Right as the word “practice” left her mouth, Mona heard a rasping, gasping noise over the whir of the oven and exhaust system. When she looked up from her master recipe book – smudged on various pages with splatters of cake batter and drips of butter and olive oil – she saw a ravaged face with deep-set dark eyes staring at her through the latched screen door. The face was unlike any man’s she had ever seen, and yet she clearly knew this was a man’s face as his visage was backlit by the motion security light in the alley behind the Buttery Biscuit. His salt-and-pepper hair was askew, the deep lines of his stubbled jaw and crow’s feet were encased with dirt and dried blood, and his mouth was open, asymmetrical, with his jaw diagonal, almost dislocated, from his top lip like a sugar bowl whose dainty top had been slammed on crooked.
A shrill scream escaped Mona’s mouth involuntarily. Then she remembered that despite her inherent powder-puff nature she should be the one asking the questions here. She hated being the damsel in distress, and yet that had been her default setting for far too long. Mona hated that her first reaction was to scream her bloody head off. At 33, she knew enough was enough. Finally, all of those capoiera classes her younger sister Sadie had dragged Mona to on Tuesday nights bitching and moaning and Mona’s secret, guilty pleasure of George A. Romero flicks would pay off.
“What the fuck, man!” Mona shrilly yelled with far more authority than she knew she had in her. “What the hell are you doing lurking at the back door of my bakery?”
The lurker grinned, if you could call it that – his teeth were broken, gums receding, the smile an afterthought to an emotion that perhaps he once truly felt. He began to speak in a language Mona was pretty sure was not English. In fact, if her recollections of The Beatles’ song, Michelle, and the nursery song Frère Jacques were accurate, this unexpected early-morning visitor was speaking French.
But before Mona could think more about her wasted high school French classes and long-forgotten Mademoiselle Carlotta, the man’s hand ripped through the screen door, unlatched it, and then he was on her – choking her, throttling her, one hand shredded so badly it looked as if he’d had a combine encounter on her father’s farm in northern Missouri. The damaged hand’s stump, replete with exposed and jagged radius and ulna, gripped her neck while the other hand lifted her plump, tall body in the air. Oh so strong. The wind went out of her lungs and she could feel her trachea closing. She had never been touched so severely. Pain like whiplash rocketed through her and she started to panic when she realized her feet were dangling at least a foot off the ground.
Mona could feel her breath leaving her, and she probably would have let this crazy man just kill her if she hadn’t remembered that the chef’s knife was less than three inches away from her. She went completely slack in the man’s ferocious grip and fell towards the stainless steel bakery counter. Her left hand grazed the just-sharpened tip, a small bit of blood trickled down the tiny cut. The man’s eyes widened at the smell of her blood.
Mona knew she was screwed if she didn’t grab the hilt of the chef’s knife on the first try. This man really didn’t care about choking her, she could see. His mouth, rank and foul, the pits of which smelled like a storm drain after a heavy rain, was mere inches from her ear. She could not only smell his stench, but she could also feel the cool breath of something she would later realize no longer depended on respiration or a circulatory system to survive.
“Cerveau!!!!!!” the creature moaned.
Mona felt beyond woozy and weak, but she grabbed the hilt of the chef’s knife and gripped it with the last bit of energy she had. Pure adrenaline and will fueled this fight. It would be a miracle if Mona could actually stab this man and not herself.
With the last bit of force left in Mona, she gripped her left hand tightly around the knife and stabbed the man in the back. He immediately dropped her. Mona fell to the ground with a thud – the knife skittered across the bakery floor, a couple of feet from her.
The murderous French bastard roared with anger. He didn’t look that hurt, Mona suddenly realized. “Shit, man,” Mona mumbled. “What is wrong with you? What did you take this morning? Why me? You can have the money.”
He started to lunge towards her again, albeit a little bit more slowly. Mona quit bargaining and scrambled to her feet. She ran towards the front door of the bakery with more speed than her breakfast-burrito body thought it had in her. The clock on the front of the house said 5 a.m. amidst the eerie glow of The Buttery Biscuit’s neon sign.
But when Mona got to the bakery’s front door, she realized that the door was locked. She never opened it until 6 a.m., when the part-time bakers joined her in the kitchen.
She frantically felt her jean pockets for the keys. The man was coming toward her, this time with the knife she had left on the floor. Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” began to play on the bakery’s speakers.
“Screw this!” Mona screamed. She grabbed one of the chairs and charged the jerk. He snatched the chair away from her just as she grabbed another one. This time she didn’t hesitate. She hit him aside the head with such blunt force that he fell to the ground.
“This time is going to be different,” Mona said as she took another chair and brought it down on his head. One of the legs of the chair pinned the man’s cheek to the hard wood floors.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Mona whispered. She hadn’t meant to kill him.
But she hadn’t. He started to move, the chair still piercing his cheek, this time the moans of cerveau were quieter but still insistent.
Mona felt her back pockets and found a comforting lump of metal, the jangling Hallelujah sound of her keys.
She grabbed them, unlocked the front door and ran into the morning. Sprinting towards her truck, Mona shakily opened the door, slammed it shut, fired up the engine, and burned rubber towards her sister Sadie’s house.
“Operator,” Mona said into her cell phone. “There’s an intruder at The Buttery Biscuit off South First Street. Please send help.” She hung up after that and gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were clearly articulated and bone white.
No music played as she drove. She didn’t want to hear anything else but her heartbeat and uneven breathing.
4 years ago