THE EARLY morning Ninth Avenue streetscape glided by the SUV’s window. Some stores were open in the predawn January dark, warm light inviting passersby to enter. Cleared snow formed a barrier between street and sidewalk, a dirty white ridge illuminated by streetlamps and broken only by cutouts for pedestrian access. Huxley huddled in his heavy coat. Winters in Oilton, Alberta, could be brutal.

Familiar streets. Ordinary sights. Huxley had ridden this route almost four hundred times by his count. At least one thousand more rides remained until freedom—if he was lucky.

Bishop, his driver, braked for a red light. Across from Huxley, a rainbow-colored awning under arched light fixtures proclaimed Sukey’s Donuts.

That was new.

Huxley leaned forward to get a better look as a young woman yanked the store’s door open and leaned out to speak to the man unlocking the door of the adjacent shop. He grinned over his shoulder and said something Huxley couldn’t hear through the vehicle’s windows.

Huxley caught a glimpse of bright colors inside the store, like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps into the living color of Oz from black-and-white Kansas.

The woman laughed and brushed a few wisps of hair away with the back of her wrist, the rest secure in a hairnet under a professional cook’s beanie. With a wave she disappeared inside as the man stooped to pick up a heavy box and prepared to shoulder his way into the store.

He glanced up and caught Huxley’s eye.

Huxley blushed, yanked his gaze away, and sank back against the seat as Bishop accelerated.

The man’s look had been interested, aware—alive.

I want to feel alive too.

 

 

HUXLEY STOPPED by the coffee shop on the first floor of his office building and ordered a latte after Bishop dropped him off. Barely into the new year, and Valentine’s Day gifts had already taken over the store’s prime display space.

He shouldn’t complain. The building’s Christmas decorations would probably stay up until St. Patrick’s Day. That was the difference between a for-profit business and a building whose staff saw holidays as burdens, not opportunities. The downside was having to look at tokens of love and romance every morning when he bought coffee—like being forced to sit in your favorite restaurant and watch people eating when your jaw was wired shut.

Latte in hand, Huxley climbed the stairs to his floor. He paused to initial the Heart Health Challenge sheet posted by the door, someone’s idea of a joint New Year’s resolution—as if wheezing together in the stairwell would make trudging up six flights of stairs less onerous. Almost everyone who worked on level six had initialed. Tomorrow fewer initials would appear. The day after that, still fewer. By the end of the week, he and a handful of die-hard walkers would be the only ones initialing. Just like his condo’s gym—first week of January he had to wait for a machine. By Valentine’s Day, he was often the only one working out.

Huxley pulled the heavy fire door wide enough to slip into the corridor, then entered his corner office, where he dropped his messenger bag and hung up his coat. He sat at his desk and pulled his keyboard close, bringing the monitor to life. After five minutes of wading through email, he pushed the keyboard away and dragged a stack of folders near. Why were printouts still showing up when everything was on the company intranet?

Knock, knock.

Before Huxley could reply, his door opened, and Bob Tunney, the Oilton Foods COO, poked his head in.

“Huxley, got a minute?”

Bob didn’t wait for a reply. Bang. The door rattled in its frame behind him as he crossed the room and dropped into a chair that splatted out an air fart. Lucky for Bob it was well-built.

“Had a chance to look over those reports?” Bob’s grin managed to be annoyed.

“Not yet.” How could Bob’s teeth be so white they were almost blue? Blue-white? Was that a color?

“Sooner you can, the better.”

Why do you even care if I look at them, when all you want is a rubber stamp? “I was just about to start on them when you came in.”

“Right.” Bob’s grin hadn’t fizzled. If Huxley blinked, he’d probably see an afterimage.

“Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?” Huxley had no idea where the words had come from.

Bob’s grin shut off for a moment. Then it reappeared like one of those punching-bag clowns that won’t stay down.

“Just to make lots of money for the company. Same as every year.”

Huxley couldn’t look away from his teeth.

“I’ll be talking to your dad this morning. Anything I should pass along?”

“No.” When Bob didn’t move, Huxley added, “Thanks.”

Bob lumbered to his feet and headed for the door. “Let me know as soon as you’ve read them,” he said over his shoulder. A moment later the door rattled in its frame again. Huxley forced his shoulders to relax and drop. He sighed and opened the top folder. Sales projections.

