Odette Champagne walked along the dirt road leading away from her house, breathing in the crisp air. The trees rustled above her as the birds sang their own private songs for one another. The village she had come to know so well laid on the top of a soft hill, and Odette could already hear the cacophony rolling between the shops and down the grassy knoll. Each and every day seemed to be busy, even before the sun decided to wake up and stretch it’s golden arms. Her father was already at their bakery, no doubt preparing for the onslaught of customers demanding breads and fine pastries. As per usual, he had forgotten to take a lunch, so Odette had packed a small brown bag and carefully placed it in her pocket.
Already, the shopkeepers were unlocking their doors and placing their wares outside for display. They all waved to Odette, donning the same bright, fake smiles they always did. Odette wasn’t exempt, of course – she too had plastered a sunny smile on her face that everyone was expecting to see.
The cafe was her first stop. Coffee first, everything else second. Ian Thomas and his wife Catherine were at the cafe as well, arguing as usual.
“I didn’t leave the coffee out,” Catherine insisted.
“Then why are we getting overpriced coffee and not making our own?” Ian grumbled under his breath as he rattled the change in his pocket. Odette stifled a laugh as she took her place in line behind him.
“I heard that!” Catherine squawked. “It was drinkable, Ian. A little stale, but drinkable.”
Ian turned to Odette and rolled his eyes while making his hand talk in imitation of his irritating wife. “I’m Catherine, and I want my half-caf, soy, dairy-free, no-whip coffee with a hint of tea.”
“That’s not my order at all!” Catherine barked.
“Why not just grind up our coins in the coffeemaker instead of spending it on this garbage?” Ian shouted back.
“I would, but you lock all the coins away so I can’t access it!” Catherine fired back.
As the couple continued to argue, Odette sidestepped Ian and went up to the barista. “Um, can I get a coffee with two sugars?” She asked politely, sliding over her money.
The barista nodded and got to work quickly. It was a relief, no doubt – Catherine and Ian were known around town as quite possibly the most disagreeable and argumentative couple around. If they weren’t fighting, they were thinking of reasons to fight.
As Odette grabbed her coffee and pushed open the door, she heard a final shout from Ian. “I lock it away because you want to spend it on those money mongers you call children!”
Odette clapped a hand to her mouth in shock as she continued down the road towards the bakery.
“My senses tell me the Thomas’ are fighting,” a sweet voice said.
Odette turned to find Jackie Feldmen leaning against the doorjamb of her holistic wares shop.
“I don’t think you need a sixth sense to predict that,” Odette quipped, tossing her finished coffee in the garbage.
Jackie snorted. “No, I suppose not.”
“Care for a crystal?” Emiliano Cross offered, coming to stand next to Jackie. In his palm, he held a large moonstone that sparkled iridescent in the sunlight. “Most say it’s the stone of intuition and hope – perhaps you could use it.”
Odette grimaced. Hope was one thing she was lacking, and her worry grew as each day passed. “I’m afraid I have no use for a moonstone right now.”
“Nonsense,” Emiliano said, waving a hand dismissively. “Everyone could use a healing stone now and again. Come back if you change your mind.”
Emiliano retreated back into the store, humming to himself. When Odette moved to turn away, Jackie lunged forward and grabbed her arm forcefully. Odette yelped in shock and turned to Jackie, stunned to find her eyes hardened in seriousness.
“I see a great deal of pain in your future, Odette. But know this: oftentimes the secrets we search for can benefit from a search of the soul.”
Odette paused briefly and let the icy words slide through her. As quickly as she grabbed onto Odette, Jackie let go, nodding solemnly. “Go, my dear. Your life awaits.”
Odette backed away, eyeing the strange woman one last time before turning and walking as fast as she could away. She didn’t get far before practically slamming into another person, narrowly missing falling headfirst into the fountain.
“Oh, Miss Champagne! Where are you off to in such a rush?”
Odette righted herself and brushed her dirty clothes. “Mayor Ravenhart, my apologies!”
“No worries at all, Miss Odette. Only you look worried.”
