I groaned as the sound of my whining alarm clock filled the room, my usual response to the dreaded noise. I didn't have to look at the face to know it was just past four in the morning, a time when only an insane person would choose to leave a nice warm bed. My mental checklist of all the work ahead of me was no help either, but I managed to swing my legs over the side of my bed and drag myself into the bathroom for a hot shower.
My morning routine was quick and easy: get up, make myself look vaguely presentable, and don't fall asleep. After pulling on a pair of jeans and a comfortable shirt I left my empty apartment and made my commute to work, not passing another soul on the streets the entire journey. Once I arrived I let myself in the back door, tied an apron around my waist, and surveyed the tasks ahead of me. Step one: donuts.
My little bakery had gotten off to a rocky start, but a steady stream of loyal customers had kept me in business long enough for word to get out. Now I was having no trouble paying the bills, and was even considering hiring some extra help to accommodate the busier days. Not only that, but having someone else in the kitchen would certainly help alleviate the isolation.
The metal baking trays clanked against the counter, sending an echo around the empty room. I sighed: the loneliness was always the worst in the mornings.
I got everything ready for the day ahead, the process so familiar I barely had to pay attention. Before long the smell of freshly-cooked donuts filled the bakery, and my daily prep work was nearly complete: the coffee was brewing, the donuts and pastries were cooling, and the cookie dough and cake batter were mixed and ready to be baked throughout the day.
All that remained was to knead the dough for the fresh bread that would be ready for the customers who stopped by for a loaf on their way home from work. I sprinkled the counter with flour, took off my ring and got to work.
I had barely gotten started before a knock at the back door signaled the arrival of another perk of increasing business: the security service that took my deposits to the bank. In the early days I had made the trips myself, constantly looking over my shoulder and expecting to be mugged at any moment for what little earnings I had to deposit. Upon my mother's insistence I looked into a security company, and as soon as I was making enough money to justify their fee I signed up as a customer.
My heart leapt as I looked through the peephole and saw that my favorite guard was on duty that day. The company had sent a variety of guards for my bi-weekly pickups, but only one of them was this cute. For a moment I just stared at him through the lens and took in his features, happy he couldn't see me ogling him through the door.
His honey-colored hair was cropped close, but not as severely as the crew cut of the guard who drove the armored truck waiting behind him. His emerald green eyes shone despite the early hour, and the hint of a smile played across his lips. A small sigh escaped me as I unlocked the door, knowing his visit would be entirely too short.
"Good morning!" I said as brightly as I could manage. Though I got up before the sun every day of the week, it was still several hours before I was fit for human contact.
"Morning," he replied, following me straight to the office. He immediately began typing numbers into his handheld computer, then scanned a barcode taped to my desk as I punched in the combination to open the safe. I pulled out three deposit bags, and he got to work putting their values into his computer. His time in my office was always brief, and I assumed there was only a small window of time before his partner in the truck got antsy.
"Getting ready for a busy day?" He asked without looking up from the screen. It was the same question he asked every time he was there, and I imagined it was the standard quick and polite small talk he used with all his clients.
I replied with my usual ("I sure hope so!") as he held the computer out for me to sign. My hand brushed against his as I took the pen, and I kept my face down to hide the blush that spread across my cheeks. He didn't seem to notice, or was nice enough to keep his expression neutral. He took back the pen and printed out a receipt for my records, the ones I had been promising myself for weeks I would get organized.
The guard put the deposits in his bag and turned to leave, but stopped before he reached the door. "You know," he said, "this is always my favorite stop to make."
"Really?" I asked, grasping at the beginnings of a real conversation with a man I had inappropriate fantasies about on a regular basis. "Why's that?"
He turned, meeting my gaze for what felt like the first time. "It always smells so nice in here." He smiled, causing a dimple to form on his cheek. "My name is John by the way," he said, extending his hand to shake mine.
A broad smile spread across my face. I was always happy to hear people liked my food, and complimenting the smell was just as flattering. I took his warm hand in mine, his rough fingers gripping mine gently.