Five minutes later he closed the folder and pushed it aside. No point in reading when he wasn’t taking in a word. He dropped his face into his hands. He hadn’t made any New Year’s resolutions either. What is the point?

 

 

AFTER BISHOP dropped him off that evening, Huxley ate a forgettable but healthy dinner left by the personal chef who stocked his freezer with prepared-on-site meals. Then he listened to an audiobook while putting in an obligatory hour on the elliptical trainer in his condo’s gym. He should probably feel guilty it was Joe Hill’s The Fireman instead of the latest business read with a cult following. Did he? No, he didn’t feel guilty. Well, maybe a little.

Later as he lay in bed, he played a mental video of the brief scene in front of Sukey’s Donuts—the friendly camaraderie between the woman and the man, the man’s direct gaze when he caught Huxley looking.

So alive.

 

 

IT NEVER started the same way twice.

Huxley stepped away from the Lexus to meet his mother. “Mum, I’ll drive you home.”

In the dim glow of the streetlight, Candace Herrington shoved past him, tottering on stiletto pumps, purse handle clenched in a fist. She tripped and clung to the back of the sedan until she got her left foot back into its shoe and then stumbled toward the driver’s side.

Huxley followed her around the car and inserted himself in front of the door, blocking access. His mother tried to reach around him. The Lexus was smart enough to unlock the door when she touched the handle, but too dumb to know she was drunk and drugged.

“Mum, let me drive. Please.”

“Huxley. Augustine. Herrington.” His mother bit off the words. “Let me in my car.”

When Huxley didn’t budge, she stormed around the front and let herself in the passenger-side door.

“Mum, no.” A step behind, Huxley dove through the passenger door and slammed a hand over the Start button.

This was where it always got confusing.

“Move your hand.”

“If you drive, Dad will call 9-1-1 and report you.”

“Let the bastard.” His mother slammed a fist against his hand. He yelled and jerked away in reflex. His mother started the car, put it in gear, twisted the wheel, and stomped on the gas. He leaped for the Start button.

No, that wasn’t right.

“Move your hand.”

“Mum, please let me drive.”

His mother squeezed her eyes shut as tears overflowed and ran down her face, leaving black mascara and gold-shimmer highlighter snail trails in their wake.

“Everything’s going to be okay. Just let me drive you.”

“Fine. Just—fine.” She handed over the key and put a hand over her face as she wept.

No, that wasn’t right either.

“Move your hand.”

“Mum, come on. Let me drive.”

His mother stared at her lap, hands clenched. “I was just humiliated in front of your father’s new wife.” She pounded the steering wheel with a fist. “He bought her a diamond tennis bracelet for Valentine’s Day, and he couldn’t even be bothered to send me flowers the last year we were together.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Candace wiped tears. “Look, I’ll just drive up to Whittaker Trail. Then you can drive.” She gave Huxley a pleading look. “Please, I don’t want that bitch to see.”

Huxley groaned. “All right. But just to Whittaker. Pull into the mall parking lot.”

This part was always the same.

He couldn’t move, his right side pressed against something hard, his face against a scratchy webbed surface that gave beneath him. Darkness. Bursts of light he could see through his lids. His eyes wouldn’t open. Why not?

Odd chemical smells. Liquid dripped into his hair. Voices. He tried to call out, but his lips weren’t working. He tasted iron.

“Hold on. We’re working to get you out.” Metal creaked and groaned. His body rocked inside its cocoon. Not a cocoon—a coffin. He had to move. He fought to move. He screamed.

Huxley jolted in the bed, heart pounding. He’d sweated through his sheets.

He threw off the covers and checked the time: 5:00 a.m. He wouldn’t go back to sleep. He knew that from experience. Might as well get ready for work.

The floor thermostat was still in overnight mode, so the bathroom tiles hadn’t yet warmed. Huxley walked like Indiana Jones avoiding booby traps to get to the shower without stepping off thick bath rugs. He waited until the cascade of hot water filled the glass enclosure with steam and warmed the shower floor before he stepped in and rinsed off the sweat.