“No worries here!” Odette said, smiling wide. “I’m just a tad late for work, and I’m sure my father is wondering where his lunch is.”
“Mhm,” Saren Ravenhart muttered as he watched the skittish blonde walk across the square to her family’s bakery.
As soon as Odette pushed open the heavy oak door, the smell of yeast assaulted her senses.
“Papa! I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said as she walked up to her father. He took the paper bag she had outstretched and gave her forehead a light kiss.
“It’s alright, sugar plum. Your old man can still knead the dough and open the oven.”
“I never said you couldn’t,” Odette said as she headed into the kitchen and grabbed a mixing bowl. “Any takers today?”
It’s been slow,” Elliott admitted, watching his daughter work intensely.
Odette sighed. “Not even the discounted cheese bread from yesterday sold?”
Elliott placed a hand on his daughter’s shoulder as she put all her energy into mixing dough. “I don’t want you to worry, sugar plum. We’re doing fine.”
“We’re not, and you know it.” Odette said sharply. “You can’t hide bills in the bookshelf anymore, papa. It’s not fair to either of us.”
Elliott sighed and rubbed a hand on his forehead. “You’re right. We do need to start selling more.”
“You can start by giving me one of those cookies!” A bright voice shouted.
Odette turned to the take-out window, an idea she came up with a few months ago. It had let more customers buy products on the go, but had since slowed down to a small handful of people.
“Sabine!” Odette smiled. One of her oldest – and only – friends stood at the window, grinning from ear to ear. “Someone’s in a happy mood.”
“We leave for our trip in a few hours,” Sabine explained. “Father wants to go back to visit his hometown.”
“Is your brother going as well?”
Sabine rolled her eyes in good humor. “Of course. Liam plans to flirt his way from coast to coast.”
“An arduous task,” Odette chuckled as she placed a few peanut butter cookies in a box. “You’re so fortunate, Sabine.”
“I wish you could come with us,” Sabine said sadly.
“And do what? My place is here, at home. At the bakery.”
Sabine nodded. “Of course.” She took the box of cookies and placed more than enough coins on the table. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Odette smiled and waved a hand faintly. “See you then.”
She turned her back from the window to hide her glossy eyes. Odette was never a jealous type, but she did mourn the simple life she lived when compared to others. It was impossible to ignore the fact that she was stuck in a small town, where everyone hid a sinister facade behind platitudes.
For the rest of the day, Odette busied herself with work, sweeping the floors and shining the display cases while the goods baked in the oven. Her father handled the customers, for he was presumed to be the more agreeable Champagne family member. Others viewed Odette with a judgmental eye until she turned their way, prompting their scowls to turn to grins.
As Odette scrubbed a muffin pan with more force than necessary, Elliott came over with the drying cloth and gently pried the pan out of her hands.
“Why don’t you take off for the day?” Elliott urged. “I’m sure the children are waiting for you.”
Odette sighed but conceded. “I’ll see you at home, then.”
Elliott nodded and playfully hit his daughter’s shoulder with the towel. “Now get out!”
Odette rolled her eyes playfully as she gave a mock salute. “Yes, sir!”
She slipped into the bathroom to change and then pushed out the backdoor and began the short walk to a dilapidated shack on the outskirts of town. It had been a decent sized shop that was dark and empty when Odette stumbled upon it. Graffiti littered the walls, vines snaked with sinister intentions along the eaves, and the inside was coated with at least a half-foot of dust, but Odette had steeled her nerves and swept away the cobwebs. Now, it was a respectable classroom where those children that wished to learn could come every other day and learn from Odette. It was only a handful – the rest of the young population appreciated the fact that school had not been mandatory since their great-grandparents walked the earth.
“Good evening, everyone!” Odette greeted with false cheerfulness.
The children chorused back a slightly underwhelming response, prompting Odette to place a hand on her hip. “Where’s the enthusiasm today?” She asked, mock-glaring at one boy who was practically falling asleep in his chair.
“Iwhipapicatato,” the boy mumbled, conking his head on the desk.
Odette chuckled as she sat behind her desk, a broken thing she had fished out of a junkyard.