He clearly needed to be leaving to get on with his job, but I got the feeling he wanted to stay longer and hoped it was not just for the aromas coming from the kitchen. My mind raced trying to think of ways to talk to him more: offering him a cup of coffee, inviting him back when he finished his shift for a snack, ensuring I would save the last one of whatever he wanted.
Stalling for time in the enclosed office, neither of us heard the crash at the front of the store or the heavy footsteps approaching the office. The door sprang open and I was staring straight down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun.
At first the robber seemed as surprised as I was, and his eyes darted between me and the uniformed guard at my side. He quickly got his bearings and ordered us against the wall, keeping the gun pointed straight at my head.
I was frozen on the spot, terror spreading to every inch of my body as the gun filled my vision and blocked out everything else in the room. My fear rose as he kept yelling at me to get against the wall, lowering the barrel level with my chest. My heart raced and my breath caught in my throat, making me feel nauseous and dizzy all at once.
I jumped as I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders, but moved without hesitation as John guided me back against the wall to the office. We followed the next order to sit on the floor, and I drew my knees up to my chest as my body began to shake.
Before he could even walk to the open safe, the robber realized how much of a mistake it had been to choose this particular bakery. He had failed to notice the police station directly across the street, a station full of loyal customers who kept a close watch so they could be the first in line the second I opened for business. Though I had not seen the front door smashed open, dozens of on-duty officers had.
"This is the police, we have the building surrounded," came a booming voice over a bullhorn. "Come out with your hands behind your head."
The Worst Criminal in the World went into a panic when he heard the announcement. He began pacing the room, shifting the gun from hand to hand without seeing where it was being aimed. I flinched every time the barrel pointed in my direction, and my body went cold as the tremors grew worse with every passing moment.
"You can end this right now," the officer continued, beginning to sound like he was reading the script from a crime drama. "Just come out slowly and no one will get hurt."
The robber replied with an intelligible scream toward the front of the bakery, waving the gun outside the door while keeping his body inside the office. After a series of announcements about surrender failed to take effect, the police switched tactics. "We just want to talk to you, hear your side of the story. We're going to call so we can do that." In an instant the phone just outside the office began ringing, and I jumped a full foot off the ground at the noise.
The robber deliberated for a moment before deciding to answer the phone, and gave us a hard look. "Don't move a muscle, and you better not try anything funny," he snarled. He disappeared from view around the corner, his harsh voice echoing around the bakery as he talked with the police.
By this point my body was trembling so hard I could barely sit up straight, and I hugged my knees in an effort to keep steady. I put my head down on my arms, hoping to block out as much of the situation as I could. As tears threatened to spill out of my eyes and slide down my cheeks, I felt a warm hand against my frigid fingers.
"Don't worry," John whispered beside me, careful to keep his voice low. "I won't let him hurt you."
I stole a glance into his face, and my fear began to waver. He was sitting just inches from me, but seemed a world away from the terror I was feeling. My fear ebbed, his calm demeanor seeming to spread directly through his hand into mine.
I wondered what kind of training he had for situations like this, and whether his response was by the book. I imagined the first priority was to ensure no one got hurt, but I couldn't help wondering how much of his comforting was training and how much was genuine concern. Whichever it was, I was grateful, and gripped his hand in response. Later I would cringe at how helpless I felt and how much I needed to be protected, but at that moment I took comfort in having someone to look after me. He leaned in closer, gently wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
"Hey!" The robber's voice screeched from the doorway, the phone slipping from his hand as he charged into the room. "I said no funny business!" He gripped the shotgun by the barrel and stalked toward us, preparing to add assault and battery to his growing rap sheet. He aimed his attack right at my head, but missed as I was shoved to the side. The blow glanced off the side of John's head, gouging a shallow trench into his temple. As the robber stared in horrified disbelief, the police mobilized into action.
