didn’t seem to either. But instead of dwelling on it, he could just appreciate the fact things had gone alright.
“I’ve got everything stocked,” Celine said. “But I didn’t get the vegetables prepped over on the grill side yet.”
“I’ve got it,” Roman said.
He could do this work in his sleep after ten years of it. So instead of dwelling on everything, on Roland, on his anger toward Iris, on that lingering fear that still followed him around, he threw himself into the physical labor of the job and tried to relax.
“Give me about three minutes and I’ll be done over here.”
Roman didn’t bother looking up when he felt Celine’s eyes on him from over the grill shelf about fifteen minutes later. He had three more green bell peppers stacked up that needed to be chopped, plus a stack of dirty dishes that needed to go out back to the sink. It was ordinary stuff, but they were getting close to opening time and he was feeling that urgency building to get it all done.
“Don’t worry about it,” he continued. “The order isn’t in until ten and-”
He shut up as soon as he looked up past the shelf and realized he was talking to thin air. “Babe?” he called, confused as he looked around the empty shop.
“Back here!” Celine called from out back.
No, he hadn’t been imagining it. Was Roland back? How did the little shit manage to get past the barriers again?
Peppers temporarily forgotten, Roman hurried around the grill and out past the front counter. The doors were still locked, and as he went to check the nearest one, he could see that the protective charm was not only still there, it had been reinforced by Celine that morning. A quick walk over to the other door showed the same thing. Everything was in place and reinforced. The sigils Celine had used were the same ones she used on their home, so Roman knew that they were solid.
So it wasn’t Roland coming back for Round Two. But he’d been so sure that someone was standing there. And unless Celine was suddenly an Olympic athlete, there was no way she could have gotten out back that fast.
Roman made his way back to the front of the shop, unable to keep himself from glancing around for any signs of something weird going on. He glanced in the claw machine, where the dancing teddy bear from last night was lying as still as it should have been on top of the pile of cheap stuffed animals. Roman stayed where he was for a moment, watching the teddy bear. But it didn’t move.