The last time Huxley saw his mother was just before the hospital released her, straight into the nearest facility that could provide both physical therapy and addictions treatment. She cried about how much weight she’d gained, the write-off of her Lexus, the scars on her face, and the wheelchair she had to use until she could handle crutches. Most of her damage was visible. Most of his wasn’t.

Once dressed, Huxley made a K-Cup mocha, settled on his couch, and tuned the television to the CBC. Death, war, scandals, aggrieved people shouting. Same song, different verse. He muted the sound but left the program on for company and picked up his tablet. He would reread those reports he hadn’t comprehended yesterday.

Instead he found himself staring into space, thinking about the man he’d seen yesterday. Probably straight and married with three kids. Or gay and married because gay men who looked like that didn’t stay single. Good-looking, yes, but not jaw-droppingly handsome. Just—full of life. Maybe that was why Huxley couldn’t get the man out of his mind.

 

 

BISHOP PICKED Huxley up at his usual time. As the SUV pulled onto the street, Huxley leaned forward. “I want to go to Sukey’s Donuts today. It’s on our way.”

Bishop glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “Not Tim Hortons?”

“No. I want to try something different.”

Bishop shrugged. “Yes, sir.”

Huxley suppressed a sigh and sat back. Today was the weekly team meeting with Bob and the senior managers. He always brought donuts. When his father installed him at Oilton Foods, he “suggested” that Huxley take donuts to the weekly team meeting. Huxley suspected a company-wide pay raise would make his staff appreciate him a lot more than a weekly donut run did.

Bishop eased into a short-term parking space in front of Sukey’s Donuts. When he rounded the front of the SUV and found Huxley standing outside the vehicle, his eyebrows shot up.

Bishop followed Huxley into Sukey’s. If colors had a voice, this place would be surround-sound stereo. One wall was covered with small glass subway tiles in all shades of the rainbow. The other two walls had trompe l’oeil murals featuring diners tucking into donuts, like some kind of Norman Rockwell painting—what Norman might have painted if he’d lived in modern multicultural Oilton, Alberta.

The young woman Huxley saw the day before stood behind a glassed-in case that ran the width of the store, with doors at both ends that allowed staff access. Behind her was a banner: Coming soon for your Valentine! Cinnamon Red Hot donuts! For a limited time only.

Oh, for…. Am I going to have to see this hearts-and-flowers shit for the next month and a half?

Huxley walked to the counter, and Bishop took up a position to his left.

“Good morning,” said the woman. What can I get for you today?” Her nametag read Sukey.

“Good morning. So you’re Sukey?” Oh, very good, Captain Obvious.

She wrinkled her forehead, but it smoothed again a second later, and her expression remained pleasant. “That’s me.” She gave him a polite smile, the kind that said “Dude, get to the point.”

“Right.” Huxley cleared his throat. “We’d like some donuts.”

Behind him, a bell tinkled and footsteps clop-clopped toward the counter. Sukey glanced over his shoulder.

“A dozen,” Huxley said. “Donuts.” From the corner of his eye, he caught Bishop’s look. “I mean, two dozen.”

“Two dozen…?” She made the words a question.

“Mixed. Whatever. Assortment. You know.”

Bishop murmured something, and Huxley glanced at him. “Sorry?”

“Um. You have to get at least one thing that’s gluten free. We usually get macaroons.” Of course. Bishop always placed the order in the Timmy’s drive-through.

“Right.” Huxley turned back to Sukey. “We need something gluten free too. Can you do that?”

“You bet. Cookies or donuts?”

Sukey sold gluten-free donuts? “Donuts.”

She flashed another smile. “So an assortment, say cake, glazed, and filled, some gluten free?”

“Perfect.”

A slender twentysomething slipped through a swinging door to take the order of the woman standing behind Huxley. He moved to the side, following Sukey as she pulled donuts from trays in the glass case. Bishop stuck to his side like dried gum on the bottom of a shoe.

Sukey placed two pink boxes beside the till and rang up their order. On the lid of each box was a preprinted list of flavors. She’d checked off the varieties inside each box and noted the number.

Huxley fumbled with his wallet when Sukey told him what he owed. “The—um—” He dug for the company credit card. Damned if he was going to pay for this with his own money. He found the card he wanted and yanked it free.

“The store next door—” He had no idea what to say next. Sukey dropped her gaze to the card machine and returned it to his face.