The next events happened in a blur: the panicked criminal declaring he would shoot his way out, the sound of shattering glass, the gunshots from both sides. Sirens filled the air as the ambulances began arriving, then for a moment everything was eerily silent. The unmistakable sound of a helicopter hovering overhead cut through the quiet, and the scene erupted with noise once again.
In an instant the room was crowded with police officers, all of whom I recognized as regular customers. They holstered their guns once they saw there were no more criminals to apprehend, and pulled us to our feet to lead us out of the building.
"It's OK. It's over. You're safe," they assured us, a mantra they repeated as we made our way to the front of the store. The entire ordeal had taken less than twenty minutes, but it felt like a lifetime to me. As we stepped from the bakery a wave of microphones and cameras descended upon us, blocking our path out of the building.
The sea of reporters parted as a fresh pair of arms swept around me. "Darling, I was so worried!" The voice was familiar in my ear, but the concern was something I had never heard before.
My first thought was how long it had been since my fiancée had held me for more than a quick hug, and how his arms seemed to know exactly where to fit around my body. The recent months of missed dates and general neglect melted away, and the relationship I had been calling into question never felt so right. "The police called me at work, I came right down to make sure I was here when you got out," he continued.
My thoughts were immediately pulled back to reality. Never one to miss an opportunity for some free publicity, Charles was sure to keep his face visible to the cameras as he held me close to him. I could imagine the expression of practiced stoicism that must have been etched on his face, the same look he gave when he talked to voters about issues supposedly close to his heart.
The situation could not have been more perfect for him: his beloved, caught in a potentially life-or-death situation, during an election year. Not even his cutthroat campaign manager could have orchestrated a better scenario, and I could only imagine the speeches that were being composed at that very moment. Thousands of constituents would see this scene played over and over on the news, and like it or not I had just secured his reelection.
An ambulance pulled up close to us, and Charles made a big show of ushering me through the throng of reporters to the waiting paramedics.
"No really, I'm fine!" I insisted. "The guy never touched me, I'm just a little shaken up. It's him you should be worried about," I said, searching the crowd for John. My insistence that I was unharmed fell on deaf ears, and my fiancée demanded that I be taken straight to the hospital. I was surprised he didn't demand a helicopter to airlift me there too, but I went along with his demands to get out of the swarm of reporters as soon as possible.
As the paramedics lifted me into the back of the ambulance and I was able to see past the cameras and microphones in my face, I searched the crowd for John once again. While Charles argued with the ambulance driver over whether or not he could ride in the back with me, I locked eyes with my protector.
He sat on the curb barely ten feet away, a paramedic cleaning the wound on his head. I had expected him to be surrounded by a similar swarm of reporters, but no one seemed to be paying him any attention. The only person anywhere in his vicinity besides the paramedic was a surly man in an identical guard uniform talking on a phone and pacing; a man clearly required to be there, and not at all pleased about it.
A profound sadness filled me as I realized John was all alone, that no one had come to see him, to give him a hug and make sure that he was alright. The sadness was reflected at me as he glanced at my fiancée, recognition registering on his face as he realized who the man in the impeccably tailored suit was. When he looked back to me, something in his emerald eyes had died out.
I considered what would happen if I did exactly what I felt like doing at that moment: jumped out of the ambulance, ran to him and threw my arms around his neck. What would happen if I held his face in my hands and pressed my lips to his, if I took him by the hand and we ran away from here together?
Unfortunately, I knew exactly what would happen. The cameras would follow my every move, documenting them forever and calling upon them well into the future. I would find myself in the middle of a scandal and become nothing more than tabloid fodder, a media prop used to sell more magazines and newspaper subscriptions. My entire life would be scrutinized, and I would forever be known as the woman who dumped a sitting senator on live television.
As the doors to the ambulance closed and the sirens began to wail I took one last look at my hero, hoping he understood how grateful I was for all he had done for me. I looked down at my empty finger and remembered the engagement ring I had left sitting on the counter beside the bread dough. As the tears that had been welling up inside of me began to fall, I wished for all the world that my life was different.
Special thanks to CWatson for the editing