Missing in Action

There was a ding as the glass front door swung open.

Another customer, Hope thought. Standing behind the counter, she cheerfully added, out loud: “Welcome to Hope’s Bakery!”

The man who had entered was young—probably in his mid twenties—and was dressed for the cold outside. A thick, blue scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and hung almost down to his waist. He studied the home-made menu hanging up in front of the counter, before asking, “Can I get one of them bearclaws and a glazed with sprinkles?”

One o’ them bearclaws, huh? You interrupted me for a bearclaw? Hope smiled and cheerfully scooped up the donuts and placed them in a bag.

“A bearclaw and a glazed with sprinkles,” she narrated, carefully placing them into a to-go box.  ”Is that all, sir?”

He looked around, taking a moment to gaze at the coolers on the wall, before asking, “How much for a milk, too?”

It says, Hope thought, “a dollar,” on the sign—right beneath your nose.

“Awesome, I’ll have one of those then.”

“That brings your total to three dollars and twelve cents,” Hope said, preoccupied with her thoughts. She’d spent the whole day working on this letter and still hadn’t finished it. Length wasn’t the problem; it was just about two pages, but she wanted it to be perfectly written.

A subtle glance at the clock told her she only had another fifteen minutes to finish it up if she wanted to drop it off in a mailbox on the way home.

The man took his donuts and left, leaving Hope alone behind the small bakery counter with a pen and a couple sheets of paper. She bit the end of her pen as she read over the letter for the millionth time.

Topics jumped from paragraph to paragraph, spinning a tangled tale obfuscated to anyone who hadn’t read the letter she was replying to. Smiley faces and doodles littered the margins, including an excessively detailed pen-flower that stretched up the right side of the page.

“Things are going well for me here,” the letter said, “the bakery is finally picking up a good deal of business. People are coming in way more than they did the last time I bragged about them. There was a kid in here the other day that had a donut for the first time, and the look in his eyes was priceless. I wish you had been here to see it.”

The door dinged again and Hope looked up to see a familiar face.

“Hallo, Hope,” Sarah sang. “How are things?”

“Wonderful,” Hope smiled. “I’m getting ready to mail out another letter.”

“Oh! Am I in it?”

The girls chuckled, but Hope shook her head no with an awkward grin.

“Sorry, but this one’s all me. All mine.”

While Sarah checked on the display donuts, she sighed and said, “I know, but I can dream, can’t I? The way you two write letters back and forth, it sounds like you’ve got yourself a real keeper.”

“I think I do.”

“When is he due back?”

“Not for another year at least,” Hope said, the smile fading from her face. “Maybe two, depending on how things go over there. He’s never very specific. He just says he wants to be back now, and I wouldn’t complain about that.”

“I thought he was going to visit on medical leave for, uh, hurting his, what’d you call it?”

“His patella,” Hope explained. “We thought so, but they thought it was more serious than it was. He’s still having a bit of trouble walking, but he’s a fighter; he should be good to walk soon enough. The doctors didn’t think it was a bad enough injury to send him home over, at least.”

The door dinged again and the girls simultaneously welcomed an older woman into the bakery. With another glance at the clock, Hope swiped up her letter and said, “I’m off, Sarah. Headed to the post office, wish me luck.”

“Good luck!”

#

The rain gently patted against the bakery roof, providing a soft background to the ballads playing on the lobby radio. It had been a hot day, and the rain was a welcome relief that had ushered in a cool breeze that carried in every time the front door opened.

Hope stood hunched over the counter with the last letter she’d received, repeatedly reading it over and over and inadvertently committing its every detail to memory.

“I can’t wait to see you, Hope. I’ve missed you so much while I’ve been away, but it’s finally time to go home. I’m packing up tonight (including a picture of us from before I left, that I kept safe) and I’ll be on a plane back by this weekend. My plane gets in just after lunch, so I’ll see you at the bakery for a lunch date, okay?”

The door dinged, and Hope’s neck audibly cracked as she threw her eyes at the door.

Not him, she thought. “Welcome to Hope’s!”

“Hi,” the young guest said. Pointing at the sign outside, she asked, “Are you hiring?”

Hope thought, Not today, we’re not! but said “Of course we are!” and grabbed an application from underneath the counter. “Just fill this out and give it back to me whenever you can. There’s a pen here if you want to do it now.”

Another ding at the door. Another customer. Another bearclaw.

Time was speeding up, but it couldn’t be fast enough for Hope. She thought back to her last letter, in which she had written, “The minute I see you come through that door, you better hope I don’t have any customers, because I’m going to leap over this counter and jump on you. Brace yourself.”

The girl handed back her application. Hope set it down without glancing at it, but smiled helpfully.

“Is that all,” the applicant asked, “or is there more I have to do?”

“Don’t worry, that’s all. I’ll give you a call after we’ve looked over a few more resumes.”

She left. Nobody else in the bakery. She needed to make some more donuts soon, but didn’t want to be in the back where someone walking in the front door couldn’t immediately see her.

Another ding, another customer.

Another.

Stopping halfway through her usual greeting, Hope choked when she looked up to see a familiar face: one she hadn’t seen in years. Her lips rollercoastered from confusion to happiness to confusion to anxiety.

“John?”

“Hi, Hope,” John said.

“Are you here to see,” Hope started, but glanced down and lost track of her thoughts.

John was clutching a rolled up stack of papers, and Hope recognized the stationary. The stack was beat up and wrinkled, so it probably wasn’t entirely recent, but she knew exactly who it was from.

He shook his head, then gazed longingly at the papers in his hands. After a moment, he extended the papers to Hope, who nervously took them.

“What,” she started to ask, but was cut off.

“He’s not coming. Just read it.”

#

John,

I won’t be coming back.. my place is here now. There is so much unfinished work that we need to do here, I couldn’t go home without lending my help.

Please don’t be mad. My life is just one of many out there in the world of danger, and I’m making it better for everyone else. They need me, and I need them. My heart has been captured by the kids here, and nothing in the world could change that now. They need me!

I need a big favor from you, man. If you can. I promised Hope I’d meet her at her new bakery next Sunday. She’s not far from you, just look up Hope’s Bakery for the address. I need you to let her know that I won’t be able to make it. Please give her the fortune cookie I’ve taped at the bottom of the page. She’ll understand.

I’m sorry the end of this letter must come so quickly, but I’m due to leave any minute now. I don’t know when I’ll write again, but know that I’m still here. Don’t forget me.

Andrew

#

Fortune: Your smile brings happiness to everyone you meet.
Lucky numbers: 1, 19, 30, 31, 35, 36, 37, 44, 48, 57, 68, 84, 160, 162