“Oh—” Huxley reddened and tapped the display with his card. Beep.

“Floribunda?”

“What?” Huxley paused in the act of shoving his card back into his wallet.

“Floribunda. The flower shop next door.”

“Right. Do you know what time it opens?”

“Nine o’clock.” Sukey gave him a professional smile. “Thanks for your business. Come again.” She looked over his shoulder at the customer behind him.

He wanted to ask her about the owner. He wanted to know everything she knew about the man who had seemed—in that split second their gazes had held—so vital. Alive. Awake. Everything Huxley wasn’t.

Instead he stepped aside for the next customer. Bishop darted forward, grabbed both boxes, and led the way to the exit. Outside in the cold January dark, Huxley paused by Floribunda’s entrance. What an idiot he was. The hours were clearly marked on the door. A Closed sign hung in the front window. A glimpse of light deep in the back of the store made him think the owner was already there. Part of him wanted to knock just to see what would happen.

He turned to find Bishop waiting beside the SUV and staring, donuts already stowed. “Sir?”

“Right, sorry.” Bishop opened the door for Huxley to climb into the back. A minute later Bishop signaled and pulled into traffic. Huxley wondered if he could be having some sort of mental break. What could possibly have him so obsessed after a momentary glimpse of a man? Just—those eyes. That look. This isn’t rational.

“Bishop, would you have time at noon to take me somewhere? I’ll pay for the extra hours.”

Bishop’s gaze met his in the rearview mirror. “I’m afraid I have class. I’ve got an hour at one o’clock, if that helps.” His tone was polite, but his expression begged Huxley not to accept the offer.

“Never mind.” Huxley wasn’t being fair. Bishop was paid to fetch Huxley and take him home. He had his days free, which allowed him to attend university.

Bishop pulled into the drop-off zone at Huxley’s office. “I’ll take the donuts,” said Huxley.

Bishop wrinkled his forehead. “I’m supposed to take up parcels for you, sir.”

“I can manage two boxes of donuts.” Snapping at people was rude. Huxley flushed. “It’s fine. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“You’re sure, sir?”

Huxley climbed out of the SUV, wrestled the front passenger door open, and grabbed the two pink boxes.

“Sir?”

“Quite.” Huxley bumped the door shut with his backside and strode into the building, messenger bag dangling from one shoulder. A couple of minutes in line in the coffee shop, and then he headed for the elevator, envisioning donuts raining down the stairwell when he juggled boxes and latte to open the heavy door and sent them flying. Somehow he knew that would happen.

 

 

SHERRILYN, THE receptionist, hurried across the foyer when Huxley appeared at the double glass doors that led into the company’s office suite.

“Oh, Mr. Herrington, let me help you.” She pulled the right door open, standing just behind it, nearly touching one of the low rose-marble pedestals that sat on either side of the doors. They were topped by glazed celadon vases with some sort of floral thing that involved bare sticks and dried blossoms. Or maybe silk flowers? Something cheaper than live arrangements, that was for sure. He loathed them.

“Thank you.” Huxley marched into the boardroom and stopped, shocked to see every seat taken but his own. Of course. Not going through the Tim Hortons drive-through had delayed him.

He dropped the boxes on the table. “Good morning.”

A chorus of “good mornings” drowned out the thud of his messenger bag hitting the floor. Huxley shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the back of his chair. On meeting days, he usually stopped by his office, hung up his coat, organized his desk, checked himself in the mirror, and only then joined the team. He must look as frazzled as he felt, going by the wary expressions on people’s faces.

Bob scowled at the boxes. “Those aren’t Tim Hortons.”

“No, they aren’t,” said Huxley. “I decided to try something different.”

Meredith, head of Research and Development, leaned forward. “Is there anything gluten free?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with Tim Hortons,” said Bob, glaring.

“The red velvet donuts are gluten free,” said Huxley. Bob was undoubtedly going to run to his father right after the meeting and complain about the donuts.

Tara, tasked with taking notes and producing meeting agendas, pulled one of the boxes near and read the list. “Oh my God, these look awesome. Nutella, Mocha Pistachio Crunch, Mexican Vanilla Cinnamon, Up-All-Day Coffee Crème.”

“Me,” someone called out as Tara kept reading.