Another student turned to the boy and tapped his shoulder. “Peter? Wake up you little booger.”
“Imaboogeroohoo,” he sighed out.
Jenn laughed. “Peeeterrr!”
Another girl from the other side of the classroom stood on her chair. “SPIDER!”
Peter’s head snapped up as he let out a high-pitched screech. The entire class laughed as Odette rubbed the bridge of her nose.
Peter scoffed when Jenn began to imitate his scream. “I did not scream like that. I wasn’t even scared. I just screamed to…alert you all.”
“Alright, guys.” Odette said in an attempt to placate everyone. “Let’s begin.”
For the next few hours, Odette worked with each child individually, tailoring their schooling to what they needed the most help with. For some, it was reading. Others, arithmetic (though Odette would admit she was never all that great at it either), and some with how to speak properly.
“Hi there, Beatrice!” Odette cooed, bending down to be eye-level with the small toddler.
“He-wo,” she said softly.
“Would you like to play with blocks today?” Odette asked softly. Beatrice was the shiest person Odette had ever met, and had since made it her mission to bring the young girl out of her shell.
Beatrice nodded and toddled over to the small table Odette had managed to set up. For the next twenty minutes, the two girls built palaces and random shapes.
“What’s going on in here?”
Odette turned to find the mayor poking his head in the doorway. Another blonde head was partially hidden behind him, and Odette had the sneaking suspicion that Aurélie Lévesque was about to show her face.
“Good evening, mayor Ravenhart.” Odette greeted for the second time that day. “What can I do for you?”
“I just came to see if this little school thing of yours was still trundling on.”
“Such a waste of space,” Aurélie purred, marching into the room with insensible heels. She clicked her way over to Beatrice, who had cowered behind Odette.
“Do you really think this whole…fiasco is necessary?” The mayor asked.
“Yes, I do.” Odette replied simply.
“Well, Miss Lévesque has offered me a great sum of money to buy this building,” he shrugged, knocking blocks off the table. “And therefore I need you and your…decorations out.”
“What?” Odette whispered, stunned beyond belief.
“You see, what you’re doing here is what they call ‘illegal’. You’ve inhabited a building, squatting in it thinking we wouldn’t know.”
“It was abandoned since I was a child.”
The children now seemed to catch on that something wasn’t right. They turned to watch the conversation with wide, surprised eyes.
“Oh, honey – this is all so unnecessary! These children should be working, not learning. It’s simply preposterous,” Aurélie clucked. “It’s time to give it up.”
Odette bent down to retrieve the blocks that Saren continued to knock over. “It’s not time at all! These children need to learn.”
“No, honey. Do their parents even know they’re here?”
Odette went silent.
“Mhm, that’s what I thought.”
“What if I buy it?” Odette asked, brushing off her skirt as she stood up.
“Honey, we know you can’t afford it,” Aurélie cooed. “Just give it up.”
Odette turned to the children now gawking at them. “Class is dismissed for the day!” She called out. “I’ll see you all in two days.”
Jenn scooped Beatrice into her arms and leaned close to Odette. “Show them who’s boss, miss.”
Odette smiled fondly and patted the girl’s shoulder before waving goodbye to the small toddler. The room emptied out quickly, despite Peter’s protests.
“How much are you buying it for?”
“It’s a private deal,” Saren explained. “No other buyers allowed.”
“I’ll double the offer.”
Saren’s eyes widened. “Well, now things have gotten interesting.”
“No.” Aurélie said bluntly. “I’ll triple it.”
The two women continued to argue until Saren spoke up again. “One week, Miss Champagne. I’ll give you one week to scrounge up as much money as your tiny little hands can. If it’s not more than what Miss Levesqué offers, you leave this building immediately.”
Odette exhaled. “Deal.”
“Then we’re done here,” Saren said, leading Aurélie out the archway. “See you in a week!”
Odette couldn’t stop her tears from falling while she trudged home, downtrodden and defeated. As she laid in her uncomfortable bed, waves of desperation crashed over her.
The one thing she had learned to love, gone within the week.