“Salted Dark Chocolate over here,” said Rainey, the head of Knowledge Management.

“Wait, did you say Vodka Collins? What does a Vodka Collins donut taste like?”

“Saskatoon berry jam-filled—oooooh, yum.”

“Dibs on the Chocolate Chili Cheesecake.”

A fight broke out over the Pisco Sour donuts.

“If I can get your attention!” Bob shouted over the chaos, his face as purple as the Saskatoon berry jam.

Huxley frowned and faked a cough to hide a smile. “Don’t you want a donut, Bob?”

Someone couldn’t quite suppress a snort.

“There’s a Maple Maple, Mr. Tunney,” said Tara. “Oh, that’s so cute.” She peered at the box. “They put ‘maple’ with a little ‘two’ like ‘maple squared’ in parentheses. That’s adorable.”

“No. Thank. You,” said Bob, glaring at Huxley. “I prefer Tim Hortons maple glazed.”

“I’ll have the Chocolate Guinness, please.” Huxley accepted a napkin-nestled oversized chocolaty cake donut with a fragrant caramel-brown glaze. He paused before taking a bite. “Why don’t we have any gluten-free, sugar-free cookies in our lineup?”

Every face around the long oval table stared at him as if he’d been replaced by a pod person.

Amelie, director of Marketing, opened her mouth to speak, and Bob cut in. “Gluten free is a fad.”

“Not if you have celiac disease,” said Meredith. “Not if you’re gluten sensitive.” Her lips pulled down at the corners, and her gaze was flinty.

Bob managed a small smile. Huxley could almost hear the muscles creaking to pull his lips wider. “Of course, Meredith. I only meant that a lot of people are eating gluten free because they’ve heard about it and think it’s somehow healthier. It’s oat bran and chia and flaxseed all over again. We jumped on those bandwagons and paid for it.”

“Those were very different cases,” said Gilles, a product manager. “We added oat bran to existing products. Same for chia and flaxseed. Most people buying them were already buying our products—at least that’s what my predecessor surmised. Offering gluten-free versions of our products means we’re broadening our customer base. We’re selling to people who wouldn’t have bought the original version of the product.”

Gilles must have wanted to get that off his chest for a while.

“That’s my point,” said Bob. “Most of those people don’t have a health issue, and they’ll stop buying gluten-free products when the fad is over. Anyway, we’ve fought this battle already. We have a gluten-free line.”

Amelie cleared her throat. “Without more research, we can’t really know what motivates the customers purchasing our gluten-free products. I’ve advocated in the past for focus groups or surveys. I think Huxley’s question speaks to the fact that we don’t have many products for our customers who have to be on both a gluten-free and a low-sugar diet.”

Gilles spoke up. “And our competitors do. And our biggest competitor now has a line of vegan products.”

“There are plenty of choices for vegans,” said Bob. “We aren’t trying to compete with health-food brands.”

Huxley frowned. “Why not?”

Bob was turning red again. “Because our market is primarily diabetics and people on a reduced-sugar diet.”

Huxley knew he was poking an already enraged bear. “Diabetics can be vegans and have celiac disease. And people don’t have to be diabetic to want to cut back on sugar.”

Bob straightened the stack of paper before him. “We have a full agenda today. If there are issues people would like to discuss further, we need to add them to a forthcoming agenda. We’ve had these discussions in the past.” He meant before Huxley’s time. “But we can certainly go over them again.”

With that he led them into the first agenda item. Huxley glanced through the agenda. Stultifying as usual. He sank into his seat and prepared to endure. Bob wrapped up the meeting forty-five minutes later. In theory Huxley ran the meeting; in practice Bob did.

Huxley looked up from the agenda he’d filled with doodles to find Meredith, Amelie, and Gilles looking his direction. He glanced behind him. No, no one was there. They were staring at him. Maybe they were in shock that he’d shown signs of life in a meeting. Were they expecting him to do something more?

When he didn’t move, they stood and filed out of the room. Huxley fell in behind them.

“Oh, Mr. Herrington.” Huxley turned back. Tara was packing up the leftover donuts to take to the staff breakroom. “These donuts were amazing.”

He imagined his father’s voice. What did you accomplish today, Huxley?

I bought amazing donuts.